Interview: Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel Bilgrami on identity, inner life and stereotyping

Print edition : February 11, 2022

Akeel Bilgrami.

Karl Marx. Bilgrami: “One familiar way of understanding class identity is owed to Marx, but how exactly to understand what Marx said about it is a matter of interpretation and dispute.”

Isaiah Berlin was a cold warrior and the target he always had in his sights was the Soviet Union. He attacked the Leninist idea of a vanguard which, he said, claimed to know better what constituted the identity of a working person than even possibly the person himself since he may be suffering from “false consciousness”. What his true consciousness is, is best known by “the party”.

July 14, 1789: The storming of the Bastille, the iconic event of the French Revolution depicted here in a painting. The French Revolution was a kind of watershed… Populations that have long been acquiescent in their oppression have transformed abruptly and in very large numbers and joined movements of social and political transformation properly described as “revolutionary”. I want to particularly stress both those features, the suddenness and the mass element that characterise these transformative events. Photo: Museum of the History of France

January 1917: Women protesters known as the Silent Sentinels picketing the White House. The Left can quite properly pose the following question: Would the ameliorations on the gender front that were sought and won by identity politics of gender, race, caste, etc. been allowed to happen if they had in any deep way undermined the domination of capital (or to put it less abstractly, undermined the deep and widespread influence of corporations in shaping our societies). I think it is a fairly safe speculation that the answer is “No”. Photo: U.S. Library of Congress

M.F. Husain, a 2005 photograph. The justices both in the High Court and the Supreme Court made it clear in their rulings that the intent to “harm” (to offend, hurt, disrespect Hindu sentiment) that Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code demands to be proven remained unproven by those prosecuting the case against M.F. Husain and his paintings “Bharat Mata” and “Saraswati”… large numbers of Hindutva vilifiers of Husain were not in the slightest bit concerned with Husain’s intentions (indeed, his inner life generally). Photo: N. Ram

April 29, 1967: World heavweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali stating during a press conference in New York that he refused to go to military service and fight in Vietnam. In a discussion after Muhammad Ali’s lecture at the University of Chicago, Donald Davidson, one of the most eminent analytic philosophers of the last half century, had the nerve to stand up and ask him a question: “Mr Ali,” he said, “you have quite correctly criticised whites for stereotyping blacks and called that racist, but throughout your lecture you stereotyped whites, would you not say there is racism in that too?” Ali was completely unfazed. He looked at Davidson as if he was talking to a rather stupid person and said: “Man, if you are in a snake pit, are you gonna say ‘This one doesn’t bite, that one doesn’t bite!?’” Photo: AFP

One of the books Bilgrami has written. His writing spans the philosophy of language and the mind as well as political and moral philosophy.

One of the books Bilgrami has written. His writing spans the philosophy of language and the mind as well as political and moral philosophy.

Some of the books Bilgrami has written. His writing spans the philosophy of language and the mind as well as political and moral philosophy.

Interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and influence. He graduated from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, in 1970 and went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Thereafter, he moved to the United States and earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. Bilgrami was the chairman of Columbia’s Philosophy Department from 1994 to 1998. He was the director of the Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia from 2004 to 2011 and was the director of its South Asian Institute from 2013 to 2016.

Bilgrami’s writing spans the philosophy of language and the mind as well as political and moral philosophy. His books include Belief and Meaning (Blackwell, 1992), Self-Knowledge and Resentment (Harvard University Press, 2006), Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black Press, 2014), Gandhi, The Philosopher (Columbia University Press, 2022) and What is a Muslim? (forthcoming, Princeton University Press).

Bilgrami’s work, even when it is philosophical, is not an ivory tower philosopher’s engagement with abstract ideas but stems from his deep sociopolitical and moral concerns. His widely admired and highly influential writings on Gandhi, Marx, alienation, secularism, identity, liberalism and populism provide deep and significant insights on these subjects.

This is the fifth in the “long conversation” series (earlier conversations were published in 2018 and 2019) that Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. conducted with him. In the this interview (presented in two parts), Bilgrami discusses the concept of identity and its importance in the domains of politics, society and culture. There is no better authority than Bilgrami to discuss this topic.

“Identity” is a complex and varied concept. It has long been applied to basic and general categories such as objects and to larger social categories. As a philosopher, what would you say is the concept of identity?

You are right, it is a complex notion that has interested scholars in a wide range of disciplines and it is an important notion. Speaking very generally, I think identity is a relation, but it is a limiting or degenerate case of a relation.

What do you mean by that?

The standard way of thinking about relations is to think of the relations in which things stand with one another, but identity is the relation that something has to itself. That is why I call it a limiting or a degenerate case of a relation.

I think identity is of great interest, particularly in the case of human subjects, because how one relates to oneself can make a big difference to how one presents oneself in public life and in politics and how one demands that others think of one and act towards one.

However, philosophers have tended to discuss the concept of identity in very abstract terms and not as it surfaces in politics and public life. These abstract discussions will probably not be of wide interest, so let’s talk about the concept’s relevance to politics and society.

Yes, of course, but please say a little bit about the philosopher’s more abstract interest in the topic.

Philosophers have asked what is it for something to be the thing it is and not some other thing. What makes it the same thing and not a different thing? Take material things. As you say, philosophers have been interested in the identity of material objects for centuries. Philosophers ask: “Is an object, a statue, say, identical with the material of which it is composed?” If I am leaning on the statue to get some rest, am I resting on two things: the statue and the hunk of green phyllite? Surely not, one might intuitively say, implying that the statue is identical with that hunk of phyllite. On the other hand, one may categorise the statue as a Gandhara, but does it make sense to say the hunk of phyllite is a Gandhara? And if the intuition is that it doesn’t make sense to say that, then are we implying that they are not identical after all because if they are identical, surely they should share all the same properties, but they don’t seem to share the property of being “a Gandhara”. Such conundrums of pure metaphysics have occupied the attention of pretty much all major philosophical traditions.

Philosophers have also been interested in “personal” identity or what is sometimes called “self”-identity. Is a person identical with her body or is a person, rather, identical with the sum of her psychological states (beliefs, desires, dispositions and tendencies of behaviour, memories, etc.)? This too is a rather remote question, though sometimes it can have practical relevance as, for instance, in the celebrated controversial cases discussed by the historian Natalie Zemon Davis in The Return of Martin Guerre or the controversy around the Kumar of Bhawal. The question is really about whether and when a self or person remains identical with himself or herself despite changing over time. If my health deteriorates over the years, I am still me despite this change, which is why, I suppose, people try to avoid having their health deteriorate. If it is no longer me after the deterioration, I may not care quite as much to avoid it. Or consider the fact that it is only because I remain identical and persist through time that you or the law can hold me responsible or accountable for some action of mine in the past. But how much change can self-identity or personal identity tolerate; what if I were to have all my memories wiped out? Would it still be me? As you can see in some of these examples, the concept of personal identity is caught up with questions of agency and responsibility as well as with questions of prudence and well-being, all of which makes it relevant to issues that go beyond pure metaphysics.

Can you explain what you mean by being “caught up with questions of agency and responsibility and well-being and prudence”. That sounds interesting.

It is interesting. Just take the two examples I just gave. Each one of us, each person, cares about what happens to him or her in the future. That is why we might save money or why we take care of our health, for the well-being of one’s future self. This presupposes that it is still me in the future. Or, as I said, if my identity did not persist over time into the future, the law could not hold me responsible at a later time for what I am doing now. So, we have to get clear on the concept of personal identity (identity of persons over time) in order to underpin the notions of responsibility or of prudence. In fact, my own view is that the underpinning goes the other way, that normative notions such as prudence, accountability etcetera, constitute the very idea of personal identity, and if that is so, then personal identity is not a matter of pure metaphysics. In other words, it is not as if we can settle the question of whether a self has persisted over time on value-free or norm-free empirical grounds about bodies and psychological states first and then decide on its basis whether the person is accountable for a past action. Rather, considerations of accountability, considerations of prudence, and so on, are caught up at the very outset with the question of what this notion of a person is that is supposed to have persisted over time. If there is a metaphysics of personal identity, it is a norm-based metaphysics.

Moving to the wider interest in the term: “Identity” is frequently used in the study of politics, society and culture. Thirty years ago in your article “What is a Muslim?” in the journal Critical Inquiry and also in an article titled “Identity” in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, you made a distinction between objective and subjective identity? What is that distinction, exactly?

Yes, that distinction was my very preliminary initial step to try to bring some clarity to the concept. One could say that it is the difference between identity and identification. When one identifies with something, one’s subjectivity is active, but one can also be attributed a certain identity on the basis of some objective fact about oneself or one’s life even if one does not identify with it, even if one does not endorse it oneself. The latter, in which one’s subjectivity is passive, is what I called objective identity.

Can you give some examples of objective identity?

Biological criteria for identity are considered objective since one’s biology is given to one at birth, by descent, as it were, though of course, as we know, one can alter one’s biology. Biological criteria were for a long time assumed to be determining of both gender identity and racial identity. In recent decades, however, many have questioned whether gender and race are biological identities. They are regarded by most now as socially constructed identities. That they are socially constructed does not necessarily mean that they are not objective identities. They can still be objective, so long as the processes of social construction occur independently of the subjective choices and endorsements of individual agents.

In fact, objective identities are most interesting when they are socially rather than biologically determined. They raise interesting and controversial philosophical and political questions.

Class identity and Marx

Can you explain what you mean?

Well, take the most classic and frequently discussed example: class identity. One familiar way of understanding class identity is owed to [Karl] Marx, but how exactly to understand what Marx said about it is a matter of interpretation and dispute.

There are things in Marx that are susceptible to both objectivist and subjectivist readings. But since we are considering objective identity, let’s consider the former way of reading Marx. To put it very crudely, abstracting from a lot of detail and qualifications, it goes roughly like this: one’s class identity is an objective given that derives from history, and history itself is to be understood by an objective account of it found in what has come to be called “historical materialism”, though that is not an expression that occurs in Marx’s own writing. On this account, which class one belongs to has nothing to do with one’s identifying with any given class. Whether or not one identifies with a given class, one belongs to it simply because of the objective unfolding of successive economic formations in history. Thus, for instance, proletarian identity is entirely a matter of specific relations one bears to capital, a matter of forms of employment (“labour” or “working class”) in a certain economic formation (capitalism) in a certain period of history (modernity).

Also read: Gandhi, Marx, and the ideal of an 'unalienated life'

Any given working person may have no subjective commitment to that class, he may have no class consciousness or solidarity with other working people, he may in fact subjectively pursue only what Marx called “bourgeois” aspirations; still, his true identity or “self” or consciousness is proletarian even if, in such a case, it is hidden from himself by layers of “ideology” or “false consciousness”. It is the task of revolutionary social transformation to mobilise the proletariat to overcome this false consciousness and to realise their true “selves”, their proper or objective “revolutionary” class role since that is the role that is assigned to them by the objective account of history.

So that is an example of what you mean by how an identity can be socially constructed and yet be objective in your sense?

Exactly. The identity is attributed to someone on the basis of an understanding of how a socially constructed, a socially emergent, class constitutes a person’s self or identity whether or not he endorses that identity and identifies himself with the class.

Can you explain why this is controversial?

It is controversial because a consciousness or self is being attributed to someone without the person avowing it, possibly even positively disavowing it. A working person may positively disavow identification with the proletariat as a class, but that would not make any difference to the attribution of that class identity to him or her on this conception of objective identity.

This gives rise to the same anxiety in liberals that Isaiah Berlin expressed about the notion of “positive” liberty in his well-known essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which is that you are defining a notion of liberty that leaves out a person’s agency, her own autonomy to live the kind of life she wants, on the grounds that you know better what sort of life she really wants to live; it’s just that because she has false consciousness, she herself does not know what she really wants. So, Berlin argued, on the basis of this anxiety, that the only coherent notion of liberty is “negative” liberty or non-interference with an individual’s wants and desires and conceptions of the good life. It is this same anxiety that makes the notion of objective identity controversial. You are attributing an identity to someone on the basis of what you claim to know about her through some objective theory you possess (in the Marxian case we are discussing, an objectivist of history), no matter what she thinks subjectively about herself, her wants, her ideas of the good life she wants to pursue.

Now, you must remember that Berlin was a cold warrior and the target he always had in his sights was the Soviet Union. And so he was really attacking the Leninist ideal of a vanguard, which, he said, claimed to know better what constituted the identity of a working person than even possibly the person himself since he may be suffering from “false consciousness”. What his true consciousness is, is best known by “the party”. But, quite apart from Berlin’s own Cold War politics …, the theoretical issues are plainly visible in this form of anxiety: When someone else (a party, a vanguard), armed with some objectivist account, claims to know yourself or identity better than you do, then your agency, your right to view yourself the way you like, is being denied.

Intuitions on both sides

Do you think this criticism of the idea of objective identity is right?

I think, in the end, it is wrong, but it is no easy task to show why it is wrong. The issues are difficult and, actually, quite abstract and methodological. The Left should not dismiss these liberal anxieties as mere Cold War prejudices. It is worth thinking hard to find the right response to them.

Can you say something about the issues involved and how you think one should respond to this sort of criticism coming from liberalism?

Yes, let’s start with the issues at stake and then once those are in the forefront, it is easier to think one’s way to a response.

One can start by noticing that there are intuitions … on both sides of the dispute. I’ve already mentioned the intuitions that Berlin is tapping: saying you know what someone’s self or identity is better than she does is a kind of tyranny, a denial of her agency.

But there are, of course, intuitions on the other side too. We’ve been talking about class since we were discussing Marx (and a certain of reading of him), but consider gender now. Feminist intuitions might lead one to think that someone who is quite happy in her domesticity and the roles she plays there and the deferential life she leads as a woman under patriarchy, with no aspirations to more ambitious use of her talents and her capacities, does not really have a proper grasp of her own true gender identity. She ought to be realising her true gender identity instead of living this life of “false” consciousness. This is the intuition that the idea of objective identity is tapping. It’s the same idea as the one about class that we were discussing. A proletarian is not really grasping his true identity and his full capacity for self-realisation if he does not see his revolutionary potential and seeks only a bourgeois way of life.

I think both on gender and on class issues there is a great tendency in those who feel the tug of one of these conflicting intuitions to dismiss the other as, in the one case, authoritarian and denying a person’s agency and, in the other, as reactionary and denying a person’s true and objective identity.

Where do you stand on this?

As I said, I am on the side of the feminist and the Marxist; I have their intuitions, but one can’t just announce one’s intuitions without saying more, without giving some argument to show that the liberal anxieties can be soothed, that they are not unanswerable. But, as I also said, that is a much harder task than you might think, and one cannot be glib about it.

What exactly makes it hard?

What makes it hard is that you have to justify saying of a subject—a woman, say, or a working person in a capitalist society—that she or he really has a consciousness, has states of mind that reflect her identity as a woman or a proletarian but does not manifest them in her behaviour at all or in what she or he avows at all. And I am taking the hardest version of it as what needs to be justified. In the hardest case, you don’t have the subject displaying any grievance or dissatisfaction with what her situation is in a patriarchal or capitalist society, not even in private or in the interstices of her or his life. There is contentment and acquiescence in their situation. This may be a relatively unlikely scenario, but it is not by any means impossible, and the point is to make things harder for yourself, so if you do have an answer to the hardest case, i.e. if you can justify the feminist or Marxist attribution of that identity even in these hardest cases, then you have made the best possible argument for the feminist and Marxist position on objective identity. I think it can be done, but it isn’t obvious how.

One thing to note is that liberals like Berlin can always say to the feminist or Marxist: “Why don’t you say that the woman you describe or the proletarian you describe ought to be thinking of themselves differently, they ought to be less deferential, less content with their domestic roles, less given to bourgeois aspirations and instead seek out a transformation of the exploitative class relations under capitalism.... In other words, why don’t you say that she or he ought to transform their identity from the one they have to ones that are more in accord with how feminism and Marxism think of gender and class. But that is not what you say. You say instead that women or working people really already have the gender identity and class identity you attribute to them, it’s just that they don’t know it. This is what we liberals are objecting to. If you were to recommend a different identity to them from the one they avow themselves, that would be fine. But you don’t do that, you attribute a different identity to them from the one they themselves avow. That is what denies their agency.”

And that, at least on the face of it, seems like quite a reasonable point that the liberals are making. It brings out how radical a claim the feminist and Marxist are making in their notions of objective gender and class identity. And it is much harder to justify with an argument. It would be a much less radical claim if they were to agree and say, “Yes, we are only saying you ought to think of yourself differently than you do”; we are not saying, “You are different from what you think you are.” That would be a much easier position to argue for. But it would be to give up on objective identity, if the feminist and Marxist receded to this less radical claim.

So, let me sum up and repeat the more theoretical and methodological issue at stake.

One side, the liberal side, thinks that you cannot attribute an identity to someone unless there is something in their behaviour (including their avowals) that reveals that identity. But if all of their behaviour seems to reflect contentment in their place in a patriarchal or capitalist society and they even avow that they are content, then it makes no sense to attribute the identity you are attributing to them. This is because you are attributing an identity to them on the basis of your theory, not their behaviour.

And the other side insists that that methodological criterion for attributing identity is uncompulsory. So, on the reading of Marx we are discussing, Marx attributes a certain class identity to a proletarian even if there is nothing in his behaviour that manifests it. It simply is to be attributed on the basis of Marxist theory, on this reading of it.

So you are saying that, for the liberal, behaviour reveals consciousness, and no consciousness can be attributed if it is not revealed in the behaviour. And Marx finds this criterion for consciousness too restrictive?

Yes, exactly, and the way you just put it in terms of consciousness is very good because it brings out how much more radical Marx’s view is, in this respect, than even [Sigmund] Freud’s. Freud meets the liberal criterion of needing to be revealed in behaviour because, unlike Marx, Freud allows it to be revealed in unconscious behaviour. But, still, it is the behaviour of the agent which manifests what is being attributed to him or her. Marx, on this reading, sees no reason to invoke any kind of behaviour, conscious or unconscious, on the basis of which to make the attribution of proletarian class identity. It is attributed on the basis of an objective analysis of capitalism as an economic formation in history.

You have made clear what the issues are and how radical Marx’s view is and what a challenge it is to justify the position he takes on objective identity, and yet you take his side over the liberal side. Why is that? Do you reject the liberal’s methodological criterion for attributing identity that demands it should be manifested in the agent’s behaviour?

That’s absolutely the right question to pose, I think. And my answer is that no I don’t reject it altogether. I think if we reject it altogether, we do deny agency to the working person. I actually think that is a kind of mad dog objectivism regarding identity, and I don’t subscribe to it.

Does that mean you are liberal?

No, I’m not, as you know from past interviews. My view is that we need to have a more nuanced understanding than the liberal does of his own methodological criterion that demands that something or other in the behaviour of the agent must be the basis of attributing identity. Thus, really my view is that Marxists would be too crudely objectivist if they rejected the liberal’s methodological criterion altogether, but the liberal has too constricted and too crude an understanding of that criterion, and so the right Marxist position should be to accept the criterion, not as it stands but in a modified and nuanced version of it.

Please spell this out more fully.

To spell it out, we should first observe that the intuitions on the side of objectivity that I have mentioned are usually due to the sympathetic convictions we have when we seem to instinctively feel that there are very deep-going and far-reaching forms of oppression. Both the feminist and Marxist cases we mentioned are examples of this. The intuition comes from the fact that in such cases we want to be able to say that there is oppression going on even if there is acquiescence of the victims in it, even if there is contentment of the sort we have been describing on the part of the oppressed. The intuition we have is that the oppression reaches so far and deep that it not only prevents the oppressed from living in accord with their objective identity, their true self, but even prevents them from knowing that they are oppressed in the way they are. It works on two levels: on one level in the standard way by rendering them powerless in this or that respect, but then also on another level it works on their consciousness and shapes it so as to screen it off from this first level of oppression. That is how complete the effect of the oppression is. Much of Marx’s work on ideology speaks to that. As does [Michel] Foucault’s work on “discursive fields” that “normalise” certain ways of thinking.

Of course, these last accounts are to be viewed as explanations of what makes the oppression so deep and, therefore, what the source of the “false” consciousness is, but it doesn’t justify the very idea of false consciousness, it doesn’t justify attributing false consciousness in the first place. Such a justification would require one to directly address the liberal methodological objection that restricts the basis of attributing consciousness or identity only to what is manifested in behaviour. But I wanted to put on the table the point about acquiescence in oppression in order to go on to address that objection.

Coming back, then, to objection, as I said, I think we have to find a way of loosening that strict methodological criterion without giving up on the liberal’s own plausible intuition that to give up on the criterion altogether would be just to abandon the notion of agency in our notion of objective identity.

How, then, can we have it both ways, preserving the criterion but revising it sufficiently to get beyond liberal denials of objective identity. Or to put it differently, and perhaps this way of putting it brings out how difficult an issue it really is, How can we both preserve the idea of objective identity and preserve the notion of agency, which seems to suggest and to lean on the side of subjectivity? In my work, I’ve proposed that we can achieve this twin and seemingly paradoxical theoretical result if we look to what is revealed in a sort of phenomenon that really emerged in human history relatively late in a very striking way though there, no doubt, were antecedents with a lower profile long before. When I say it emerged relatively recently, I have in mind the French Revolution, which was a kind of watershed. Nothing transformative on that scale had erupted before.

Latent dissatisfaction

In an historical moment like that (and in antecedents before and certainly some other striking revolutionary moments since then), populations that have long been acquiescent in their oppression have transformed abruptly and in very large numbers and joined movements of social and political transformation properly described as “revolutionary”. I want to particularly stress both those features, the suddenness and the mass element, that characterise these transformative events. And the theoretical inference that, I think, can be drawn from them on the question of identity is this: there is no way to explain these two features without saying of those populations that they all along had a simmering dissatisfaction and resentment, but which they were not aware of (perhaps due to the element of “ideology” that shaped their minds and thinking), and so their behaviour did not reveal it and came off instead as reflecting a contentment and acquiescence.

In other words, these two features in such historical moments need to be explained, and there is no explanation for them, I am saying, than to posit that that these populations all along had the objective identity we attribute to them, but obviously only latently because their actual behaviour reflected contentment rather than any dissatisfaction. The objective identity came out of its latency into manifest and observable behaviour only later. But, to repeat, the later behaviour, if it is characterised by these two features of great abruptness and of massive numbers, can only be explained by saying there was discontent all along, and therefore the objective identity could be attributed in the earlier period as well.

Now, of course, the liberal view can dig its heels and say, “No it was not there all along; it was rather a change of mind in the population: they went from being acquiescent at the earlier time to being discontented at the time of the revolutionary event, and the revolutionary consciousness only emerged at the later time, and so the objective identity can only be attributed at the later time and not as having existed all along.” That is how the opponent of objectivism would insist on presenting it: one subjectivity being replaced by another. But both the abruptness and the large numbers to whom this sometimes happens suggest that a “change of mind” is not a plausible explanation since changes of mind tend to emerge through deliberation or acculturation towards something new, processes that are both slow and proceed from small numbers of people to larger numbers via a variety of accumulated efforts at public education. A better explanation of the volatility and numerical strength of such transformations is to attribute retrospectively a latent dissatisfaction in the population even when they were explicitly acquiescent in their behaviour and avowals.

How does this address the restricted methodological criterion of the liberal view, which demands a link between identity and behaviour?

This solution does not give up the link between identity and behaviour that the liberal doctrine (methodologically) demands. And, as I said, one should not give that up, otherwise one would deprive us of our agency. But what this solution offers is that we do not need to require that the link between identity and behaviour be simultaneous. One can have a retroactive link of behaviour to identity. If you loosen the criterion this way, later behaviour can manifest an earlier identity in a latent form. This is the nuance, I believe, that should be introduced into the methodological criterion. Of course, if there is this link to behaviour at all, something of the “objectivity” in the objectivist position is compromised. But it should not be seen as a wholesale cancellation of objectivity since objectivist positions that do not require even this minimal theoretical link with behaviour and agency are, in any case, marred by an ulterior form of transcendence in the understanding of identity that seems to me make identity irrelevant to the study of society and history.

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There is a lot more one can and should say here to make the case for such a notion of objective identity. I can’t do that now because it will need me to set up some more conceptual apparatus, but I hope that what I have said at least gives a rough sense of the general direction of the sort of solution that I think is needed to preserve both agency and objective identity. Of course, both sides of the dispute, Marxism and liberalism, in their more strict forms, will object to this solution. One will say that too much is being taken away from objectivity and the other will say too much is being conceded to it. But I think, as so often when one is upsetting both sides of a dispute, one must be doing something right.

In your examples you have mentioned gender identity and class identity. Do you think, as many Leftists do, that class identity is more basic than other identities such as gender, race and caste?

Ah, that is a long-standing issue you raise. Before I address it, let me just say, in concluding the last point, that it is a very interesting interpretative and scholarly challenge to find in Marx’s corpus a reading of objective identity along the lines I have tried to offer in this solution, rather than the ultra-objectivist reading that I was discussing. As I said, liberal anxieties are bound to arise even for my more ecumenical understanding of objective identity, but that is because liberalism really does not want any kind of identity that is not subjective identity, just like Berlin wants no notion of liberty that is not negative liberty. But I do believe that there are many passages in Marx from which you can indeed reconstruct the sort of analysis of objective identity of class that preserves a place for human agency in the way that I have tried to very briefly present in what I’ve been saying.

On the matter of whether class identity is the most fundamental identity, I think we have to separate out the psychological as well as cultural sphere to some extent, at least. I think if the Left … denies forms of identity other than class as being a source of disrespect and contempt (as psychological and cultural phenomena), that would be quite wrong. Contempt and disrespect for women in Indian society and culture, not to mention for Dalits and for certain races in virtually every multiracial society, run parallel to class inequalities, and though there are complex links between class and gender/caste/race,… I do think that these latter are also relatively independent of class when we think of them in cultural and psychological terms. Certainly, one cannot say that class inequalities are determinants of caste contempt or contempt and disrespect for women. The relations between them are simply not mechanically configured in that way. It’s true that the Left, in emphasising class identity, has not always paid enough attention to this relatively autonomous psychological and cultural phenomena where other identities are the basis of attitudes such as contempt and disrespect.

But can one deny that class identity is fundamental and remain a Leftist?

So, yes, I was going on to say, that having said what I have said so far, I really do think that there is a sense, nevertheless, in which the Left can claim that class identity is more fundamental than other identities and, in the end, this turns on rather subtle issues. And I think the best way to bring out these subtle issues is to approach them with a counterfactual question.

As you know there are have been some gains made in many societies on the gender front and the race front and even to some extent on the caste front. Many ameliorations have been achieved by legislation, affirmative action, benefit schemes, etc. … as a result of the mobilisations of certain forms of identity politics whether feminist identity politics or racial and caste identity politics. A great deal more needs to be done, but these gains are not negligible. So, the counterfactual question that I believe puts us on the path to seeing why class identity is, in one sense, more fundamental than other identities is this. The Left can quite properly pose the following question: Would these ameliorations on the gender front that were sought and won by identity politics of gender, race, caste, etc. been allowed to happen if they had in any deep way undermined the domination of capital (or, to put it less abstractly, undermined the deep and widespread influence of corporations in shaping our societies). I think it is a fairly safe speculation that the answer is “No”. And if so, there is surely some justification to the claim that class identity is, after all, more fundamental than the other identities that identity politics puts on centre stage.

So you say that class identity is fundamental in the respect brought out by your question and the answer to it, but you think that it is still not fundamental in the other respect, which would would amount to denying that there are forms of psychological and cultural contempt of women, castes and races that are relatively independent of and run parallel to class issues. Is that right?

That’s right. And that is why you can find social theorists talking today about “humiliation studies” as a form of inquiry that is relatively autonomous from studying political economy. I don’t think it can be entirely independent, but there is sufficient independence so that one can fruitfully view it as a relatively self-standing, interesting line of inquiry. That is what I meant when I mentioned the psychological and cultural sphere.

But I want to return to the counterfactual question for a moment. Even there, where I said there was a sense in which the Left can claim a more fundamental analytical status for class identity over other identities, I don’t want that to come off as some sort of dogmatic recovery of a familiar Left outlook. I think the sort of counterfactual question I am posing could fruitfully be posed inversely with the other identities too. Thus, a feminist identitarian stance may equally pose the question: If such gains as have been made on the class front that undermined the centrality of corporate interests had had the effect of undermining patriarchy, would those gains on the class front have been allowed? It’s just that I am less certain of how to respond to this conditionally (counterfactually) formulated question since the first part of the antecedent of the conditional (about the gains that have been made on the class front) seems to be so remote and unavailable in fact, and even when it does become fact, these occasional and partial gains on the class front seem to be so easily and constantly susceptible to being undermined. Just think of the chronic instability of social democratic and Keynesian constraints of demand-management on capital, even in the Scandinavian countries, though there, because they are a peripheral belt of capitalism there is a little bit more stability. In fact, the whole neoliberal overturning from the 1980s on of the efforts towards social democracy in the earlier decades of the post-Second World War period reveals that just a relatively few and quick steps can undermine the gains. A book like [Thomas] Piketty’s Capital provides enormous amount of data to show how the antecedent in the last counterfactual I mentioned has never really stably been in place.

It is really not obvious to me at all that there is quite the same counterpart instability of the gains made on the gender front. There might be some overturning of it here or there (in America this happened when anti-abortion laws were reinstated in some places), but it is not and has not been overturned for the most part. So, in the end, it is because of the relative stability of gains on the gender front and the chronic instability of any gains ever made on the class front that I think we give differential answers to the pair of counterfactual questions we have posed, and it is that differential that allows us to make a claim for the fundamental nature of class identity.

These are the subtle issues that surround the proper understanding of the Left position that class identity is more fundamental.

Thank you, that helps one understand why many on the Left still think class identity is fundamental despite the importance of other recently emerging forms of identity that have made their presence felt in politics. Can we return to your distinction between objective and subjective identity? You have discussed objective identity so far, but of these two forms of identity, which is more relevant or more basic to identity politics, would you say?

I think that would depend on your criterion for what is to be considered basic. There is something we can say straight off before we leave the idea of objective identity; that is that a bad kind of identity politics tends to aggressively assert objective identities and tends to erase subjective identity. And that erasure is a very deliberate thing and reflects the worst kind of identitarian element in politics. Understanding how this is done brings out the centrality of subjective identity and why some regard it as something to be stamped out.

Please say more about this.

Let’s just quickly rehearse the distinction first, and then I’ll give you some background before explaining what I mean. As I said, subjective identity is about a person’s identifying with some social category such as religion or caste or class or ethnicity or even something more specific like a way of life (a profession, say, like being a writer or a cricketer or actor…) and objective identity is an identity that a person has and is seen by others to have, whether or not he identifies with it. As you can see from the way I’ve put it, one’s subjectivity is involved when one identifies with something. And it is missing when the identity is attributable to you (or attributed to you) without your identifying with it. One’s objective identity leaves one’s inner life out of the identity.

So a good way to get into the idea of subjective identity is to see how when it is missing and then you introduce it, what a huge difference it makes [and] what enormous consequences it has …. That, of course, means this issue, like most issues, must be seen historically as well, not just philosophically; it must be situated in history and intellectual history.

What is the historical background?

Well, if you read a book, a great, magisterial work of literary criticism, like Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, he points out that both in ancient Greek tragedy and epic, the inner life of the protagonists sort of goes missing. We do not much sense at all … of the inner lives of the heroes and heroines. (Actually, Walter Benjamin also pointed this out in his doctoral work on the origins of German tragic drama.) And it is interesting that, to the extent that this is true, it completely squares with the general characterisation of criminal law in the ancient Greek period, which seemed to be founded on the notion of what we now call “strict liability”, whereby the occurrence of a criminal act was viewed in terms of its effects only. In the ancient period in Greece, in particular, the effect was viewed as a polluting of society, and punishment (often in the form of exile) was viewed as a way of getting rid of the contamination.

At its simplest, this point about the absence of inner life might be put like this: Oedipus’ sexual relation with Jocasta is not exculpable because there is no scope for distinguishing it from his sexual relation with his mother, a distinction only available if his inner life is introduced as making the difference. It is only when that is introduced that we are in a position to say that he did not intend to have sexual relations with his mother and thereby to seek to exculpate him. Before it was introduced, it quite sufficed that Jocasta was his mother even though he did not know that, and thus it sufficed to just see the incest as wrongdoing in the sense that it polluted society, the city state of Athens.

When was it introduced into law?

It was not until some of the sermons of St Augustine with such expressions as reum non facit nisi mens rea (“an act does not make someone guilty without a guilty mind”) that glimmers of an inner life entered the sphere of the public’s blame practices in the matter of wrongdoing, which then evolved gradually through the treatise describing Henry I’s laws in the early 12th century, all the way down to Edward Coke’s “Third Institute”, and then finally once tort law and criminal law came to be seen as radically distinct, strict liability was restricted to the former and mens rea, or provably deliberate intent, became central to most of criminal law. In fact, refinements to the inner life were added in criminal law by raising considerations like, even if someone did not intend to do a crime, even if there was no mens rea, if a person knew that there would be criminal effects of what he did intend to do, he should be found guilty. And actually even further refinements such as even if he didn’t know, we can demand that he should have known; so notions of criminal negligence then enter into the law.

All this is relevant to identity.

Inner life, Hindutva and M.F. Husain

What is the relevance?

A certain kind of identity politics, what we would consider the bad kind of identity politics (not all identitypolitics is bad, in this sense), as for instance the kind of identity politics that is driven by Hindutva ideology, often tends to ignore the inner life when it attributes identity to someone. It is a conspicuous fact about politics in the context of identitarian conflicts that neither mens rea nor the further refinements of the inner life I mentioned seem to be considered relevant in what is declared to be wrongdoing. All of the inner life becomes a nicety, which is deliberately arranged to be missing.

Can you give an example?

Yes, in fact I recently wrote about a very celebrated example in an essay on secularism and art. You will find what I’m saying very much in play in the vilification of M.F. Husain by Hindutva ideologues.

As you know, the justices both in the High Court and the Supreme Court made clear in their rulings that the intent to harm (to offend, hurt, disrespect Hindu sentiment) that Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code demands to be proven remained unproven by those prosecuting the case against Husain and his paintings “Bharat Mata” and “Saraswati”.

That ruling, of course, is in the realm of the law and its courts, but if you look at the court of public opinion at large, where identity politics flourishes, and its informal verdicts, you find that the large numbers of Hindutva vilifiers of Husain were not in the slightest bit concerned with Husain’s intentions (indeed, his inner life generally). For them this was as irrelevant to Husain’s “crime” as it was for Oedipus’ in ancient Greece. Since it was a Muslim who had painted “Bharat Mata”, he is strictly liable for an offence to Hindus. As far as they were concerned, the judges were looking in the wrong place for his culpability in causing the harm of hurt and offence to Hindus when they looked to his inner life. They should have looked at his objective religious identity. This attitude was everywhere present in the rhetoric of the vilifications one heard and read, including even in some of the legal arguments for Husain’s prosecution. It is a clear example of the bad political deployment of the idea of objective identity.

So you are suggesting that identity politics is a kind of return to a past time such as ancient Greece when no inner life or subjective identities were allowed?

Not quite. There is a real difference between what we have been saying about Oedipus and the treatment of Husain. Benjamin’s and Auerbach’s point about Greek “heroes” and the link I drew between that point and ancient conceptions of wrongdoing in terms of strict liability was a comment on a society before the emergence of notions of mens rea and further refinements in the relevance of the inner life to criminal law. But viewing Husain in objective identitarian terms in a social conflict of identities is not like that. He can only be so viewed via a deliberate subtraction of his inner life from his identity. Such a viewing is not (as it is with Oedipus) just a routine element of a culture in which (legal) agency itself is from the outset understood in spare terms, it is rather to reduce his agency in a modern culture where the notion of agency has enriched and developed over centuries, familiarly described with the rhetoric of terms like “self-fashioning”, an enrichment and development itself deriving considerably from a richer and more developed conception of the practices of response to wrongdoing.

Also read: ‘In India, it’s pathological authoritarianism’

And the point I am making can be generalised from this particular example of what happened to Husain. Invariably, in any identitarian conflict of this sort today, there is a great tendency for each side to subtract the inner life of the other, to suppress their subjective identity, and to view members of the other side as possessing only an objective identity.

But how can one just simply subtract the inner life after the inner life has come to have such importance in modern times?

That is a very good question. You see, when speaking in this very general way about such subtraction, your question can be put as follows: by what conceptual mechanism does inner life get subtracted and subjective identity ignored? One common mechanism, which has been studied by scholars of race and gender, is what is called the “stereotype”. Here is one way to present what its trajectory has been. With the rise of statistical methods in the study of societies, whole tendencies in the behaviour of social groups could be mapped and modelled, they could be assigned numbers and percentages, and probabilities could be projected; but what remained outside the net of such social scientific study were the motivational and intentional states that populated the inner life of individuals, states as seen from the first-person point of view of the agents themselves. For that, one needs a different kind of study, what came to be called hermeneutics, not social science. But the trouble is that it is not possible to come up with non-trivial generalisations when doing hermeneutical interpretation that pays attention to the first-person point of view of agents. One has to do a quite different form of inquiry, which requires far greater attention to personal history and experience, and patient unearthing of the particular reasons that motivate each person’s actions.

In fact, it is not obvious that this is best done in the social science disciplines at all. It is perhaps best done in literary forms. There are no codes and models for this form of inquiry. It is a process of interpretation, not of science. It is a matter of studying not tendencies but the internal reasons of a person in situated context. As a result, partly out of an intellectual impatience but also out of a drive for and admiration for generalisations, people are led to take the preponderances that emerged in the statistical study of the behavioural tendencies of a social group and graft them on to the individuals in the group, illicitly projecting an inner motivational life independently of a first personal interpretative inquiry into that inner life. This distorting process is what came to be called “stereotyping”.

You put that quite abstractly; can you give an example just to illustrate?

Sure, an utterly familiar example can be found if you try to analyse the poor rate of career success (in terms of salaries, promotions, etc.) among women. This is very often attributable to a model of thinking in which a stereotype is first constructed on the basis of the study of past patterns of behaviour in a gendered population—“the homemaker, the mother…”—and, then, on its basis, assumptions are made and inner motivations about the unwillingness to work the hours required are attributed to individual women in decisions about promotions and raises. But here again, just as we made a distinction between what happens in the law and in public opinion infected by identity politics, we need to make a distinction between what happens in the social sciences and the much more informal public sphere where the conflicts of identity politics are enacted. In the latter, there is not even a gesture at appealing to probabilities drawn from calculated percentages assigned to past social and behavioural tendencies. The stereotypes are constructed instead on anecdotal transmissions, often fictional and mythical, grossly generalising from random particular acts that are ideologically selected. Repeatedly in the allegations against him, Husain was depicted as a stand-in for the “lustful Muslim predator”. How could that painting, produced by a person with that identity, fail to cause hurt or offence?

So, you are saying this happens generally in identity politics. Each side does this to the other. You have discussed what Hindutva ideologues did to Husain when they subtracted his inner life and cancelled out his subjective identity. But do Muslims do the same to Hindus. Is it symmetrical?

Yes, strictly speaking, it is symmetrical. No doubt, Muslims confronted with this Hindutva ideology stereotype (especially in the last decade when it seems to have taken some hold on a large segment of the Hindu population in India) stereotype Hindus and attribute objective identities to them, thinking of all Hindus as hating them and ignoring considerable individual subjective variation among Hindus. But you know, as with all social issues of this sort, relations of power matter a lot. So, what is strictly and purely conceptually speaking symmetrical does not necessarily have symmetrical and equal effects and consequences

What do you mean?

When the stereotyping is done by those who are weak and powerless in a society, when they overgeneralise and subtract subjective identities from others who are much more dominant in society, even though it is a conceptual deformation that illicitly grafts the objective onto the subjective, it has much less adverse consequences. This is an obvious point, so I won’t belabour it now, but I’ll just tell you of an amusing incident from my past that will convey the obvious point in a vivid way. When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I invited Muhammad Ali, the iconic boxer and conscientious objector, who was my neighbour near campus, to come and speak at my department’s monthly colloquium. Ali readily agreed. In the discussion after his lecture, Donald Davidson, one of the most eminent analytic philosophers of the last half century, had the nerve to stand up and ask him a question: “Mr Ali,” he said, “you have quite correctly criticised whites for stereotyping blacks and called that racist, but throughout your lecture you stereotyped whites; would you not say there is racism in that too?” Ali was completely unfazed. He looked at Davidson as if he was talking to a rather stupid person and said: “Man, if you are in a snake pit, are you gonna say, ‘This one doesn’t bite, that one doesn’t bite!?’”

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. contribute to various national and international publications, including The Hindu, The Caravan and Monthly Review.