Hareesh A G
In conversation with Siddharth S (Assistant Professor, Philosophy at Sai University, Chennai)
Siddharth: Hello Hareesh! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. It would be nice if you can begin with a brief biography, to let our readers know about your background.
Hareesh: I am currently working as an Assistant Professor at the department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus. I did my Ph.D. at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Indore where I learned and explored different aspects of philosophy. All my studies before Ph.D. were in Kerala—bachelor’s and master’s from the Calicut university and B.Ed. from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. I was born and brought up in a remote village of Kerala called Kondazhy (Thrissur District). In fact, it was life in that village that influenced me and shaped me to become a philosophy scholar.
The last point you made is really interesting. But before we get to that, can you tell us what your research interests are?
My specialisation during my doctoral study was in the area called the philosophy of biology and the title of my thesis was ‘Evolution and Ontological Realism: A Critical Interpretation’. It is still one of the major areas of my research interests. It is an area that has been meagrely
At his doctoral convocation (2019)
explored in our country. I got into this topic through wondering about organic life. Since it is my focal research area, I have published some research papers focusing on the ontological issues related to evolutionary biology ('Ontological Indeterminism and Immanence – Some Aspects of the Metaphysics of Organism' ; 'Realism Through Relativism: Looking at the Possibility of Metaphysics in Species Problem' ; 'A Note on ‘Two-Way’ Ontological Practice in Biology' etc.) Apart from this, I have an intense interest in the metaphysics of science, philosophy of language (Frege, Wittgenstein, the concept of meaning and its relation to syntax). I am working on a project proposal focusing on the ontological aspect of meaning. Besides all these, I am developing an immense interest in the Indian philosophy; specifically, the naturalistic threads of Indian philosophical systems regarding the mind. In the future, I also would like to work on the ontology of memory.
Could you tell us a little more about the philosophy of biology as an area of study—what are some of the key questions explored in it—and your doctoral work?
In my doctoral studies I had focused more on the ontological issues related to the concepts which are unavoidable in biology. More specifically, I had analysed the ontological issues from an evolutionary point of view as it is a stringent belief that evolution theory of Darwin had given the theoretical base for biology. Remember Dobzhansky’s word that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. However, what interested me was the persistence of metaphysics even in our molecular biological explanations over the biologists’ claim that Darwin ‘murdered’ God by introducing a mechanism called natural selection. It is right that Darwin had put a full stop to the conventional mystic metaphysical explanations surrounding creationism. But that was not the end of the story. On the one hand he abandoned the metaphysical presence of God/deity/intelligent designer/creator etc. but on the other hand he paved the way to a new wave metaphysics concerning concepts without which the whole of biology become void. Say, life, organism, and species. Can we imagine a biological literature without a grounding in these concepts? No. But, biology still cannot define what they are. Evolution theory has an ontological commitment toward them and we take evolution theory as the theoretical framework for our explanation of living phenomena. So, I delved into these to find out a possible answer to the question of ‘why’ metaphysics in biology.
How has your experience been of studying and being a part of academic philosophy in India?
It was when I thought of doing bachelor’s, after higher secondary studies in science, that I first heard about philosophy. No one in my acquaintance has any idea about what-is-this-thing-called-philosophy. It was fortunate that I have got admitted to a bachelor’s programme in philosophy as the second last person among 60 students. At the time of admission, the Head of the Department told me, ‘Your mark/grade is very low, but don’t feel inferior. Study well’. Those words influenced me to move forward without humiliation. And the very first class was on logic which I found very interesting. After a few days, I held the first position in an internal assessment. And at the end, I graduated at second position in my college and came in the top 10 in the university. The master’s journey amazed me by taking me on a philosophical tour through different topics like science, mind, language, etc., which shaped my rudimentary research interests. I feel that the study of philosophy in Indian universities at bachelor’s level gets students well acquainted with the basic aspects. It is right that post-graduation is an advanced level, but most of our universities offers variety of courses that are still ‘introductory’. Instead of broadening the syllabus with different topics with superficial content, it would be better to focus on specific topics aimed at deep understanding.
Could you share your reflections on philosophy as a discipline in India? How do you foresee the development of the discipline?
I am proud to be a philosophy scholar in India which has an old philosophical tradition, since the Vedic period. However, I am greatly worried about the status of philosophy in India by realising the stagnancy after the establishment of conventional systems. What I mean by ‘conventional systems’ is the traditional philosophies—six orthodox systems and three heterodox systems (plus some related philosophers’ views, ancient and contemporary, on them). I am not indeed condemning contemporary Indian philosophy; there is merit in it, but it seems they have not explored enough to deal with the nuances of pragmatic life.
It seems to me that Indian philosophy binds its explanations/descriptions with ethical threads whereas western traditions are bound with epistemological threads. This might be a reason for the above. Instead of preaching/teaching the conventional stuff, scholars should be ready to explore the hidden possibilities of our philosophy. We still teach different topics like philosophy of science or mind or language etc. by referring to western philosophers. Why don’t we think about the possibilities of developing our own contributions? Say, Indian philosophy of language or mind or science. I am happy that the emerging associations in India like Indian Philosophy Network and the Philosophy of Science Group in India etc. are aiming at the exploration of different aspects of philosophy. Yes, we need all philosophies irrespective of region/race. Every philosophy has its merit. May be, a comparative study of different philosophies would hint at the different hidden possibilities. Apart from these, it is our duty to make society understand the importance of philosophy in life by wiping out misconceptions about philosophy.
Your mention of comparative approaches in philosophy raises an interesting question. It seems to me that in comparison to some of the other areas in philosophy, philosophy of science is still largely located within western philosophical traditions. Do you think there is scope for other traditions to contribute to philosophy of science and biology?
What I find is that there are central and marginalized areas in philosophy. Most areas are centred around the west (western traditions). In eastern philosophies, such as Chinese, Indian and Middle-Eastern philosophies, we can see that there are nice contributions to medicine, and to philosophy of biology, especially from the middle-east. Whenever we check a syllabus of philosophy of biology or philosophy of science, we see that what is covered will be mostly, eighty to ninety percent, with respect to the western philosophy of science. I see very few philosophy of science or biology syllabi with mentions of eastern or middle-eastern contributions. We need to explore this.
Why these became marginalized, I feel, is due to our own activities. I have searched the BA and MA Philosophy syllabi of almost all Indian universities, and I see that there very few universities introduce a critical approach to thinking and topics which people can themselves explore. In Calicut University, during my BA and MA programme, we studied the six orthodox and three heterodox systems and some contemporary Indian thought. This is the conventional practise. I believe that this will change if we give a chance—to teachers and students—to explore and put their views forward. I don’t think that Indian universities give the liberty to teachers to modify the syllabus, apart from IITs and central universities. At IITs, we have at least some liberties to modify. Of course, it is necessary to learn and teach the conventional philosophies, but apart from these, there should be room to discuss our own points—what we believe and what we think about these (conventional systems).
Do you think such an approach can help in integrating Indian philosophical thought with philosophy of science?
Yes. In the final year of my PhD, I learnt that many Indian contributions have greatly influenced scientific development. But they are not considered as contributions towards philosophy (of science). We started calling something as ‘science’ only after the seventeenth century. Even before that, we have made good contributions to scientific and astronomical fields. Before the seventeenth century, everything (in the west) was considered as Philosophy. But we don’t consider our ancestors who contributed to astronomy or mathematics as philosophers. When we consider them as philosophers and their contributions as philosophical contributions, and consider how these changed worldviews and social systems, we can then philosophise about them and understand them better as philosophy of science.
You made a very interesting observation earlier, that it was life in your village that shaped and influenced you to become a philosophy scholar. Could you elaborate on this?
I was born and brought up in a remote village. You can find that the people who lived there, or even now, are full of misconceptions, myths and false stories. For example, they believe that mumps and plagues are because of witches and witchcraft. Such kinds of misconceptions were there. I did my +2 in science and then shifted to the arts. When I started philosophy, my first aim was to concentrate on civil services. But, after a point in time, I understood that there were many questions that were unanswered in my mind since my childhood. Something like, ‘What is God?’. We all believe, we all go to temples, we all do prayers, we offer many things to God. Why do we do all these things? These were the questions that triggered me when I started doing philosophy. Then I found that many different answers could be found in philosophy. But, sometimes, our questions can be easily addressed by philosophical discussions. And we find that many of these philosophical discussions, at some point in time, will soothe our urge to know how or why something happens. One of the reasons why I became a philosophy scholar is because, I found that philosophy is solving, answering and at least partially addressing the questions that were formed in my mind through the interactions with my villagers. This is one way [in which my village life shaped my interest in Philosophy].
In my village, no one studied philosophy as a topic or as a subject for their degree. I was the first one—actually, I think I am still the only one who has studied philosophy in my village. When I joined the philosophy program, the educated people in my village blamed me: ’Why are you taking this subject. After you graduate, you are not going to get any job, or any opportunities that you can explore in the future’. My first motto was to focus on civil services. I believed that philosophy could help me in this. After my graduation, I stopped studying completely. I went to work as a truck cleaner in a quarry. I worked for almost one and a half years there. But while working in quarries and trucks, I understood that the questions in my mind were not completely answered. There were remaining questions, and I was not able to discuss them with anyone. My acquaintances then were mainly truck drivers and cleaners, and I was not able to discuss with them the questions that were on my mind. After a point, I understood that I need to go back to academics, and that my mind would cool down only if I get some answers to the different questions. It was not only metaphysical questions, but many questions that I had in my mind at that time. So, I re-joined academics, as a postgraduate student at Government College, Chittoor (Palakkad), in MA Psychology. At the same time, I got admission into MSW at Amrita University, MA Criminology and Juvenile Justice at Madras University, and MA Sociology at Loyola College, Trivandrum. I dropped all of these and joined the MA programme in Philosophy (at Calicut University). My villagers asked, ‘Why are you doing this? You belong to a family that is economically poor and you have to take care of your family. You have to focus on an area that will give you a job. Why are you focusing on philosophy?’ At that time, I did not answer them. Later, in the second year of my PG, I told them I knew how to get a job in philosophy. Apart from getting a job, in our lives, we have to address some of the basic questions that emerge in our minds. I believed that Philosophy could help me answer those. This was my answer to their questions.
Apart from these, I was interested in the spiritual practises—we can even call them ‘black magic’ and sacrificial practises—in my village. When I used to watch these things, I used to ask the question, ‘Why?’. I later understood that many of the things that my family members and villagers do are nonsensical. I don’t want to be a nonsensical man in my life. This is how my village influence me in becoming a philosophy researcher.
There could be some confusion when I say that some of these practises are nonsensical. It is nonsensical from a philosophical point of view, but it is very much sensible for them. What I understood was—people are going to temples, praying to God and offering many things because it soothes their mind at that point in time. Or they believe that it reveals some truth to them, or solves their problems. They believe in some ultimate reality which they call by different names. But, whenever they are doing something, they are rationally doing it, because they believe that there is a higher being that exists, which either created everything or is the cause of everything. And if we please that cause, our problem will be solved or we will get what we want—this is the rationale behind their activity. So, we cannot say that they are utterly nonsensical, but from a modern, rational point of view, or say a Marxist point of view, we might say that it is nonsensical. But there is a rationale behind it.
You mentioned that after your bachelor's, you worked as a truck cleaner and you really felt the need to answer certain questions, which brought you back to academics. This, I think, raises an interesting question about the nature of the philosophy itself. Do you think that common people—people living in villages or those working in physically demanding jobs—engage, or can engage, in philosophy and philosophising? Or is philosophy restricted to academia and other ‘secluded’ institutions?
I worked at an NGO sometime in 2008, which was working with sex-workers on problems related to their health. This happened before I joined as a truck cleaner—so I first finished my academics in 2008, joined this NGO and then worked as a truck cleaner. What I understood from these experiences is that everyone follows some philosophy in their lives. We can see that many of the complicated philosophical concepts are easily applied by the layman, without knowing that they are philosophical concepts. What I understood better was—they do what they need. We philosophy scholars may explore many different problems and a wide variety of concepts. Ordinary people focus, knowingly or unknowingly, only on the concepts or theories they need.
What kind of career paths in philosophy are you interested in, and think are available in philosophy in India?
Teaching still holds the major share among different career possibilities for philosophy scholars in India. And, in fact, I see teaching as a great profession to explore philosophy. It is good that professional and technical institutions also encourage teaching philosophy for their students by realizing its importance.
What are some courses you have taught, at BITS or elsewhere? As a discipline, philosophy is dependent on dialogue and discussion, perhaps more so than other disciplines. How do you incorporate this in your teaching practise?
I teach Introductory Philosophy and Applied Philosophy for UG students and Philosophical Foundations for Liberal Studies for the M. Phil. Students. As I am teaching in a technical institute, very detailed discussions on philosophical topics, beyond the syllabus, would be too ambitious. We have to stick to the syllabus and make them understand the subject. This is not easy for a large class of students whose orientation is towards technology. Some students are more enthusiastic towards philosophical discussions, so they keep asking doubts and clarifications. More or less, students have a logocentric attitude, in deconstructive terms, towards different disciplines. Most of them are scientistic in nature; an adamant attitude that what the sciences say is right.
Thank you Hareesh, for a very interesting and lively conversation. I hope we get to meet each other in person sometime soon!