The man with two great loves

September 8, 2006

Bhikhu Parekh is passionate about the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, despite his wife's warning

In the past few years I have spent the summer in India and devoted it to academic writing. The monsoon, which hits the country at this time of year, has a wonderful feel about it and has the added advantage of keeping me indoors. My time in India also enables me to keep in touch with the changing moods of the country and to maintain a healthy psychological distance from Britain. Because I am denied access to my library, I'm able resist the temptation to consult a book every time I am stuck and to mobilise instead my own exiguous intellectual resources.

I decided to break the practice this year and stayed in the UK. Writing my new book went quite well for the first few weeks. Getting up every morning in the knowledge that the whole day was mine with not a single social or academic engagement to disfigure it was an exhilarating experience. I started with some of the most difficult questions I address in the book. I am interested in the nature and limits of reason, asking when and why rational dialogue breaks down, which factors are inherent in reason itself and which ones external to it. I ask whether all moral reasons for action are or need to be general and impersonal, or whether some are mediated by one's social and personal identity. Can an action be objectively right but not for me or someone like me? If so, is anything permitted? This has a close bearing on the conflict between the morality of partiality and impartiality, the former arising out of one's special obligations to some individuals or groups, the latter extending to all humans. The two moralities are autonomous and mutually irreducible, but they conflict; the question is how to reconcile their claims.

As part of this larger inquiry, I have also been taking a close look at the nature and logic of identity. Why has the language of identity become so dominant? Is it just another fad or does it indicate something important about our self-understanding?

What does it mean to say that we have plural identities? How can we have an identity when it is about who we are? Are there plural identities, or only a singular identity with plural dimensions? When and why does one identity become all-powerful? How do social identities cohere so that they do not undermine our sense of selfhood? How do we regulate and balance their conflicting demands? Do we need some notion of moral or self-identity on which the earlier writers had concentrated and which their successors virtually ignore? I frequently get lost and change my views while writing, but I think I'm getting somewhere.

Life, however, is never predictable. A few days ago my dear friend Benjamin Barber wrote to press me to attend a conference in Casablanca and Fes. Four years ago, Ben launched an annual conference in different parts of the world, bringing together intellectuals to discuss how to reinforce and articulate human solidarity. In the aftermath of recent events in the Middle East, Ben's invitation is tempting, so I shall join him.

After Morocco I am off to India to deliver lectures. In Delhi, I will speak about whether democracy can be exported and how the illusion that it can be legitimises the mindless war on terrorism. And in Hyderabad, I will speak to senior police officers at the National Police College on how to police the increasingly violent and corrupt Indian society, and what inspiration we could derive from Gandhi. That will bring me to the end of September.

My wife tells me that I am wedded to my book, and that my other activities represent an unforgivable act of intellectual adultery. I doubt if she is right. For years I have cherished two passionate loves - the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. I cannot be unfaithful to either. I just hope I can extend my publisher's deadline - my bifocal intellectual identity requires it!

Lord Parekh of Kingston upon Hull is fellow of the British Academy and president of the Academy of the Learned Societies for Social Sciences. His book Identity, Culture and Dialogue will be published next year by Palgrave.

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