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On noting ones intellectual itinerary

by rahulgoa Apr 14th 2023

At what point should you, can you, begin applying the brush strokes that will one day become your own intellectual itinerary? But – you may ask – what is such a thing, and why is it even needed? It is, so far as I have been able to shape its meaning for myself, a record of one’s ideas and practice.

The practice part of it is important because, I firmly hold, one must make a determined effort to make your ideas manifest, certainly those ideas that can be given form and function only in the material plane, our ‘bhuloka’. If for example you have constructed in your mind the form of a more fuel-efficient ‘chulha’, then you must make your drawings, build your prototypes out of suitable material, test them with real fuel and real cooking vessels, and then go back and redraw the form, and test again, and so on.

Bombay streetside. So typical, a stretch like this can be found duplicated all over the megacity. The conduct of small business and enterprise is done here, goods are moved and traded, family alliances are made, premises change hands, ward politicians are abused, when it rains heavily all this goes under two feet of water. It’s the city in which I did most of my growing up and most of what I then called a ‘career’ as a young adult. Photo: Rahul Goswami

This cyclical iteration of forming an idea (or even borrowing one; no matter what you have been told, there have been few original ideas since the dawn of the 20th century), refining it, testing it, revising it, has as much to do with those ideas that remain in the abstract sphere, as it does with those that are meant for our material existence. Intellectual itineraries, at least the ones that I have encountered, have had perhaps a bit more to do with the abstract and less with the material.

But that is perhaps because I encountered the term first through the writings of historians and cultural theorists, whose musings and cogitations occur only in that immense universe populated with ideas and their offspring, some as old as creation, others less old but still ancient, still others from recent centuries, and others yet that took form only two or three generations ago.

It was thanks to Immanuel Wallerstein that I first encountered the term. Wallerstein (1930-2019) gave the name to that course of study to which his own is tied, world systems research, and he was described either as a sociologist or as an economic historian or both. For a number of years, Wallerstein (an American) headed a centre named after the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-85) who was the predecessor world systems historian of very considerable note, and who had also written for himself (and his legion of students) his own intellectual itinerary. It was Braudel who was known for having written “the biography of capitalism”, which then became the study of “world systems”.

So much for the two historians. The other two had very much to do with culture. One was Egon Friedell (1878-1938) who was Austrian, and had been described variously as a polymath, historian, philosopher, journalist, critic, theatrist. Friedell is best known for his sparkling ‘The Cultural History of the Modern Age’ and – as all genuine souls who practised genuine journalism did – Friedell too had written (but had not explicitly called it so) his intellectual itinerary.

Two was Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the Italian semiologist who became famous the world over not for his mastery of an arcane art but for his historical novels, for it was ‘Il nome della rosa’ (The Name of the Rose) followed by ‘Il pendolo di Foucault’ (Foucault’s Pendulum) which quickly turned Eco into a household name.

How did Friedell and Eco write, or describe, each their intellectual itineraries? Not in any document that can be identified as such, but in fact through the maintaining of a thread of continuity and self-reference that ran through their bodies of work. When in the later years of their careers, they spoke about this to interviewers or long-time students (whose accounts of their conversations added to the record) Friedell and Eco drew attention to this thread of continuity, and halted at knots (as it were) in those threads which can be described as milestones in plainspeech but are more akin to, I would say, the crossing of portals of a particular kind.

What of our own place, if not quite our own time? Then I should look at K M Munshi (1887-1971) and R C Majumdar (1888-1980) as having intellectual itineraries that are, naturally, bristling with detail. Munshi, as the founder of the Bharatiya Vidua Bhavan, was the general authority overseeing the publication, one after another of the volumes that make up the Bhavan’s ‘History and Culture of the Indian People’ (there are eleven), written by a group of more than sixty scholars under the general editorship of Majumdar.

They were then collaborators on this monumental project and that being so, several periods in the intellectual itinerary of each coincided, as we would have seen had either committed to paper such an itinerary. Both were far too occupied to do so, but I mention them as examples of very lengthy itineraries which began at an early age, firmly grounded in a conviction that only became stronger as the years passed.

If through the agency of a collected works of a man the thread of an intellectual itinerary is to be espied, then that of Sri Aurobindo’s (1872-1950) dwarfs lesser mortals. The three phases of his life can well be taken as the three eras of Aurobindo’s extraordinary itinerary: the formative stage with his education and early administrative work, the active (superactive rather) nationalist phase when he set Bengal and India alight with his writing in Bande Mataram, and then the longest, the spiritual phase when his uniquely evolved powers of concentration and reflection produced the great texts written in Pondicherry.

Bombay / Mumbai circa a few years ago, looking south from the Worli village. The new vertical city does more than dwarf the structures of the old city. To me, those very tall towers are a city above the city. The stretch away into the distance, a city in suspension between the 10th storey and the 50th. The populations of entire towns in India could fit into the suspended city of Mumbai, while old Bombay swelters beneath. Photo: Rahul Goswami

The question that would naturally arise is: must the exercise of recording and describing an intellectual itinerary be only for intellectuals (and non-intellectual specialists with superior cranial horsepower)? Certainly not. The regular exercise of fabricating and maintaining such an itinerary has, I believe, considerably more import for the non-intellectuals of our societies than the intellectuals, the artists, the celebrated professionals, the well-known public figures. And that is because the direct daily personal contact that the state transport bus conductor, the insurance claims clerk, the parking attendant, the retail shop check-out counter girl, is of a far more elemental and personal quality.

For what is of use when employing the method is the recording of the influences upon one – the theoretical constructs and the ways in which they have been applied in everyday life; the teachings and learnings, some delivered through the channels of formal education, others because of a particular environment of employment; the pressures of professional peer groups, and ditto with social groups, and academic groups; the excursions into one or several spiritual by-lanes; the dalliances with (or full-time dives into) politics or activism or artistic pursuits.

The biographical genre of literature – which in the literary tradition of the Western world goes back a millennium-and-a-half, when the lives of saintly persons were committed to text – developed further during the reformation and counter-reformation periods in Europe, the 16th and 17th centuries, when opposing camps portrayed their heroes and rebels with either fulsome praise or base slander.

It went through a metamorphosis of sorts during the scientific and industrial revolutions, when spiritual heroes were exchanged for experts in the material arts. Whatever the personage, the formal biography was indeed a book-length description – made book length because of the inclusion of anecdote and memoirs and situational detail – of an individual’s intellectual itinerary, but written by someone else, often from a later time or era.

In our time (by which I mean what older adults such as myself could well call the requiem for the reading habit, and which young adults might call the Instagram profile) the role of a biographer for an itinerary worth documenting has been replaced by the internet, that soulless and sterile recording medium that archives every email, every online document, every video, every meme, every contact database, every browser history.

Nowadays, one’s intellectual itinerary is a public project. Your reception of any idea, and theorem, any particular course of praxis or action, has a date or a date range, that has been stored ‘in the cloud’. Your employment of these – in your professional or artistic or sportsmanly or public life – is in the same way recorded, tagged, dated and stored. In the very near future, artificial intelligence will be tasked with being your biographer, and indeed biographies by the hundred thousand could be constructed overnight.

With a fate like this looming for the great majority of the world’s population that owns and uses even a single device that is connected to the internet, my advice is to note down for yourself (and your descendants) your own intellectual itinerary. Try longhand, with pen and paper. It is an exercise whose worth is nearly forgotten, for doing so requires compositional skills that are all too obviously missing from the very great majority of the so-called literate peoples of the world, and which will be beyond the reach of even the most vaunted artificial intelligence for years to come.