Essay on the scientific temperament of Jawaharlal Nehru by Madhavan K. Palat


The scientific temper for which he is praised is more akin to a free and fearless flight of the creative mind

Nehru is famous for his advocacy of “scientific temper,” but everything he wrote and said fell entirely within the humanities rather than what is commonly understood to be science.

The science to which he committed was projected as schoolchildren understand science, a set of different subjects and practically opposed to the social and human sciences, or to what is also called the human sciences. In much of official and public discourse, he was built as a peddler and peddler of colleges of engineering and medicine. But Nehru was neither Philistine nor Childish; he did not oppose the natural, experimental and exact sciences to the human sciences; and he himself was a person of considerable literary talent and poetic and artistic sensibility. His publications, speeches, correspondence and interviews reveal a historian, political philosopher, social theorist and thinker in related fields. His scientific temperament was only visible in the humanities.

For him, knowledge was the product of empirical inquiry and logical reasoning, commonly known as the scientific method, and every other process led to error. The philosopher, historian, jurist or literary critic had to be as scientific as the sociologist, economist or linguist; and, as improbable as it may seem, they must have been no less than the mathematician, astronomer and zoologist. The differences lie in the nature of the evidence. The physicist and the chemist could experiment repeatedly to test a hypothesis and arrive at laws; the historian and the geologist could not do it and had to be satisfied with hypotheses and generalizations from the available facts; but all were scientific because they had to both provide evidence for any claim and only use the evidence available to others as well.

There was no question of privileged knowledge, whether received from ancestors, revealed by God, or glimpsed through flashes of inspiration. These are the gist of the scientific method as it was prescribed during the 17th and 18th centuries, and this was Nehru’s main understanding. He did not make the odious distinction between the natural and social or human sciences when he proclaimed the virtues of the scientific temperament. All real knowledge in any sphere was scientific; it was understood as such in Europe; and even in English, terms like social science expressed this conviction. He campaigned with missionary zeal for the cause of scientific reasoning because he felt India was in desperate need of it. It freed the mind from superstition, dogmas, rituals, habits and customs, and allowed it to explore both the infinite expanse of the universe of nature and the unlimited internal spaces of the ‘spirit.

Always optimistic

A sanguine himself, he was always optimistic and had the eighteenth-century conviction that true knowledge must lead to beneficent results. He maintained this conviction despite the experience of the 20th century, when knowledge obtained in a perfectly scientific and rational manner was used for greater destruction than ever before in the history of mankind. He also feared that advances in science would bring humanity to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. But he didn’t turn into a skeptic; he adhered to the position that only true knowledge could bring awareness of danger even though such knowledge could be perverted. He will never be able to succumb to a catastrophic vision of modernity; and he would have understood why the most dystopian writers of the 20th century, be it Zamiatine or Orwell or whatever, left an opening to escape the gulag world of our own creation.

Nehru campaigned with missionary zeal for the cause of scientific reasoning, as he felt India was in desperate need of it.

Nehru campaigned with missionary zeal for the cause of scientific reasoning, as he felt India was in desperate need of it. | Photo credit: Getty Images

But Nehru was not satisfied with any simple method or technique. True knowledge or science went far beyond, such as the pursuit of truth and a journey of discovery into the limitless unknown, driven by a passion beyond the rational. He laments that scientists do not understand science enough, because they are too often confined to the technical and do not engage in the later imperatives of criticism and exploration. It was not clear that the scientific temperament had entered a world dominated by science: “We live in a scientific age, we are told, but there is little evidence of this temperament in people anywhere or. even among their leaders. The end of one arduous investigation would only be the beginning of another. In this regard, he stood alongside many thinkers critical of the modern condition, believing that nothing could be final, that new perspectives were unfolding forever.

At that point, it became a spiritual quest: “The true scientist is the sage detached from life and the fruits of action, always seeking the truth wherever this quest may lead him. The incessant search for the truth, whatever it is and whether it is unknowable or that it is not worth knowing in the end, makes it a spiritual quest close to the religious, but superior to the religious as it is. is normally understood: “For me, a true scientist today is, perhaps, more spiritual than a man who can call himself religious, and whose mind is limited by certain religious values ​​and does not go beyond.

He found “a certain spiritual quality” in the work of Jagdish Chandra Bose and Albert Einstein. Always restless and imaginative, he envisioned possibilities beyond the everyday. While reflecting on one of his favorite themes, the one and united world, he immediately dreamed of variations within it: “But why stop at this unique idea of ​​the world? It really is a foray into new worlds. And I am not speaking for the moment of the new world in the sense of other planets and stars ”. Science was for him the religion of modernity; but it was more than the scientific method. Like religion before secularization, science today structures all life: religion has become an autonomous segment of life, but science encompasses everything, including religion. The spirit could explore outer space, it could travel inside the spirit, and it could find or create new worlds within our own planetary world. In this flow of ideas, his curious mind shifted from discovery to pure creation.

Science suffered from the limitation that it could not create, it could only study. Science has not been able to produce the artist and the poet; paradoxically, science could not even produce the innovative and creative scientist. Nehru once quoted a Chinese poet: “Knowing the language well is essential, but you have to forget the rules and regulations if you want to write poetry. When science and reason reached their limits, the human mind needed something else. “There was no knowledge of ultimate goals and not even an understanding of immediate goals, for science has told us nothing about any goal in life.”

The answer to these imperfections of science and reason was what he called scientific character. It may seem confusing that he proposed the scientific temperament as a way to overcome what science lacked. He added to the confusion by proposing two distinct concepts of scientific temperament. The first was like criticism and exploration, but the second was something more: “Science deals with the realm of positive knowledge but the temperament it has to produce goes beyond this realm. For him such a temper was an attribute of freedom, freedom not only embodied in democratic institutions, politics and the rule of law, but the ecstasy and agony of creativity, unfettered and fearless, imagining and inventing new worlds that had not been dreamed of, the realm of true art.

He was a romantic and his ideal in life was the artist striving to imagine, invent and create from nothing. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that Gandhi had been the “perfect artist” in life and death. In his quest for what he himself could not express clearly enough, he went so far as to suggest that “we should perhaps go to the fourth dimension”. He distinguished between the uneasiness of the researcher and the genius of the artist, and he called them both at different times and in different places signs of the scientific temperament. In his lexicon, it was also spiritual, and the work of the greatest scientists was spiritual.

Reason versus art

Until the end of his life, he insisted on the distinction between the scientific method and the scientific temperament, between discovery and creation, between reason and art. In so many different ways he has expressed his urge to paint and dream, to pursue visions and fantasies. He did not seek to find them; they weren’t there to be discovered. The human mind invented them from its own resources, and none could prescribe its goals. He quoted Blaise Pascal to stress that reason must recognize and determine its limits so that the possibilities beyond it can be explored: “The last step of reason is to recognize that there are infinite numbers. of things that go beyond it. It’s just weak if he doesn’t go so far as to realize it. What was within the limits of reason, he called science and scientific method; what lay on the other side was pure creativity. It was the domain of scientific temperament, art and spirituality, energizing science without being science, for only reason could glimpse the domain beyond reason. The two were conceptually distinct but related, but it also allowed for overlap.

Why did he use the expression “scientific temperament” to designate artistic creativity? Nehru was faced with everything that seemed irrational, from the whims of the colonial state to the atrocity of the castes and the misery of the masses. In such a situation, he considered his first duty to strive to establish science in a hostile environment. But he was also a romantic who knew the limits of reason and science and wanted to create like an artist. He sought to rise above science, but without denigrating it. His scientific temperament was neither the Reason of the Enlightenment nor the science of the nineteenth century, but the romantic overtaking of both through artistic creativity. It was a conceptual fusion of two processes or ideals, the establishment of one state and its simultaneous transcendence in another. On behalf of India as a late developer, Nehru merged into a single, separate development phase in other parts of the world.

Nehru needed reason and science to pull India out of darkness into light, and he wanted their romantic subversion to transform that light into creative energy. Life was fertile and fruitful, otherwise it was not life; science alone marked a stagnation on the plateau of reason; but the scientific temperament was creative, inventive and invigorating, brief, spiritual and artistic.

The writer is the editor of selected works of Jawaharlal Nehru. This is the second in the series of essays on Nehru in the Magazine.


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