Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

Thought and Action

X.P. Mao

In what follows I wish to unearth and explore the logic of thought and action. These concepts have played very important role both in Indian and Western Philosophy. Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, defined mind and body in terms of thought and extension respectively. Accordingly mind and matter were regarded as the basic substances or categories. It was left for Spinoza to point out the difficulties involved in the Cartesian substance. If substance is defined in terms of independent existence then there can be only one substance. Accordingly, Spinoza set right the Cartesian view of substance and maintained that there can be only one substance and mind and matter could at best be regarded two different attributes of it.
    The German philosopher Leibnitz felt satisfied with the Cartesian and Spinozistic treatment of substance and attribute and redefined it. Leibnitz replaced independent  existence by independent action and thus arrived at self active and self creative monads. Thus strange ideas such as mind like matter and matter like mind were introduced. It is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that Leibnitz injected independent action into the very nature of reality yet it was not until the appearance of Karl Marx that action and change were given fillip to replace mere dispassionate knowledge and understanding. Philosophers had tried to understand the world but time has come to change it – became the watch word of Marxism. It is said that Ruskin, the great social thinker and the author of Unto the Last, was highly disappointed to hear from Max Muller, the great Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, when the latter said that he was trying very hard to understand ancient civilizations of the world. This means that action is superior to thought and Philosophers and Scholars should concentrate on how to change the world. 
    Before we comment on the observation made by Marx that philosophers have not tried to change the world; they have simply tried to understand it, we should distinguish between thought and action. What is a thought? What is an action? Are thought and action different and distinct concepts? Is thought primary and action derivative of it?
    Historically speaking, pure thought has been linked with pure consciousness. In certain schools of philosophy in Indian traditions like Upanisadas and Advaita, consciousness is rated very high in order of the Kosas (Sheaths). At the same time the fact remains that the first Kosa is the Annamaya Kosa (Matter & material body). The philosophical point that is made in this connection is that the so called non-material cannot be identified without reference to something material.                           
    It may be mentioned in this connection that the Upanisadas do not advocate any kind of reductionism that matter is ultimately real or Prana and Jnana are ultimately real. It is a kind of re-ordering of concepts and categories in terms of which the world should be understood. Accordingly, Anna, Prana, Jnana, Vijnan and Ananda have been visualized. The term Anandamaya is value-centric. It is a state of happiness and consciousness devoid of all relations. In ordinary and common parlance, happiness and consciousness are always related to something outside oneself. But in case of Ananda as visualized by the Advaita it is unrelated happiness. Further, the highest state of Anna has also been visualized as Panchakosa Kosam Vinirmukta (transcending all kosas). This may appear contradictory and incoherent but the Advaitins have a point in proposing the state of Panchakosa Vinirmukta. If singular and absolute category is to be posited as the central concept, to explain the entire world in all its dimensions and yet not to be caught by anything, it has to be Panchakosa Vinirmukta. Kant’s concept of Noumenon comes very close to it. The Noumenon is the logical pre-supposition, a necessity to explain the phenomena. Similar is the case of Panchakosa Vinirmukta. It explains everything but cannot be explained by anything else at all except itself.  

    This is to show that in Indian tradition thought and action are not diametrically opposed to each other. Let us now examine whether the concepts of pure thought and pure action are there in Indian tradition. In support of this supposed dichotomy it is maintained by some scholars that Purva Mimamsa lays emphasis on action or ritual, whereas Uttar Mimamsa (Advaita) lays emphasis on pure and unalloyed thought without any admixture of action. We wish to point out in this connection that a thought only when it is expressed or expressible and expressions can be understood only with reference to meaning .In short, meaning, understanding, thought and intellect go together. At the same time, it cannot be said that all understandings are of the same type. This is not to say that we accept the Rylean distinction that understanding or knowing is only of two types i.e., (i) knowing how and (ii) knowing that. As a matter of fact, all knowing or understanding is a kind of doing. Doing may be physical, mental or linguistic or all of these or some of these at the same time. J.L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher laid emphasis only on speech acts. Accordingly, for him, locution, illocution, and per locution were treated as the main speech acts. For Austin, there are simple and pure locutions; they are just cases of ‘saying’ something but not doing anything at all. On the other hand, for Jaimini, the author of Purva Mimamsa, pure and simple locutions are myths. That is to say, all saying is a kind of doing something. Every saying contains an act of inspiration (chodana) .It inspires us to act. Seen in this light, action is built into all statements and assertions .This means that change is inherent to all knowledge. In a skeletal form, change is contained in all knowledge. Therefore, it can be said that the basic and primary objective of knowledge is to bring about change in some form or other. If this is so, then the Marxist dictum that philosophers have simply tried to understand the world but the time has come to change it becomes redundant for the simple reason that change is built into the very texture of knowledge and understanding.                                           
    Let us see whether pure action is possible in any form at all. If events are cited as instances of action then perhaps the possibility of pure action may be there for the simple reason that events take place in nature; nobody causes events to happen. Action worth its name must be accompanied or preceded by some thought. In other words, no action is possible without some thought, intention, motive and objective and to have anyone of these as one of the accompaniments of action is to nullify the thesis that there are pure actions.                                                 
    In both the traditions, Eastern and Western the idea of pure thought and pure action have given rise to insoluble philosophical problems. This is visible in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz. The Mimamsakas by laying emphasis on karma (action) and the Advaitins on Jnana (thought) bring the conflict into sharp focus. The karmakanda and the vedic rituals had to be protected against the onslaught by the Buddhist and the great Sankara did it by introducing the concept of pure Jnana bereft of all kinds of admixtures and adjuncts. It was left to the author of Bhagwat Geeta to take a comprehensive view of the debate by introducing the concept of  Jnanakarmasamuchaya (synthesis of  knowledge, thought and action). This means that thought is action oriented and action is thought-based. It can be said in this connection that both the Mimamsakas and the Advaitins were one-sided in their approach to the problem.                             
    In the light of the discussions stated above let us now examine the Marxist dictum that philosophers ought to change the world. According to Marx even though change is inevitable and inexorable yet philosophers have to expedite it. But now the question is, if change is built into the very texture of reality there is no need to give fillip to it because such an attempt is not only uncalled for but unnecessary as well. Interference of man with the process of reality which is dialectical in nature proves the point that Marx was not historicist as claimed by Karl Popper. Popper argues out at great length (albeit mistakenly) that Plato, Hegel and Marx were the chief historicists and these Historicists do not recognize the importance of human action.                                              
    It may be stated in this connection that to present a philosophical theory of understanding of human society is one thing and to change it is another thing. It has been said earlier in this paper that there cannot be any understanding per se without an iota of action in it and there can be no action without thought and understanding. But then Marx is not very happy with the position, he wants and expects that philosophers as intellectuals should initiate positive action and change the society. This is hope, expectation and aspiration by Marx about philosophers. 

    Now let us see whether a philosopher qua philosopher is capable of performing the stupendous task of changing the society. At the outset, I wish to maintain that this is absolutely a misplaced hope entertained by Marx about philosophers. This is true that philosophy as a cognitive and intellectual enterprise has played a major and significant role in social and cultural formation. But very rarely philosophers have taken active part in forming and shaping public opinion and changing the society with solitary exceptions such as Mahavira, Buddha,  Socrates,  Christ, Samkara, Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Nanak, Kabir, M.K Gandhi, Bertrand Russell,  Jean Paul Sartre, Confucious and Lao-tsii. But their number is few and far between. Further, a question may be raised in this connection whether Christ, Nanak, Kabir, Gandhi and the like can be treated as philosophers. At best they could be treated as social and political activists but not philosophers in the technical sense of the term.  To this objection, I wish to argue in the following way. Philosophy as a foundational discipline not only raises questions about knowledge, mind and matter but also about society, culture, civilization and morality as well. It is awkward and very strange on the part of a moral philosopher to live an immoral life though some contemporary Indian academics while writing on Gandhi’s moral philosophy do not hesitate to indulge in immoral activities. This is expected that everybody as an individual should try, as far as possible to lead a moral life but more so when somebody does moral philosophy. Perhaps to do moral philosophy but lead an immoral life is a case of intellectual dishonesty and moral hypocrisy.

    According to Marx, philosophizing and social and political activism ought to go together. This shows how sad and restless Marx was at the plight of workers and daily wage earners at the time of industrial revolution in England. This is true that as a matter of fact, for whatever reasons, the intellectual middle class is a privileged class. Marx was convinced that this privilege comes from deprivation of others. In this sense property beyond certain limit is theft and it should be given away to others or to those who do not have it. Though it is widely believed in the academic circle that Marx was a materialist yet the Judaeo-Christian values were imbedded in his writing. The privileged, that is, to say that the philosophers must work for others and change the society. This is a kind of moral imperative that a supposed materialist (Karl Marx) pleads for. This is how it can be said that thought without action is barren and action without thought is blind.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati