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America's Star Philosopher: 5 Questions with Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel Bilgrami, a Rhodes scholar and star philosopher at Columbia University, has written books on Islamic identity and far-ranging issues.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   13-11-2015

Akeel Bilgrami, the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, develops ideas through rigorous debates.

Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University’s star philosophy professor, has a formidable  reputation as an intellectual and U.S. foreign policy skeptic. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks Bilgrami has emerged as the voice of moderation.

Harvard University Press published the Hyderabad-born thinker-writer's important book, "Self-Knowledge and Resentment." One of the most distinguished philosophy professors in America, Bilgrami has also written "Belief and Meaning," "Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity," and "Secularism, Identity and Enchantment." 

Bilgrami got a degree in English Literature from Bombay University but defected to philosophy because he claims he found it too hard. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got another Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. The Rhodes Scholar arrived in America with a degree from Oxford and then earned his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Bilgrami is seen as Columbia’s resident sage and holds students and audiences captive on subjects as esoteric as “Gandhi, Newton and the Enlightenment.” He shared his perspectives with

  1. The world sees you as an urbane, articulate intellectual and the publishing world can't get enough of your writings. You once said that you preferred your students considering you "deeply cool."

    Oh, that remark was made in a jocular vein in a tribute spoken at a memorial for Edward Said. I have no particular illusions about being either 'cool' or 'hot'.
  2. In one of your essays you talk about an ethical dilemma you encountered when you were 12. What happened on that day to nudge you towards pondering philosophical questions?

    I used to go on walks on Cuffe Parade in Mumbai with my father in the early mornings. One day, we came across a wallet with some rupees sticking out. My father said: 'Akeel, why should we not take that?'

    Thrown off balance, I muttered: 'I think we should take it.' My father (a High Court judge) looked annoyed, and asked, 'Why?' I remember saying: 'If we don't take it then I suppose someone else will.'

    My father, looking as if he were going to mount great heights of denunciation, suddenly visibly relaxed, but without logic announced: 'If we don't take it, nobody else will.'

    I thought that this was a non sequitur designed to end the conversation. I had no idea what he meant, but was too nervous to ask him. Much later, in fact, only while thinking about how to fit together the various elements in Mahatma Gandhi's thought, did I see in his remark the claims for a moral ideal of exemplary action.

    I still think of it and how puzzling the idea is. Here is a wallet, abandoned, and we should not take it. There is no one to witness this and yet it would set an example. The romance in this morality is radiant. Somehow goodness and good acts enter this world and affect everyone else. To ask exactly how they do is to be vulgar, to spoil the romance.
  3. A few years ago you said it was important to declare oneself a secularist.

    It is still important. One should try nevertheless to see what religious people are yearning for and see if secular society can provide some version of that. One does feel anxiety and disappointment when one sees most ‘ordinary’ Muslims sit silently by while the much smaller group of absolutists gets the limelight.
  4. Do you think there is a negative stereotype about Muslims being bigoted?

    That is absolutely true. I have stopped writing critically about Islam in the West. When I go to Pakistan when I am speaking to predominantly Muslim populations I am very critical of Islam and Islamic extremism. But I won’t do it here (in the United States). I will never do it here anymore because it is feeding into a Cold War against Islam.
  5. Can you weigh in on current pedagogical practices in Indian universities and how it influences the national discourse?

    Academy in the decades after Indian independence was much more vibrant than it has been in recent years. There was great urgency then to build our own form of modern discourse; our own critical fora for discussion of our politics and political economy; our own effort to probe what was worthy and what was not in our historical past. By contrast, the fallout of financial globalization in the last two or three decades on our intellectual discourse has been rather harmful.

    There is much less independence of thought now, more keenness to adopt the intellectual trends and protocols of American universities due to a misguided belief that that is the only way to improve intellectual standards of inquiry. There are other ways to improve our academies. Far from improvement, there has been a lapse in subjects like Economics, History, etc., which were much more interestingly and soundly, indeed excitingly, pursued with intense debates of substance and method, prior to the effects of globalization on our education.

    What globalization has done is increase the aspiration among the young (and the faculty) to join an international elite. This form of cognitive mimicry makes careerists out of students and faculty, which in turn pacifies them, discouraging them from playing an independent role as bold thinkers.
Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.  


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