Scanning Beneath the Ubiquitous Radar of European Intellectual Thought


The Quintessential Doubling and Plurality of Difference[1]

A paper-length book review of Dipesh Chaktabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book is profound as it is simple although his subject does not lend itself easily to him as a philosopher of history or to his readers. This mainly owes to what he seeks to do, that is, show that European intellectual tradition as a referent to world history is at once indispensable and inadequate.[2] It is the former because the factual history of events dictates that and, as such, it somewhat holds an incontestable centrality. It would, for example, be impossible to write a history of India, Kenya or the United States without making any reference to Britain. However, Chakrabarty takes issue with the centrality of an imagined Europe that resides in intellectual thought that in turn has its home in universities around the world.

He singles out Marxist and post-Marxist thought for criticism arguing that the formulation of generalizations that tend to telescope all historical time has an obliterating or deleterious effect on what one would call local time. In his own words he says, “…the universal and the analytical produce forms of thought that ultimately evacuate the place of the local” especially through a distortive empirical idiom that loses meaning in translation.[3] In trying to show the inadequacy of this Western intellectual thought, therefore, he propounds and elaborates the idea that other worlds, places and peoples outside Europe -especially when under consideration in social science studies- should be taken at their face value. Chakrabarty also argues that historicism and the political as products of European intellectual thought are globalizing ideologies, which then raises the question of modernity in non-Western societies.

He takes over from where Ranajit Guha left his critique of Marxism when he took issue with the use of the term “pre-political,” or in other instances and European strands of thought, “pre-modern” when referring to non-Western societies. He acknowledges the significance of Guha’s unease with the term but considers what he started unfinished business. He argues that Guha did not adequately exploit the radical potential of his critique of the Marxist category of the “pre-political” and sets about to do exactly that. In so doing, his main contention is that Western political thought has struggled with new world phenomena such as peasant citizenry as well as a brand of nationalism or nationalisms founded on a peasant base and infused with the religious-superstitious, gods and spirits. This could find no place in the European intellectual tradition of history-writing or political analysis as it was alien. This then is the deleteriousness of which Chakrabarty talks about using Guha’s critique of the Marxist category of the “pre-political” as the point of departure.[4]

For Chakrabarty, therefore, understanding the nature of the political or historical, for that matter, in the colonial modernity or postcolonial India, one must provincialize the secular European logic that does not recognize not only human agency but even that of the supernatural. According to Chakrabarty, history in Western intellectual tradition is godless, continuous and homogenizing (mono-cultural) whereas, in non-Western traditions, history has, and is enchanted by, ancestral spirits and the gods who are engaged in human affair and everyday living. Even where attempts have been done to incorporate this non-Western agency in the secular European history-writing, the enormity of the burden of translation has been limiting. Writing about gods and spirits in the secular language of history or sociology is like translating into a universal language that which belongs to a field of difference.

Chakrabarty gives two examples in his critique of both the use of the terms “labour” and “compassion” by Marx and Heidegger, respectively. In the European sense, labour exhibits the Western qualities of history. That is, it is secular, godless and in the capitalist sense even abstract.  As a human activity in India, however, labour isn’t just that. It is more. It is associated with the presence and agency of the gods and spirits, for example, as exemplified in the worship of tools. The history of labour in India, therefore, would be more in that the presence of the divine and supernatural would be acknowledged. Chakrabarty’s contention is that if one uses Marxist theoretical framework, this characteristic and unique aspect of Indian labour would be mediated by empirical idioms if not totally glossed over.[5] Another better example that Chakrabarty uses to make his point is the term “weaver” derived from an Indian study done by Pandey.

In the European sense, the weaver is a general figure especially during early industrialization. In the practice of the art, God is ever present in the phenomenology of weaving among the almost “fanatical” Julahas of north India. Work/labour and worship for them were two inseparable activities that the ascription of the secular identity according to the overlapping languages of the census and administration and given occupation- “weaving”- seems inadequate. However, their Indian name, “nurbay” or weavers of light captures the interplay of human and supernatural agency in real life. It is the same for agrarian Indian societies where farming is not the same in the Western sense of the term. In Gyan Prakash’s history of the “bonded” labour, “bhuts”/spirits are thought to be the supernatural power over humans as they intercede in the relations of agrarian production. For Prakash’s work to meet the conventional secular history writing, however, he finds it necessary to obstruct from view the tensions of irreducible plurality that Chakrabarty is trying to visualize in the history of labour itself.

What I found most revealing in Chakrabarty’s attempt of showing how colonial political modernity and the postcolonial is a contested space between the traditional and the modern/or postmodern for that matter, is the secular and Indian use/s of the term “compassion”  within the context of cruelties involved in Indian widowhood (chapter five of his book). He argues that in the secular way of seeing things, the spring of compassion and sympathy is in the observation and sighting of cruelty, which is in turn attributed to reason. For Chakrabarty, however, compassion in the Indian particular is inborn and only among very few select people in society, for example, Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar. These two people had what can be referred to as “karunasagar.” That is, not just compassion but an ocean of compassion, which is an inborn “karuna”/compassion. It springs from the heart or “hriday” hence the quality of “shahridayata.” As such these Indian manifestations of universal humanity have a special particular tone and designation that is “shahriday vyakti.” That is, not encompassed within the general or generalized theory of human nature. Put differently, if one uses the ubiquitous European intellectual thought to try and understand compassion as exemplified by both Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar, s/he would miss the Indian depth and essence of the term.

In the European sense, the meaning of the term compassion is multiple to sound a dime a dozen whereas the possession of hriday is an exception rather than a rule in the Indian sense. This is because, in the real sense, anyone is capable of being sorry or having pity. However, compassion as exemplified by Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar, is rare, and even godlike, and thus is to be placed on a plane high above that of ordinary humans. There are, therefore, two ways of looking at compassion: one is the European meaning derived from natural theory of sentiments and the other, Indian aesthetics used to describe the capacity for sympathy or compassion. In as far as the latter is concerned there are a select few people who are called to experience it as witnesses to the human condition and suffering. Not everyone can hear the voice of the subject whose cry of pain is addressed to the exceptional subject (not the normalized citizen) who could both receive and appreciate this kind of “rasa of karuna” (compassion). Whoever hears this cry is called to be in the position of somebody with “hriday” and, hence, a Rammohun, a Vidyasagar, a Jesus, Chaitanya, or a Budhha.

Indeed, this is the same sense of dislocation one feels when he reads the New Testament usage of the same term “compassion” in the original Greek and English translations. While the term “compassion” is used over and over again throughout the Bible, in the Greek (“splagncnivzmai” or “splanchnizomai”) it is used only twice with reference to what Jesus felt for the masses that followed him! It is then translated figuratively into the English to mean “compassion” in the sense the term is used in the ubiquitous European intellectual thought, and natural theory of sentiments, thus losing its Indian aesthetical original meaning. In the Greek original, it means deep pain at the center of one’s being. In other words, the capacity of someone so identifying with another’s plight such that his or her suffering becomes one’s very own in a keener manner that surpasses the first instance. However, the two instances where the term “splanchnizomai” has been used with regard to Jesus are in a manner to make compassion commonplace. In the Christian era, as in the Indian case, therefore, compassion is not a dime a dozen as its existence was not only rare but unpredictable.

Conclusion: quintessential doubling versus ubiquitous Western intellectual thought

As earlier stated, Chakrabarty’s argument couldn’t be more eloquent in as far as opening up the space of human experience is concerned. Indeed, it is difficult to read him without thinking twice about the attempts made, by among others, Marx, Braudel and structuralism theorists such as Levi Strauss of integrating historical time. The latter for example, argues that a structural unity underlies all of humanities myth-making. Chakrabarty rejects this, and by so doing, is in the same plane as post-structuralists such Foucault, Barthes and Derrida who also countered the idea of a timeless and continuous universals. His delineation of two histories, one that is inevitable or indispensable, and another that acknowledges the rightful place of antecedents encountered by capital in the non-Western and future plurals, is not only apt but is a stroke of genius. That is, History 1 that is the universal and necessary history posited in the logic of capital, and History 2.

He, therefore, argues that it is impossible to sum up a present through any totalizing principle because it would, of necessity, mean writing over or dislocating the non-Western other. As such, he says there is no single way of being. The multiple ways on being human can only be revealed if one pierces the veil of reality (made possible by an integrated historical time). This is what Chakrabarty does in an attempt to provincialize Europe in historical thought.

The technique that he uses to do this is called doubling. That is, the process of setting up a pair of ostensible opposites to explore the process of cultural mixture and toy with the traditional notions of the center.[6]

In his words, Chakrabarty describes this process as holding in a state of permanent tension a dialogue between two contradictory points of view. For him, it is the indispensable and universal narrative of capital-History 1, and a narrative, and thought, about diverse ways of being human, that modifies and interrupts the totalizing thrusts of the former. This doubling analytical framework that incorporates the traditional imagined European center, and the subaltern, forms a social thought that embraces both secular reason while embracing heterotemporality. This is exemplified by Rabindranath Tagore’s prose-poetry (“gadyakabita”), Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, Kwame Anthony Appiah and D.D. Kosambi, which are the examples used by Chakrabarty. Others could be Caryl Phillip’s Cambridge and V.S. Naipul’s The Enigma of Arrival.

This analytical device makes it possible, when deployed in the postcolonial, to understand the unique political realities in non-Western political societies. After all, reading Chakrabarty and other writers like him, for example, Albert J. Paolini shows that descriptions of social reality cannot be synonymous all over the world.[7] This then opens up a whole new world that makes it possible to understand Kikuyu nationalism in the Mau Mau rebellion; native American Indian Ghost Dance; Kinjeketile Ngwale’s Maji Maji rebellion among other examples that European thought would simply rule out  as irrational actions. It also makes it possible to understand the contemporary political reality in Africa where the magical in politics is rife.


As Bernault, “Magical Politics in Equatorial Africa,” observes magical dimensions of politics in Africa are often ignored by classical and historical studies.[8] She argues that the magical dimension of politics is not a marginal, but a central dimension of the nature of public authority, leadership and popular identities in Equatorial Africa. It exists undisturbed by colonial rule if not having benefitted from the existence of colonial dramaturgies (secrecy, monopoly etc) of authority that fit local representations of power. Thus European obsessions with witchcraft promoted it as a prominent ground for strategies of resistance thus re-centering it at the core of political culture.


In addition, this view of political reality makes it possible to understand the currency of occult forces and witchcraft in the modern political sphere in South Africa, for example. According to Achille Mbembe’s South Africa’s Second Coming: The Nongqawuse Syndrome (15 June 2006) this movement is stirring the darkest brew of South African culture rooted in the belief of witchcraft and evil forces especially among the urban migrant lumpens. This is what he calls the “Nongqawuse syndrome” that is at the heart of politics, which would arguably be missed by the European observer using the Western intellectual lens. These subaltern realities are also well-captured by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006) that he described to the Washington Post as a story of Africa in the 20th century in the context of two-thousand years of world history. Like Chakrabarty’s subaltern project of provincializing Europe, Thiong’o shows how the “movement of the voice” models the trend in modern times of ordinary people wanting their voice back especially in the era of accelerated economic globalization. Such sobering political realities are only made possible by the inversion of the approach of history-writing from the center-periphery to a bottom-top model.


[1] Read this as “the different ways of being (human”).

[2] Dipesh’s book is in the main a critique of the Marxist school of thought in particular arguing that we cannot be content with some of the broad generalizations that have been made therein about the linear unfolding history. Put differently, Chakrabarty is opposed to a totalizing universal history or an integrated historical time with an imagined Europe as its /or as the center.

[3] Chakrabarty, Provicializing Europe, 224-225.

[4] The use of the term “pre-political” or “pre-modern” would also mean, as Chakrabarty points out so eloquently, that such societies characterized as such are somewhat in the waiting room of history. In other words, that whatever that is inconsistent in them and what is non-Western is in transition and that whatever change has been wrought by coming into contact with Western forms, political and intellectual (concepts such as human right, social justice, capital among others) is incomplete. Chakrabarty’s argument, however, is that there is nothing incomplete about this uniqueness of the Indian subaltern or any other that is non-Western. That is, the Western and the non-Western must co-exist in the here and now.

[5] A good example is the Indian word for water “pani” that when translated would be “water” or given a mediating scientific reference such as H2O.

[6] That is as described by Lichtenstein (1999) “The Double and the Center: V.S Naipul and Carly Phillips’ use of doubling to eradicate traditional notions of center and periphery.

[7] Albert J. Paolini, Navigating Modernity: Postcolonialism, Identity and International Relations (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

[8] A talk by Florence Bernault of University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Magical Politics in Equatorial Africa,”

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.