Rigour in the margins

The CSDS has its blind spots, moments of partisanship and the occasional internal squabble. But they cannot overshadow the extraordinary achievement of this institution. It is hard to imagine how impoverished Indian intellectual life would have been without the insouciantly brilliant intellectual culture it fostered. The CSDS became the best exemplar of traits that several small institutions in India have preserved against great odds. It has intellectuals who are strangely unhoused in the dominant categories of the times. It has intellectuals who have achieved a measure of eminence and excellence, but not in ways that can be measured by the usual professional categories. It has intellectuals comfortable in different genres: the abstruse academic publication, the public sphere and even that much-maligned oral culture of argument. But what it has retained for the most part is a fierce sense of independence and self-possession, not just from government but from shifting fashions. There are two kinds of intellectual cultures. Some define themselves in the context of fads and fashions, and cling to sacred dogmas or texts even against a recalcitrant reality. Others define themselves in the context of wondering about reality, enchanted by its variousness. They shape a way of looking at the world rather than becoming prisoners of authority. The CSDS was decidedly in the second camp, and that was the source of its creativity.

The CSDS also promoted a style important for democracies. Intellectuals must say what they think; but they must not carry any sense of presumption or special authority. They must be critical but without falling into the whole-scale misanthropy that afflicts so many intellectuals. They must push theory, but they must not confuse theory with judgement. The CSDS, on the whole, maintained that balance. Even when its faculty members were wrong or blindsided, there was more to learn from them than from those who had got it right.

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