Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma (‘Great Soul/Self’), is arguably the most admired human being of the twentieth-century. Not an academic philosopher, Gandhi was never concerned with abstract philosophical analysis. When asked his philosophy, he typically responded, ‘My life is my message.’ And yet one could make a strong case that Gandhi is more philosophically interesting and significant than most professional philosophers.
Gandhi, like Socrates, was a
gadfly, and he was often an embarrassment and an irritant, even to his friends
and allies. He challenges unacknowledged assumptions and uncritically accepted
positions and allows us to envision different ways of seeing things. He explodes
myths and arrogant provincialism and challenges power positions that pretend to
be based on sound knowledge and morality.
Best known as a proponent of non-violence (ahimsa), Gandhi challenges our analysis of violence and
non-violence. Violence and non-violence, for Gandhi, include overt physical acts,
but they include so much more.
As with Kant and many other philosophers, Gandhi focuses much of his attention on motives and
intentions. Violence is often equated with hatred, and non-violence with love.
However, Gandhi goes beyond most philosophical analysis by focusing on the
violence of the status quo: economic violence, cultural violence, psychological
violence, linguistic violence, and so forth. For Gandhi, if I am accumulating
wealth and power, and my neighbour is in great need, and I do nothing to help
alleviate the suffering of the other, then I contribute to and am complicit in
the violence of the status quo.
Unlike most philosophers, Gandhi, like Levinas, emphasises the primacy of morality. Gandhi has
little sympathy for detached theories of knowledge that are not grounded in
morality, or for theology and metaphysics which pretend to transcend morality.
In his approach to morality in general and violence in particular, Gandhi is well known for his emphasis on the
integral, mutually reinforcing relationship between means and ends. One cannot
use impure or immoral means to achieve worthy goals. This is the major reason he
rejects utilitarianism. Although there may be short-term desired results,
violent immoral means inevitably lead to defective ends. We fuel and become
trapped in endless escalating cycles of violence and mutual destruction.
Gandhi’s approach expresses an activist philosophy, which he often relates to the action-oriented philosophy of
karma yoga in the Bhagavad-Gita: Act to fulfil your ethical duties with
an attitude of nonattachment to the results of your actions. In this way, Gandhi
experimented with ways to intervene non-violently to weaken endless cycles of
violence and mutual destruction and allow us to realise ethical goals.
Although Gandhi’s emphasis on intentions and duties often allows us to relate him to Kant, he is not really a
Kantian. First, Gandhi describes himself as a ‘pragmatic idealist’. He focuses
on results. When he acted with good intentions and according to moral duty, but
did not succeed in resisting hegemonic British imperialism, alleviating poverty
and suffering, or overcoming caste prejudice and oppression, he evaluated his
position as a ‘failed experiment in truth’.
Second, Gandhi opposes any abstract, formalistic, universal, decontexualised approach which is then applied
to particular situations. Gandhi contextualises his analysis and is always
experimenting with an open-ended truth reflecting imperfect understanding.
In this regard, Gandhi presents
views that are relevant to recent philosophical developments regarding
pragmatism, phenomenology and hermeneutics, relativism, anti-essentialism, and
postmodernism. How do we deal with the inadequate dichotomy of universal,
absolute essentialism versus particular, relative anti-essentialism? Gandhi,
avoiding a kind of facile relativism, embraces absolute universals, such as
non-violence, truth and the unity of all life. But Gandhi also maintains that as
particular, relative, embodied human beings, none of us fully comprehends the
absolute. The unity is always a unity with particular differences. The absolute
may serve as a regulative ideal, but at most we have ‘glimpses’ of truth that is
Therefore, we should be
tolerant of the other, who has truths that we do not have, and we should realise
that the movement toward greater truth is an action-oriented, cooperative,
mutually reinforcing effort. This philosophical approach to truth necessarily
involves dialogue, recognition of integral self-other relations, and embracing
an open-ended process that resists the domination of false attempts at
philosophical, religious, cultural, economic, or political closure.