Third Proposition

Cultures are like languages or writing systems, not like biological species.

3.1 As I noted in the book, the analogy between cultures and biological species, which has a long history in the organicist-idealist traditions of European thought, pervaded nineteenth-century philological debates about the identity of European languages, underpinned T. S. Eliot’s reflections on culture in the 1930s and 1940s, and found a new lease of life within UNESCO at the turn of the millennium. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) states: ‘As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity.’  This analogy has also been central to the field of ‘ecolinguistics‘ since the early 1990s – hence Esther Allen’s description of English as ‘an invasive species’ in the 2007 PEN report on literary translation (17). Ostensibly an argument for cultural diversity as it is commonly understood – that is, for recognizing the manifold aspects of human difference – the UNESCO analogy was in fact part of a campaign within the organisation led by France and Canada against the commercialization of culture (as creative expression) and above all against American domination of the world’s audiovisual media. As a French state official commented, a new ‘way of presenting things’ became necessary because the argument about the uniqueness of French or Canadian culture was ‘viewed mainly negatively’ as a form of economic protectionism, whereas ‘no one could be against cultural diversity’ (Bustamante, 2014, 325).

3.1.1 The analogy has been no less important for individual commentators like the Canadian political scientist James Tully who has made the case for a ‘post-imperial philosophy and practice of constitutionalism’ capable of accommodating cultural diversity in the larger anthropological sense (Tully, 1995, back cover). ‘The vision of modern constitutionalism’, Tully observes, taking his cue from developments in eighteenth-century Europe, ‘legitimates the modernizing processes of discipline, rationalization and state building that are designed to create in practice the cultural and institutional uniformity identified as modern in theory’ (82). On this model, modern constitutions were not only instruments for centralizing control ‘over the legal and political pluralism of early modern Europe’ (83) but mechanisms for entrenching ‘a billiard-ball conception of cultures’ as ‘separate, bounded and internally uniform’ (10). The effects of this were felt not only in Europe but across the world as colonial and then post-colonial states extended their jurisdiction ‘over Indigenous populations and customary law’ (83). Rejecting this ’empire of uniformity’ (83), Tully argues that ‘constitutions are not fixed and unchangeable agreements reached at some foundational moment, but chains of continual intercultural negotiations’ (182), which acknowledge ‘the value of continuing the overlapping, interacting and contested forms of life we call human cultures’ in a way that is ‘analogous to the value of preserving the equally interdependent plant and animal cultures’ (186). At another point, he remarks: ‘The overall cultural diversity is a thing of justice and beauty, analogous to ecological diversity and just as important for living and living well on this planet’ (26).

3.2 The Indian poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore occupies a central place in the book and on this site because he worried about naturalistic analogies of all kinds and because he developed other ways of thinking about, and valuing, cultural and linguistic diversity. In his 1917 lectures on nationalism, he held up India’s historic diversity as a counter to the ideals of ‘racial unity’ characteristic of ‘Western Nationality’ – Tully’s ‘modern constitutionalism’ – arguing that India had ‘produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism‘ – ‘social’ in Tagore’s lexicon meant ‘voluntary’, ‘civic’ or ‘non-statist’ (Tagore, 1917, 23, 33). At the same time he could not endorse India’s inherited conception of diversity without qualification, given its ‘idolatry of dead forms in social institutions’, the caste system above all which he saw as orthodox Hinduism’s most deplorable legacy (33). This ‘idolatry’, he argued, blinded India to the fact that ‘in human beings differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever—they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and volume’, always part of a ‘world-game of infinite permutations and combinations’ (30). He feared a similar kind of idolatry, this time focused on the nation as such, came to dominate the anti-colonial struggle against British rule. ‘Because we have failed to see the great character of India in relation to the world as a whole,’ he wrote in 1921, ‘we have been inclined in our thoughts and actions to follow a much diminished idea of it, an idea bred of our calculating minds, which casts no light. Nothing great ever comes of this kind of thinking’ (Tagore, 1921, 585). For Tagore, the ‘calculating mind’ tends not only to be preoccupied with determining what best serves any individual or community’s interests in some rationalistic sense, but with turning all it touches into a countable thing – the nation as an idol or, to recall Tully’s metaphor, culture as a ‘billiard-ball’. Though Tagore felt no one was immune from this kind of thinking – he saw evidence of it among professional literary critics, for instance – he believed policy- and constitution-makers were particularly prone to its allure.

3.2.1 In 1917, Tagore re-conceptualized diversity simply by substituting one naturalistic metaphor for another – flowing streams for mountain barriers. When he returned to the problem of idolatry or reification in his lectures on The Religion of Man (1930), he thought again. At one point, reflecting his own complex attitude to the ‘West’ – he was at once critical not just of its nationalism but of its ‘rampant individualism‘ and receptive to its scientific traditions and technological innovations – he expressed his doubts about all forms of conceptual reification via an analogy taken from modern atomic physics (Tagore, 1931, 200):

Take, for instance, a piece of coal. When we pursue the fact of it to its ultimate composition, substance which seemingly is the most stable element in it vanishes in centres of revolving forces. These are the units, called the elements of carbon, which can further be analysed into a certain number of protons and electrons. Yet these electrical facts are what they are, not in their detachment, but in their inter-relationship, and though possibly some day they themselves may be further analysed, nevertheless the pervasive truth of inter-relation which is manifested in them will remain. (19-20)

Developing this analogy, he argued that the ‘spiritual universe of Man is also ever claiming self-renunciation from the individual units’ – hence his objection to nationalism and individualism – though, in this case, he insisted that ‘the process is not so easy’ to predict because you have to take ‘the intelligence and will of the units’ into consideration (20). As the philosopher David Heyd has argued, this goes to the heart of the problem with the naturalizing analogy between cultures and species. For one thing, Heyd notes, ‘natural evolution is a blind causal process while human development is at least partly driven by choice and purpose’ (Heyd, 2010, 176). For another, biodiversity is based on ‘the biological taxonomy of species and the role of genetic variability in evolution’, whereas cultures ‘lack rigid identity and are “imagined” rather than natural, constructed and constantly re-constructed, and also inherently mixed (with elements of other cultures)’ (165)—much the same could be said for languages and writing systems. Consequently, the ‘two forms of diversity do not necessarily coincide, and the choice between them is value-laden’ (165). Seen in Tagore’s terms, cultures, like languages and writing systems, testify to the ‘pervasive truth of inter-relation’ because they are ‘centres of revolving forces’ subject to the unpredictable effects of human agency, whether individual or collective, not relatively stable biological species subject only to the vagaries of evolution.

3.3 As a product of the ‘calculating [and reifying] mind’, Tagore believed the sovereign, self-determining, Europeanized modern state could never grasp, let alone articulate and promote, this labile, unpredictable aspect of diversity. Less sanguine than Tully on this issue, he put his faith not in the state, or in the mono-, multi- or intercultural ideals expressed in constitutions, but in civil society and the very different ‘ideals that strive to take form in social institutions’ (Tagore, 1917, 32). As an educationalist, who founded an alternative school and university in Bengal, he chose to express his own ideals institutionally through centres of learning committed to creative expression and to particular forms of intercultural Bildung that would not only open India to the world but enable India to cast its own light abroad. Visva-Bharati, the international university he set up in 1921, was dedicated, as he declared in an early mission statement, to upholding ‘India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best’ (Dutta and Robinson, 1995, 220). The name, as Dutta and Robinson explain, is ‘a compound made from the Sanskrit word for universe [or world] and Bharati, a goddess in the Rig Veda associated with the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati‘ – literally, ‘Universal/World-Learning’ in other words (220). Crucially, reflecting Tagore’s unique sense of cultures as ‘centres of revolving forces’, rather than fixed, unitary things, the kind of thinking and sensibility he wanted his new university to foster rejected both ‘purified nationalism’ and ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, to use a well-worn distinction Tully cites (32). Visva-Bharati was, he wrote, committed to ‘the creation of new thought by new combinations of truths’ and to using the ‘shock’ of the ‘foreign’ to strengthen ‘the vitality of our intellect’ – here the ‘our’ referred to India as a civilization open to the world, not as a idolized, self-enclosed nation (220-22). Repudiating the idea that any contact with what is deemed to be foreign entails contamination, degeneration or dilution into an eclectic ‘world culture’ – again central tenets of the European organicist-idealist tradition – he insisted that all cultures not only exist but flourish, and, indeed, survive, interculturally. Seen from the perspective of the 1920s, this was a declaration of faith in a more equitable, decolonized and post-nationalist world to come, since, as he always recognized, his educational ideals were incompatible with the gross injustices of colonial rule – and, for that matter, all forms of structural exploitation (see Second Proposition). Tagore died in 1941, six years before India gained independence.

Portrait of the Artist as a Universal Guru

3.4 These convictions also affected how he understood language. ‘Every language has a vital framework of its own,’ he wrote in ‘The Bengali of Maktabs and Madrasas‘ (1932), but ‘there is no civilized language that has not absorbed some foreign vocabulary through many kinds of interaction with a variety of peoples’ (Tagore, 2001, 358). He was responding to a highly-charged quarrel about language teaching in schools led by ‘Bengali Muslims’ committed to ‘Persianizing and Arabicizing’ Bengali-language textbooks (359). Why, he asked pushing the logic of their argument one step further, did they not seek to ‘sanctify the language of English school readers by sprinkling them with Persian or Arabic?’ By way of illustration, and in a gesture of mock solicitude, he offered as an example his own re-written version of the opening lines of John Keats’s poem ‘Hyperion’. He noted that the subject of the poem itself posed a problem since it came from ‘Greek mythology‘. Yet ‘if, despite that, it is not to be eschewed by the Muslim student, let us see how its beauty is enhanced when Persian is mixed in with it:

Deep in the saya-i-ghamagin of a vale,
Far sunken from the nafas-i-hayat afza-i morn,
Far from the atshin noon and eve’s one star,
Sat bamoo-i-safid Saturn Khamush as a Sang‘ (359)

The lines appear as follows in the original:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone (Hyperion, Book 1, 1-4)

The absurdity of the fake-hybridized version proved his point: ‘no Maulvi Sahab [i.e. respected Arabic scholar] will attempt this sort of Islamisation of English literary style in a state of sanity’ just as no one in their right mind would ‘dispute linguistic rights over the sun,’ claiming that ‘that the Hindu Bengali’s surya is the true sun and the Muslim Bengali’s sun is merely tambu‘ (360). Having said this, he was ruling nothing out. For all his efforts to defuse tensions by trying to leaven the fraught debate with humour, he added: ‘Communal conflict has taken many different forms in different countries of the world; but the grotesque shape that it has taken in Bengal makes it hard for us to hold our heads high’ (360). Joyce would no doubt have agreed, though he would probably have questioned whether Bengalis of the 1930s were uniquely burdened with such feelings of shame. As a word-game ‘of infinite permutations and combinations’, Finnegans Wake is, after all, a permanent guard against the kind of thinking about language and culture Tagore criticized in his essay and spent the greater part of his life challenging (see Fourth Proposition).

3.4.1 Chaudhuri and Das offer the following back translation of Tagore’s mock Hyperion: “saya-i-ghamagin, Persian, ‘shadow of sorrows’; nafas-i-hayat, ‘breath of life’ (Arabic nafas, breath + Persian hayat, life); afza-in, Perso-Arabic, ‘increasing’ or ‘refreshing of’; atshin, Persian, ‘fiery’; bamoo-i-safid, Perisan, ‘with hair of white’ or ‘turning grey of hair’; khamush, Persian, ‘silent’; sang, ‘rock, stone'” (413). They also explain that the word ‘tambu’ is ‘of obscure but supposedly Islamic origin.’


Ether Allen, ed., To be translated or not to be (Barcelona: Institut Ramon Llull, 2007).

Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore (London: Bloomsbury, 1995).

Mauricio Bustamante, ‘L’UNESCO et la culture: construction d’une catégorie d’intervention internationale, du “dévelopment culturel” à la “diversité culturelle”’ , Doctoral thesis (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2014), 325.

David Heyd, ‘Cultural diversity and biodiversity: a tempting analogy’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13.1 (2010), 159-79. The linguist Thomas Bonfiglio also questions this analogy which, as he shows, has been central to the naturalizing ‘ideologies of linguistic nativity’ and the idea of the ‘mother tongue’ on which ‘ethnolinguistic nationalism’ has long drawn. See Thomas Bonfiglio, Mother Tongues and Nations (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 36 and 72-94.

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Nationalism in India’ (1917), Indian Philosophy in English, eds. N. Bhushan and J. L. Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 23, 33. I have cited this collection because it provides a valuable larger context for Tagore’s well-known lecture.

——-., ‘Satyer Ahaban’ (‘The Call of Truth’), Rabindra Rachanabali, 12 (Kolkata: Bishwabhatari, 1991), 585. For a different translation and interpretation, see Ashish Nandy, Illegitimacy of Nationalism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 81. Nandy reads this as an articulation of Tagore’s ‘universalism’, whereas I take it to be an expression of his commitment to the intercultural. I am grateful to Rosinka Chaudhuri for retranslating these sentences. See also Michael Collins, Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

——-., The Religion of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1931). This started out as Tagore’s contribution to the Hibbert Lecture series, which he delivered at Harris Manchester College in Oxford in 1930.

——-., Selected Writings on Literature and Language, eds. Sisir Kumar Das and Sukanta Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001). The essay on ‘The Bengali of Maktabs and Madrasas’ is translated by Tista Bagchi.

Tully, J., Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an age of diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

For a 1949 Government of India short film about Tagore’s university, see Shantiniketan: Abode of Peace.

For a contemporary approach to learning inspired in part by Tagore’s principles, visit And to see some contemporary artistic forays into his way of thinking interculturally, visit


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: