An Idealist View of Life

by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

An Idealist View of Life has a marked mystical foundation in the theory of knowledge. In this regard, it may be said to express the main Hindu tradition in philosophy. This is one reason for its importance. The other is the author’s familiarity with Western philosophy and science. Though his general standpoint guides him, there is no turning away from crucial problems.

Radhakrishnan’s Idealism

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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan recognizes that the term “idealism” needs definition. It is clear that he is not a subjective idealist of the mode of the early George Berkeley. Nor does he much concern himself with Hegelian rationalistic Idealism. Rather, his emphasis is on the relation of value to reality. The truly real is replete with value. The alignment is with the Upanishads in India and the outlook of the Platonists, especially that of Plotinus, the father of the Western tradition of mysticism.

The book reflects the meeting of the East and the West. The broad sweep of Radhakrishnan’s thought brings together Hindu classic thinkers with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and with the Anglo-American idealists Francis Herbert Bradley and Josiah Royce. Less attention is paid to Western naturalism and realism. That is both the strength and the weakness of the book. It stands out as an excellent example of its perspective, and it has both scope and verve.

Radhakrishnan’s general argument is that the ideal world, which alone is real, lies beyond the phenomenal one of appearance yet is tied in with it and dominates it. Spirit is working in matter that matter may serve spirit. In a sense, matter is an abstraction and not a concrete reality, such as spirit. That is why materialism can be absorbed and transcended. It is doubtful whether Western materialists would accept this thesis, but it goes quite logically with the author’s outlook. For him, the center of the universe is the transcendent, the Absolute, Brahma, that which has aseity, being. However, despite this assurance—rather, because of it—he is sympathetic with other points of view because they have their partial truth.

Religion and Mysticism

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The first of the eight lectures concerns itself with the modern challenge to the religious outlook on the universe as a result of scientific and social thought. Here the author confronts psychology specialists Sigmund Freud, John B. Watson, and Émile Durkheim. The second lecture notes contemporary movements such as humanism, naturalism, and logical positivism. These are tied in with science. In all this, the author is frank and well informed. He is not trying to defend specific orthodoxies. Like the Buddhist, he has no tradition of particular doctrines in geology and biology. Science is to be accepted but has its limits.

It is in the third lecture that Radhakrishnan states the basic claims of the religious consciousness, especially at the mystical level. He introduces intuition as a way of knowledge alternative to that of sense perception or discursive conception. He puts forward the claim for an integral apprehension of ultimate reality. It is a knowledge by identity that transcends the distinction between subject and object. Here, of course, is where dispute arises. Those who do not have the mystical vision are likely to deny its significance.

In the fourth lecture, Radhakrishnan develops the idea that scientific certainty is not the only kind of certainty available to us. A query may, of course, be raised as to the scientific claim that is usually more modestly put as an affair of working hypotheses. However, the author is ready to admit that, in the mystical revelation, we must distinguish between the kernel of it and the interpretation given,...

(This entire section contains 630 words.)

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which is historically conditioned. Thus Hindu, Muslim, and Christian mystics have different accounts of the meanings of their experiences.

The fifth lecture takes up the nonconceptual, intuitive, imaginative, and affective ingredients of morality, art, and religion. The element of creativity is noted with reports from mathematicians, scientists, and poets. Just how do new ideas arise? What part does the subconscious play? It is generally agreed that there must be preparation. It takes a trained mathematician to have relevant ideas and to solve mathematical problems. There is extensive literature on this question and Radhakrishnan is familiar with it. He is at home in aesthetics and art and quotes freely from Benedetto Croce, Alighieri Dante, John Keats, William Shakespeare, and Robert Browning. The stress, it is to be noted, is on creativity. The suggestion is that this is something higher in nature than perception and conceptual reasoning. Does it link up with his third kind of knowledge?

The sixth and seventh lectures are devoted to a brief formulation of the scientific view of the inorganic world, of life, and of mind. It was written in an era in which Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington and Sir James Hopwood Jeans were the avowed spokespersons of science. A semi-idealistic, semi-agnostic note was in the air. Relativity and quantum mechanics were transforming science away from Newtonian mechanics. Scientists were finding the world a subtler and more complex sort of thing than had been supposed earlier. The question at issue was whether naturalism could do justice to this development or whether it implied idealism. If these are the alternatives, there is no question as to which side Radhakrishnan adopts. He sees the development as favoring idealism. And it is well to have this alignment so beautifully carried out.

In the eighth, and last, lecture, the turn comes for metaphysics and its basis in an integral intuition of ultimate reality. Radhakrishnan presents an excellent example of transcendental metaphysics, something to which the logical positivist is so opposed with his insistence that sensory verification is essential for the meaningfulness of empirical statements. It is clear that much depends upon the certainty and value of the mystical experience. It is upon this foundation that Radhakrishnan builds. Nothing could be more desirable than such a confrontation.

Religion vs. Science

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According to Radhakrishnan, even a person who remains skeptical of the mystical insight will be impressed by the idealism to which it leads. Though political leader Jawaharlal Nehru is more of an agnostic, one can note in him something of the same elevation of spirit.

The essential thing, Radhakrishnan argues, is to know what the problem is. Freud’s queries help to bring this home. Is religion an illusion? That there have been illusory ingredients is undeniable. Popular religion has been too anthropomorphic and has laid too much stress on special providences. On the other hand, Newtonian rationalism led to deism and the absentee God. Of what use is an absentee God? Surely, that is not the sort of God the religious consciousness requires.

The influential feature of science has been its attack on parochialism and narrow ideas. Watson’s behaviorism, for instance, has forced us to think more clearly about mind. These challenges must be met. For instance, the French school of sociology represented by Durkheim stresses the pressure of society but does not do justice to personality and self-consciousness. Again, the study of comparative religions should have the effect of enlarging our horizon. The so-called higher criticism of the Scriptures ought to have the same effect. Such a critical attitude is fairly common among thoughtful Hindus and Buddhists, and it is doubtful that the traditional proofs for theism are convincing. Radhakrishnan stresses an internal religious approach. It would appear that he regards the materialistic atmosphere of technology as the greatest enemy. It is not the mastery of nature as such that is at fault but the industrial and utilitarian climate.

The result of this frank approach is the contention that nothing can be true by faith if it is not true by reason. However, then reason must not be taken as limited to deduction from fixed premises. Radhakrishnan believes in a source of insight of a higher order.

Religion in the Modern World

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However, what are the substitutes for religion offered these days? One is an atheistic naturalism. It appears that Radhakrishnan has in mind philosopher Bertrand Russell’s early protest against a supposedly alien nature composed of blind atoms ruled by mechanical laws. This would be, in effect, a malign nature that might well be defied. Such an outlook would represent a mixture of naturalism, stoicism, and paganism. The stoicism reflects human beings’ innate dignity.

Humanism is an old tradition that goes back to the Greeks, with their doctrine of inner harmony, and to the Romans, with their sense of decorum. There are elements of it in Chinese thought and in Immanuel Kant’s work. Such humanism tends to be religion secularized and separated from a larger reality. It lacks élan. It sets up boundaries. It is these boundaries that religion oversteps. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that humanism is humanitarian and stresses social reform.

Pragmatism is more an American development that emphasizes will and practice. It is a protest against the separation of knowledge and active planning. Modernism, on the other hand, is a halfway house. It seeks to revise religious tradition. It is confronted by the revival of authoritarianism. This regards itself as an escape from anarchy. However, loyalty to tradition should not involve bondage to it. There is often a secret skepticism in authoritarianism. All these movements seem to Radhakrishnan to lack something of the spiritual. There is a lack of profundity. What is needed is a synoptic vision.

Radhakrishnan’s positive position holds that religious experience is factual in its own right. Philosophy of religion explores this domain and differs from dogmatic theology. Religion is not a form of knowledge but is more akin to feeling. It is inward and personal. It is the response of the whole person in an integral way to reality. It expresses an incurable discontent with the finite and seeks the transcendent.

The Hindu Tradition

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At this point in Radhakrishnan’s thinking, the Hindu tradition comes to the front, though it is soon connected with the mystical note in the West. The Vedic seers stressed the eternal and sought to raise themselves to this plane. In this respect, the early thinkers Plato, Saint Augustine, and Dante are examples of the same direction. Can this massive evidence be illusory? However, it involves a higher kind of knowledge or insight. That is the problem for philosophy of religion. The justification of this claim is taken up in the conclusion. This constitutes the debate with scientific empiricism and naturalism.

One must be very careful here, Radhakrishnan warns. There is danger in a purely negative approach. It is difficult to translate the mystical experience. Its note is timelessness and unity. When one uses language to bring out the contrast, this ultimate reality is called the Absolute. The term “God” is of the nature of a symbol. With the experience, says Radhakrishnan, goes a sense of harmony and unity. Self-mastery is involved. From this flows idealism and denial of what is selfish. The danger in this concentration is, perhaps, disregard of social ties. This should be guarded against.

According to Radhakrishnan, if all knowledge were of the scientific type (as some empiricists hold), then the challenge to the religious outlook on the world could hardly be met. Hence comes the importance of the question of intuitive knowledge, something that cannot be expressed in propositions, yet is justifiable. It is well to recall that sense qualities are confused and that logic and mathematics are essentially analytic and do not give us factual information.

In Hindu thought and in the works of Plotinus and philospher Henri Bergson, Radhakrishnan notes, emphasis is placed on direct intuition, which seems to be the extension of a sort of perception beyond the senses. Bergson sets limits to the intellect. He thinks it useful rather than true. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel criticizes immediacy and tends to ignore the importance of feeling and will. Yet he is opposed to the abstractions of the understanding. However, is not the unity of nature coordinate with the unity of the self? Kant emphasized the “I think” at the phenomenal level and believed in a noumenal world beyond. Faith and spiritual experience make their demands. It is well to look at the creative spirit in humanity, according to Radhakrishnan.

Radhakirshnan also notes that scientific discovery is more like intuition than people ordinarily realize. French mathematician Jules-Henri Poincaré’s account of mathematical imagination is a case in point. There is something creative about it. We prove deductively but invent by intuition. There is here a kind of integrative passivity. English chemist Michael Faraday, who made many breakthroughs in electricity, is another case of unpredictable invention. The whole self is involved. When philosophers devote themselves to abstruse analysis, this creative factor may escape them.

The Arts

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If we turn from science to poetry and the plastic arts, says Radhakrishnan, intuition stands out even more clearly. The poet feels himself to be inspired. This should not be taken too literally, yet it has meaning. There is emotional value and this has significance. It would seem that Italian philosopher Croce connects intuition and expression too closely. There must be room for communication. It is well to recall the testimony of Greek philosopher Plato and Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle. Emotional intensity goes with a sense of deep insight. Too much modern literature tends to be trivial and to avoid the agonies of spirit.

Creativity is a path to discovery and is to be connected with knowledge. It involves understanding of life and brings us into accord with it. In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), the heroine Juliet dies, but only after making us realize the greatness of love. If we turn to ethics, Radhakrishnan maintains, we find something similar. The moral hero, or saint, tends to be somewhat antinomian. He does not keep to conventions. It is because of this that moral heroes can make fools of themselves in the eyes of the world.

Science and Psychology

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Modern science, notes Radhakrishnan, stresses abstraction and statistics. For Eddington and Jeans, matter tends to be reduced to thought. In terms of relativity and quantum mechanics, it is a term for a cluster of events possessing habits and potencies. The traditional idea of substance is in abeyance. There is a touch here of the Hindu notions of samsra. All is becoming. There is another respect in which science suggests idealism. What we know is the effect things produce in us; all is experience and possible experience. This is the idealistic note.

If we turn to life, we find it to be of the nature of a dynamic equilibrium. The theory of evolution developed from Georges de Buffon and Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet de Lamarck to Charles Darwin and is still subject to improvement. Natural selection is a sifting process. Herbert Spencer made it too quickly into a philosophy.

Mind is under study in comparative psychology. The nature of nervous integration is under study. Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and American psychologist John B. Watson were pioneers, but we now have gestalt principles opposed to purely mechanical notions.

Radhakrishnan then turns to human personality. Atomistic psychology is obsolete. The person is a unity and more than the sum of his parts. He is an organized whole. We must give up the notion of a changeless soul. The self is a growth constantly interacting with its environment.

The Concept of “Subject”

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Radhakrishnan then deals with the term “subject.” American psychologist William James and English psychologist James Ward differed in their views on this topic. James thought of the subjects as the passing thought. This concept seems inadequate; there must be something more enduring. The subject, by its very nature, cannot be an object. Why not hold it to be one with the simple, universal spirit? Here we are beyond the lower order of existence and are confronted by such problems as those of freedom and karma. Eastern and Western thought have long pondered these problems. It seems to Radhakrishnan that mere predestination is unethical. Freedom is not a matter of caprice nor is karma mere necessity. Suppose we take freedom to be a term for self-determination. It is the whole self that is involved in choice. The will is the active side of the self. It is not something in itself. Karma means, literally, action or deed. It is the principle of causal continuity. Thus, it is not opposed to creative freedom, unless one takes causality to demand mere identity or repetition. There is a good side to the idea of karma that is not always recognized. It involves sympathy. People may be more unfortunate than wicked. There is tragedy in the world.

Although there is a demand for a future life and personal immortality, people hardly know what they want. There are those who hold that immortality is a prize to be won. This is called conditional immortality. However, the idea seems to favor the more fortunate and to be semiaristocratic in motivation. It is certain that the modern mind cannot accept the idea of endless punishment that is not justified by improvement as a goal. Surely, no being is wholly evil. The Hindu idea of rebirth has its biological difficulties, but these are not insurmountable. There would need to be some kind of selectivity.

The Ultimate Reality

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All this leads up to the speculative climax of Radhakrishnan’s argument. How are we to envisage ultimate reality? Radhakrishnan summarizes the results of his survey of the world. The world is an ordered whole; everything is an organization with its mode of connection. There is a development in the direction of greater union with surroundings. Nature is a domain of becoming without fixity. Yet these changes are not meaningless. Evolution goes with progress on the whole. Lastly, the highest kind of experiences and personalities seem to indicate a goal of being.

These principles are opposed to traditional naturalism. It did not have a sufficient place for time. Radhakrishnan aligns himself in some measure with holism and Lloyd Morgan’s emergent evolution. However, it would seem, he is most in sympathy with Alfred North Whitehead’s Platonism, with its primordial God and Consequent God. God is the home of universals, of possibilities, and of ideal harmony.

The Eastern note in Radhakrishnan’s conclusion is interesting. The Absolute is also absolute freedom in activity. All else is dependent, created reality, maya. One can speak symbolically of three sides of God’s nature. In Hindu tradition, these are Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. These must not be set apart.

It is clear that Radhakrishnan regards absolute idealism as representing the basis for a fusion of the Vedanta perspective in India and Western thought. It is debatable whether he has done justice to trends toward realism and analysis. However, he would be the last to hold that human thought has finished its task. Probably the most intriguing element in his thought is his belief that mystical apprehension is a genuine form of knowledge, though it is evocative and does not lend itself to description. Here, he would hold, we are capable—a few of us at least—of contact with the absolute and the eternal.


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Additional Reading

Agarwal, Sudarshan, ed. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: A Commemorative Volume, 1888-1988. New Delhi: Prentice-Hall of India, 1988. Records and honors Radhakrishnan’s contribution to the functioning of parliamentary democracy in his capacity as first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the second chamber of the Indian parliament.

Ahluwalia, B. K., ed. Facets of Radhakrishnan. New Delhi: Newman Group, 1978. Twenty-two essays that illuminate all aspects of Radhakrishnan’s work as philosopher, diplomat, humanitarian, scholar, and patriot. Many of the essays are by prominent people who had known Radhakrishnan personally.

Arapura, J. G. Radhakrishnan and Integral Experience. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1966. A critical study of Radhakrishnan’s methodology, epistemology, and “perennial philosophy.”

Banerji, Anjan Kumer, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: A Centenary Tribute. Varanasi: Benaras Hindu University, 1991. Contains the texts of some rare lectures and letters as well as reminiscences of those who knew Radhakrishnan. Covers his work as statesman, philosopher, and scholar.

Gopal, Sarvepalli. Radhakrishnan: A Biography. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A comprehensive biography. Although it is written by Radhakrishnan’s son, it is an objective account of Radhakrishnan’s life: well-documented, readable, and balanced in its conclusions. Contains thirty-one photographs.

Harris, Ishwar. Radhakrishnan: The Profile of a Universalist. Calcutta, India: Minerva Associates, 1982. A study of Radhakrishnan’s religious thought that emphasizes his universalism. Covers the tradition of universalism in Indian thought, the evolution of Radhakrishnan’s views, the influence on him of Christianity and other faiths, and of Vivekananda and Tagore, and a comparison of his thought to that of Western theologians Paul Tillich and Frithjof Schuon.

Minor, Robert N. Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Much of this is based on interviews with Radhakrishnan’s family, friends, students and acquaintances. It seeks to place his thought in the context of his experience, to analyze the method by which he formulated his philosophical outlook and to highlight his own definitions of his major concerns.

Murty, K. Satchidanda, and Ashok Vohra. Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Delhi, India: Ajanta Publications, 1989. The authors describe themselves as “critical admirers” of Radhakrishnan, and this is a compact, balanced introduction to all aspects of his life and work. Not as detailed as Gopal, above.

Parthasarathi, G., and D. P. Chattopadhyaya, eds. Radhakrishnan: Centenary Volume. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains twenty-nine articles by Eastern and Western scholars on Radhakrishnan’s philosophical thought and his achievements as a statesman.

Rodrigues, Clarissa. The Social and Political Thought of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan: An Evaluation. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992. An in-depth examination of Radhakrishnan’s social and political views.