General Semantics and the Question of Ethics

25-27 September, 2011

Department of English & Modern European Languages, University of Allahabad , Allahabad


The fifth National Workshop entitled “General Semantics and the Question of Ethics” was organized by the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, Baroda in collaboration with the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Allahabad , from 25th September 2011 to 27th September, 2011 at the Conference Hall, University Guest House, Allahabad .  This remarkable event began with the registration and the distribution of folders at 9.00 am on 25th September 2011, followed by the lightening of the lamp to implore the blessings of the Goddess Saraswati with the musical chanting of Vedic Mantras by four ‘shastris’ from Mahrishi Bhardwaj Ved Vedanag Shikshan Kendra, Allahabad. Prof. S. C. Dubey, The Head, Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Allahabad , delivered welcome address sharing his poetic thoughts and happiness to be a part of the workshop and welcomed the invited dignitaries and the participants from all across the nation.

            Prof. Kaushala P. Mishra, Vice Chancellor, Nehru Gram Bharati University , Allahabad , was the chief guest of the session and in his inaugural address he stressed on how one should be able to express and oppose views. Pointing out the significance and importance of the workshop on Semantics and the Question of Ethics, he said that words and language reveal ethics, morality and behaviour of an individual. Hence a chance should be given to enhance and express new ideas. He also said that it was better to know than not to know.  Emphasizing on human communication and language, he said that whatever one did or said had got some socio-cultural bearing. Citing Bertrand Russell he further talked about two types of moralities – one that we preach but don’t practice and one we practice but don’t preach. He ended speech with the remark: “people would naturally do what is good, if they perpetually know what is right”.

            Prof. Prafulla C. Kar, Director, Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, Baroda, in his key note address stressed on the need to be interconnected to one another, from one place to the other place and one human being to another human being. He said that one should have a scientific attitude in order to creatively reach out to the other person. He also asked the participants to “reorient one’s thinking in the fast changing world”. On General Semantics, he said that ‘time-binding’ was one of the important factors of it and Man was both “space-binder” and “time-binder”. He also said that science happened in mind and not in laboratories but warned that too much of scientific thinking and too much of imagination were not good. Further, on the subject of genearl semantics he said that hind sight (looking back) and foresight (looking forward) were required in Semantics. It was a cumulative wisdom of people in the history that had to be re-discussed, reconsidered, and to be debated upon and semantics set the platform to do so. On the subject of ethics he said that “ethics is not what people have thought of or defined through their faiths, but it is based on an individual’s or personal thinking and attitude and behaviour, and it comes on as we live on”. Citing the example of Robert Burns poem, ‘My love is like red, red rose ...’, he said that to “capture the world one must be careful in using the only instrument that one has – that is language. And one must be extremely careful in using language or to describe something”. He highlighted the contribution of a few British authors like, Shakespeare, John Keats, and John Donne who had been successful in reaching out to readers but in contrast the language of Homi Bhabha was not easily comprehensive. Therefore, he said that human beings should be simple in what they express as only they had benefits to recall and rethink and to improve upon the history. He also talked about the transcendental law of ethics and human ethics and opined that the future of civilization was in the hands of people and their ethical decisions. On the ethics, he said that ‘ethicism’ came through certain ideas that are in one’s mind and every human being has a different ethical point of view or outlook and so, he concluded his address, saying that “the idea of sins depends on an individual. Sinful is what you do, if you think it is a sin to kill it is your ethics, if you think killing is not a sin it is again a different point of view of an individual”.

Dr. Dubey

            The Chair person of the session Dr. M. P. Dubey (Professor of Political Science and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Allahabad ) highlighted the salient points of General Semantics and its application in the discipline of Political Science. At the end of the inaugural session a vote of thanks was proposed by Prof. Susheel Kumar Sharma, the local coordinator of the workshop.

            The first business session of the workshop was kicked off by the dynamic, energetic, informative and enlightening presentation of Dr. Pravesh Jung Golay, on “The Dominance of the Will – Ethics as Self discipline”. He elaborated his presentation with the metaphor of a story that took place around 2200 years ago. He said that thinkers and theories developed out of vacuum. Moore, Kant, and Aristotle did not make one to decide what ethics was and so he suggested that one must distance oneself from philosophical ethics. He talked about two types of ethics – bio-medical ethics which was practical and philosophical ethics which was theoretical. Ethics, according to him is to be understood on the basis of three questions: What is good? How do I be good? And why to be good?  These questioned must be understood and answered to know what ethics means to an individual. He also emphasised on the “question of ethics” and “ethical code of conduct” and he adopted the western thought of ethics for the discussion focusing on Homer’s version of ethics in which he claims that morality was primarily text based. In Homer’s works, hero is a central because his virtue is ‘courage’ where courage is not quantity but quality – a psychic quality and he reiterates that all virtues are psychic quality.

            Golay maintained that based on the Homeric version of ethics, many critics questioned his stand on morality and ethics. Later, it was replaced by ‘Reason’. Man in Homeric era was an obedient animal and not a rational animal basically. With the rise of the reason, obedience slipped into background. It is Socrates who brought reason, or ‘questioning habit’. The speaker stressed that to place faith on reason was to place huge faith on human capability; it has two modes of assumptions – one had a potential to know and that the knowledge was accessible to one. Citing Socrates he said, “knowledge is a good virtue”. Socrates identified knowledge with virtue theoretically. Theoretically, virtue is an “act of doing”. Ethics in principle demands ethical actions therefore, virtue is act of doing and knowledge is act of knowing. Socrates equated “doing is knowing”.  Answering the question, “Why is it that knowing does not translate into doing?” Aristotle had said that it was because of “ignorance” (or “Akrasia” in Greek). The chasm between the act of knowing and converting this act into practise, according to Pravesh, could be understood by a drunken man’s behaviour who ‘knew’ but could not convert the ‘knowledge’ into practice. Aristotle on the other hand opined that though one knew that one could do it, but one didn’t do it because one did not have the will to do it. The speaker said that since one was in a state of “Akrasia” one had the will to do what one knew and if one couldn’t really do it. This weakness of will could be overcome by practice. Pravesh’s lecture came to an end defining ‘external obedience’ and ‘internal obedience’.

            The session after the lunch break began with a talk by Devkumar Trivedi, on ‘As You Like It: Shakespeare Quintessentially’. He divided it into three parts  - in search of certainties – one could be absolutely certain but one could be mistaken and what one knows is only a pixel of knowledge as one is decidedly ignorant. His talk was based on three sub topics – general, law and order and ethical dilemmas. He used a few practical methods evoking responses from the audience as on a statement – you are all fools, on the photo of Einstein, ‘Mithai’ (sweet), and telling about a person whom one knows for a long time. With these practical responses he commented that there were different levels of realities that one sees. There is a reality at the process level, event level and object level. There are different levels of realities and reality keeps on changing. He also stressed on different structures as – non verbal world/outer world, own physical structure, the language/instrument of interaction, our own behaviour with the world/ response. On the aspect of ethics he used certain words which help to define and understand the concept of ethics through ‘senso’, ‘neuro’, ‘percepto’, ‘physio’, ‘linguo’, ‘phycho’, ‘socio’, ‘exio’. He concluded the lecture commenting on the title of the play by William Shakespeare As You Like It saying behaviour of human beings was always evaluative in nature so one must be aware of it.

            The last session of the day on the topic ‘Language, Literature and General Semantics’ was chaired by Prof. S. C. Dubey after the tea break. Five presentations were made in this session. Manish Kumar Gaurav spoke on ‘Violation of Ethics: Colonial Trauma in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart’. He commented on the impact of western civilization in Africa . Ashish Pathak presented a paper on ‘T. S. Eliot’s Musing on Words in the Selected Passages of Four Quartets’. He said that the words were too weak to express meaning that they are expected to bear. Nidhish Kumar Singh spoke on ‘Langauge in Mahesh Dattani’s Selected Plays and Ethical Concerns’. He stressed on Indianization of English and its functional approach in Dattani’s Tara and Final Solutions. He said that English helped the writer to reach out the world through English with Indian sensibility. Avadhesh K Yadav spoke on ‘Concept of Ethics and Nature’ where he asked a question – ‘Do my Feelings know Ethics?’ Nature just grows it does not need any ethical teaching. These questions generated a thought-provoking heat in the gathering. The last paper in the session was presented by Rajesh Kumar Pandey who spoke on ‘Semantic Approach to Communication’ where he stressed that words play an important role in the transmission of information. The chair person invited questions and comments from the audience and the session ended with healthy discussion on the concerned queries.

A section of the audience

            The first session of the second day started with the presentation by Pravesh Jung Golay on ‘The Dominance of the Scientific Method: Ethics as a Discovery of Laws’. His lecture was based on the insights from the books named Ethics, Cultural History of the World and Greek Way of Life. He discussed how the notion of self had become central. With the growth of science the debate on the self was declining. Ethics was related to brain which could be studied through cognitive science or neuro science. He further pointed out that Derrida attacked the notion of ‘given’. So reason is given to us and what one requires is the capability to use it. Reason (given) is pure in its original form. This notion of given was in the beginning of the Fifteenth Century. But later critics started objecting to the purity of ‘given’ itself. He threw a question to reflect whether law was moral because God said it was moral. If the moral laws were dependent on God the morality became higher than God. In Greek literature one finds that gods are above morality. In the age of Renaissance and Reformation the church tried to put reason on power. This is the period where religion was sought to be rationalized. Till then religion was based on faith and not on reason. Golay then talked about the growth of theology saying reason replaced god was not taken to be pure but reason replaced Homer was pure. With the rise of empiricism where ‘reason was source of knowledge’ is put under scanner. The scholars questioned the ‘givenness’ itself. Hence they stated that what was given is not reason but ‘perception’. Perception must come prior to reason and is believed that knowledge begins with reason. He then talked about utilitarianism which challenges the givenness of reason. Adam Smith had been the first one to question it. Utilitarianism is based on expression through perception. He further added that man was placed under two masters ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’. When utilitarianism was on the rise, the idea of individualism comes in. Whose pain and pleasure it is – it is an individual’s pain and pleasure. He referred to Alfred Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity and stated that to be ethical is be scientific. In twenty first century, he concluded, speculative ethics now a days did not work but scientific ethics did.

The next session entitled ‘The Ethics of Representation: Insights from Literature’, chaired by Prof Susheel K. Sharma, had three paper readers. The first paper was of Prof. Sanjoy Saksena entitled ‘Semantics, Ethics and Politics of Literature’. He stated that to be precise means to be exact but most people did not want to be precise. The meanings tended to become elusive and not precise. He took a look into Rabindranath Tagore’s novel titled Ghare Baire which has been also shot as a movie by Satyajit Ray. He explained that the character of Kali has many ‘given roles’ as prakriti and purusha, moral and immoral, rational and irrational. In the psyche there are many hidden objects of which we have no proper meaning. He concluded that language of the poet is also an issue of ethics. The second paper presenter was Dr. Panchanan Dalai who spoke on ‘The Ethics of Holocaust Literature: Reading Elie Wiesel’s Preface to Night’. He pointed out that in Hamlet, the problem is not dilemma but the notion of ethics. In Duchess of Malfi, ethics can be seen from various perspectives. In Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the ethics can be seen from democratic way of life. Thomas Moore’s Utopia is based on both good and evil. He stressed that there was an ardent need to look at the marginal groups like dalits, blacks, gays and lesbians. He also fetched the attention of the audience by mentioning Hitler’s killing of six million Jews. The next paper was on ‘Literature, Philology and Semantics’ by Raghvendra Mohan Tripathi who mentioned that Sanskrit has borrowed a few words from other languages but English has borrowed a lot from other languages, therefore whether the meaning of the words remains same in both the languages is the question of debate.

After the tea break, the session on “The Ethical Concerns of Marginality” was chaired by Pravesh Jung Golay. It had three papers. Namrta Rathore Mahanta courageously but cautiously elaborated her thoughts on ‘Ethics of Care in Women’s Vratas: A General Semantics Perspective’. She educated the gathering on how women in various parts of Utter Pradesh observe a fast for the welfare of their respective husbands and how they feel subjected by this cultural social practice. She generated a debate on Jivit Putri ka Vrit, which many participants appreciated. The next paper was entitled ‘Revising Aristotle’s Ethics: His Views on Slaves and Women’, co-authored by Narendra Dani and Ramesh Kumar Gupta. In his presentation Narendra Dani opened the discussed with Aristotle’s statement, “Nature has decided that slaves should serve his master”. He said that use of slaves and taming of animals was not very different. On Women, the ideas of Aristotle were that women lacked the capacity to lead and man by nature is so constituted that he will be a ruler. He also opined that if slaves had got opportunities they would have done better than free men and every great thinker should be ahead of time because he is a visionary. Dhriti Dalai’s paper entitled, ‘Exploring Animal Ethics in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals’ earned a lot of attention and appreciation from the audience. She highlighted that there is a strong impulsion of human attitudes towards animals and words and deeds will have impact on other humans and animals. She spoke on the sympathetic imagination which is opposed to reason and through sympathetic imagination one can comprehend the behaviour of animals. She concluded that one should also work and be aware of “animals rights” as well.

After the lunch break, the panel discussion on “The Nuances of Ethics” under the chairmanship of Prof. Prafulla C. Kar involved four well experienced and scholarly speakers in their concerned fields. Prof. V. P. Singh, Head, Centre of Global Studies, University of Allahabad , spoke on “Ethics, Corporate Social Responsibility and Globalization”. He said that business and ethics were considered to be opposite to each other but today business ethics had become a part of globalization. He threw light on why business ethics had become so important in the corporate world and highlighted the reasons - the rising protest movements against economic globalization, war on terrorism, the corporate world and corruption. He talked about the concept of business ethics and how it affected the economic system, the organization, and the individual. He suggested that every organization had a role to play and corporate social responsibility was one of them which could be argued politically as well as morally. He also commented on various types of stake holders and corporate culture in the present globalized world. Finally, he classified three elements of business ethics as professional code of ethics, industrial code of ethics and business code of ethics. He concluded saying business ethics was used to frame a positive image of the company.

“World’s Political Scenario and Ethics: Theory and Reality’ was the topic for presentation by Prof. H. K. Sharma (Prof. of Political Science & Director, Academic Staff College, University of Allahabad). He recalled the contribution of Aristotle and opined that Aristotle distinguished ethics from politics. He also commented that the kings were expected to govern in the form of ethical values and not religious values. Today’s world order has failed because there is a wide gap between theory and practice. He cited the example of human rights violation around the world and also of UNO, which is based on ethical values of universal equality. It has failed in practice as the USA had attacked Kuwait , Iraq , Afghanistan and then terrorist attack on World Trade Organization in USA itself. He posed questions whether this was ethics or led by ethical values. He suggested that ethics and politics were still closely related, if success was to be achieved politically ethics has to be practiced. He opined that Anna Hazare’s movement on corruption is the best example of politics of ethics.

Prof. Amar Singh spoke on ‘Ethics in the Western World and in India ’, commenting on the Biblical preaching and practices of the western world and how it influenced and affected people at large.  Prof. S. K. Sharma began his presentation on ‘God’s Design and Curriculum Design: Some Insights from Korzybski and Ethics’ focussing on “Image of God”, whether God could be classified as Christian God, Muslim God Or Hindu God. He asserted that God’s design was law of nature. He made a few thought-provoking remarks while discussing practical aspects in day today life related to  God’s Design and law of nature as why university curriculum (especially in the discipline of English) does not get changed, or why the female students were to study the literatures written by male writers, or why there is no female writer prescribed at B.A. level when there are more female students opting for English and other literature courses or the literary canon was so sacred that it could not be changed. He emphasised on the need of focusing on a practical education that teaches to observe, and think constructively and critically. He talked about minerals, plants, animals and man and said that the removal of any one of them will cease life. He urged the audience that literature should be written based on these aspects keeping and preserving one’s roots and national identity. He emphasised on the aspect of “observation” that one should do consciously and practically. He rejected the conventional belief of Roti, Kapda, and Makan (food, clothes, and shelter) which are blindly believed to be essential needs for life rather he said that ‘air’, ‘water’, and ‘a piece of land’ were the basic needs of the human beings.

After the tea break, the session on ‘General Semantics and Communication: Some Insights’ was chaired by Dr. Indrani Mukherji. Four papers were presented by the participants in the session. Ajay Chaubey’s paper was on ‘Communication and Alfred Korzybski’. Jaykesh Yadav discussed ‘Arun Joshi’s Strange Case of Billy Biswas: The Conflict of Two Forces’. Rashmi Jain spoke on ‘Derrida’s on Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness’. Abhishek Tiwari made his presentation on ‘Character of Hamlet with Special Reference to Ethics’.  The session ended with a healthy discussion on the papers.

The third day of the National Workshop started with Dr. Bini Sajil’s, lecture on ‘Ethics and Alterity: An Analysis of Korzybski and Bakhtin’. She talked about time-binding which is not value neutral. She illustrated with the examples of negative time-binding and positive time-binding. Negative time binding can be nuclear energy for mass destruction and positive time-binding is the same energy used for electricity production. She emphasised that reality ought to be presented. She mentioned two books by Korzybski – Science and Sanity, and Manhood and Humanity, where he has depicted the idea ‘one who rule[d] our symbols rule[d] us’. She further said that one should see various implications of ethics as legal, political, sociological, and individual. She differentiated rhetoric from dialogue and said that language could not capture the quick changes of reality.

The next session was chaired by Prof. Sanjoy Saksena, who provoked the audience saying “common sense is the most uncommon thing”. The first paper presenter in the session was Konjengbam Meitei who spoke on ‘Ethical Perception and Common Sense’ and stated that if language was not understood meaningfully then it was just a noise. Ahmed Abidi made his presentation on ‘General Semantics and Forgiveness’. He focussed on the relationship between language and human behaviour and said that forgiveness had cultural, social and religious and psychological context. Sudhir K Arora’s presentation was titled: ‘Know Yourself and Feel Freedom’. He captured the attention of audience mentioning the failure of Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger. According to him The White Tiger is a complete failure from ethical point of view where the author applied animal standards on human beings.

After a short tea break, D. N. Dwivedi delivered his lecture on ‘The Value of Moral Education: Emotivism and Prescriptivism’. He talked about ‘meta ethics’ and informed the gathering that there had been an intimate connection between moral ethics and general semantics. He introduced the ‘referential theory of meaning’ and justified that many scholars and philosophers had been greatly influenced by this theory which tends to believe that good and bad refer to some particular object or property. He also talked about logical positivism and emotivism.

It was followed by a panel discussion in the next session on the topic “Ethics and Justice”, chaired by Mr Devkumar Trivedi. Prof. Sumita Parmar shared her thoughts on ‘Feminism and Social Justice’. She defined what feminism was and asked the audience to be sensitive towards the issues pertaining to women in the society. She quoted Simon de Beauvoir saying ‘woman is a social construct; she is not born but made’. Prof. Jata Shankar spoke on ‘Concept of Justice in Indian Philosophy’. He said that ‘Vedas’ were the root of all knowledge and wisdom and realization of values should be purpose of life and this purpose could not be fulfilled without ‘dharma’. Prof. A. Satyanarayana spoke on ‘The Kisan Aandolan and Social Justice’. He illustrated that society had been facing three problems constantly – coordination, decision making and distribution of rewards. Prof. Girish C. Tripathi spoke on ‘Issue of Justice and Ethics in Economics’. His presentation was elaborated on the issue of poverty and how market had affected the morals of people. Prof. K. K. Mishra discussed ‘The Concept of Social Justice’ where he outlined the theory and practise of affirmative action in India . He opined that the word ‘justice’ had been mostly used and abused. Everybody was full of praise for Mr Trivedi who conducted the panel discussion in a unique way.

The last session of the Workshop was an open session and valedictory where many participants to put forward their opinion of the workshop. Most of them had an appreciation for the way the Workshop was planned and conducted. They had a common opinion that they had learnt a lot about general semantics. Prof. P.C. Kar, Director, Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, expressed his satisfaction with the workshop because many participants had sincerely gone through the reading material and presented papers. Prof K.G. Srivastava, former Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Allahabad , the guest of honour in the Session, captured the attention of the audience highlighting the Indian contribution to the western thoughts and philosophy. He said that discourse was incomplete without Indian contribution. He pointed out in Greek ‘sem’ meant signs and in Indian context it was ‘Lakshna’. He elaborated on the three Indian schools of meaning namely ‘Abhidha’, ‘Lakshna’, and ‘Vyanjana’. The three days workshop came to an end with the vote of thanks proposed by the local co-ordinator, Prof. Susheel Kumar Sharma, of the event. The entire event of the workshop was ably anchored by Ms. Bini Sajil.  

Raju Parghi , University of Allahabad .