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Review: Enlightening Asia: a new perspective on Enlightenment and Violence

Enlightenment and Violence. Modernity and Nation-Making / Tadd Fernée – New Delhi: Sage Publications India, 2014, pp. LXVII/386.

 Theoretical Ground

In the Fernée’s framework, the Enlightenment heritage has to be interpreted as a question in the history of ideas, an “interconnected web spanning debates on nationalism, revolution and post-structuralism”. Starting from some of Bipan Chandra’s comparative reflections between liberation movements and the British, French, Russian and Chinese modern revolutions, the author encompasses the Enlightenment heritage as a “multicentered practical-discursive formation”. Framing it in a world scale, Fernée sets the Enlightenment out of the classical limits of dychotomical, transcendent and teleological thought, and – borrowing from Dewey – defines the Enlightenment heritage as a “centerless environment of multiple histories”. Doing so, Fernée reshapes the nature of Enlightenment as non-Eurocentric, not linearly ontological nor epistemic, but inserted in a logic of “discursive practical regions of density”, claiming a discursive universality no more linked to a Hegel-Comtean linear construction, (i.e. Hegel’s view on the West in Philosophy of history or the Bernard Lewis’ conception of Islam) but rather to a

“Synthetic re-interpretation of radical pluralist innovators in Enlightenment interpretation such as John Dewey, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, Michael Polanyi, Mohammed Arkoun, Abdul An-Naim and Amartya Sen” (xvii).

Tadd Fernée’s point of view claims to demonstrate an “emerging ethics of reconciliation in nation-making”; to do so, he focuses on the close relationship intercurring between the Enlightenment viewed as a “multicentered practical-discursive formation” and the violence as a “discursive-practical limit”. In the words of the author, therefore,

“The central means-ends issue concerns – as far the nation-making prospects for a democratic modernity – the political construction of violence” (xiv).

Fernée studies these means within the framework of political violence upon the nation-making path that follows the paradigmatic moment of Revolution. Such notions converge in a point between the discursive and the practical moment in the articulation of nation-making, seen through the lens of the Enlightenment heritage. The author takes as an example

“[…] The English Civil War, the American, French and Industrial Revolutions, decolonization and the project of a new global juridical order following World War II. Each was an experience of traumatic violence, bringing into question the relation between rapidly changing existence and the traditions of value, requiring radical adjustments in institutional accretions, the authority of ideals, imagining and thought over choice and conduct”. (Xxxvii-xxxviii)

Fernéee, substantially, argues that those revolutions merge the discursive moment of Enlightenment with the practical, as they involve a relationship between a body of ideals, imaginings and thought and their practical-mundane dimension (adjustment of contingency according to the new system).

The interaction between institutions and lifeworlds is – as a matter of fact – the “integral dimension of modern violence” (xxxviii). As a consequence, the transformation of the traditional hierarchical institutions into a different social pattern, inspired by a democratic-egalitarian form of political interaction, becomes the core of Enlightenment from its beginnings in XVII century. Moreover, its link with violence as a vector of change assumes a central position in speculation, so that the French Revolutionary tradition is seen as a region of overwhelming discursive-practical density within the Enlightenment Heritage.

The book is articulated in seven chapters, connected by a thread aiming at demystifying the role of violence, and at drawing an alternative historical construction, articulated around the Enlightenment Heritage as a keystone in the nation-making process.

The First chapter interprets Akbar’s “Universal Peace” (Sulh-i Kul) as one of the expressions of Enlightenment, portraying the complex and multicultural texture of India in the XVI century. Akbar’s court is seen as a dialogic place, and Fernée underlines how the syncretic concept of fana, shared by every religion and mystic movement present in India, had been conveyed in a practical public policy of non violent resolution of conflict in the multiconfessional and heterogeneous texture of the Mughal Empire. By means of a parallel between Akbar and Philip II of Spain, both enthroned in 1556, Fernée denotes a deep demarcation between the enlightened perspective played by Akbar’s Universal Peace and Philip’s fiery and dogmatic manner of conceiving religion as the leading principle of the State, which brought to the exclusion of entire parts of the Spanish society in reason of their faith. Fernée concludes recalling Akbar’s rationalistic nature of thought, which pursues an epistemic idea of God, rather than an immediacy of religious experience, in a syncretism between aql (reason) and taqlid (blind faith).

The second chapter frames the European Enlightenment between Revenge and Reconciliation. The author focuses on the nature of Enlightenment in the XVII and XVIII centuries and depicts two distinct paths. According to the logic followed in the whole essay, he represents an opposition between two distinct natures of Enlightenment: the flexibility of lifeworld practice on the one hand, and the construction and the feeding of a coercitive “general will” idea on the other. The critical connection point is the Revolutionary moment. Fernée argues that in the French Revolutionary process, the necessities of transforming the society from above had to be pursued by a transcendent articulation of universal values, in order to comply with a teleological and linear thought, thus undermining democracy and the very precepts of Enlightenment.

The third chapter draws a history of the early Indian Nationalism. Fernée points out its discursive-practical formation, spotting the inherent contradiction in the complex relationship with the English language, with its limits and possibilities. At the same time, the author highlights the multiplicity of the discursive practical formation influencing the early Indian Nationalism, from the classic European legacy of Enlightenment to the domestic sources, such as Akbar or the original Indian institutions. The dialectics regarding the double nature of Enlightenment is embodied in the comparison drawn by Fernée between Rammohun Roy and Henry Derozio. The former is seen as an example of a centerless pluralism grounded upon a many-sided conception of truth; the latter as an exponent of Radical Enlightenment, directly inspired to the trascendent French Enlightenment dogmas of the XVIII century.

Chapters four and six are more connected, as they analyse a contiguous history sector: while the former underlines Gandhi’s role in enlarging the Ethics of Reconciliation to a Mass Movement, the latter focuses on the Nehruvian era, analysing the role of the Ethics of reconciliation in the Nation-Making process: both are case studies centred on the non-violence as a practice of Nation Making. The Gandhian experience is identified with Humanism, as he gathered the final sense of Nationalism out of the identitarian and dualistic thought by shifting from the trandescental to the immanent, thus overturning the dialectics between enemies.

Nehru is seen as an original thinker-statesman, and his position in the Enlightenment tradition is drawn through different moments of the post-independence period. The chapter particularly overcomes his policies about the language and the tribal issues, reading them as pluralistic and many-sided forms of politics.

Chapter five deals with the Ottoman-Turkish experience of Enlightenment. Fernée focuses on the “polarity change” in the same case study: from the dismantling of the heaven sent hierarchical order (Janissary-Sultan-Bureaucracy-Ulema) and the positioning of the people at the core of sovereignity (1826), to the return to a transcendental order, inspired by the ethnic homogeneity, the construction/imposition of a “general will” and a strong assimilationist tendency of the Young Turks.

Finally, chapter seven looks into Iranian Enlightenment as a struggle for Multi-Cultural Democracy, and its failure, tracing its historical experience under an Enlightenment perspective, from the Tobacco revolt of 1890-91, through the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 to the National Front period under the leadership of Mohammed Mossadeq (1941-53).

The book offers a well articulated reading of the dynamics of Nation-Making from a perspective entwining the Enlightenment and the violence issues in a framework suitably grounded and skillfully organized. Through the comparative analysis of four case studies (Europe, India, Persia/Iran and the Ottoman-Turkish experience), Tadd Fernée propounds an interpretative key to design new non-violent patterns for the solution of the conflicts of the modern era, managing diversified materials and gathering them in a coherent vision. The perspective of “Enlightenment and Violence” is interesting and reliably founded. By re-defining the Enlightenment borders into a multipolar model, the author traces an original map of thought, consisting of non-contiguous (temporally and geographically) realities unified under the Enlightenment Heritage umbrella.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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