Akeel Bilgrami remembers Edward W. Said

Bilgrami4_1Professor Akeel Bilgrami has kindly given 3 Quarks Daily permission to publish the text of a speech he gave at a memorial service for Edward W. Said on September 29, 2003. Professor Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanties at Columbia University.

Professor Bilgrami went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and got a Bachelor’s degree there in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. In 1983 he got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has published a book in the Philosophy of Language and Mind in 1992 called Belief and Meaning (Blackwell). He has two forthcoming books from Harvard University Press — Self-Knowledge and Intentionality and Politics and The Moral Psychology of Identity. He has published various articles in Philosophy of Mind as well as in Political and Moral Philosophy and Moral Psychology.

Edward Said: A Personal and Intellectual Tribute

SaidpstorThere are a very few intellectuals ––Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, and Noam Chomsky come to mind in the English-speaking world— whose writings and whose lives provide a kind of pole that thousands of people look toward so as to feel that they are not wholly lost or marginal for possessing instincts for justice and humanity, and for thinking that some small steps might be taken towards their achievement. Edward Said was, without a doubt, such a man. The daze and despair so many of us here at Columbia feel, now that we have taken in that he has gone, is only a very local sign of what is a global loss without measure. And to think of what it must be like for his own brutalized people to lose him, is unbearable.


Edward was, as they say, ‘many things to many people’, and though he was too vast to be contained by a mere university, even one as uncloistered as Columbia, he was a teacher and took great pride in being one. So let me say something about that first.

To put it seemingly frivolously, he was deeply ‘cool’. I say ‘deeply’ and mean it. One day, the best undergraduate I have ever taught and my very favourite student, said to me “Prof. Said is really cool”. Now I, who have been trying to be cool for decades, was mildly annoyed by this, and said, “Look, I can understand that you think he is a great scholar and intellectual and a peerless public figure, but why ‘cool’? He doesn’t wear black, he despises popular music, he hangs out with well-heeled professors and other rich and famous people, and he is preposterously handsome –how uncool can you get!” She looked at me dismissively and said, “All that’s really not a big deal. It’s –like– really on the surface.”

Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures. The connections he made in even our most canonical works, between the narrations of novels and the tellings of national histories, between the assertions of an author and the assertion of power by states, between the unconscious attitudes of a seemingly high-minded writer and some subtle illiberal tendency of social or national prejudice, drew to the study of literature numberless students who, out of a quest for worldly engagement, or more simply out of a cosmopolitan curiosity, demanded just such an integrity of words with morals,. Not long ago while giving a lecture in Honkong, I found that students were passing around a faint and barely readable photographed parchment of one of his unpublished manuscripts — a contribution to a symposium held ten thousand miles away — as though it were a handwritten poem by a Renaissance courtier. No other literary critic has had such a, literally, planetary influence.

And he achieved this without any of the heart-sinking, charmless, prose of the literary avant-garde, nor the natural, unaffected dullness of the old guard. His writing, like his speech, had the voltage of dramatization and (it has to be said) self-dramatization, which no young person could find anything but cool.


Because of his great political courage, because he repeatedly broke his lion’s heart in the cause of Palestinian freedom, because so much of his most familiar and famous writing was intellectually continuous with those political themes and struggles, and because it was expressed with a ceaseless flow of political ardour, Edward’s intellectual legacy will be primarily political, not just among the young, nor just in the popular image, but also in the eyes of academic research. There is no gainsaying this. And it must be so. It will be right to be so. This side of him was of course manifest to his own people, but it was also central to so many others for whom the Palestinian struggle is a reminder that the fight for the most elementary of freedoms is not yet over. Since so much has rightly been written about it, I want to briefly situate that most vital part of his life and thought in the larger setting of his humanism, of which we often spoke in our conversations inside and outside the classes we taught together, and on which he had just completed a book, when he died. It was perhaps the only ‘ism’ he avowed (he was, despite being in the midst of an anti-colonial struggle, consistently critical of nationalism), and he avowed it with a stubborn idealism, in the face of its having been made to seem pious and sentimental by the recent developments in literary theory.

Underlying the civic passions and the charged impressionism of his political and literary writing was a deep and structured argument of greater generality than anything that is usually attributed to him. (He was always impatient with arguments, and would tell me that it was a philosopher’s obsession, keen to find philosophers as bad as lawyers on this score. But he was wrong about this, and came around to saying that something like this argument was indeed a thread in his work.)

Two elements of frameworking breadth have abided through the diverse doctrinal formulations of humanism, from its earliest classical hints to the most subtle surviving versions of our own time. They can, in retrospect, be seen as its defining poles.

One is its aspiration to find some feature or features which sets what is human apart –apart from both nature, as the natural sciences study it, and from what is super-nature and transcendental, as these are pursued by the outreach of theology and metaphysics.

The other is the yearning to show regard for all that is human, for what is human wherever it may be found, and however remote it may be from the more vivid presence of the parochial. The dictum, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’, still moving despite its great familiarity (and despite the legend about its trivial origin), conveys something of that yearning.

These two familiar poles framed the argument that Edward presented throughout his life as a writer.

At one pole, to explore what sets the human apart, he invoked early on in his work a principle of Vico’s, that we know best what we ourselves make –history. Self-knowledge thus becomes special, standing apart from other forms of knowledge. And only human beings, so far as we know, are capable of that self-knowledge.

At the other pole, to make urgent the Senecan dictum, he plunged into the topical, warning us of the disasters that will follow, and which indeed are already upon us, if we conduct our public lives as intellectuals with an indifference to the concerns and the suffering of people in places distant from our Western, metropolitan sites of self-interest.

Relatively fixed poles though they may be in a highly changeable set of ideas we call ‘humanistic’, these two features are not ‘poles apart’. They are not merely unrelated and contingent elements of humanism. They must be brought together in a coherent view. And Edward tried to do just that.

To bridge the distance between them, he started first at one pole by completing Vico’s insight with a striking philosophical addition. What Vico brought to light was the especially human ability for self-knowledge, and the special character possessed by self-knowledge among all the other knowledges we have. This special character which has affected our paths of study in ways that we have, since Vico’s time, taken to describing with such terms as ‘Verstehen’, “Geisteswissenschaften”, or as we like to say in America,‘ the Social Sciences’, still gives no particular hint of the role and centrality of the Humanities. It is Said’s claim, I think, that until we supplement self-knowledge with, in fact until we understand self-knowledge as being constituted by, self-criticism, humanism and its disciplinary manifestations (‘the Humanities’) are still not visible on the horizon. What makes that supplement and that new understanding possible is the study of literature. To put it schematically, the study of literature, that is to say ‘Criticism’, his own life-long pursuit, when it supplements self-knowledge gives us the truly unique human capacity, the capacity to be self-critical.

Turning then to the other pole, how can a concern for all that is human be linked, not just contingently but necessarily, to this capacity for self-criticism? Why are these not simply two disparate elements in our understanding of humanism? Said’s answer is that when criticism at our universities is not parochial, when it studies the traditions and concepts of other cultures, it opens itself up to resources by which it may become self-criticism, resources not present while the focus is cozy and insular. The “Other’, therefore, is the source and resource for a better, more critical understanding of the ‘Self’. It is important to see, then, that the appeal of the Senecan ideal for Said cannot degenerate into a fetishization of ‘diversity’ for its own sake or into a glib and ‘correct’ embrace of current multiculturalist tendency. It is strictly a step in an argument that starts with Vico and ends with the relevance of humanism in American intellectual life and politics. Multiculturalism has not had a more learned and lofty defence. It may in the end be the only defence it deserves.

James Clifford in a now famous review of Orientalism had chastised Edward, saying that he cannot possibly reconcile the denial of the human subject in his appeal to Foucault in that work, with his own humanist intellectual urges, reconcile, that is, his historicist theoretical vision with the agency essential to the humanist ideal. But if the argument I have just presented is effective, if the methodical link between the two poles I mentioned really exists, it goes a long way in easing these tensions. It allows one not simply to assert but to claim with some right, as Edward did, that criticism is both of two seemingly inconsistent things: it is philology, the ‘history’ of words, the ‘reception’ of a tradition, at the same time as it allows for a ‘resistance’ to that tradition and to the repository of custom that words accumulate.

The argument, thus, gives literary humanism a rigour and intellectual muscle, as well as a topicality and political relevance, that makes it unrecognizable from the musty doctrine it had become earlier in the last century –and it gives those disillusioned with or just simply bored with that doctrine, something more lively and important to turn to than the arid formalisms and relativisms of recent years. For this, we must all be grateful.


I first met Edward twenty years ago when I noticed an incongruously well-dressed man at a luncheon talk I gave as a fresh recruit at the Society of Fellows, on some theme in the Philosophy of History. With a single question, asked without a trace of condescension, he made me see why the issues of substance and urgency lay elsewhere than where I was labouring them. I knew immediately that he was a good thing, though I did not know then that I would never change my mind. One had heard so much about him. No person I knew had more political enemies. They did not find it enough to hate him, they wanted the whole world to hate him, and they weaved fantastications and myths in order to try and make it happen. For those who admired his indomitable political will, these scurrilous attacks against him made him seem even more iconic, and for those who knew him well, his seductive, self-pitying responses to them, made him even more dear.

An essential part of his great and natural charm was that friendship with him was not without difficulty, nor without steep demand. He would do his best sometimes to appear a credible swine, if for no other reason than to raise a spark in the conversation. I recall when we were on the stage together at some public meeting, after the idiotic fuss that was made about his having thrown a stone in the air at a site in Lebanon which had just been evacuated by the Israeli army. The person who introduced us began with me, and gave me the modest introduction I deserved, and then went on to poetic heights about him, and concluded by saying that he was the author of over twenty books. As she finished, I leaned into my microphone and said “Over twenty books! Somebody has to stop this terrorist! First he throws stones! Now he is cutting down trees!” He immediately leaned into his own microphone, and said, “My dear fellow, you should worry just a bit that for a man who has not written that much, that remark will come off as bitter rather than funny.” On another occasion, we were sitting in his flat last New Year’s Eve for dinner, with a gathering of his friends from the Modern Languages Association, which had just had its annual meeting in New York City. The talk that evening had had much to do with feminism in the academy, the usual drill about the feminine pronoun, and all of us had self-consciously displayed our impeccable commitments. The conversation came around to whether my wife and I would be moving our daughter from Brearley to the newly started school for the children of faculty at Columbia University, a subject of vexed indecision for us. Edward asked us impatiently, “So are you bringing her to the Columbia School? What the hell is holding you up?” And I said, “Well, I am not sure, she is very happy at Brearley”. And he said, throwing a glance around at the women, “Who cares, she’s a GIRL!!!” This teasing sometimes became willfully, even if delightfully, dangerous. Charlie Rose once asked him on television, if he had read a recent book on Wagner, which had come to the extraordinary conclusion that his music was so infused with anti-Semitism that if someone who was not anti-Semitic heard his operas, he or she would become anti-Semitic by the end of it. What, Rose asked, do you think of that conclusion? Edward, who despised anti-Semitism as much as anyone I know, but perfectly aware of the obvious dangers of the subject for a person with his political commitments, leaned forward and said, as if in earnest: “You know, I tried it. I got all my Wagner out and heard it all day and half into the night.” He then paused, allowing the menace to build up, and then, shaking his head, “ It didn’t work.”

Yes, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, and he was a great and good and inspiring and beloved man. It is very hard to bear the loss of someone, so large of heart and mind.

As I wrote those last words, I was reminded that that heart and mind were lodged in a body, which, for all its robustness, was cursed with a wretched illness that he fought with such heroism for a dozen years. Reminded too of that more muted and less recognized form of heroism -forbearing and endlessly giving- with which his remarkable wife Mariam stood by his side each day for all those years, and of that obscure and nameless thing she will need now that he is gone, to be without the presence of the most present person she, and his children, and his friends, have known. I wish her vast reserves of it, whatever it is, and of every other good thing.

[See also this remembrance of Edward Said by S. Asad Raza.]