How historians demolish myths and create new ways to think | Interview with Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty

We met with leading historian, Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty from University of Chicago to discuss the role of historians in demolishing historical myths, applying history to climate change and so much more. Enjoy!

How historians demolish myths and create new ways to think | Interview with Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty

Leading historian Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses tradition in India, European expansion & conquest, Australian aboriginal history, demolishing historical myths, and applying history to climate change. Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago, Dr. Chakrabarty talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Aboriginals had never, he argued, legally ceded their sovereignty. And therefore, his argument in public life was that Australia was an illegal nation.” – Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty

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Interview with Historian, Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:13Path to Geology

Jed Macosko: Hi. I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and academicinfluence.com. And today we have another special guest, Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty from the University of Chicago who is an eminent historian. And I have a few questions for you, professor.

I was wondering, you said you got your start in both Physics and in Geology. And why was it that you got pushed into Geology? I heard that your interest in Physics was because of your interest in Philosophy. And that seemed like the most philosophical of the different sciences. But Geology? I don’t see where the philosophy comes in. So, how did you end up there?

Dipesh Chakrabarty: No, I mean. Actually, it was something that… It was a choice that I think has stood me in good state later in life. Because now I work on climate change and I read a fair amount of Earth System Science to understand what’s going on. So, my old interest in Geology comes back and helps me. But I was… The way that Chemistry was taught in India, I didn’t like it. So, I was a refugee from the pedagogical oppression of Chemistry. And we had to take three subjects, Maths was compulsory. So, the choice was between Chemistry or Geology. And…

Jed: That says it all. [chuckle]

Dipesh: But I wish I had done… Yeah, Exactly. I wish I had done both Chemistry and Geology. [chuckle]

Jed: Yeah.

Dipesh: But the system wouldn’t allow for that.

Jed: Yes well, that makes more sense. And the other thing I was curious…

Dipesh: And it really had to do how… Sorry. I just wanna say that, really had to do how Chemistry books were written for high school students and how again, the subject was taught. The subject was not taught interestingly. I mean, it is such an important subject, comes into everyday life from cosmetics to everything. Life is full of Chemistry. And somehow, with Physics, what was interesting about Physics was, almost obvious. And my father was a teacher of Physics.

Jed: Wow.

Dipesh: So, he had a master’s degree in Physics. And from childhood on, he would ask me questions like, “Why do you think the sky turns red in the morning or in the evening?” [chuckle]

Jed: Yeah. Oh, that’s great.

Dipesh: And so, he gave me a certain kind of curiosity about the physical world around us. And now, I realize how important Chemistry was and is.

Jed: Yeah.

Dipesh: But it really was the method, the way people taught. As a child, I was not wise enough to think that, “Look, however it’s taught, doesn’t matter. I should myself venture out and find out what’s important and interesting about it.” And I didn’t, I took the easy path out. I thought, “They don’t teach it well. I don’t like it. I will try out a new subject, Geology.”

Jed: So, you became a refugee of…

Dipesh: And I enjoyed Geology.

Jed: Oh, I’m glad. That’s good.

Dipesh: Of the way again, the subject was taught.

Jed: Wonderful. And then, when was it that you left India to live somewhere else? And was the first place you lived, in Australia?

Dipesh: Uh-huh, in Canberra. Because I went to do my PhD.

Jed: Okay. And how long did you stay?

[overlapping conversation]

Dipesh: At the end, at the very, very… In Australia?

Jed: Mm-hmm. How long did you stay?

Dipesh: For 20 years.

Jed: Perfect.

Dipesh: Twenty years. So, I did my PhD. And then, there were no academic jobs. So, I was actually… I was working in the Australian Defence Department as a graduate clerk for 18 months when I go a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Melbourne, where I had actually taught for a year while doing my PhD. And then, a permanent position came up and I applied for it, and I got it. And I was there until I moved to Chicago.

Jed: Wow, so you…

Dipesh: So, all together 20 years.

04:33Henry Reynolds and Australia

Jed: You said that while you were in Australia, you studied some of the history of the Aborigine people. And did you ever come in contact with Prof. Henry Reynolds ? And what would you say are the differences between Henry’s work, who’s also very influential in history and your own work?

Dipesh: Well of course, I did because Henry made his name while I was teaching there. When I was a young teacher, a young lecturer at the university. And Henry was very instrumental in making Aboriginal history a university subject. So, a new sub-discipline was born while I was teaching, called Aboriginal history. And Henry was one of the key architects of that sub-discipline. Another remarkable thing about Henry Reynolds’ work there, was that, it gave me a very interesting example of how historians could actually interview in public debates and shape them. So, you just to give you the gist of Henry’s early work in two or three sentences. So, he was the first person who claimed that Australia was not won peacefully from the Aboriginal people. So, he documented over the 19th century, some 100 instances of small and big Aboriginal wars of resistance, resisting White people’s occupation of the land. And he, according to his counting, he said at least 20,000, if I remember the figure right, Australian Aboriginals died resisting White occupation.

And his argument was that because Australia was taken over, unlike in Canada, US, or in New Zealand, without signing a treaty or treaties with the Aboriginal groups, Aboriginals had never, he argued, legally ceded their sovereignty. And therefore his argument in public life was that Australia was an illegal nation. That White Australia had no legal basis. [laughter] And you can imagine the kind of debate it would give rise to and therefore he was arguing that I can prove as a historian that there’s no legal basis to the nation because you didn’t sign the treaty. And therefore you should now sign a treaty retrospectively, giving, acknowledging as it were the First Nation’s rights on the nation and on the land, through a treaty. Now, that treaty was never signed, but this was a remarkable instance of an intelligent historian taking advantage of certain legal mythologies, demolishing some, which was that the demolishing the myth that Australia was occupied because it was terra nullius, there was no humans there, empty land.

He demolished that myth. But he also tried to argue that if you took somebody else’s land without them agreeing, then you’ve taken the land by conquest and the nation founded on conquest doesn’t have a modern legal basis of the nation. So he was trying to shame White Australians, [laughter] into signing a treaty with Aboriginal groups and it was… Henry was part of a very interesting historical movement in Australia which began in the early ’70s and ended somewhere in the ’80s. And I happened to go to Australia in 1977, very end, December ’76. And my PhD years and my early teaching years were… They coincided with what was going on in Aboriginal history, with Henry Reynolds being one of the heroes of that story. So yes, I actually think Henry’s story deserves to be told to larger audiences.

09:02Moving to Chicago

Jed: Well, thank you for summarizing it. Now, how did you decide to leave Australia? And why did you choose the University of Chicago? And what have you been doing there? Have you continued to work on the Aboriginal people?

Dipesh: Okay. I used to read up a lot, and I still do on Aboriginal history, which used to influence my thinking, even as I worked on India, but… What happened was that I didn’t actually choose to come to Chicago, Chicago chose me. So I got a phone call one day saying, “We have a job for you.” And I said to my friend whom I knew was calling me, a very well known Sanskritist, Sheldon Pollock , and I said, “How many people are you saying this to?” And he said, “No, it’s you. We have… If you want it, we have discussed you, we have discussed other possible people.” And in those days, I think maybe university still has the right, you could actually invite somebody to a full professor’s position without necessarily advertising and without asking for application. You could internally look at comparable candidates. And choose somebody and go to them and say, “We want you to join.” And what was happening in Australia was that Australian interest in Indian Studies was declining.

Whereas, Chicago has a very strong tradition of studying India and the subcontinent, very strong. So it came at the right time. And I moved to Chicago in 1995, I visited in 1994, and it was funny because… Because I… I came here to teach for a couple of quarters and, even though they had told me they had a job for me, I think they were looking at me which I didn’t realize. And they were expecting me to look at Chicago, and I wasn’t quite looking at Chicago thinking, “Okay, this would be nice, whatever.” And I still remember they wanted me to give a talk. So I said to this friend, Shelley, I said, “So is it a job talk?” And he said, “No, no, it’s not a job talk. You just give a talk and people will come and listen to you, and we’ll have a reception.” And I was actually working on a chapter in the book in the library, and I only had library notes. So I gave a talk based on those notes thinking I’m just sharing some of my latest stuff that I haven’t quite even written up into a chapter. It worked out. [laughter]

Jed: Obviously. Good. That’s really good.

Dipesh: Seems to be actually a very nice way to get a job.

Jed: That sounds very pleasant. And did you change your studies a little bit, moving from India to Australia to the United States?

Dipesh: After coming to Chicago?

Jed: Yeah. Or did you always really study the history…

Dipesh: Yeah. I did. I did, I…

Jed: Go ahead.

Dipesh: It changed in several ways, so as I was saying before, because of having moved through different subjects, I always had a deep interest in methods. How does the subject, how the disciplines study the world? What are its assumptions? What are the things that the discipline lets you see? What are the things that it doesn’t let you see? So that interest became stronger, even stronger after coming to Chicago, because one of the things about Chicago social science and humanities is that everybody is interested in the history of knowledge.

And everybody is interested in the history of disciplines. So that’s a Chicago tradition of being interested in knowing how did anthropology come to be what it is, how did history come to be what it is, how did Physics come to be what it is, how is 17th century mechanics different from how you might look at the world today.

So my interest in questioning the methods meshed in very well, which is what the university does. And the other thing that was a very different situation from my experience of working in a public institution like the University of Melbourne, was that in Melbourne, there was always a committee that was looking at the courses you were proposing to teach. So you officially had to make a proposal to teach a course, and sometimes they are going to tell you that, “No, no. So and so is teaching it. There’s an overlap.” Whereas in Chicago, there was none of that. So you just had an idea you wanted to teach, you teach it. And if there are five people teaching courses on Hegel, then there are five people teaching courses on Hegel. And students have a wonderful choice, if they wanted to study Hegel, they have five good professors teaching Hegel and they get five different points of view on the man. [chuckle]

So the more self-aware I became of the particular aspect of European intellectual history and European ways of thinking, the more it helped me to understand the differences and more it helped me to understand what were the influences that the British rule actually had in a place like India.” – Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty

So those sorts of freedoms were wonderful. And it’s a more intense place, and the other thing that also changed for me was that increasing… In moving from India to Australia and then to US, I became aware more and more of what is specific to Western European intellectual traditions. And therefore, the whole question of how Indian traditions may have been different became of interest. So the more self-aware I became of the particular aspect of European intellectual history and European ways of thinking, the more it helped me to understand the differences and more it helped me to understand what were the influences that the British rule actually had in a place like India. And what did Indians do to make those influences their own, to kind of incorporate them into their own sense of life, tradition, practice, institution and go on.

So in some ways, coming to Chicago, it both deepened my interest, it allowed me to deepen my interest and the most interesting thing about Chicago was and still is that humanities constitute a distinct division in Chicago, academic division, from social science.

And so the institution has a very strong sense of how social science is different from humanities. Whereas in Melbourne, it all came under Faculty of Arts. So here, sometimes I would teach the same text, let’s say, the “Communist Manifesto” in a social science class, and then in a humanities class. And in a social science class, you will discuss the arguments. You’ll say, “Okay, so how did Marx and Engels think society would change? What was their argument?” You discuss that. In a humanities class, you might say, “So what’s this genre called the manifesto? Who was the first person to write a manifesto? How is a manifesto different from a poem or from an essay?”

So Chicago made me much more aware of both the differences and the connections between what we call the social sciences and what we call the humanities. So I would say Chicago was much more of an intellectually self-aware institution. Most of my colleagues are encouraged to think of these questions, and some come prepared too and they’re probably hired because they think of these questions. So there’s a tradition that keeps reproducing itself of a deep interest in how knowledge is formed. So it actually allows you to pursue some philosophical questions even while you’re working as a sociologist, or an anthropologist, or a historian, or whatever.

17:24Climate change to a historian

Jed: Wow, that is really interesting. Now, just as we close out this interview, you are one of the most influential historians of the past 10 years, which coincides with how you’ve become more involved with climate change, global warming.

Can you just finish off this interview by telling how, as a historian, can you study climate change and how that looks?

Dipesh: I just finished a book, which is actually in press as we speak. It’s called The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. And I’m arguing that human beings are moving into a historical period where, whether you think about it or not, we are becoming more and more aware, because of the crisis we’re going through, of facts about the Geology and the biology of this planet.

So if you think about the pandemic, for instance, there are certain things that have really… Globalization, the expansion of human economy, the destruction of forests, the crisis of wild life, the fact that wild animals are coming closer because we’re pushing them out of their habitats and then they’re coming closer to us.

There’s all that which you might call part of the Global History, but then there’s also the question of virus and particularly the coronavirus, which is an RNA virus, which has lived in bat’s guts for a long time, and then because it’s moved from one mammal to another, it gets pre-adapted for human cells, and that’s about evolution. So, Anthony Fauci actually has a very nice statement in one of his academic papers. He says, “You know, if… ” He’s quoting another scientist and he says, “If one were to write a thriller about the relationship between viruses and humans, you’d want to call it ‘Their Genomes Versus Our Wits’, because they’re much more ancient than we are.” [chuckle] And he says, “You can’t tell who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat.” Right? So I’m saying that we are becoming more aware of this planet and how it works. And in that sense, we are entering what I call a planetary age which may one day see planetary governments or at least in some aspects of lives.

19:48Sign off

Jed: Wow, well, thank you so much for taking time.

Dipesh: So that’s…

[overlapping conversation]

Jed: Thank you for taking the time.

Dipesh: Thank you very much for being interested in my work and…

[overlapping conversation]

Jed: You’re welcome. It was our pleasure.

Dipesh: Yeah, okay. Thanks, Jed. Bye.

Jed: Bye.