October 29, 2014

What is Being?

In my sophomore year at Cornell in the Fall of 1996 I took a class with Zoltan Szabo on the philosophy of math. For the final essay in the class I decided to write on Quine's classic paper "On What There Is". As with any normal essay, the topic was straight-forward: explain Quine's view, state what I think, consider an objection to my view and respond. 10-15 pgs. But as I was working on my final paper, I found that I hit a wall. I just couldn't write it. I read Quine's paper over and over again, trying to figure out what I think. I felt I disagreed with Quine, but where in the essay exactly did I disagree? I wasn't able to pin down my objection, and after struggling for a few weeks, and as the deadline to hand in the essay approached, I went to Szabo's office hours to talk to him.

Feeling defeated, I told Szabo that I wasn't able to write the paper, that I won't be handing it in, and that I was willing to take an F for the course. Thinking that my decision to not hand in a paper seemed extreme, Szabo was trying to see what the matter was exactly. And then suddenly, to my own amazement and embarrassment, I started crying. Not just a few tears. But sobbing. Uncontrollably. Whatever it was I was struggling with in writing the paper finally broke through, and I gave vent to my utter exhaustion and, as I sensed it, my failure. In between my crying, I told Szabo that I thought Quine was wrong, but I just didn't know how to show it, and that it was all too hard.

Sensing that my emotional state seemed all out of proportion to writing an essay on ontological commitment, Szabo leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and asked me if I was ok. I was a sophomore, after all, new to college, and he seemed to think that maybe I was having problems adjusting to college. He asked me, "Did something happen with any of your friends? Did someone say anything?" A perfectly fine, understandable, sensitive question to ask in that situation. But upon hearing the question, I started crying more, harder. Szabo seemed to think that my crying must have a non-philosophical origin, something outside the realm of talking about Quine. It was that implication which pained me further and which made me cry harder. And which then, suddenly, made me angry. Bringing my tears to a stop, I sat up straight and said, "No, it's nothing like that. That's all fine." Puzzled by my angry response to his considerate question, it seemed to me Szabo didn't know what to do. He waited to see what I would say. Unsure what to do, I didn't say anything either.

After a minute or so, sensing that the emotional space which had suddenly opened had just as suddenly closed, Szabo said that there was no need for me to get an F since I had already done the other work for the course. I looked at him, as if to say please don't make me write this paper, I can't do it. He said that the paper could be mainly an exegesis of Quine with just a page or two of my thoughts at the end. Grateful for this suggestion, and thinking there might not be a better solution, I thanked him and left.

I ended up writing the essay. It was mostly exegetical, with me saying as little as possible of what I thought. When over the holidays I saw a B- for the course on my report card, I was grateful for what I felt to be Szabo's kindness. But deeper within me, the pain of not really writing the paper stayed with me. Why couldn't I write the essay? What happened? I couldn't say.

October 25, 2014

Yes, I was Addicted to "Leiter Reports"

Seeing this post on Brian Leiter's blog, I realized something: I have wasted so much of my life staring at that blog.

It feels embarrassing to say, but I see now there is no better way to put it: I was addicted to Leiter Reports. In grad school, as an assistant professor, and even after I left academia, I kept going back to that blog, over and over again. Unendingly. Unfailingly. Even when I felt upset by it, felt abused by it, felt powerless to say or do anything in response, I knew in the back of my mind that the next day or the next hour I would go back to it. Maybe the next time it would be a nicer experience. Maybe.

How silly of me, right? To be addicted to a blog. That too a professional blog. I must have pretty low self-confidence, right? Be pretty gullible? I must be a fool. A moron. A degenerate. There must be something wrong with me. I must be over-sensitive. Right?

No. Wrong.

And this is important to tell not primarily to Leiter. Or to his supporters. Or to the philosophy profession. But to myself of ten years ago. Five years ago. Even six months ago. To myself right now. Bharath, it's not your fault.

I don't remember the first time I read Leiter Reports. Must have been sometime in the early 2000s, more than a decade ago. But what I do remember is that I would go to the blog when I felt dissatisfied about how grad school was going. I often had bouts of feeling alienated from my classes and my dissertation. I would write a draft of a thesis chapter, my advisers would give comments, and I would stare at the draft as if it were written by someone else, as if it had nothing to do with me or my thoughts. I felt a general numbness, a general disinterestedness. I knew I was interested in philosophy, and yet that interest didn't seem to materialize into tangible achievements I identified with. Being distant from my own writing, I felt distant from professional activities as well. I felt stymied. That the way professional growth was defined in the normal, physical spaces of classes, conferences and departmental events wasn't working for me. But why not? I wasn't sure.

Enter a virtual space of philosophy. Something that didn't have many of the old triggers of the physical spaces. Something which seemed fresh and open with possibility. Where many of the old formalities were dropped, and a heady sense of possibility permeated from the screen. That was the way I was initially drawn into Leiter Reports. A new space. With new possibilities.

October 20, 2014

It's Not Just Implicit Bias

According to a recent study, African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty or graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments. According to another report, there are only five black philosophers in faculty positions in England.

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?

There are three flat-footed options:

1) Academic philosophers are racist.

2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.

3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.

None of these are quite right. At least in my experience, (1) is not true , not in an explicit, ordinary sense of racism. In fact, many white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt. [Note: this paragraph has been changed in response to helpful comments here and here.]

(2) suggests that academic philosophy is too rational and so is somehow basically white. That reasoning and logic as activities are themselves too white, kind of like ice hockey. Proponents of this view draw broad distinctions between reason and intuition, or the mind and the body, and claim that the intuition or bodyness of blacks (the complex rhythms of jazz, etc.) is disvalued by philosophy. Stated bluntly like this, (2) is absurd. It pegs non-whites into a permanent state of otherness and fails to recognize rationality as a mode of all human beings.

(3) says the problem is institutional, such as the hiring practices or the syllabi, which create a feedback loop. If blacks students don't see or read black philosophers, then they stay away or struggle to stay in academic philosophy. There is something to (3), but as stated it isn't enough. For it leads to the question: if neither philosophers nor the ideas they value are racist, why aren't they able to change the structures? It is funny to treat the structures as an independent force which are much stronger than the good will and ideals of the philosophers themselves. What makes the structures so resistant to change? More needs to be said than that in time, a few generations from now, it will all get resolved.

A sharper version of the original question is: Given that neither philosophers nor philosophy is racist, why are there so few black academic philosophers?

A popular answer, which has become prevalent recently, rests on the idea of implicit bias.

October 17, 2014

Function of the Analytic-Continental Divide

Imagine you are a philosophy professor in Europe in 1920. You have just been through a gut wrenching war. In your livelihood as a professor you emphasize the power of rational discussion, but you have also just witnessed a war which almost obliterated the world. How do you reconcile your job as a philosopher with the horror of the war?

You have three options.
1) You can say that philosophy failed in its task, that reasoning is nothing but a veneer over the underlying irrational impulses of humankind.

2) You can say that the war, for all its horror, was rational and perfectly reasonable, that this is what reason in action looks like.
3) You can say that it is not philosophy in general that failed, but a particular kind of philosophy, the kind which is irresponsible and horrible, and which you will fight to overcome.

October 16, 2014

The illusion of Separation

By The Academic Philosopher’s Vision, I mean the combination of the following three ideas:
1) Separation: Academic philosophy is set apart from the mundane aspects of our society. If you have a 9-6 office job, you just have to go by the norms of society and be a cog in the machine. One of the herd. But by becoming an academic you get to be separate from this. The normal rules don’t apply.
2) Reflection: Separation enables academic philosophers to gain reflective distance from the general impulses in society. Because an ordinary person is just a cog in the machine, she doesn’t have the ability to reflect on the machine as a whole. But the academic philosopher does have such distance, and that enables her to think new thoughts and be creative.
3) Change: By reflecting on society without the normal constraints, the academic philosopher is able to think more clearly than most about the direction of society, and so suggest and lead regarding how society can be improved.
Separation by itself suggests a person might become an academic philosophy just to not be a cog in the machine; and there are academics like that. Separation and reflection together suggest that a person wants to be an academic so that she can think freely for herself or for gaining knowledge and nothing more; and there are academics like that. Separation, reflection and change together suggest that there is a normative and communal dimension to separation and reflection: that they are not just benefits for oneself but lead to benefits for everyone.

But what if there isn’t really much separation at all? What if academic philosophy is itself becoming more and more part of the mainstream of society? Not in the sense that society is becoming more philosophical, but in the sense that academic philosophy is becoming more like any job, just with its special perks and struggles?

October 15, 2014

Academic Philosopher's Anxiety

Imagine you dream your whole life of contributing to the progress of civilization. And you feel philosophy is essential to such progress. So you want to be a philosophy professor. You go through all the hoops and trials. You make it and you even excel. You become a top academic. You feel poised to realize your life ambition.

Then you look around and discover something unsettling: most people in society aren't listening to you. It is not just that they disagree with you. You can handle that. Your training has made you a mind ninja, able to turn the table on others. No, its worse. Most people ignore you. They don't know what you do and why they should listen to you.

You try to express this difficulty to fellow humanists. And the unsettling feeling expands: even fellow academics aren't listening to you. Worse, they insist you aren't really a philosopher. They point to Socrates and Nietzsche and say you are not like them.

You have all this philosophical knowledge. Earth shattering, mind blowing skill of self-reflection. The kind of skill that if only every person had it, the world would be transformed. You have acquired this skill through hard work and dedication. You are a servant for the public good ready to go on your mission. Yet... the public. They seem oblivious. What can you do?

This is the academic philosopher's anxiety.

October 10, 2014

Spectrum of Public Philosophy

What is it for a philosopher to engage with the public? Here are a spectrum of options.

A. Academic philosopher not addressing the public

1. Scholar. Does her research and teaching, meant for fellow academics and students. Effect on the public is downstream and not immediate. Example: most academics.

B. Academic philosopher addressing the public in a way they can't directly speak back

2. Public professor. In addition to her research and teaching meant academics, writes for and engages with the general public in order to introduce them to what is happening in academic philosophy. Examples: Simon Blackburn, Thomas Nagel, Philosophy TV.

3. Public intellectual. In addition to her research and teaching, writes for the public arguing for particular views. Fosters debate among the public by creating public discussion of the view the public intellectual defends. Examples: Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Appiah, Dan Dennett.

October 9, 2014

Function of the Gourmet Report

Essay about the relation between the Philosophical Gourmet Report and the job market: here.

The main point of the essay is that while the standard narrative about the PGR is how it helps students get into higher ranked departments, the function of the PGR is to expand the range of departments where the graduate students from the ranked programs can be placed in jobs. PGR is the way that the higher ranked departments unconsciously dealt with the problem of placing their graduate students in a tough job market.

But why then would unranked departments go along with the PGR? For the same reason why many poor people in America buy into the narrative that the rich getting richer helps everyone. If the "lower tiers" look to the "higher tiers" as better versions of themselves, then the former will assume that the interests of the latter are actually their own interests. This is a recipe for institutional stagnation: the forces at the top resist change in the name of quality, and others, in identifying with the forces at the top, embrace such resistance even at their own cost.

October 4, 2014