December 30, 2014

Cultural Reflective Distance

My introduction to philosophy was through conversations with my father about The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. During my high school years we would have conversations about the nature of the self, consciousness, dharma, mind and body, science and religion, the meaning of life, and so on. When I started studying philosophy academically in college, a basic mode of life started to develop for me, something analogous to W.E.B. DuBois' idea of double consciousness. This was the separation of my home philosophy from my school philosophy; the separation of the conversations I would have with my father from the conversations I would have in my classes in college.

Often the topics were the same, or at least similar, but the texts, the cultural context, sometimes the language and the intonations were quite different. Even when the words used were the same ("the self", "consciousness", "material world", etc.), I often had the feeling that in the two contexts these words were being used in different ways, sometimes with the hint that they were being used in even contrary ways. As if when my father spoke of consciousness he was doing something called religion or spirituality, but when my teachers spoke of consciousness they were doing something called philosophy or meta-psychology or a version of science.

Sitting in class I would wonder to myself about the meaning and nature of this developing schism within myself, a schism which seemed partly a figment of my imagination since it was hardly mentioned by my teachers. In class there was a sense that the Gita is not philosophy, and that part of being attuned to philosophy was learning that the Gita is a different kind of text than Plato's Apology. That whereas the former was somehow parochial or communal, the later was universal. That while the former was part of religion, and so deemed to be generally dogmatic, the latter encouraged thinking for oneself. Repeatedly in class there was the sense that part of being a philosopher meant questioning one's own family, culture and community.

I took this to mean that the answer for why we were not studying the Gita in class was readily apparent: because my teachers were enabling my questioning my culture, and my taking a step back from it. The assumption in class seemed to be that it was the very difference between my father's mode of philosophy and my classes which enabled me to grow as a thinker, and to thereby grow into philosophy. Call this cultural reflective distance, as in the kind of thinking that enables one to gain distance from one's upbringing and so question its deepest assumptions. Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy course can attest that this is how philosophy is often portrayed in the classroom: that it enables cultural reflective distance.


When I was in graduate school at Harvard, once in a while, at this or that event, I would see Elizabeth Harman. She was then a graduate student at MIT, having finished her undergraduate degree at Harvard. We were minimal acquaintances, the way graduates students in nearby departments can tend to be. I remember exchanging a few pleasantries at this or that gathering, never quite talking about philosophy. My sense was that she was a nice person, friendly and smart.

Given my sense of a schism, of keeping always my conversations with my father segregated from the conversations I was having in academia, naturally what was most intriguing to my mind about Harman was that she was the daughter of the Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman. What I found interesting wasn't any issues of nepotism, as if she maybe got into MIT because of her connections. It seemed evident enough that the younger Harman possessed the skills valued by professional philosophy. Rather, what was much more interesting to me was the fact that here was someone who was being acknowledged as a philosopher, and a good one, even though, at least based on outward facts, she didn't have to break with her upbringing in the way in which I had to in order to be a philosopher.

At that time, to some extent and unconsciously, I bought the argument that the reason the Gita was nowhere to be found in my classes was for my own benefit. That the Gita was the text of my family, and that as an adult in America, and more, as an aspiring philosopher, I was supposed to break free of the confines of my family and explore brave new ideas, texts and traditions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed that this was the situation of my fellow students and teachers as well; that all of them had left behind their family traditions and intellectual legacies, and that academia was the space where we were all finding and creating a common, universal framework together. This sense was enabled by the fact that I didn't much about the biographical conditions of most of my teachers and fellow students. Perhaps they had all left behind some text or tradition as well. Maybe there is a kind of internal schism within each of them, and perhaps I was not that different from others in academia.

With Liz Harman, however, there was no chance of such an assumption of similarity. It was a completely public fact whose daughter she was, and so what family background she came from. Imagining her talking to her father about philosophy in their living room at home, and then imagining her walking into a classroom and continuing there the same kind of conversation as she had at home confused me. It was as if I were imagining a person walking on water, or levitating. The split between my conversations with my father and my professors was such a deep and established part of my consciousness that I could not easily imagine what it would be like to be able to move back and forth between the two realms with ease. For the two realms to in fact be the same realm, to find the same debates about ethical relativism or functionalism which she must have grown up around be the exact same debates which she was being taught in her classes as well. Where there was no need for an incessant inner translation from this lingo to that lingo, from this cultural context to that cultural context. Where there was no need to hide these conversations from those conversations. What must it be like to have a unified consciousness between one's family philosophical framework and one's education?

No doubt as a person some part of me must have considered this question with pangs of envy. With some anger, frustration, and a sense of unfairness. But beyond wanting an idyllic sense of a unified consciousness, what puzzled me more was: Is the philosophy profession failing Liz Harman? After all, given that her family background is so similar to her education, where in her educational trajectory is she able to gain cultural reflective distance? What mechanisms are in place for her to be able to step back from her family, community and culture, and to question all of them?

Whereas in one way I felt robbed of the kind of unified consciousness which I imagined she possessed, in another way it seemed to me that I wouldn't want that kind of an unified consciousness after all. That it actually would be better for her, as it was for me, to find in her education texts, traditions and concepts which are foreign to her home life. After all, isn't this what my professors were telling me philosophy was about? That it was about moving beyond one's upbringing, to step back from one's deepest primary enculturation, and through the engagement of texts which are deeply foreign to one's upbringing gain a deeper appreciation for the grandeur of the world and of oneself? From this perspective, the idea that Harman would be meeting in her classes the same texts and debates she grew up around seemed not a privilege, but a drawback.

Who had it better: me or Harman? This question stopped my nascent pangs of envy in their tracks, and plunged me into confusion. At times I was angry at the situation I found myself in and wanted to scream at my professors to not force me to leave my culture behind me, and to show some basic modicum of sensitivity and understanding towards how I must be feeling. Yet, why was I in the philosophy profession? Wasn't it because I wanted to learn about Plato and Spinoza and Hume? Because I felt European philosophy belonged as much to me as Indian philosophy did, and I felt it was my right as a human being to be able to study Aristotle and Kant, not just as some European thinkers, but as my ancestors as well. However much I wanted to rail against my education, on this point it had my most profound gratitude: it was introducing me to texts and ideas which my family could not.

Before taking a philosophy class in college I hardly knew much about western philosophy at all. So it is no exaggeration to say that the classes I took in my freshman year awoke me to Western philosophy, and so, combined with the philosophy at my home, to a more global understanding of philosophy. Seen from this angle, it seemed that I should fight to change academic philosophy not just for myself - since for me it at least worked to introduce me to the philosophy of other cultures - but also for the sake of someone like Harman. Perhaps on her own she could find ways to appreciate Indian or Chinese philosophy, and so on. But could she have gained that through her philosophy education at Harvard and MIT? Of course not. The very Eurocentrism which I felt was forcing me to leave behind my home philosophy grounded in Indian culture was also making such non-Western philosophy unavailable to Harman. Could it be that she was going to spend her whole life within the framework of the same texts and ideas she grew up around, and without experiencing the thrill and joy of finding one's own thoughts and questions in thinkers from a culture different from one's own upbringing? How were her teachers standing for her growth in such a way? How were they enabling for her the kind of experiences they were enabling for me?


Of course nothing in the above is unique to Harman. It applies as well to other philosophers, such as Galen Strawson or Alexis Burgess, who grew up within academic philosophy. However much these philosophers excel at meta-science or conceptual analysis or any other description of being a professional philosopher, there remains the question: have they been able to gain cultural reflective distance through their education and professional activities? Can they do that when their education and their job are so deeply tied up with the culture they were inculcated into as a child? Because of the narrowness of professional philosophy, is there a kind of reflective distance which has not been available to them in their education?

The same question applies as well to academic philosophers who grew up in academia, even if not in academic philosophy in particular. To philosophers like Charles Parsons (son of a Harvard sociologist), Jason Stanley (son of a Syracuse sociologist), Michael Rescorla (son of psychologists at UPenn and Bryn Mawr), Selim Berker (son of a MIT physicist), and so on. Berker, for instance, studied physics at Harvard as an undergrad, got his PhD in philosophy at MIT and is now a philosophy professor at Harvard. Meaning he has spent most of his time in academia moving from one end of Cambridge to the other. This doesn't mean that he must have an insular view of philosophy understood in a professional way; far from it. But what of the kind of philosophy which requires that one stand back from the deepest assumptions of one's upbringing? Which requires that one engages with texts and traditions which are not just unknown to, but even foreign to, one's family and culture? Did Berker get a philosophy education in that sense? Could he have, given how academic philosophy is currently set up?

The same kind of question applies even to many academic philosophers whose background is primarily Western. I remember Christine Korsgaard once mentioning that she was one of the first people in her family to go to college. This is pretty different from Harman or Berker. But given that her education has been entirely in Western philosophy, did her education enable her to gain cultural reflective distance? Korsgaard mentions here that Aristotle and Kant are her two heroes. Certainly those are good heroes to have. But did Korsgaard lose out on the ability to gain a certain kind of reflective distance on her upbringing and culture by not having had the chance to study philosophers far removed from her culture, thinkers like Avicenna or Nagarjuna, and have the choice to have them as her heros as well?

It was a question like this which often would thwart my desire to rebel more openly against my education. For could my teachers understand the difficulties I was having with cultural reflective distance when they themselves might not have gone through such a process? Could it be that my education was enabling a kind of growth for me which, ironically enough, my teachers themselves had not experienced? It seemed a strange thought: that my teachers were helping me learn a skill (cultural reflective distance) which they didn't acquire in the course of their education. But if they didn't acquire it, how could they help me gain it?

I wasn't sure back then because then often I was racked with guilt for what I assumed to be the arrogant presumption at the heart of that question. But I see now that the answer is simple. Yes, I was gaining a kind of skill which my teachers didn't themselves learn through their education. This was possible because the skill of having cultural reflective distance, though it requires the classroom, isn't limited to what happens in the classroom. In particular, it requires the juxtaposition of one's upbringing with one's education, and sharper the juxtaposition, the more potential there is for cultural reflective distance.

My teachers in the 1990s and 2000s were for the most part teaching philosophy in the classroom as if it was still 1950. They were just passing on the modes of doing philosophy which they gained from their teachers, who gained it from their teachers. If I were a white, European-ancestor student, I too would have internalized my education with the presumption, since I wouldn't know any better, that what I was learning was universal. But as it happened, I couldn't presume that what I was learning was universal because the juxtaposition of my home life with my school life unnerved and confused me, threw me into a daze, made me wonder if perhaps I was somehow broken, or misshapen, or a kind of mutant. The juxtaposition made me ask what it would be for there to be a universal philosophy at all, and how from the chaos of the juxtaposition anything stable and sane and true and good could possibly arise. I didn't realize it at the time, but this daze, which was ever present with me throughout my education, was nothing other than the phenomenological experience of going through the process of cultural reflective distance.

What would it look like when one's deepest assumptions, instilled in one through eighteen years of life, are suddenly being ripped asunder and questioned? If you started to dimly realize that the things you took most for granted were the results of contingent circumstances, and which don't track the deeper reality of life? How would you feel if your parents and your teachers, who you naviely assumed share a common mode of life, talk in very different ways, and it starts to become clear to you that they don't really know that much about each other's way of life after all? When you start to feel that you might be stuck in a no-man's land between them, unsure whether you would be able to find a sure ground again? This is the experience of cultural reflective distance. It was enabled by my education because my education was one half of the juxtaposition with my home life. But my education provided little to no practical help for how to deal with such cultural reflective distance, for it was unclear how much my teachers themselves had gone through this experience.


Arguments for pluralism in academic philosophy usually depend on the idea that students deserve to see their culture reflected in their education. That just as whites can read white philosophers, blacks are entitled to read black philosophers, and Asians are entitled to read Asian philosophers, and so on. In one way, this is obviously true.

But in another way, it misses the deeper reason for pluralism. The reason why non-Western philosophy should be taught in every philosophy department in America, and should be taught to the same extent that Western philosophy is taught, is not because then minority students can have the wonderful educational experience that white students already have. Rather, it is because in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, a non-pluralistic philosophy education harms all students.

It harms minority students because their situation as minorities forces upon them a painful experience of juxtaposition which is utterly unaddressed by what is happening in the classes. And it harms the non-minority students because precisely in virtue of background similarities between such students and the authors read in class, the non-minority students lose out on the opportunity to gain real cultural reflective distance. A pluralistic philosophy profession solves both problems at once. It renders possible the experience of juxtaposition for all students, and in being able to share that experience with each other and with their teachers, the students will be better able to navigate the difficulties of gaining cultural reflective distance.


  1. I suspect that for many students studying philosophy, there indeed is such a schism, though not typically to the extent that exists in students from families with Asian religious traditions and beliefs. For example, I teach at a small, Midwestern liberal arts college, and most of our students tend to come from small towns and traditionally conservative Christian families. For the ones that take up Philosophy/Religion as a major, it seems as if the courses do lead them to question seriously the views that they’ve adopted (or been inculcated into) as children. In other words, many of them realize that they are being exposed to either different or at least more sophisticated versions of the belief systems they grew up with. This is quite unsettling for many of them. You are of course right that most of them don’t feel it to the same extent as someone whose parents have a different cultural upbringing.

    But the sense of unease (i.e. the schism) that you felt when reading Western philosophers is I think tapping into a deeper concern that those of us from (say) Asian families experience. This is that it is not only that our parents are doing “religion” and not “philosophy”, or that our parents are less sophisticated in their thinking than our teachers are in theirs, but that somehow what our parents are doing is *inferior* (I mean inferiority in the sense of kind, and not of degree). This is not to say that our teachers do think this; rather that we can feel that way because of the absence of serious discussion of Eastern philosophy in the curriculum. This is akin to the experience of a student with disabilities in a Sociology department who might feel alienated from his/her education due to the absence of a course on the experiences of the differently-abled as part of the requirements for the major. It is not that the teachers are consciously disrespecting such students, but that the lack of such a course might make a differently-abled student feel like their experiences of engaging with the world are being dis-valued and that their mode of engagement is somehow inferior. This isn’t to say, of course, that all such concerns should be determinative of a curriculum. But in the case of philosophy, there might well be a gap between the extent to which many philosophers *think* they are unsettling their students’ basic assumptions and teaching critical thinking, and the *actual extent* to which this happens because (in part) of the texts chosen for the course.

    PS: I wonder if the closest that some analytic philosophers get to this deeper experience of schism is when they take a course on Lacan or Derrida!

    1. newfie931, I can definitely understand that students from conservative Christian families would feel a similar schism. This is one reason (among others) that I think the dichotomy of religion and philosophy is so pernicious. Certainly people from a religious background should question their beliefs when they are in school. But how to do that while maintaining the sense that all students in the class are being equally asked to question their background? There would have to be ways for people who grew up in non-religious backgrounds to also equally question their upbringing. More than the schism itself, what is painful and confusing is the uncertainty about whether one's fellow students and teachers are experiencing, or have, experienced, a similar schism. What is bad for pedagogy is the sense that some people need to go through the schism to come to the light, while others, through luck, had the right kind of upbringing which initiated them into the light all along.

      I often had the sense that an assumption of my teachers was that in the last 400 years Western society had already gone through the process of separating philosophy from religion, and that no such separation had taken place in other parts of the world. Hence as teachers they seemed uninterested in my family background. If my family was not religious, then great; that means they had already made the break with religion, and so they already enabled for me the beginning steps into philosophy. And if my family was religious, then they as teachers could ignore this, since it was part of their job to root out my religious instincts so that I can learn proper philosophy. In either case, what was assumed was that academic philosophy didn't have to care about my upbringing, and how I might be navigating my home and class spaces. Even if one believes that philosophy can be sharply separated from religion, this strikes me as bad pedagogy. In order to get a student from point A to point B, at the very least the teacher has to know what point A actually is.