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.

December 24, 2014

Silence at the Top

If you ask academic philosophers who are some of the most important contemporary philosophers, you will get names like: Derek Parfit, Tim Scanlon, Martha Nussbaum, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, David Kaplan, John Searle and so on.

If one goes to academic philosophy blogs, one sees discussion of some of the pressing issues in the profession: should there be philosophy rankings, the under-representation of women and other minorities, how to make the discipline more open to non-Western philosophical traditions, whether there are enough jobs for all, or even most, philosophy PhDs, how to improve the conditions for adjunct professors, and so on.

If I ask myself what do the most well known philosophers think about these pressing issues, it is amazing that I am forced to admit: I have no idea. For the most part, the academic philosophy superstars have been silent on hot button issues in the profession. What is one to make of this fact?

One option is: it is a generational thing. Perhaps someone like Parfit or McDowell dosn't even read  philosophy blogs. Maybe. But that doesn't explain their silence on the hot button professional topics. After all, they are very familiar with the concept of publishing. And in virtue of their recognition, they have a great platform to be heard. They could write editorials, organize APA sessions, conferences, and so on. Where are all of these activities? Since 1994, when Mind and World, came out, McDowell has no doubt given innumerable talks on the myth of the Given, on second nature, on enculturation. Has he published a single essay on what kind of enculturation the philosophy profession is fostering, and what he thinks are the prospects for improving the profession? Not that I am aware of. Why is this? How come the most well known philosophy professors are so silent about the most pressing issues in the profession?

Another option is: they don't have to speak up, because they don't have anything special to contribute. On this view, the philosophical expertise the best academic philosophers have concerns just the subject matter they write on. On ethics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and so on. They have things to say on moral skepticism, or the mind-body problem, or the state of nature, and that is where their expertise ends. What can be done about the lack of non-European philosophy in most philosophy departments? On this view, there is no reason Nagel or Scanlon or Kaplan would have anything interesting to say about that issue. After all, that is not what they specialize in. The trouble with this view: ok, if not the people who are thought to be best at philosophy, who else can have anything interesting and important to say on the hot button topics? The people who speak the loudest? Or the brashest? And what kind of an expertise is required to speak up for working conditions for adjuncts or the need for a better culture for women in the profession? This seems like nothing more than a cop out.

A third option: the well known philosophers don't speak up because the moment they do, they would come across as hypocrites. We can imagine Parfit speaking eloquently, even passionately, about helping fellow human beings, and about the foundations of ethics. But can we imagine Parfit speak so eloquently about the hardships of the adjunct professor who has to teach five classes in three universities in a semester just to make ends meet? Or about the sense of alienation which might creep into a Latino student's mind as she hears for the umpteenth time about the same European philosophers? This is much harder to imagine. For Parfit is not a neutral observer in the current state of affairs. Parfit can stand up and speak on behalf of that adjunct professor, but not without first acknowledging how his own professional career has been made possible by the very institutional structures which propagate situations like that of that adjunct professor. If Parfit tries to speak about the injustice of the adjunct professor's situation, without first acknowledging how he has benefited from the way the institution is set up, then it would seem as if Parfit is being two-faced, duplicitous, trying to have it both ways. But given that he has benefited from the institutional set up, how can Parfit distance himself from the institution without seeming ungrateful?

December 23, 2014

Out of the Fly Bottle

"Don't think, but look!" This is one of Wittgenstein's main exhortations. It is a recurring theme in the Investigations, where Wittgenstein in case after case tries to highlight how often in philosophy what we tend to think reflects a picture we have become captive to rather than a reflection of how things actually are.

One way Wittgenstein himself failed to live up to this idea is his general ahistoricism. For someone who emphasized so much looking to the use of sentences, it is striking that he let himself make claims about the nature of philosophy without looking to see how philosophy actually functioned in the past. Or in different traditions. When Socrates in 5th century BC Greece asked, "What is justice?", in what ways was such a question used? When Shankara in 8th century India asserted that our ordinary experience of objects in an illusion, what was the use of that assertion? When Descartes in 17th century France asked himself if he was being deceived by a malicious demon, what was the use of that question?
 
Imagine Socrates asking, "What is justice?" Now imagine a contemporary philosophy professor raising in class the question "What is justice?" What are the differences in use between these two instances of the question? Are the two uses different? Wittgenstein seemed to assume they were the same, that he could dismiss in the same breath Russell, Descartes and Socrates altogether. As if there was some one bad thing all of them did. That philosophers throughout history have done. It is an amazing to see Wittgenstein essentialize philosophers, treating them as if there was some one thing they all have in common.
 
Wittgenstein's ahistoricism, together with his idea that much contemporary philosophy was confused, lead him to a dead end. It led him to the idea that all there was to do was to get rid of our confusions, and then move blissfully on. It led him to give up the idea of positive projects in philosophy. After all, if philosophers through out history have been making the same mistakes, then how can there be any positive philosophy?
 
But Wittgenstein was in the grips of a picture, and it held him captive.

December 21, 2014

A Dialogue

Having submitted this prospectus a few weeks ago to his dissertation advisor Krishna Rama Rao, Bharath is seated in his advisor's office. They are meeting to talk about the prospectus.

Krishna: This is a very interesting piece of writing. Clearly you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it seems to mean a lot to you. I respect that. There is much in it to talk about, content wise, and I would like to do that another time. But today let's talk about if this can be a thesis. I don't think this can be accepted as a prospectus. I don't say this easily, but we can talk about the reasons why.

Bharath: Is it that what I wrote isn't good enough? That I am not as good a philosopher as Wittgenstein?

Krishna: No, that's not it. I don't know how one can make such a claim about someone who is still a student. Or even later for that matter. Your talent as a philosopher isn't the relevant issue. We can set it aside.

Bharath: So, Krishna, what is it then? Why can't I write like this if it was good enough for Wittgenstein?

Krishna: Well, let's also set aside the issue of what was good enough for Wittgenstein. Frankly, the academia he was a part of is no more. And that is a good thing. If any one benefited from the old-boys-club framework, it was Wittgenstein. This is not a claim on his character, or Russell's, or any one else. But they didn't have to deal with the issues of academia opening up to most people in society the way we in the 21st century have to. Let's focus instead on the question: Assuming that the Investigations is good philosophy, and it is so in part because of its form of writing, why can't you write like that for your thesis? Ok?

Bharath: Ok.

Krishna: Let me start by asking you a question: are you getting this PhD in order to become a philosophy professor? Or are you doing it just as a way to do philosophy without thinking about your career or your future?

Bharath: I am not sure. I haven't decided about that.

Krishna: If you are in this graduate program just to do philosophy for five to seven years without thinking about your future career, then in principle you can write your thesis in the Wittgensteinian way. Because then, as I see it, you are sacrificing thinking about your career in order to write however you want right now. But, let me say, I don't recommend this, unless you happen to be independently wealthy. A few years from now, you will need a job, something that can give you stability so that you can take other risks in your life. No point taking such a big risk right now without a safety net, just because Wittgenstein did it. He did have a safety net, both in terms of his family wealth and the prestige he had as a thinker. Without either, it would be fool hardy to emulate Wittgenstein.

Bharath: Ok, yes, let's say I do want to be a philosophy professor. So I am not sure I want to burn all my bridges right now just to write however I want to. But if I want to be a professor, why can't I write like Wittgenstein? After all, you are a professor, and you teach the Investigations, and you say how important it is to take the manner of writing of that text seriously. If you can teach the text as a professor, why can't I write in that manner in order to become a professor?

Krishna: Good question. In order to answer that, let's start a few steps back. You want to be a philosophy professor. So let me ask you, how do you think the philosophy profession should be structured? In particular, do you think that the profession should value being inclusive to a diversity of ways of doing philosophy, say bringing together different traditions, histories, texts and so on?

Bharath: Yes, certainly. I think the profession right now is pretty insular. It needs to open up more, and be more inclusive.

Krishna: Do you think professors writing like Wittgenstein will help the profession be more pluralistic and inclusive?

Bharath: Definitely. Why should everyone have to write in the journal format, in the same cookie cutter way? That is not diversity. That is one-dimensional thinking. The more ways of writing we can foster, the better.


December 18, 2014

Past Blog

I had a blog from April to November of 2002. It was my first blog. In it I was trying to make sense of my leaving academia, and in particular, to figure out what kind of a positive philosophy project I can have outside academia. Not that different from this blog.
 
Though at a certain point while writing that blog I came upon a familiar feeling: the sense that what I was doing was somehow problematic, that it is better if I didn't write this way, that maybe it is a form of self-indulgence. That I need to let go of it if I am to move forward. So I closed the blog. Made it private. Then deleted it. Nonetheless, luckily, I kept copies of the posts in my email.
 
Seeing again my old prospectus from a dozen years ago, I was reminded of my blog from two years ago. It made me wonder: why in my life have I had this inclination to keep deleting or throwing things away? Why do I at those moments have the feeling that if I am to grow I need to destroy any semblance of that past? Is this pathological? Or is there some other explanation?
 
One kind of explanation is that I am a perfectionist. But this doesn't ring true to me. I never had a problem letting others see what I was writing, even when they were in draft form. Nor did I have any worries that others would steal my ideas. It always seemed to me that ideas are communal property, and it doesn't matter who publishes what, or who gets where first. Sharing the ideas, acting on them, collaborating is what matters.
 
Another explanation, which seems more true to me, is that I have lived my life so far with a slew of schisms. American/Indian. Religious/Secular. Professional/non-professional. Eastern/Western. Schisms which have often felt so sharp and so deep that it seemed impossible to reconcile the divisions or to bring them together into a unified whole. Most of my intellectual life has been an attempt at trying to bridge these gaps, heal the schisms. Not primarily to help the world or to do good. But mainly, and firstly, to help myself. To heal myself from these schisms. To find a voice I can claim as my own, which can sound with the unity of my being, rather than just as an expression of this or that side of the divide.
 

December 15, 2014

Prospectus

In the previous post I talked about the Wittgenstein prospectus I wrote in 2002. After I decided back then not to pursue that prospectus I got rid of the copies I had of it. Seeing my recent post on that prospectus, my brother sent me an email with a draft of that prospectus attached. It turned out I had sent it to him back then and he now found it in an archive he kept from that time.

The prospectus is here.

December 12, 2014

What is a Dissertation?

The first time I was a teaching assistant was in the Fall of 2001 for Warren Goldfarb's course on the Later Wittgenstein. The experience blew my mind.

At Cornell a few years earlier I had tried to write a senior thesis with Sydney Shoemaker on Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's private language argument. Like my essay on Quine, the senior thesis didn't make it to completion, as I abandoned it after the Fall semester. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about Kripke's reading seemed off, as if it almost willfully ignored Wittgenstein's meta-philosophy and his mode of writing. Combining what I liked about Wittgenstein with engaging with Kripke's text seemed too hard at the time.

My first year at Harvard was Hilary Putnam's last year before retirement, and Stanley Cavell was retired, though still teaching once in a while. As it happened, Harvard was the only graduate program I had gotten into, but I felt it was the best choice for me as I was excited to take courses with Putnam and Cavell. The excitement soon wore off. In my first year I audited a course on Wittgenstein being given by Putnam, and there was no syllabus to speak of other than a list of topics Putnam had written down on a piece of paper. It soon became clear the course was more on Putnam than on Wittgenstein, and that too with Putnam mostly speaking off the top of his head. There were the usual oppositions of how Kripke was wrong and Cora Diamond was amazing, but it didn't seem to me much insight was being generated as much as generalizations being drawn in broad strokes of who is misguided and who is deep. I dropped the course after a few weeks.

In my second year Cavell was offering a course on, if I recall correctly, Austin and Derrida. I was excited to audit the class. But when I started attending the class, the feeling I was mostly left with was that what was happening in the class was passé. In one of the early weeks, at the beginning of the class, Cavell described how when he was a graduate student at Harvard one day he got a call out of the blue with a job offer from Berkeley. He took it, and several years later while at Berkeley, he again got a call out of the blue with a tenured offer from Harvard. He took it again. He said he had never had a job interview in his life, and that perhaps that kind of freedom was essential to do the kind of work he does. To the class filled mostly with graduate students from philosophy, literature and other departments, he offered a somewhat sympathetic sigh and wondered what his career might have been if he was a graduate student now. It seemed to me that the graduate students listened to Cavell's job trajectory, how it happened, with disbelief, as if we were watching a mermaid come to shore. Some seemed to find Cavell's bemoaning the current state of affairs heroic. I found it evasive. If his kind of philosophy could only be done with the freedom he was given, what were the rest of us supposed to do? Since he was silent on this question, it seemed to me he was basically saying: "Tough luck." Soon I stopped auditing the course.

Against this background, being a teaching assistant for Goldfarb's course was a revelation. Cleared of all the clutter and hand waving which Putnam and Cavell seemed to do in class, Goldfarb gave meticulous, pointed, crisp lectures. (You can listen to a talk by Goldfarb here to get a sense for his lectures.) Goldfarb seemed to bring the precision of a logician to a text as unruly as the Investigations without, unlike Kripke, ignoring Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy. If anything, the main thing that excited me about Goldfarb's lectures was how, like Cavell, he insisted on taking the mode of writing of the Investigations seriously. Why was this paragraph next to that paragraph? Why did Wittgenstein write as he did rather than in an essay form? Goldfarb seemed to take these questions seriously, and he integrated them seamlessly into questions of what Wittgenstein believed, or didn't believe, or refused to believe, or allowed himself to believe, on topics such as consciousness, rule following and reference. Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class was the first time I remember feeling I really belonged in academic philosophy.
 
Which is not to say I completely agreed with Goldfarb or followed him to a tee. No doubt one of the reasons I enjoyed the class was that, being the first time I was a teaching assistant, it was the first time I got to get in front of a bunch of people and in sections express what I thought. If I was simply a student I might have been disgruntled by the overly analytic focus of the course. But as a teaching assistant I was able to integrate into the sections things which I felt were important, probably in a way which Goldfarb himself would have deemed misguided. Whereas Goldfarb connected Wittgenstein in the standard way to Frege, Russell and Moore, in section I gave myself the freedom to think out loud about how Wittgenstein connected to Socrates, Kierkegaard or Heidegger. Whereas Goldfarb seemed to ignore Wittgenstein's ascetic life style, I raised questions in section of how Wittgenstein sought to live his life and what he made of academia and philosophy professors. At the time I used to walk around with a small copy of the Tao Te Ching in my pocket, and I remember in one section opening the Tao and connecting it to something Wittgenstein was saying his text. This might seem disconnected from discussions of mind, meaning and rule following. But what was amazing was how easily with Wittgenstein one could go from talking about the Augustinian conception of language to talking about the human condition. Allowing Wittgenstein's mode of writing to be taken seriously was a breath of fresh air, and it seemed to open everything up. It was glorious.

December 3, 2014

Stepping into the Future

I left academic philosophy three and a half years ago in order to pursue philosophy from outside academia. I started this blog two months ago in order to think through in a public way what philosophy from outside academia can look like.

But much of my thinking of the last three years, like much of my writing on this blog so far, has been focused on academic philosophy and its current limitations. Though I want to think about the possibilities outside academia, I keep coming back over and over again to what currently feels impossible within academia. Why is this?

It is because even though I am out of academia, I can feel how much of a grip academia has on my mind. On my habits of thought. On my sense of myself and who I see as my interlocutors. I crossed the line. Stepped over the abyss. I am here now outside academia. It's been three years, but the shock of finding myself on this side of the line is still vivid for me. A part of me asks myself, "What I am doing here? Shouldn't I be over there, with them, the professors? Wasn't I one of them? Shouldn't I still be one of them?" In the last year I have regularly read the philosophy blogs - DailyNous, Feminist Philosophers, NewApps, Leiter Reports, Digressions and Impressions, Up@Night, Philosophymetablog - and I imagine I am still talking to them, that perhaps I haven't really crossed the line, that maybe the line doesn't matter.

But, of course, it does matter. It is one thing to blog about improving academic philosophy from within. Even the harshest such critic is committed to improving it form within. This means what that person is helping build is something they are already a part of, and so even their criticism is a part of something constructive. But if one is outside of academia, in a day to day sense one is not a part of something constructive in the same way. For me, academia is in the rear view mirror, and no matter how much my blogging might contribute to improving academia, it doesn't have the feeling of improving structures within which I currently exist.

It is intrinsic to training to be an academic philosopher that one feels that it is within academic philosophy that the future of philosophy lies. I want to start accepting a basic fact: I left academic philosophy because I don't believe this anymore. I believe rather that the future of philosophy is outside academia. 

When I imagine the future, I see a strong, diverse institution of academic philosophy. But I see that future is only made possible by there being even stronger structures of non-academic philosophy. I sense within myself that academic philosophy, left to itself, will collapse into itself. It is trapped within academic structures which, more and more, will become part of the day to day hub of life, not set apart from everyday society, but at the very center of it. And this will happen not because academia is selling its soul, but because in an information and technological society, academia cannot stand part from society, but must be at its heart. But this comes at a cost. And that is that the contrarian, gadfly vocation of philosophy will become harder and harder to flourish within academia. The specialization of academic philosophy is just the beginning of this. Over time more and more people will leave academic philosophy, not only because the jobs will diminish, but because people's desire to think for themselves will find an outlet only outside academia.

I don't bemoan this future, or the difficulties academic philosophy is going to have in the future. It will get worse before it gets better. But it is necessary. As it is now, academic philosophy in America is insular, Eurocentric and disconnected from most of society. The idea that changes will happen in due course from within itself is an illusion, a fantasy. Why should I still be beholden to that fantasy when academic philosophy makes clear over and over again that it cares so little for my experiences in academia? Should I fight to get recognized in academic philosophy, to be taken seriously, only to meet the same blinkered look of indifference time and time again? No. Not me. I prefer venturing out of academia, and helping to create new communities, new structures, ones which are not so beholden to the past, not so weighed down by history and momentum. Academic philosophy is the past. The future lies out there, beyond all current institutions.