May 16, 2015

New Blog

I have started a new blog: In Search of an Ideal.

In "The Rough Ground" I tried to express some of my experiences in academic philosophy, and think about some structural features of academia. This blog, like its predecessor "Philosophy in Everyday Life", was therefore mostly critical and was stating some of the problems.

What, though, are the solutions? That is what I want to think about now. In order to do that I find it helpful to step back from my own experiences, and take a broader perspective. That is the aim of the new blog.

March 8, 2015

Beyond the City

If we think of academia as a big city, then for many years I lived near the center of the city. During that time I often loved the city. But at other times I also felt stifled in the city. I longed to break free. Then four years ago I decided to do it, and started my journey out of the city. At first I thought just because I was no longer an academic I was out of the city. But this wasn't the case. I was moving away from the center of the city, on my way out of it. But for the past couple of years I have still been within the broader realm of the city, just now on its outskirts, which is the philosophy blogosphere.

And for the past six months I have had this blog, which has been mainly addressed to the philosophy profession. Most of my traffic has probably been academic philosophers who got to my blog through other philosophy blogs. So in these past months I have been like a person who got on a soap-box at the edge of the city talking about some of the problems with the city. I have had some great conversations with some people who, for various reasons, are themselves on, or feel as if they are on, the outskirts of the city. A few times a lot of people came to listen to me, mainly because I was saying what seemed to be personal things about some people at the center of the city. But as I stopped saying such things, the crowd dwindled again as they went back to their busy lives within the city.

As I realize that while writing this blog I am on the outskirts of the city, and so within a space which is still oriented towards the city, I feel again the pull to explore new lands beyond the city. The pull which started my movement out of the city four years ago. Out there is where my future, and this has been a stop along the way.

Why has it been so hard for me to leave the city? Why have I not gotten beyond the outskirts even in these past few years? I realize now it is partly because of my anxiety as an immigrant. I took shelter in the city because I was afraid of the wars happening outside the city: the fighting, the distrust, the anger of race relations, religion and reason, the clash of cultures. The city seemed to be a safe haven from such fighting, and that was its initial and greatest appeal to me. But now the fighting has entered the city itself, and it is no longer a safe haven. The fighting outside the city is starting to happen inside the city, and it will happen until it will be the same fighting inside and outside the city. That was what I have been trying to say from my soap-box on the outskirts of the city: Behold, those within the city, you are no longer immune, the fighting has entered the city gates and no one will be spared; clinging to the illusion of peace will only make it more painful when the illusion breaks, as it will for certain at some point in the coming future. Of course, I don't have to say this, as it is already evident to many within the city. I said it nonetheless for myself, so that I could hear it.

We live at a time when our lands are ravaged by internal war. Even the city which seemed immune is getting more and more caught up in that fighting. Can peace be found in such a time? Where can it be found? Each person has to find the peace within themselves, which can contribute to the peace outside. I venture beyond the city and its outskirts as I follow the voice of peace as it speaks to me.

March 7, 2015

What is a Liberal Arts College?

When I started at Bryn Mawr I was excited to be a professor at a liberal arts college. I loved the ideal of an education which focuses on the overall growth of the student, and I was eager to be part of structures which enabled that for students. As an undergrad at Cornell I got a liberal arts education, as it is commonly called, but the experience of the small, liberal arts college was foreign to me.

At Bryn Mawr I came to know students who chose to come there instead of going to a big university, either public or private. These students came with a contrast in mind between a liberal arts college and a professionalized university. Call this the contrast. As with any school, some students at Bryn Mawr seemed to find themselves there rather than actively haven chosen to be there. But other students seemed to thrive and revel in the fact that they were making a choice by coming to a college like Bryn Mawr, where they hoped that free of any professional training they could explore whatever they wanted and grow as human beings. As a professor, I was like these students. I had a choice to see if I wanted to teach at a university, and I chose the Bryn Mawr experience instead. I too, like the students, was driven by the sense of the contrast. I hoped the contrast was true, and that being at Bryn Mawr would offer me a different way of being an academic than I had seen at Cornell and Harvard.

The contrast was played up by administrators at Bryn Mawr. It was an easy thing to fall back on to sell the college. The reason to choose Bryn Mawr was encapsulated by two messages. First, a liberal arts college might be better for you than a university, and second, as a woman, being at a woman's college might be better for you than a co-ed school. I wasn't sure I believed the latter. Or, at any rate, I wasn't sure what to think about that. I thought it was good that students had the choice to go to a women's college. But naturally for myself it was the first message which moved me: yes, I thought to myself, universities are professionalized spaces, where one is dictated to by the professional norms, whereas at a liberal arts college one can be more free of that. I was in the grip of the contrast, and hoped it was true.

March 5, 2015


What I enjoyed the most being a professor was teaching. Being in the classroom, engaging with the students, pursuing collaboratively ideas and lines of argument, seeing the students discover their voices and doing what I could to help with that.

What I enjoyed the least about being a professor was grading. Even more than the pressure to publish. To not put too fine a point on it, but I hated grading. When I had a stack of papers to grade, I would go to the local Starbucks and some other cafe, fill myself with caffeine and sugar, and plow through the essays. 15-20 minutes per 5 page essay. If I had a stack of 20 essays, that's five to six hours. And more if I tried to not give the same set of hackneyed comments on paper after paper.

I was lucky to be at a small liberal arts colleges, where, compared to big universities, I didn't have that many papers to grade. I taught five courses a year. Two intro courses, with about 25 students in each. A couple of mid-level courses, with anywhere from 10-25 students in them. And a seminar with 6-12 students. So maybe a 100-125 students a year. Not bad. A semester is 13 weeks, and I had roughly 4-5 papers in each class. Since I wanted students to have the opportunity to write a fair bit, they had essays due every three weeks or so. Teaching 2 or 3 classes a semester, that ends up meaning grading every week or every other week. There were no teaching assistants, and so the grading was up to me.

However, what I disliked the most about grading wasn't the time, or reading similar essays over and over again. My current job is a bit repetitive, and I don't mind it. I can handle repetitive work; doing the same thing over and over again. No, what bothered me about the grading was the question which nagged me at the back of my mind every time I picked up an essay to grade: Am I being unfair in the criteria I am using to grade this paper? There are three aspects to this worry. A) What criteria am I using to grade? B) What justifies the criteria? And C) Can that criteria really be applied neutrally to all the students in the class?

March 4, 2015

Job Market

I went on the job market in the academic year 2007-08. If I am honest with myself, I realize I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to continue in academic philosophy. I was already not quite identifying with my dissertation, even though (as I note here) I believed in what I was writing. And I wasn't sure what academic philosophy was exactly, what it could be, and how I fit into it. The idea that for a year I would have to ignore such questions, and boil down my dissertation into bit sized chunks of 5 minute spiels, writing sample, job talk and so on was unappealing. I wasn't against the professionalization of the job process, since it seemed that was the only way to counteract the institutional biases in the discipline. But as someone who was already feeling unsure about my place and future in academic philosophy, I experienced the need to put a professional stamp on my identity as forcing me to identify with practices which I wasn't sure I wanted to identify with. I imagine there can be a way to enjoy the experience more, though at that time I didn't find it. To some extent my very ambivalence about getting a job protected me from the natural insecurity and self-doubt the job market can foster.

The eastern APA was in DC that year. I went down from Cambridge with 7 or 8 interviews. In a way I find bizarre now, back then I used to even resist tucking in my shirt as that seemed to be too professional or being part of the system. So wearing a suit seemed not an option to me. I got my best pant and dress shirt, put on a new sweater on top, dusted off some dress shoes I had bought for my brother's wedding and that was my uniform. I don't say this with pride. To the contrary, at least for myself, I see it as I was so generally confused, and seemed to put stock in irrelevant things so much, treating this minor thing as caving in and that minor thing as standing my ground, that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I was not happy, but it cannot all be put on the job market. My own ambivalence was a part of the cause.

March 1, 2015

Academic Writing

When I was in academia I often didn't identify with what I wrote. I experienced my writings as modes of expression in which I was trapped, and within which I couldn't express my deeper feelings about academia. I see now this was because some of what I wanted to express back then were the kind of things I have been saying on this blog, and the essay writing I was learning to become a professional philosopher was not making possible the kind of sharing which this blog enabled for me. This doesn't mean I didn't really believe what I wrote in those academic essays. Only, until I could express myself about what I felt in academia, I couldn't embrace my own academic writing as speaking for me.

Recently I found the main essays I wrote as an academic. My dissertation and other essays. Things I didn't really try to publish or to present at conferences. This blog seems as good a place as any for to me put them. To remind myself that even with all the other stuff I have been talking about on this blog, I was also a normal academic, or one who was trying to learn and develop his views. These are essays I have written in the past decade, and so naturally I don't agree with everything in them. But they do capture the general framework of my beliefs, and it is helpful to realize that yes, this is roughly what I believe.

A few things I wrote as a graduate student:
* Action Without Inner Representations: An essay I presented at the dissertation workshop at Harvard, though this essay was not part of my thesis. At the time I was reading parts of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, and I tried to connect for myself that reading with my education.
* Toward a Direct Realism of Communication: This was an essay I co-authored with my brother Gautam Vallabha, who was at the time a post-doc in psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He was in psychology and I was in philosophy, and to our mutual surprise it turned out both of us were having similar views oriented towards, broadly speaking, embodied cognition. This essay was an attempt to bring together issues in speech perception, which was the focus of his work, with issues in ordinary language philosophy and phenomenology, which was the focus of my work. Working on this essay was one of the highlights of my time in academia, and one of the few times there was a kind of bridge between my school and my home life. We tried to publish the essay in a few places, but it didn't work out, and we got too busy with other things. Gautam left academia a few years before me and he currently works as a computer scientist, though his experience of the transition might be different from mine. There are of course many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* Dewey's Neutral Monism: This was an essay I co-authored with my then friend, and now wife, Zoe. She was an undergraduate taking Peter Godfrey-Smith's class on Pragmatism, which I was auditing as a graduate student, and we got interested by something Godfrey-Smith said in class about Dewey, and the essay was our attempt to articulate what we found exciting. What we attribute in the essay to Godfrey-Smith might not capture what he believes, and to see what he thinks you should look at his work on Dewey. Zoe and I didn't think of this as something for publication, as much as something to get some of our ideas down on paper. Zoe decided not to pursue academic philosophy, though her experiences as a philosophy student, and her reasons for making this decision, might not be the same as mine. Again, there are many ways to leave academia, and many kinds of stories.
* On Dreyfus and Kelly on Dennett: This was an email I wrote to Sean Kelly about the essay he co-authored with Hubert Dreyfus on Dennett's view of heterophenomenology. Normally when I tried to engage with philosophers about their views I would become unnerved in some way about the fact of the interaction. I see now this was because unable to express my background concerns about the profession, I felt ungrounded while engaging in the ordinary business of philosophy. This letter is one of the times when I was free of such worries, and was able to engage just with the ideas.
My dissertation:
* Agency and the Mind-Body Problem: The thesis consisted of four essays. The first was on Chalmers' zombie argument for dualism, in which I argue against the conceivability of a zombie world. The second is on David Lewis' argument for functionalism, which I argue misdescribes folk psychology. The third and fourth essays argue against Kantian views of action as defended by John McDowell and Christine Korsgaard.
Some things I wrote while I was at Bryn Mawr:
* The Abilities Theory of Belief: I wrote this in the Fall of 2010, and sent it to a few journals as part of my reapplication process mid-way through my time till tenure review. In it I argue that beliefs are abilities, which are different from behavior or dispositions to behave.
* Reason, Faith and Self-Transformation: A grant proposal I wrote in Fall 2010, again as part of my reapplication process. It is the beginning of my connecting issues in the philosophy of mind to topics in the philosophy of religion, multiculturalism and broader issues of secularism.
* The Unity of Religions: An unfinished essay. In it I try to say what it means to say all religions have a essential unity, and why that is right.
* Truth and Power in Education: An essay for an group online blog and magazine at Bryn Mawr, Serendip, it is also part of The Breaking Project, a collection of essays edited by Alice Lesnick. I wrote the essay as I was trying to make sense of some of what I felt didn't work in my education, and what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.
* Rorty, Non-Foundationalism and Story-telling: A blog exchange I had with biologist Paul Grobstein on Rorty, relativism and academia. Paul, who passed away in 2011, was a great influence on me, and a wonderful inspiration for me, while I was at Bryn Mawr.
* The Work of Being a Person: This is not something I wrote, but it is a student's notes of a  guest discussion I led in Spring 2010 in a literature course on the James Family taught by Anne Dalke. The discussion was based on our reading of William James' essay "The Types of Philosophical Thinking". In part the discussion considers the issue of whether the kind of philosophy James espoused could be professionalized or taught in a classroom.

February 24, 2015

Building on Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein's philosophy can be divided into three parts: the Problem, the Cause and the Solution.

The problem is a view about what is wrong with much of contemporary philosophy, and which has its roots in the Early Modern period. The problem can be stated simply: It is the attempt to understand human life in terms of the categories of the natural sciences, i.e. the new sciences as discovered in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Here is an example of this problem: identifying mental states with brain states. The appeal of this view is the hope that by explaining mental facts in terms of the purportedly more basic physical facts - that of the brain - the mind can be understood in a objective way. The fundamental thrust of Wittgenstein's view is the idea that this kind of "explaining" is vacuous, as it has only the form of an explanation (with the mental phenomena being re-described in physical terms) but doesn't really provide an explanation. Saying we are conscious because we are in a certain brain state is like saying it rains because the rain-God is making it happen. In the rain case, one is taking a certain form of explanation ("Why is the grass wet?" - "Because John poured water there") which we are familiar with in certain situations, and applying it to a different situation and assuming it must be applicable ("Why is it raining?" - "Because God is pouring water"). Same in the consciousness case. We take a form of explanation from one proven area ("Why don't we float off into the air?" - "Because we are made up of atoms to which gravity applies") and apply it to a different situation ("Why do we have any consciousness?" - "Because our brain is made up of atoms which move in certain ways.").

The cause seeks to explain why the problem is so persistent. Why is it that we seek to understand human life through the categories of the natural sciences? Wittgenstein's answer is: it is because we are mislead by language by the surface similarities of how we describe the phenomenon and the types of explanations we are seeking. In effect, according to Wittgenstein, there is a kind of mistake we keep making because our minds and habits are just set up in the way to keep making such mistakes.

The solution seeks to explain how we can overcome the problem. Since according to Wittgenstein, the cause is our being mislead by language, the solution is not being mislead by language. We have to bring words back to their everyday use. We have to resist the bewitchment of language, etc.

Wittgenstein was profoundly right about the problem. But his view of the cause and the solution are completely vacuous. In fact, Wittgenstein's answers to the cause and to the solution are themselves perfect examples of answers which have the form of an explanation but which don't explain anything. "Why is it so tempting to understand the mind in terms of the brain? - Because it is a temptation intrinsic to our lives and language." "What can we do to avoid this temptation? - We have to avoid the cause which draws us into the temptation." Really, that's the best you got Wittgenstein? Thanks, but no thanks. That's not very helpful.

There are actually much simpler and clearer answers to the cause and the solution. Wittgenstein didn't think of these possibilities because of his generally a-historical and a-institutional approach to philosophy. But if we don't treat the problem as some profound battle of the soul to avoid bewitchment by philosophy, but treat it as just a normal sociological, historical and institutional problem, then very different answers for the cause and the solution present themselves.

February 21, 2015

Friendship Moderates

In the previous post I said there are two ways in which academic philosophy is being professionalized: what I called Internal Push, which is academics trying to professionalize themselves so that there are some explicit, discipline wide norms, and External Push, which is the discipline being professionalized due to the broader commercialization of academia. Both Internal Push and External Push are a threat to Protection, which is the ideal that as an academic one is given some money to basically think about whatever one wants, and which is supposed to guarantee that an academic job will have the freedom unavailable in non-academic jobs.

I also distinguished in the last post three approaches one might take to professionalization in academia. A conservative is an academic who resists both Internal Push and External Push as a way to retain Protection in its old fashioned form. A moderate is one who tries to have Internal Push but without External Push; so which tries to have autonomy as a profession from broader economic forces, but then seeks to use that autonomy to legislate laws to itself which apply to the profession as a whole. And a radical is one who embraces both Internal Push and External Push, and gives up on Protection in the old-fashioned sense and accepts that in important ways an academic job is just another job like any other.

The appeal of Conservatism is obvious: if one has a very robust sense of academic freedom, then one doesn't want anyone, including fellow academic philosophers, telling one how one should be an academic. The problem with Conservatism is equally obvious: without a push to have discipline wide norms, the status quo remains as it is, and so doesn't address the pressing issues concerning minorities, lack of jobs, etc. A conservative in this sense, like conservative Republicans in politics, can acknowledge that academic philosophy has many big problems, but sees doing anything that endangers Protection as going from the frying pan to the fire. The process of change has to be slow and individual: over time the norms will change if each person chooses to be different, but, on this view, no one should be forced to change. Forcing change, either from the administrators or from people sympathetic to, say, Feminist philosophy, is seen by a conservative as akin to coercion.

I can understand the conservative's argument, but I am not moved by it. The concept of freedom and Protection that underlies Conservatism is too extreme, and I don't think it is worth retaining. The conservative makes it seem as if the freedom as an academic is something intrinsic to each academic, as if just in virtue of being an academic one acquires a special freedom. But here intrinsic is being used just as a code word for untouchable, as if no one should disturb it. There is, however, nothing intrinsic about academic freedom in the sense that it is granted from on high, or from within one's soul as an academic. The freedom one has as an academic is bought at the cost of other academics not having such freedoms, and the ideal that every academic can have the freedoms of a Wittgenstein or a Rawls is a fantasy. Fill in here one's favorite liberal argument for welfare, universal healthcare, etc., and apply it to academic philosophy.

If one gives up Conservatism, and wants to be a moderate, then one faces a pressing question: what binds all academic philosophers together such that they can agree the laws they legislate to themselves bind them all? It can't be something as abstract as rational beings, since that would apply to non-academic philosophers as well. And it can't be something as concrete as culture, since academic philosophers come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

February 20, 2015

Freedom and Professionalization

One appeal of philosophy is that it enables one to reflect on any aspect of life, without external constraints. Want to think about mind, culture, values, art? Go ahead. When doing philosophy you don't have to take other people's ideas for granted, or live under their tyranny. You can reflect for yourself. Start afresh. Be your own person. Call this the freedom of philosophy (Freedom, for short).

For a long time I wanted to be a philosophy professor because I assumed that it was the best way to have the freedom of philosophy. If I was a non-academic, wouldn't I have to make myself fit into the norms of society, be trapped within social constraints and pressures? I looked at my family, most of whom were non-academics, and looked at them with a kind of pity that they had to do what their bosses wanted them to do, had to move like sheep within the social structures, and had to define themselves by already preexisting roles and identities. I wanted to avoid that. Where could I get the freedom to just think and become whoever I wanted to be? Like many people, I fell in love with philosophy because it seemed to provide that freedom. I wanted that more, for the rest of my life. So I wanted to be a philosophy professor. Call this the protection of academic philosophy (Protection).

As a graduate student and a professor I started to realize that academic philosophy has lots of problems. Lots of ways in which it needs to improve in order to become even a nominally fair institution to all of its members. I also started to feel that part of what made things worse is that there was no shared sense in academia about how academic philosophers should act, what norms they should all follow. It seemed to be a free for all, where anyone for the most part can do, or atleast try to do, anything, as long as they have tenure. This very freedom seemed to be an obstacle for creating meaningful change in the profession. Perhaps I want the profession to be a certain way; well, somebody else doesn't. What then? Nothing seemed to follow. All there would be were fraught department meetings or repressed agressions, but outwardly no confrontation was possible. For confrontation presupposed that there were some norms that apply to all of us, and that we are bound by them. And people wanted to protect their own freedom too much to adhere to such shared norms. So I started to care more about having such shared norms, as a way to make progress in changing the profession. Call this the internal push for professionalization (Internal Push).

February 12, 2015

I Don't Know ...

I am an Indian-American. I have brown skin. I think I speak with an Indian accent, though I am not sure. Some people have told me my accent is pretty thick (in spite my growing up in America since I was 11), and others have told me I don't have an accent. I am also someone who thinks that academic philosophy at the schools I went to in America is too Eurocentric. My being Indian-American and making the criticism of Eurocentrism might make one wonder what exactly I know and don't know.
So let me clarify what I don't know.
I don't know Sanskrit, Pali, or any other ancient Indian language. Regarding contemporary languages, I know enough Telugu (the language of my family) to speak with my family, and enough Hindi to watch Bollywood movies. That's it.
I don't know much Indian scholarly philosophy. When I come across names like Shankara or Nagarjuna I have a fuzzy warm feeling of identification, which is then immediately overshadowed by my awareness of how little I know about these authors' philosophical views. When I see titles of philosophical treatises like Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) or Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising), which I just lifted from the Wikipedia page on Nagarjuna, I feel a bit dizzy and out of sorts, like I am looking at something familiar and alien at the same time. It is similar to how I felt in high school when extended family members at a party would speak to me in Telugu, assuming that I could understand them perfectly, since after all I am one of them, and was in India till I was 11. What they didn't pick on was that I was struggling to understand them, and what I did understand was for me without many of the rich cultural resonances which they had for the adults in my family. Regarding Indian philosophy, it is obvious that many Indians and non-Indians know way more about Indian philosophy than I do, a fact which does not bother me, other than when I reflect on the fact that my education in America failed to provide me with even an inkling of such knowledge. When I think of contemporary Indian philosophy, I realize I know nothing of it.
I don't know Yoga or meditation. I don't know how to cook much Indian food (or American food for that matter). I don't know many Indian holidays or festivals, though I have some recollections from when I was in India and know some things from my family in America.

February 9, 2015

And So It Begins

Since I was in college twenty years ago I have been hearing of a time in the future when America will become majority minority, and it won't be a predominantly white country any more. When will this be exactly? It always felt somewhere in the future, twenty or thirty from now.

Demographically it is still 20-30 years away. But the awareness of that future is now here. I feel it in myself. The refusal I sense within me to listen any longer to only a Eurocentric tradition of philosophy - it is the refusal to let myself be defined by how society has been, and it is the will to claim that society has to reflect who I am, and not the other way around. No more will I cower and hide, thinking I am just a Indian-American who has to adjust into, and be grateful for my place in, the big white world of Abe Lincoln, Clint Eastwood and John Rawls. No. I am also an American, and if the society doesn't reflect the reality of my experiences, then it is not me that has to change, but it is society that has to change. And so it begins. In myself and in the millions of people who have hitherto been happy to just be in America, but who can no longer be happy that way, who can no longer just fit in.

It is sometimes said that academic philosophy has lagged behind the other humanities. That the other humanities have for the last thirty or forty years already started to become open to other cultures and traditions, and that yet, philosophy has remained doggedly unchanged.
I say it is the other way around. Academic philosophy is not lagging behind. Academic philosophy is not confronting something that Literature departments already confronted decades ago. No, because what academic philosophy is confronting is something much more radical than what the Literature departments had to confront. Academic philosophy is the cornerstone of the Eurocentrism of American society. And as it changes, it is a harbinger of the changes to come. It is the last, biggest and deepest foundation of America's claim to be mainly a white country, and the growing pains academic philosophy is starting to go through is but the beginning of the growing pains that America as a whole has to go through.

February 2, 2015

A Break

I have written this blog for four months and it has been a very beneficial experience. It has also been at times a draining experience, trying to combine writing the blog with my day job, other issues of day to day living, and taking care of my self physically and mentally. When I left academia I didn't explain to others what I was feeling then or why I left. That is part of the need I felt with this blog, to explain myself to some extent. Now it feels like a good time to take a break.

January 29, 2015

Top 20 Anglophone Philosophers

At Leiter Reports there are the results of a poll of the "Most Important Anglophone Philosophers 1945-2000". Over 500 people apparently voted, which is really not that many people. Still, the results, and even the way the poll is set up, are fascinating in several ways.

The first thing that jumps out is that the top 20 people listed went to a very small number of schools. Of course, these philosophers taught, and were educated, at different schools, but here are some of the schools they were at:

Oxford: Armstrong, Anscombe, Austin, Dummett, Grice, Ryle, Sellars, Strawson, Williams
Harvard: Davidson, Kripke, Kuhn, Lewis, Nagel, Quine, Chomsky (Society of Fellows), Putnam (before getting PhD at UCLA)
Princeton: Fodor, Nozick, Rawls

As Faculty:
Oxford: Anscombe, Austin, Dummett, Ryle, Strawson
Harvard: Nozick, Putnam, Quine, Rawls
Princeton: Kripke, Lewis, Nagel
MIT: Chomsky, Fodor, Kuhn
Berkeley: Davidson, Grice
Pittsburgh: Sellars
Cambridge: Williams
Sydney: Armstrong

When I forget where these philosophers were educated or taught, it can feel as if these philosophers' views are so different, as if they cover the vast expanse of the philosophical landscape. But then when I remember that these twenty philosophers went to a small circle of schools, were in classes with each other, took classes from one another, met each other at the same conferences, then they seem so insular, as if they are just the 20 top bishops of the Anglophone Church, groomed and chosen by from within so as to continue the institutional structures they were a part of.

January 26, 2015

What is Academic Philosophy?

Dear Earlier Self,

I am writing this to you as you are taking your first philosophy courses in college. You are seventeen, a freshman in college and you are trying to make sense of it all: what is academic philosophy and how does it relate to the broader society. I am now thirty-seven, went through academic philosophy as a student and a professor, and I am trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps what I say might be helpful to you.

You are in America at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, taking courses from people called "philosophy professors". What is this institution and how did this designation of philosophy professors come about? While you are in the class it feels as if the institution of philosophy is thousands of years old, as if what is happening in the classroom is directly tied to the beginnings of human civilization in a direct, unbroken chain. In a sense, that is true. In another sense, it is necessary to see the historical changes which created the classrooms you are sitting in.

Where should I begin the history? With the big bang 14 billion years ago, with the Neanderthals 500,000 years ago, with the rise of agricultural societies 15,000 years ago?  There are many perspectives, temporal and global, from which to tell this story.

In order to connect it to the story you are being told in classes, I will begin with Socrates around 500BC in Greece. What happened then? A miracle when the first philosophers were fully formed out of nothingness? No. Every society has its grand narratives: where it came from, where it is going, what obstacles it faces. The prevalent grand narratives at a given time are tied up with the main institutional structures of that time. Over time, institutional structures come and go, and during such times of changes, questions come up about the meaning, nature and future of human beings. This is the renewable source of philosophy: the transition from one institutional framework to another, and it has been happening as long as there have been human beings. And it happened once more in Ancient Greece.

January 21, 2015

The Mind-Body Problem

This article in the Guardian is a great example of a standard narrative about the mind-body problem. Beyond the bizarre glamorizing of the same half dozen or dozen thinkers (philosophers as rock n roll stars, drinking espressos, talking philosophy while on a yacht around Greenland, etc.), there is much here to think about. And not just because it is a article written for a non-academic audience. The central moves in the article are ones which are endemic to academic philosophy of mind.

A central theme can be found in these paragraphs:
By the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson [in 1994], science had been vigorously attempting to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time. The source of the animosity dates back to the 1600s, when René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come....
The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God. This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing assumption into the 18th century and the early days of modern brain study. But it was always bound to grow unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientific establishment that took physicalism – the position that only physical things exist – as its most basic principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo.
It was only in 1990 that Francis Crick, the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his position of eminence to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness could no longer be ignored.
On this retelling, there is a connection between philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion. According to it, dualism used to be a religious view, having to do with souls, the limits of science, and the glory of God. Then with modern science secularism came on the scene, and all the nonsense about dualism, and with it the stuff about the need for God went out the window. But in the process science couldn't actually explain consciousness. And this was supposedly brought out by people like Crick, Koch, Nagel, Chalmers and McGinn. Against them are the hard core science people such as the Churchlands and Dennett who see the mysterians as losing nerve about the possibilities of science, and so unwittingly aiding the confused, religious people, and so aiding the opponents of secularism.

January 20, 2015

Retire the Word "Minority"

Why is there not more progress in academic philosophy on the issues of diversity and plurality? According to one view it is because tenured professors are not doing enough. If only the people with job security did more for the cause, things would be better. I am tempted by this idea myself sometimes. But the trouble with it is: What should the tenured people do? They should do something, and they should do much more of it than they are doing. Yes. But what is that something? That is not so clear.

Another view is that the terms in which diversity is being discussed are confusing the issues, and making it hard to get a perspicuous understanding of the problem itself. I am starting to subscribe more to this view. What is needed in addition to actions for institutional change is reflection to gain philosophical clarity about what exactly the problem is. As the old saying goes, when the problem becomes clear, the answer too will be clear. Right now the problem itself is not so clear.

But isn't the problem clear enough? What about this as a statement of the problem: there are the majorities, the while males, and the minorities, the rest of the people, and academic philosophy is dominated by the while males, both in terms of who is taught and who is doing the teaching, and we need to get more minorities into both groups until things are equal. On this idea, minorities are oppressed by the hegemony of the white males, and if only the minorities all stand together, then the problem can be solved and a new age of diversity and equality can be ushered in.

The trouble with this formulation is that "minority" as used in it is a catch all phrase which obscures much more than it illuminates. Think of this distinction: slave owners and slaves. When one says "the slaves should stand up against the slave owners" it is clear what this means because it is clear enough who is a slave and who is a slave owner - one just had to walk through a plantation to know who is who. That distinction was helpful because whether one was a slave owner or a slave was not itself the kind of identity which was up for debate. It was perspicuous to all.

In contrast, given the number of dimensions along which minorities can be understood, it is not at all clear who counts as a minority. I have brown skin, my family is from India, most curriculum in America doesn't have Indian authors. But, then again, I am also a male from a middle class family who is heterosexual and have no obvious disabilities. Still, because I am Indian-American, it is pretty clear I am a minority. Now consider Shiela, a Indian women who comes from poverty, who is gay and is blind. Obviously Shiela counts as a minority. But given how much is different between me and Shiela, how illuminating can it be to put us in the same category? All slaves can recognize their common experience as slaves, and so have genuine solidarity. What is common to me and Shiela such that instantly we can recognize each other as tied by a shared situation? Perhaps at least this much: that neither of us is a white male.

January 17, 2015

Wolff's Top 25 List

Robert Paul Wolff has on his blog a list of what he thinks are the 25 must read books for philosophy graduate students (he has added clarifications here and here). Every book on his list is of course a classic. Any philosophy graduate student would benefit from reading those texts. No arguing that. And yet... And yet what?

Reading Wolff's list it was hard for me to pinpoint how I felt as there were so many mixed emotions. There was anger, frustration, confusion for the imaginable reasons: what, just these entries again?  Really, these are the top 25 texts any graduate student in philosophy has to read, irrespective of their philosophical interests, and irrespective of contingent features such as gender, culture, race, etc.? There is a faux universality to the list which it is almost hard to believe anyone could take seriously. And yet, here is a person who is genuinely putting it forward as what he sees as a kind of normative list for any graduate student. Could Wolff be really so oblivious to the issues of diversity? It is hard to believe, as he has himself made clear on his blog how much he had been involved in making academia more open to minorities.

Pondering this juxtaposition - an utterly conservative list made by someone who is otherwise open to issues of diversity, and who is a marxist even - turned the anger into disbelief, which in turn turned into comic relief. Ha! Yes, there is bound to be a limit to every rebel, and Wolff is generally, in a wonderful sense, a great rebel within academic philosophy. And yet, dear rebel, here your age and limits are shining through: you got your PhD at Harvard fifty years (1957) before I did (2008). And it is hilarious that the list is itself being put forward in a spirit of rebellion, as a way to go against these-young-philosophers-and-their-latest-journals-mindset, as if Wolff is standing up for the right and the good, against the forces of fashion. Bravo! Yes, let us fight against fashion. But to do that do we have to go back to that same old list?

At this point slowly the humor receded into a sadness. For I recalled how many times in my classes my professors trotted out a similar list, when in fact the curriculum more generally was nothing other than such a list writ large onto my education and my development as a thinker. I remembered how those books were introduced to me as what I need to grow as an intellectual, to free my mind from the tyranny of my cultural background, and how I just sat there in those classes, staring blankly, absorbing it all as if it was the Holy Word from the professors on high. As a student I put myself in the care of my professors - teachers no different in many ways from Wolff - and yet how much did my teachers really know, or care to know, about my situation, about where I was coming from? How much did they care about what it must feel like for me to see these same European authors repeatedly put forward as who I was supposed to grow into, and to hear the same silence about other philosophers and traditions that I knew existed, and which I knew that my professors were not so dumb as to not at least have heard of? But if they know of those other traditions, if they have heard of them, why do they keep being silent about them?

January 16, 2015

More Than Collegiality

Once when I was in graduate school a new tenured professor joined the department. In a kind gesture to learn about the new department he was joining, he emailed the graduate students saying that he was wondering what we think might be improved in the department and any suggestions we might have. I imagine he received many responses.

In my response I said that I thought the department could be improved by having the faculty debate each other publically. I said it was wonderful that Harvard had faculty with such diverse conceptions of philosophy (some Wittgensteinians, some not; some for whom Anscombe is a great moral philosopher, some not; some who value metaphysics, some not, and so on), but it was unfortunate that there is little open discussion regarding such differences. Often what people thought about their philosophical differences with their colleagues seemed to be conveyed by a raised eyebrow here, or a smile there, as if the differences had to be covered over by the veneer of collegiality. In my response I said that if there were monthly public discussions between the faculty about their differences, that would be fascinating. And that moreover it would have great pedagogical value. We tell undergraduates that they should disagree with their peers in a respectful way, and yet the faculty don't seem to model this, choosing to overlook in public their differences with each other, rather than be committed to engaging with each other in the hopes of making some shared progress.

My response was motivated by my persistent desire at the time to thwart the, as I felt it, "business-as-usual" attitude in the department. It seemed strange to me that faculty would travel the world to argue for their views and their conception of how to do philosophy, and yet treat the disagreements they had with fellow faculty down the hall from them as inevitable and irresolvable. I wondered: what would happen if the faculty spent even a quarter of their research time talking to each other publically (in debates and conversations open to anyone), and seeing if as colleagues they could come to some substantive convergence in their views? Or what it would mean if they felt unable to come to any such convergence, and kept disagreeing? Would that suggest that something in the mode of philosophical discourse we were pursuing was itself problematic?

Behind these questions was a broader question: could the mode of inquiry I was being taught in graduate school help to resolve the most pressing disagreements in society (between this and that religion, atheists and theists, Republicans and Democrats, etc.)? On the one hand, it seemed obvious that this was supposed to be the big deal about academic philosophy: that it was a mode of rational inquiry which could help with making progress on interminable issues which were dividing the society. Yet on the other hand, how could academic philosophy help make such progress when it seemed unclear whether it could even help make such progress between philosophical colleagues? Could philosophy help end wars when it didn't seem able to even bring two faculty members into closer alignment on their views?

January 15, 2015

Institutional Understanding

Consider an academic philosophy book, say John McDowell's Mind and World. What is it to understand this book? Here are three kinds of understanding:

1) Biographical: We learn about McDowell's life and how he came to write the book. We understand the book by seeing how it came to be written in the course of his life.

2) Conceptual: We think about the arguments and reasons McDowell gives in the book (about conceptual content, second nature, etc.). We understand the book by tracing his ideas in the book to ideas of other authors, evaluating his ideas, trying to improve on those ideas, etc.

3) Institutional: We consider the institutional forces which shaped McDowell's writing of the book, such as who he sees as his interlocutors, which philosophers and philosophies he is able to ignore and still be taken seriously, how the book fits into his standing in the profession, and so on. We understand the book here by seeing it as shaped by broad institutional structures, many of which McDowell as the author might himself never have thought about.

Conceptual understanding is a standard way of understanding philosophical texts; standard at least in the kind of departments I was educated in and taught at. The skills concerning this kind of understanding are what I was taught in my classes, and which I was supposed to exhibit in articles I was to publish.

What was also standard in my education is the idea that biographical understanding is irrelevant to conceptual understanding. Just as the biography of a mathematician is irrelevant to evaluating her proofs, so too the biography of a philosopher is supposed to be irrelevant to evaluating her ideas and arguments. This view is plausible only if we take the product of philosophical thinking to be ideas independent of how one lives one's life. For if how a philosopher lives her life can be evaluated, then certainly knowing something about her biography, the trajectory of her life, would be relevant.

January 12, 2015

The Value of Sharing Experiences

In my previous post I state how from now on I won't name people when writing of my experiences. Of course, this issue would be moot if I didn't write about my experiences at all. One might say, "Why talk about your experiences? What is the point? Do philosophy. Talk about the ideas. Be strong, and move beyond your particular experiences." I think this is implausible both personally and philosophically.

Personally, sharing experiences is a way of building community, highlighting commonalities, engaging in practices of cathartic release, and often shining light on aspects which might otherwise remain hidden and buried. To share experiences is to articulate them, and to articulate them is to gain power over them, rather than to feel stuck in having the experience passively.

Philosophically, I think if people don't share their experiences and feel that that they are being heard, then that affects how intellectual discussion itself happen. One way to make progress is to start with sharing experiences, and then working towards broader intellectual issues in the course of trying to understand and engage with each other. If one doesn't in a vulnerable way share one's pain, that pain doesn't magically disappear. It gets articulated into whatever modes of communication are available, and if the only modes of available communication are intellectual debate (such as colloquia or seminar discussions), then the pain will get channeled into the way those debate happens. 

I believe this is why often academic philosophy debates can seem harsh, pointed. It is not because there is something warrior like about rational conversation. It is because academic philosophy doesn't have many institutional structures for sharing the various kinds of pain one might have in academic contexts, and so they get channeled into the way one asks questions, responds to objections or puts down opposing views, etc. In this way, pain that hasn't had a chance to be processed or expressed in other contexts contorts the ways in which intellectual conversations themselves take place. Human interactions are human interactions. Whether they take place in conferences, offices or living rooms. If family members doesn't have a way to express and process their pains, they will take it out at the dinner table or on family trips. If colleagues don't have a way to express and process their pains, they will take it out, in subtle and not so subtle ways, in classrooms, faculty meetings and blog exchanges.


One of my aims when I started this blog three months ago was to think through my experiences in academia. In writing my experiences, I faced the question: should I name the philosophers who were part of those experiences? The few times I really thought about this question, I sensed in myself a defiant "why not?" I told myself: academics are public figures, and what I am talking about are events which happened in classes, office hours, or professional, social spaces, and if I felt pain in those moments which were due to deep structural features of my education, then nothing about those events should be hidden. I felt that I had hidden so much from myself and from others for so long, and I was intent that I would never hide anything ever again. I didn't want to act out of anger, but I also didn't want to self-censor myself.

Still, once in a while the thought would come to me, "I wonder how the people I name might feel if they read my posts?" Sensing the budding guilt of that question and intent on not feeling controlled by it, I told myself that perhaps they might feel bad, but that is the price to be paid for breaking through the silence in the profession. Sure they might feel pain, but is it any more than the pain I felt back then? I convinced myself that this wasn't me speaking from anger, but just me making an objective calculation how pain caused by my writing might be a necessity for the greater goal I was hoping to achieve.

The comments section of this post brought home to me that the above line of thinking was somewhat disingenuous. I have now come to think that so easily justifying causing others pain is itself a way of being anger. Seeing this a few days ago made me think about what I was doing on this blog. My hope has been to contribute to philosophical discourse in a way which helps to diffuse pain and anger, which enables differing sides to make progress and come to mutual respect. I believe such cathartic dialogue requires each side to not overlook their own impulses towards intellectual violence. As I realize the anger I let myself be guided by in some of my posts, I see I have let myself off the hook too easily.

I would like to apologize to the people I named on this blog who I knew personally from my time in academia. I realize it must have caused pain, and for that I am sorry. I say this not because I take back what I wrote of my experiences, nor because I think anyone expects me to take it back. I say this because I am sure it can feel like one is being attacked out of the blue, since I never told them I was going to mention our shared experiences in this way. I wrote about the experiences as if they were simply my experience. Because of my alienation and pain, and because I was still seeing them to some extent as my teachers who are impermeable, I didn't see that these experiences were not just my experiences, but our experiences, that there is another side to the story. I didn't mean to deny this reality. I am sorry if it came across as if I did.
I would like to apologize as well to people who personally know the people I named on this blog. As with most teacher-student relations, or interactions between senior and junior colleagues, my interactions with the people I named were a small part of their lives. Not small as in meaningless or without humanity and genuine care. But small as in I am one among many students, and teaching is one among many professional activities, and being a professional is one among many other activities in their lives. With each such expanding circle, obviously there are more and more people who share experiences with that person. Many of those people's experiences naturally capture better than my experience who the people I named are as people. What I experienced was one facet of one activity of the people I named. Certainly there are many more people who are better situated to see many more facets and many more activities of the people I named. I didn't mean to deny this fact. I am sorry for any pain I caused for suggesting otherwise.