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.