Once when I was talking to Susanna Siegel in graduate school, she said, "Chalmers is a great example of how to do philosophy and to make it collaborative and open to everyone." I don't remember the context of the conversation in which she said this, but the comment stayed with me. I wanted to say something back to Siegel, to raise some fledgling objection, but as normally happened with me then, I swallowed whatever counter point I could have made. I might have seemed to Siegel as if I had withdraw from the conversation in that moment. As if mysteriously in the very instance when she was talking to me about opening the profession, I backed out of the conversation, as if I was unsure if I wanted to join the cause she was identifying with David Chalmers. But why did I withdraw?
Partly it was because I felt that if I told Siegel what my main relation to Chalmers was, she might have been disapproving, and perhaps even found it pathetic. Some years earlier she had seen me in the graduate computer lounge looking at Leiter Reports, and said, "Why are you wasting your time with that gossip? Forget that stuff and focus on your work." How then could I tell her in this instance that when I thought of Chalmers, the main thing I thought of wasn't his philosophical work, and not even my essay on Chalmers which was part of my dissertation, but rather his photo gallery on his website.
I had good friends in graduate school, and generally got along with the faculty and fellow graduate students. But I felt most at ease in talking to people one on one, or in a small groups of two or three, where it didn't feel as if our interaction was mediated by the philosophy profession. I often felt uneasy, withdrawn, lost in a dialogue within myself in group gatherings such as at talks, conferences, receptions, dinners after talks, parties at a graduate student's or faculty's place and so on. In these settings, which were the physical, public spaces in the profession where faculty and students were supposed to mingle as people, to get to each other a little better, I felt unsure of what I was supposed to do, of what I wanted to do, of how I wanted to be. As I experienced it, there was a kind of constant static in the air which made me unsure of how to go on, of how I could be one of the people here in an easy, natural way. I felt like someone who wasn't sure how to dance but who was on the dance floor. My own awkwardness and hesitancy in moving in a fluid way in the group made me feel more awkward and more self-conscious, often causing me leave the group just to catch my breath and feel grounded again. I had friends in the department, and the people around me were nice. Yet what I lacked was a sense of social solidarity, a feeling that I belonged to a group with which I shared a common cause.
In this light, I looked at Chalmers' pictures with a greedy enviousness. Most of the time I wasn't quite aware of my own alienation from the profession, lost as I was, as most academics are, in trying to figure out this or that argument, this or that text. But I knew I was missing something, and that I wanted desperately what I was missing, when I saw the pictures. The happy, smiling faces. The easy look of comradarie. The jokes, the dancing. The sense of an open, caring, loving profession in which every colleague is a friend, every friend a comrade, all nourished by the shared progressive values for the profession.
I was enthralled by the very happiness seemingly captured in the pictures. And by the sense that here were philosophers who, even though they might disagree with each other on this or that philosophical point, were sharing a drink, or breaking bread together, or dancing together, as if they had reached a kind of enlightenment which enabled them to transcend their disagreements. Alve Noe and Ned Block disagree about the neural correlates of consciousness, and here they are smiling playfully together. Wow, is that Fodor talking to Peacocke? Is that Frank Jackson talking to Dan Dennett? It was mesmerizing to see philosophers one read in class suddenly pop on the screen with, as it were, their guard down. To see the philosophers as people. Even though I was at Harvard, which is one of the innermost circles of the profession, I found myself unable to let myself enter into the social comradarie of the department. Ironically, though physically I was within such an inner circle, I felt it was only through the online pictures that I was able to see something of the social dynamics of the profession and of the very hallways I walked daily.
My desire to be like the people in the pictures was mixed with incomprehension for why exactly the people in the pictures were so damn happy with the profession. Even a cursory glance at the pictures showed just how white the profession was. Every once in a while a minority, say, an Asian or an African-American, would show up with the kind of exaggerated smile that Louis Armstrong sometimes had. But for the most part, it was one white person after another beaming for the camera, seemingly communicating just how how proud and glad they are to be a part of academic philosophy, as if smiling was itself a way, indeed the main, best way, of contributing to improving the profession. And equally strangely, though there were a fair number of white, women philosophers in the pictures in poses of dignity and confidence, every once in a while there were in the pictures what seemed to me like philosophy groupies: women, philosophers or not, who exuded a sexuality fit for a rock n roll party, and who seemed to have expressions of fawning admiration for the largely male, intellectual potency in the room. The pictures captured a strange mix of hippie gatherings, rock n roll rebellion, academic intellectuality and the wealth of elite, private universities (where presumably most of the bills of the parties and the dinners shown in the pictures were footed by the universities the philosophers were affiliated with).
The pictures seemed to me to capture quite well a particular mood I often sensed in social gatherings in academic philosophy: the sense that possibility and progress are in the air, as if the proletariat are starting to take over the elite, bourgeois structures. How were the people in the pictures able to be so happy, and project a sense of satisfaction with the profession? Was it because, like Quine or Allan Bloom, they were social conservatives? Definitely not. If anything, my sense was that many of the people in the pictures ascribed to a far left, quasi-Marxist, Chomsky-inspired idea of the need for resisting the general cultural imperialism of capitalism. Revolution was the name of the game. Change, progress, transformation were the ideals. I felt that the happiness being captured in the pictures was a kind of political statement: with each smile, and funny face and hand gesture, each person was committing to changing the philosophy profession from within. Saying, as it were, that this is what the new academic philosopher looks like. No, we don't look like those stodgy men from the 50s and 60s in their suits and grim expressions, which kept people at arm's length from the profession. No, we are open philosophers who are committed to lifting the people up and here we are, doing it right now, with our smiles and easy, happy-go-lucky demeanor.
There was no way for me to know for sure, but I had the feeling that many of the people in the pictures were new to positions of power in academic philosophy. Their parents weren't necessarily rich or had gone to prestigious colleges. Their self-narrative was that they had themselves worked hard, against the stream to get to where they were, and that now that they were in the peak positions - the same positions had in previous generations by Russell, Quine, Wittgenstein, Strawson, Anscombe, and so on - they were going to be in these positions in a new way, a more open way, a more smiling way, a more zen, hippy way. In a more Chalmers like way. That was the basic point of Siegel's comment about Chalmers. He had become a symbol for how one can work from within the system, even while cutting through with a smile and a camera the traditional limitations and privileges in the profession. In the midst of the departmental fighting and the disagreements between this and that group in professional philosophy, Chalmers seemed to be walking between the rain drops, climbing the hierarchy of professional recognition, but without being contaminated by the unfair, racist and misogynistic practices of his predecessors. All he seemed armed with was a Buddha-like countenance that suggested an openness to all people, and that anyone can be like him, and that he would do his very best to make that a reality for everyone.
Some people who were skeptical of this approach suggested - anonymously on blogs, or huddled in corners of departments - that the niceness was a sham, a cover. I never felt this. To me the niceness seemed genuine. Real. Honest. So why then wasn't I happy to be a part of the group? It was because I believed, and still believe, that niceness isn't enough. By this I don't mean that more anger, or self-rightousness or moral indignation is called for. No. Rather, I mean that beyond the niceness what was needed was speaking out, openly, honestly, bravely, with confidence and equanimity about the problems in the profession. To deal with the institutional problems of the profession as themselves philosophical problems of the highest order. That the question of how to have an open, fair profession was no less a thorny philosophical problem than whether there can be free will or the relation of the mind to the body.
Chalmers' pictures seemed to be a way in which Chalmers was trying to change the institutional culture, and in this regard I found them inspiring. As I did Chalmers' work on creating new online spaces for a more open profession. But where is Chalmers speaking out about the problems with the profession? It seemed like he was trying to help fix the situation without really saying, openly and explictly, what the problems he is trying to fix are. In this sense, the pictures themselves suggested limits to how much the general philosophical public can be "in the know". For what anyone could see through the pictures was how some of the philosophers were talking to each other, or what it looked like to have talks in fancy castles in Europe. But what was missing however was the audio of those post-talk dinners, or late night conversations in bars or parties at a colleagues' house. What were these smiling philosophers talking about? Even the conversations about normal philosophy topics would be enlightening: what happens when several well known philosophers sit at the same table at a dinner? Perhaps nothing much sometimes. Perhaps a lot at other times. Either way, it is lost to the public. Similarly, what were these philosophers talking about the issues facing the profession? Could it be that they were not talking about them at all, but were just smiling at each other the whole time? Of course not. These were smart, thoughtful, passionate, conflicted, politically charged people. Where was that energy in the pictures? Hidden from the public.
This was the root of my ambivalence in looking at the pictures. On the one hand, I wanted to be in such circles myself. But on the other hand, I didn't want to be part of such a group if it was going to perpetuate the same, old distinction of inside and outside conversations. If they were going to talk among themselves in one way, but then put on a happy demeanor when the public shows up. From this perspective, the same smile which seemed like an invitation also worked as a buffer, a way to keep people at bay. The smile was not just an invitation, but a defense mechanism as well. The smile which shines not like a beacon of change, but like the frozen, desperate smile adopted by family members when they refuse to address traumatic events in the family, and who use the smile as a way to keep control of the pace, context and vocabulary of how conversations in the family can happen. The smile which justifies the silence and is a mode of being silent.
Three years ago I went to a meta-philosophy conference at Harvard. This was a few months after I left academia (I wrote earlier about the conference here). In between the talks I ran into Alison Simmons. We exchanged pleasantries, and she asked me what I was up to. I said that I had left academic philosophy, and gestured at the ornate, European looking room we were in, as if to say I had trouble understanding myself in such a space. Simmons looked at me, and smiled broadly. It was the last reaction I was expecting. Why was this nice person, with whom I get along, smiling upon hearing that I left the profession? Where was the concern, the sense that what had happened was perhaps unfortunate, the desire to find out more? She continued smiling benevolently and said, "Don't worry, I won't be offended." I thought to myself, perhaps you should be offended, but I didn't know what to say. The next talk was beginning, and we both smiled at each other and went to our separate seats.
Later in the afternoon, after another talk, I ran into Jason Stanley. We greeted each other, and he said, "Well, you have really grown up", as if to underline that he used to be my professor and superior, and that I was no longer the eighteen year old I was in college. He then smiled and asked how things were at Bryn Mawr. I told him that I had left the profession. He took a step back and said, "Well, we should really talk about that some time." He then said it was great seeing me, and turned around, and walked away. A couple hours later he gave this talk, defending academic philosophy and without acknowledging one problem there might be with the profession. The tone rather was a general defensiveness regarding how philosophers are misunderstood, and how the other humanities fail to understand the work of professional philosophers. I then understood that perhaps he didn't want to talk to me so close to his talk, since his talk was mainly a defense of academic philosophy, and I, one of his former students, was standing in front of him saying that in some deep way I found professional philosophy limiting. But it was the veneer of the smile under which my brief interaction with him happened which seemed most telling to me.
In the question and answer session of Stanley's talk, I asked a question (much of the Q&A, including my question, is left out of the video posted of the event). I asked Stanley how the focus on specialization he was defending is compatible with the democratic impulse that everyone can pursue philosophy in their own lives. He gave an initial response which I didn't catch, and then he asked me, "But, Bharath, I know that as a student you loved philosophy. Thinking about free will and problems of identity. Surely all of that was good?" I responded, "Yes, I do care, and did care, about those problems. But how do you know what about those problems I cared about? On the specialization model, what need is there for you as the professor to look to see what I as a student care about and where I am coming from? Did you actually know what I cared about?" Stanley gave a response, but I wasn't quite sure what he was saying. My time as a questioner was up, and so I sat down.
In the brief back and forth what jumped out at me was the work that the smiling enables. For whatever the intellectual content of the exchange with Stanley, what was clear was that he seemed hurt by the questions I was raising. As if I were betraying him as a friend somehow, as if I were failing to see what a good person he is, how well intentioned he is, how dedicated to the causes of the under-privileged he is, how he was fighting the system. I realized then that this was one of the reasons I had been quiet in my time in academia, for I had felt that it would be somehow wrong of me to speak up; that I would then be betraying my professors, who were also my friends, who were supposedly in the same position I was in, and that we were all changing the system together. That by speaking up I would be drawing a line between myself and them, the very line they were intent on erasing with all the smiling and the collegiality, as if to say there was no difference between us. The smiling worked as a defense mechanism because it forced on me the sense that I would be betraying my friends if I were to speak up in ways that they themselves weren't, or didn't want to, or weren't ready. The smiling was a way to control the modes of conversation, to keep it at the pace that the people doing the smiling from the positions of authority want the conversation to go at, a way for them to maintain control of the proceedings.
As I realized this during Stanley's talk, I became intent on showing that we weren't friends in that way at all, that I was not betraying Stanley or Simmons or Siegel or anyone else. That the friendship was itself the outer covering of interactions which presupposed very much the same old hierarchical structures, and that the sense of easy friendship was covering over, rather than eliminating, those deeper structures. I thought of the book I was reading then, Ralph Ellison's Invisible man, and how the white communist leader in the book uses the veneer of friendship and common struggle to use the black narrator in the ideological struggles as defined by the white communist, and without ever really listening to the actual needs and situation of the narrator.
Almost without consciously thinking it through, I found a way which to me seemed to show the limits of the friendship. After Stanley's talk was over, the main group was headed to a restaurant for the post-conference dinner. Me and my wife (who also came to the conference) followed them, talking while heading to the restaurant with Carlin Romano, the person Stanley had debated. Romano seemed to pick up that he had a kind of ally in me, and so he said I should come along to the dinner as well. I sensed that this would not be possible, but I wanted to see how it would play out. We all made it to the restaurant, a nice place in Harvard Square, and I stood next to Stanley and a few of the other philosophers waiting for their seats. Stanley saw me, but didn't talk. I stood right next to them, thinking to myself, Hey, we are all friends, right? As a friend why can't I come to this dinner too? Aren't we all free spirits who don't follow set rules, and are open to everyone? The table got arranged, and all the philosophers (a group of about 15-20 people) went in: some faculty from Harvard and MIT, and speakers at the conference. I still stood there when one of the organizers of the conference, someone I didn't know, a post-doc or a graduate student, came up to me and apologized that there were no more seats available, and that I wouldn't be able to join in. I was standing outside the restaurant, and through the floor length glass window I could see the philosophers taking their seats, already seemingly oblivious to me. And the happy smiles were already visible on their countenances. My wife and I turned around and walked away talking of what happened and what to make of it.
Chalmers was also at the conference. He gave a talk on whether there can be convergence on the answers to the big questions of philosophy. A big picture talk about the nature and future of philosophy, which made no reference at all to the institutional structures of philosophy. And later he put up pictures of the conference.