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.

The guiding framework for many centuries before Socrates was given by the Homeric myths, which were learnt and narrated by priests/poets of that time. For various sociological, political, geological, etc. reasons, that framework started to break down, which meant they had to rethink what the fundamental ideals and structures of their society were. This is what the preSocratics and Socrates started to do. But then there was a question: what kind of an institutional setting should this new framework be in? Plato and Aristotle started schools which they thought could provide that institutional grounding. But others a bit later on such as Sextus Empiricus and Marcus Aurelius thought that the institutional structure for philosophy couldn't be schools, but had to be structures which enabled each person, irrespective of their profession, to live a philosophical life.

This disagreement between academic and non-academic philosophers was possible because there was a shared public intellectual space in those societies. Academic philosophers engaged with non-academic philosophers, and vice versa. It is like when Kobe Bryant or Lebron James play with and against non-professional basketball players on public courts in NYC--that is a space where the professionals and non-professionals meet to test each other, and explore the different kinds of basketball skills each has. Such shared public spaces connect the esoteric and the non-esoteric in a mutual back and forth, which brings everyone in the society together into such a common space.

The same thing was true in the European Middle Ages. Philosophy then wasn't limited to the intellectuals like Aquinas in monasteries. The Catholic Church itself played the role of shared public space, for the framework of the Church provided a space, physical and intellectual, in which someone like Aquinas and an everyday priest who engages with his village congregation could meet and debate each other. The Church wasn't just one thing, but rather a broad framework for the complexities and even disagreements intrinsic to a diverse society, one where it was a live question whether a thinker like Ockham or a saint like Francis of Assisi captured best the ideals of the Church.
Even in the Enlightenment and into the 18th century, there was such a shared public, intellectual space. Many thinkers of that time, like Descartes and Spinoza and Hume were not academics, even as others like Kant were. That an academic like Kant could say that he was inspired by a non-academic like Hume shows the kind of public space that was palpable then. And at least in the European tradition, things start to get testy in the 19th century. There are still famous academics (Hegel, etc.) and famous non-academics (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.), but it is not so clear anymore whether the academics are reading and engaging with the non-academics. The initial influence of the non-academics is on the educated class more generally, but not necessarily on academic philosophers in particular.

By the time you are starting college at the end of the 20th century, it is not clear anymore whether there is a shared, public intellectual space in our society. This is why you never heard of academic philosophy until you enrolled in college. To you it might feel like you entered upon a secret society with a wealth of knowledge, and which expects the public to come to it rather than it reaching out to the public, and engaging with non-academic philosophers. That is why your family and friends wonder why you want to study philosophy. It is not only, or even mainly, because they worry about your job prospects. It is because they don't know what academic philosophy is, and so don't have much sense for what it is you are saying you want to dedicate your life to. They don't know whether you are doing psychology or religion or new age philosophy or what. It's like if the public never saw basketball on TV, nor saw basketball on public courts, then they would be confused if you told them you want to pursue basketball, which you discovered in college. Your friends and family will ask questions like: what is this "basketball"? You mean baseball, or cricket, or soccer?

Why did this transition happen in the last two centuries? Where did the shared, public intellectual space go?

It is for the same reason why there are less public goods in general now, such as public parks or healthcare or resources for taking care of the elderly, and so on. Public goods, including public intellectual spaces, require a shared sense of community, and not just in some abstract sense of humanity, but in terms of shared modes of life and artifacts, such as music, art, history and so on. For all their disagreement, this is what Hegel and Schopenhauer still shared, as did in a more broad sense Hume and Kant, and Plato and Sextus Empiricus.

But this past shared sense of community came at a cost: it presumed hierarchies internal to the community, and it assumed that there were other communities out there which were different from it and with which they didn't have to be so deeply engaged (like for Europeans the communities of Asia, Africa and so on). As in the last two centuries these aspects of traditional community were seem as problematic (for example, Marxism regarding hierarchy, anti-colonialism and globalization regarding othering), the very fabric of community itself has been thrown up in the air.

This lack of community has gone hand in hand with the economic and sociological reasons for professionalization in the society overall, which lead regarding philosophy to the idea that only academic philosophers are really philosophers. If a philosophy professor like Thomas Nagel and a new age thinker like Ken Wilber shared a sense of community in a deep sense, then they might see each other as concerned with similar issues, even if with many differences in perspectives and methodologies. But without such a shared sense, and seen through the prism of professionalism, it seems as if Nagel and Wilbur are talking about radically different things, or otherwise that one is coherent and the other merely confused.

My earlier self, as you now study philosophy in classes, you thus face a choice. It is not the choice of whether to do philosophy inside or outside academia. That is determined mainly by biographical and sociological causes, such as whether you want to grade papers, or whether you get a job in academia. Rather, whether you are in academia or outside academia, the choice you face is: are you going to assume that things are fine as they are (with academics talking mainly to each other, and non-academics talking mainly to each other), or are you going to help to bridge this divide, and so contribute to creating a new kind of shared, public intellectual space in a global community?

This choice matters because if there is no shared, public intellectual space where academics and non-academics can meet as equals, then the intellectual traditions of our society are going to be lost to the vast majority of people, and academic philosophy will become a new form of esotericism. Thriving public philosophical discussion between all members of society is the foundation of a democracy. It is not enough for all of us as thinkers, academic or non-academic, to simply bemoan the unfortunate state of public discourse in society, as if the problem just lies with FOX and MSNBC. The polarity in the media is a symptom of the larger problem, and isn't itself the root problem. The larger problem is that there is no shared, public intellectual space, and so no sense for how people with differing perspectives or backgrounds can talk to each other. And for this larger problem each one of us is responsible.

A community is formed when members of a community recognize a shared problem and come together to tackle it. As you take your classes, it is natural to feel the power of inertia and the sense that things are fine as they are, or the feeling that the problem is too big for you. But the problem actually isn't too big for you. It is just the size that you can handle, if you can see that you are bigger than you think you are. Enjoy your education, but at the same time be a bridge to outside academia so that at any given moment you are a walking emblem for the shared, public intellectual space we can all build together.

With sympathy for the pains and with fondness for the joys to come,
Your Older Self


  1. Excellent post! You write:

    "Public goods, including public intellectual spaces, require a shared sense of community, and not just in some abstract sense of humanity, but in terms of shared modes of life and artifacts, such as music, art, history and so on."

    I wonder whether this diagnosis of the problem is compatible with the cure you have in mind. You would like philosophy to be less Eurocentric, more global, etc. And yet there just is -- for now, anyway -- no real existing human community that corresponds to the "global" philosophical tradition you want. For example, you worry that "the intellectual traditions of our society are going to be lost" but it's not clear which society you are referring to here. Christian Europe and its descendant societies -- in the US, for instance -- does have a certain set of intellectual traditions. These are not the traditions of India or China. Though no doubt there are many points of convergence, connections, etc. But there isn't any organic historical-cultural tradition that links them, and no real human community that has inherited all three sets of intellectual traditions. (This is to say nothing of many other actual civilizations or societies that do not seem to have "intellectual traditions" that can usefully interact with these -- e.g., the many non-literate tribal cultures of the world.) In other words, I suspect that the "global" or multi-cultural philosophy you would like to see develop can really only mean the further dissolution of one specific (European) intellectual world. Since there's nothing even close to the "global" or multi-cultural culture or civilization that would have to exist in order for there to be the kind of "public space" (or a public, or a space) that this possible philosophical tradition or community would need.

    One more thought on this: the ideals of pluralism, multi-culturalism and the like are *very* heavily entrenched in the structures and ideology of the academic establishment. They're taken for granted. Job ads often explicitly state that agreeing to these ideals is a necessary condition for getting hired. Dissent is punished pretty ruthlessly. In rethinking that whole system you might want to reconsider this stuff too.

    1. N, I think your comment goes to the heart of the issue. I believe the following three ideas:

      1) Public intellectual spaces require a shared sense of community.
      2) We don't right now have a thriving global and pluralistic shared sense of community.
      3) Public intellectual spaces should be global and pluralistic.

      So given (1) and (2), how can we have (3)? I think (2) is starting to change. Here are two examples. First, music: this is part of why I like fusion music, in particular for me music that brings together music of America and India, or more generally mixes together music from all over the world, such as fusion rock, Bollywood music, bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Indian Ocean, Tinariwen, etc. Obviously this music is not mainstream in America, but one way of think of much American music is as a kind of fusion music: rap, Latin music, etc. As I see it, these are the beginnings of a broader world community.

      Second, marriage: I was born in India, grew up in America. My wife is Norwegian-Mexican-German-Brazilian, who grew up in America. Every family event, including the two of us trying to live together, are micro parts of contributing to a global community. And mixed marriages like this are more and more the case now, and are so building the fabric of the future, global sense of community bit by bit.

      As these kind of changes build the new forms of community, the lack of fusion philosophy will become more and more apparent. Connected to your point about "multi-culturalism": this is one way in which I think academia more generally, and definitely academic philosophy in particular, are not yet ready for what is going to have happen in the next 20-30 years. The multi-cultural model as it is now in academia still is premised on the idea of people from different cultures sharing their cultures with each other. But that is not going to be the relevant demographic in the future, where it will be mixed, fusion college students trying to make sense of where they came from and where they are going. Dealing with that question requires embracing a much deeper level of fusionness in our very conceptual structures.

      In academic philosophy the issue isn't really why aren't there more brown authors for the brown students, etc.. The issue is: if a student who is brown, white and black (because her parents have a mixed marriage) comes to college, what does it mean for her to understand, or to be inculcated into, her tradition? What global tradition does that student belong to? If academics and non-academics don't actively start to create such global traditions (in music, movies, art, history, philosophy), the students will feel more and more adrift from their education and from the society more broadly.

      It is sometimes said nowadays that academic philosophy is going through what other humanities departments went through 30 years ago. I think this isn't quite right. What the humanities departments went through was under the multi-cultural model, which presupposes distinct cultural traditions. But now when academic philosophy is dealing with pluralism issues, what is pressing isn't multi-culturalism but rather a unitary, fusion global tradition. This coming change is going to be so much harder than what happened in Literature departments 30 years ago, because back then they side-stepped the deeper issue by assuming we could live with just highlighting the plurality of traditions. It is having the plurality along with a sense of unified global community which is the real kicker, and which will rupture the old structures much more. It is not that the other humanities went through the changes, and philosophy just has to catch up. The real changes are only beginning, and I think in the coming decades we have to brace for some real pain, in and outside academia. Which is why it is all the more important to start working towards the shared, public spaces, intellectual and otherwise, because we will need such spaces to get through the difficulties.

  2. Hi Bharath,
    My view is a bit different. I doubt (or maybe just reject) your claim 3. Since in fact there is no such global or pluralistic community, it's not true that public intellectual spaces _should_ be global and pluralistic. In reality, the belief that they should be serves merely to further damage and diminish the actual forms of public space that are presently possible. To be clear, I'm not opposed in principle to the idea of a global human community. On the other hand, I suspect that the kinds of cross-cultural mixes and interactions you describe will probably not lead in that direction. For example, you and your wife each have a fairly complex cultural identity or background; the relationship that comes from those highly specific complexities interacting together is itself a highly specific thing. (Borrowing your analogy: Mahavishnu Orchestra is a fusion of a few recognizable and highly specific musical forms; it's nothing like a fusion of all the world's musical traditions and styles; and a fusion of that kind, if we can even imagine it, would probably just be really bland or incoherent -- bad music!)

    I guess it could be that in the future everyone will have 375 different ethnic-religious-racial-cultural ingredients in their background. But in that case I suspect that most or all of those background ingredients will have been reduced to meaninglessness. It's hard to see how they can continue to function as meaningful forces in a person's life or self-conception at the same time. In other words, I think there are only two possibilities that are realistic: a complex identity that is still meaningful, but for that reason not truly global, or a global identity that is no longer meaningfully tied to all or most (or even many) historical cultures and world-views.

    But, skepticism aside, I'd say that your position might be putting the cart before the horse. First we have to find out whether it's possible to have a global community -- one that really is both of those things, and not just the deracinated, alienating trash culture now being exported everywhere. Since we don't really know how to create that culture, or what it would be like, we can't really say much about what kind of philosophy or public intellectual space it might generate -- or whether that kind of philosophy or space would be good, or better than the kinds that now exist...

    1. N, Great points. I think we are exploring what, first, a global community looks like, and second, what a public intellectual space for such an community looks like. Regarding the first, you are right: there isn't going to be one big, mega global community which will apply across the board to everyone. That way of thinking of global community is emaciated and alienating. Your point about Mahavishnu Orchestra, and mixed marriages, is right on. No way everyone in the world is going to enjoy Mahavishnu Orchestra the way people in Europe several centuries ago enjoyed Mozart. Music or art isn't going to build community in that old way, where community goes with a kind of homogeneity.

      So then what other kind of community can we have in a global way? It is one premised on an lived awareness of our common, shared situation as people with X different ethnic-religious-racial-cultural identities. As I see it, this is a grass roots process, where people share their forms of multiplicity with each other, and if it sticks, it sticks, if not, not. But what builds community is that for certain forms of multiplicity I have, I have a sense of community first with people who share similar mixes of multiplicity (who like Mahavishu Orchestra, etc.), and second with people who have a different kind of multiplicity but which I can identify with at the level of struggling with their multiplicity. The key is bring together the plurality and the unity. Ironically, the way to build the unity is to be just very clear and honest and open about the plurality. We can't predict in advance what kind of unity that will be, and we certainly can't legislate it from above saying this is what it is to be multi-cultural, etc. (as in the problem with current sense of multiculturalism). One has to speak from one's own multiplicity and in the process, bit by bit, find others who resonate with that. Not have an abstract sense of a multiplicity identity that applies to all people, and which one then applies to oneself. I take it you are rightly objecting to this latter way of thinking of a global community.

      I am an Indian-American, who loves Malcolm X, Wittgenstein, Lao Tzu, Aurobindo, Marlon Brando, etc. This means I don't fit into older categories of culture or community. But, as you say, this also doesn't mean that my mix of interests and identities speaks to something global, as if I am already a global person. Surely it does not, since there are thousands of aspects of global traditions I don't know anything about. But what I can do is be open about my particular multiplicities and cohere with others who are similar, and somewhere down this line, slowly over decades and centuries, a more truly global and inclusive sense of community might arise.

      Yes, let's be clear: even in that future community it is not like all things will be integrated. In the process some traditions or modes of practice might, and will, be lost. Any viable global community is not heaven, and there will be painful losses. We can try our best to see which losses will be ok, and which will not be, and try to act accordingly.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Very interesting post. Was wondering if you could provide an exhaustive list of philosophers part of the "western cannon" that are academic and a list of the philosophers that were non-academic. I was surprised to learn that Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato were considered academics. I would think that most philosophers before the professionalization of philosophy were non-academics.

  5. Thank you for such a well written article. It’s full of insightful information and entertaining descriptions. Your point of view is the best among many. philosophy