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.

Imagine academia in America without philosophy. What would such an academia look like? It would be split into the sciences, which lay claim to truth and grasping reality, and the humanities, which lay claim to capturing the diversity of experiences and so which are seen as subjective. But how should we all live together in America? Is there an objective reality about that? In a world without academic philosophy, there is no answer to this question. The sciences are objective but too disconnected from human experiences. The humanities capture the human experience, but seem subjective and unable to find a common truth.
What realm of inquiry is there that can speak to a kind of truth in the realm of human experience, regarding truths of where we as a society came from and where we are going? One option is religion, but in an America full of diverse religions which disagree with each other, no one religion can play that role. Thus without academic philosophy what would be apparent in American society is that there are no social structures which speak to an objective, human truth about how the diversity of Americans can nonetheless live together within a common framework. In the current American secular society, it is academic philosophy which lays claim to the ideals and principles which aim to bring together plurality and unity, diversity and cohesion.

The fact that most Americans are not aware of academic philosophy is compatible with this centrality of academic philosophy to the society. For the effect of academic philosophy on society is indirect. For most secular Americans what plays this unifying, objective role in society is academia. And even if many academics question the value of academic philosophy, nothing is more central to the rhetoric and ideals of a liberal arts education than philosophy. What is the central ideal of the secular society? Each citizen being able to think for themselves, and live as they choose fit, without having to follow any state sanctioned religion. And what does such self-reflection look like? Who are some of the models of that? Enter here some of the philosopher heroes in academia: Socrates, Descartes, Kant.

This is why academic philosophy didn't change forty years ago as the literature and history departments were changing. Because it was taken for granted that the latter departments had to change because they are subjective (literature) or culture bound (history). In a diverse secular society Shakespeare cannot lay claim to being objectively the best author, because literature is clearly not culturally neutral or objective - it is, after all, defined in the first instance by the language it is written in or the culture it is a part of. The more the other humanities "diversified", the more pressure there was on academic philosophy to be immune to such diversification. For, the thought goes, unlike literature or history academic philosophy doesn't have to diversify because it is already universal and objective.

What defined in the 20th century the whiteness of American culture? Religious fundamentalists in American claim it is because Christianity is white, but this can't be what makes America as a secular nation white. If not religion, then is it a science like physics? No, because science has no color, since it doesn't deal in the first instance with people qua people but with atoms and DNA. So what can be (a) more objective than literature and history, but (b) more human focused on physics, and yet (c) not religious based like Christianity? One thing fits the bill: philosophy.

This explains the rise of academic philosophy in Europe and America in the last two centuries. It is not just because of the rise of academia in that time. After all, why should academia teach philosophy to begin with? Why was that seen as so natural and necessary? It is because academic philosophy took over the role of the Church in the new secular society. This is after all what the philosophy heros of the Enlightenment argued against the Church authorities: we can accept the new sciences and the secular, democratic state without falling into social chaos. As secular universities formed to deal with the changes in society, academic philosophy became (at least in theory) the center piece of the universities, for it was philosophy which gave universities the ability to say that universities could provide not just objective, impersonal truth a la physics, but also objective, human level truth a la philosophy. And it is the latter kind of truth that holds the secular society together.

There is one problem with this story: what happens if academic philosophy is seen to not be tracking objective human truths? What if academic philosophy is seen to be pursuing only European philosophy, but not other kinds of philosophy? Then academic philosophy might fall into the status of literature and history, and so seem not "fully" objective after all. And if academic philosophy isn't objective, then the Church's worry of the social chaos of secularism is back on the table. Therefore the felt need for a substitute for the Church kept up the illusion of universality of European philosophy.

This illusion is now crumbling as the demographics of America and Europe change. How can European philosophy lay claim to universality in a classroom in which the majority of students aren't from Europe? Theses are the twin pressures on contemporary academic philosophy: in order to keep up the sense of capturing human truths and so providing a basis for secular society academic philosophy has to seem universal, and yet in order to seem universal it has to keep at bay other philosophical traditions (which can raise hard questions of relativism), and so make it seem as if European philosophy is somehow distinctly universal.

This uneasy balance is possible as long as it is not too obvious that academic philosophy is too focused on European philosophy. But as the demographics in America change, it is starting to seem too obvious.

This is one reason I kept quiet for so long. Because I didn't want blood on my hands. If I spoke up and said that the philosophy I was being taught is not universal, then it raises the question: so if even academic philosophy is not universal, what can bring people in society together? Could anything bring them together? If academic philosophy is treated as just another '"culturally-bound" endeavor which is focused on Europe, then wouldn't society fall into chaos with each group set against each other with nothing objective to truly bind them?

This is the burden academic philosophy has to carry, and which literature or history don't. Literature departments could embrace diversity (as hard as it was to do so) without the worry that in doing so the central objective human truths in the society were thereby going to be jeopardized. In a way, this was the cover of post-modernism: by explicitly saying there is no truth, it defanged the changes happening in the literature departments, as if to say, "don't worry: the fundamental truths our society depends on are not being questioned; just truths about what counts as a good novel or a nice painting." But what happens if the very fundamental objective truths of the society are questioned, and we face the imminent possibility of choas? The humanities departments didn't have to confront this situation because the very "stale" objectivity of the philosophy departments some of them were bemoaning was also providing the cover for the other humanities departments to be as post-modern and irreverent about truth as possible, without feeling that there would be blood on their hands.

But now there is no ignoring the fact that academic philosophy is not universal. We can't just pretend it is just to keep society in order. Pretense doesn't keep the chaos in society at bay; it merely shields one from seeing the choas. The choas is starting. It has begun. The time to see America in terms beyond those of Europe is here. The best way forward is to embrace the coming reality whole-heartedly and to face up squarely to the challenges it brings.  


  1. "wouldn't society fall into chaos with each group set against each other with nothing objective to truly bind them?"

    It's not clear why any kind of "objective" factor would be necessary (or sufficient). Normal, healthy human societies have typically been based mainly on organic ties of culture and race.

    The idea that "objective human truths" are needed as a foundation -- that this could be what unites people or makes them capable of living together -- might be better seen as a highly specific cultural artefact. It is Eurocentric, in a shallow sense, deriving from a very recent phase in the intellectual culture of European and European-derived elites.

    "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 sounds like you're suggesting that once non-whites or non-Europeans achieve some kind of "critical mass" they begin to want not merely to participate in a white European society, assimilating to its norms and form of life, but to reshape it in ways that suit them -- regardless of the wishes or interests of the former white European majority. I suspect that's probably true in any situation where the host culture allows essentially unlimited immigration from the whole world. But then why shouldn't white Americans -- or, at any rate, those who are deeply attached to their traditional identity and form of life -- respond to this dynamic by resisting any further immigration? Why shouldn't they insist that this demographic transformation, which was imposed on them without any real democratic input, be reversed? It's not clear to me why those people should try to "embrace" their own cultural and political dispossession and demographic displacement. If it's legitimate for non-white non-European non-Christian Americans to seek some kind of collective empowerment against the interests of white European Christian Americans, it's legitimate for white European Christian Americans to resist this with all their might. Especially since this demographic and cultural transformation was effected undemocratically and dishonestly. The American majority were not told, when the 1965 Immigration Act was passed, that the result would be the destruction of the ethnoculture their ancestors created. (Just the opposite, in fact! They were told it would make no significant difference to the ethnocultural make-up of the country.)

    I don't know what will happen when they begin to really feel this existential threat -- when they really experience being strangers and minorities in what was once their own land -- but I am very skeptical that the "chaos" can be contained. In these kinds of conditions, large culturally distinct groups of people do not tend to work together to find new "objective" truths or a shared culturally neutral political system. Think of Ireland, Rwanda, India-Pakistan, Pakistan-Bengal, Union-Confederacy, Yugoslavia... on and on and on...

    1. N, I agree that organic ties of race and culture have typically tied together human society. But I don't think that means there is no need for a more abstract objective unifying human truths, or that such abstract truths are a Western creation. A lot of what we think of the axial religions already had this kind of abstract unity, like in Buddhism or Taoism, but also in Christianity. The point of religion as I see it was to unite people across cultural and racial differences; for example, irrespective of whether they are Jewish or Roman, etc. Or in the case of Buddhism as it spread from India to China, etc. The Western Enlightenment brought about by its elites in the last four hundred years is just another similar attempt at developing yet more abstract things that can unify people. And I think we are now in need of yet another such move, not just to greater abstraction, but to something that can bring us together in spite of not just race and culture, but also religious and philosophical beliefs. What we think of a traditional European philosophy is no longer able by itself to bring everyone together, and so we need new ideas and social structures which can do that work. Precisely because culture and race can no longer do that work they did thousands, and even hundreds, of years ago.

      Good question about why the White Americans shouldn't close down immigration or protect their culture when they sense the minorities starting to lay claim to the country. I think they are perfectly in their right to want to do that, and to try to do that. And I respect that view. Doesn't mean I agree with it. Or think it is feasible. Because I think the very dichotomy between White and non-White is what is getting erased. "White" gets used just like "Anglophile philosophy" gets used. Its a way of saying this is what "we" do and this is "ours". What I am saying isn't: we want what is the white peoples, or my "we" wants to make it "ours". Rather, what I am saying is: I am also white, insofar as my education and upbringing are influenced by European history and culture. I am not just brown. I am brown, white, black, etc. Insofar as I identify with different things from all these cultures. As we talked in another thread, by saying this I am not laying claim to be a universal person, as if I reflect all cultures. Certainly not. But I do think the older divisions are just not that useful anymore. Brown people saying they want brown politicians or brown philosophy professors is a step into the future. But when people start to say they are brown and white, that involves much greater change. And much greater sense of chaos, and a greater need to discover, and hold on to, our common humanity.

    2. Hi Bharath,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I hope you're right!

      It's true that Buddhism or Christianity, for example, encode notions of universality and unity. On the other hand, in real life these notions are _always_ interpreted within a specific cultural context such that organic ties of race and culture continue to matter profoundly. Buddhists in China and India have been unified, at some level, by their religion; but despite that abstract commonality Indians and Chinese have always taken for granted their strong racial-cultural identities. Within Christian Europe -- even just within Catholic Europe, for example -- we find deep ethno-cultural particularity and identity, solidarity and exclusion over thousands of years. In my view this is normal and natural. The universal and abstract must exist together with the particular and concrete in a healthy culture. A culture cannot be based merely on abstractions. Even if "old divisions" between "white" and "non-white" are no longer so salient or useful, hereabouts, I don't expect that in the future there will be no such divisions; the divisions will just take new forms, fall on other lines. (Think of Brazil or India.)

      You say that the Enlightenment was another attempt at universality, focussing on "yet more abstract things". But has the attempt succeeded? My impression is that the values and ideas of the Enlightenment have been a disaster. They lie at the root of tyranny and genocide; then there's the general sense of alienation and meaninglessness. Then there's the scientism and technocracy and hubris... The Enlightenment does not seem to have the practical wisdom of old-fashioned religious universalism. It doesn't allow for things outside of itself. It does not make any place for particularity (race, culture, etc.) and seems to recognize no limits.

      You're claiming that organic things like race and culture can't do what they once did -- and maybe you're right. But it could be that the only reason they can't is that in places like America these normal and healthy sources of identity and meaning have been destroyed by Enlightenment. Maybe the solution is to turn away from the extremism of the Enlightenment -- away from abstraction, back to the organic and particular. Since I don't really see much evidence that further abstraction _can_ do the work that race and culture can't do, that other move might be at least as desirable and feasible.

      I would be happy to live in a world where people began to re-interpret categories like "white" and "brown". If there were evidence of that, I'd be more optimistic about your proposal. But it looks to me as if the exact opposite is happening. Whites decline in numbers and influence and -- most importantly -- self-confidence, giving up more and more, abasing themselves before the Other, apologizing for their former power and dominance. Others grow ever more assertive and aggressive. The general dynamic seems to be one of ever growing hostility and paranoia. In short, it just does not seem to me that most non-white (non-European, etc.) people in this culture are going to _want_ to identify as "white" in any sense. And whites are not _allowed_ to identify themselves as anything else. I am white (in the old-fashioned sense). If I were to publicly say that I am "brown" or "black" in some sense, people would be angry. All this to say, the actual dynamic seems to make it very unlikely that people will start thinking in the way you propose.

    3. N, So much to engage in what you say. Thanks so much. I agree the Enlightenment model is deeply problematic because it was too much about abstraction and lost sight of the particular. Talking about how we are all human beings, or made up of atoms, doesn't bring everyone together; it just hides the biases of certain structures under the rubric of universality. As many critics of modernity argue, the problem with the Enlightenment model is that the universality of the back then new sciences doesn't translate into universality among human interactions. Physics isn't a model for how we can live together. Biology and neuroscience are closer, but still by themselves they are no guide.

      So, what is a way to turn to the organic and the particular? Here I don't think it helps to go back to race or culture. Categories like "white", "black", "Indian", "Portugese" are more particular than "human being", but they are still themselves pretty abstract. There is nothing all white looking people have in common that "white" unites them in a deep way. Especially because race is tied up with culture, and in the current world, culture is already always diverse. Here are different things that go into culture: (a) where one is born, (b) who one's parents are, (c) the education one has, (d) the music and movies one sees and is inspired by, (e) the friends one has, (f) the authors one is inspired by, etc. I don't in the current world (a)-(f) track one unified particular anything. We are all a hodgepodge of things, with different things thrown together.

      This gets to the issue of people being different colors at once. I have no problem with the idea that Eminem is partly black, or that Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger are partly black. If a person is defined by the culture they identity with, then these people were black in some way. The same goes the other way around: I have no problem with the thought that Cornest West or Beyoncé are partly white, because they are influenced by various forms of culture seen to be white. As you rightly say, mostly people would be upset with this kind of statements. If a black person said it, they are treated like a sell out (an "oreo"), and a white person said it, they are treated as if they are trying to take over even the minorities' identity. But here it is necessary to distinguish two things: a) whether one is a combination of different colors, and b) what color one is socially seen to be. Mick Jagger is in my opinion partly black, but he is seen to be white. So if he wants to say that he is partly black, then he needs to be open about the reality that he is seen to be white, and so accrues the advantages that come with that social perception. If Jagger just says he is partly black with being open about the fact that he is seen to be white, then it looks like he is just being greedy, like he wants the advantages of being seen as white, and also the advantages of being partly black. This is deeply problematic. But I would say the solution here isn't to say Jagger isn't partly black, but that he should be more open about the advantages he has in virtue of socially being seen to be white. Obviously the same goes for me, or anyone else. I think it is a big topic of how to acknowledge our plurality of colors without adding to the social biases associated with particular colors.

  2. "So, what is a way to turn to the organic and the particular? Here I don't think it helps to go back to race or culture. Categories like "white", "black", "Indian", "Portugese" are more particular than "human being", but they are still themselves pretty abstract. There is nothing all white looking people have in common that "white" unites them in a deep way."

    True, these are still pretty abstract categories. I didn't mean to suggest that race, for example, could be a sufficient basis for a good culture all by itself. But just as shared humanity is important to a good culture, shared race might be important too. To be clear, I don't mean that a better culture must be 100% racially homogeneous. However, races often differ culturally and biologically. The kinds of societies that whites create, and feel comfortable in, are not interchangeable with the kinds that other races create (and vice versa). So I would suggest that the kinds of things that do provide a sufficient cultural basis will tend to be grounded in (i) a relatively stable racial-ethnic majority that (ii) has some normal and healthy degree of racial awareness and racial solidarity. The organic and particular things that we need are not reducible to race, but if we simply reject any kind of racial identity as an ingredient in the organic and particular, there may be no way to find or create those things.

    You're right we should distinguish "a) whether one is a combination of different colors, and b) what color one is socially seen to be". But we should also distinguish a1) whether one is a merely social combination of races ("colors") and a2) whether one is biologically or naturally a combination of races. You appear to be assuming that the only important or relevant concept of race is a purely socio-cultural one -- that it makes no real difference who your ancestors were, who you are more closely related to. However I think that biological race just does matter profoundly. (Even if, though I doubt it, the reasons why it matters are ultimately social.) People just do for the most part have strong feelings of racial solidarity -- though many white people in the west try to repress them or pretend they don't have them. It seems that race just is something that unites people in a deep way (though, again, a society can't be based merely on race). We are tribal beings, and the most obvious marks of tribal identity are the ones that we inherit from tens of thousands of years of separate evolution. And it's not just a matter of instinctual or intuitive feelings of identity and difference. Again, the forms of life built into the world's cultures are to some extent effects (I think) of the distinctive evolved traits of the racial or ethnic groups that produced those cultures over very long periods of time. At least, I can't imagine any good reason for assuming that this is not the case.

    By the way, thanks for this excellent conversation. If I spoke honestly about this kind of thing in the world of professional philosophy I'd be risking my job (and worse, probably). A concrete example of how the demands of institutional philosophy can prevent real philosophy.

    1. N, You are right that I put a lot of focus on the socio-cultural concept of race. Perhaps this has to do with my biography and not feeling fully at home in America or India, among whites or brown people as traditionally defined, but the biological concept of race doesn't get a big grip on me. Which is not to deny that yes, the biological concept of race has been incredibly important in creating community throughout history, and still plays a big role in many communities (and even with me perhaps in many unconscious ways).

      As I see it, anything can be the basis of a community. So if some people want being white (or brown) in a biological sense to play that role, I don't think I can object. I can object if they want to say they are better than me, but I don't think that is what you are saying. No problem so far. I think the rubber meets the road if this biological sense of race is used to argue for social claims like that "America belong to whites". This kind of claim need not involve claims of superiority, but even the claim to ownership is problematic. With the rise of population and immigration, people with different biological senses of race are thrust together, and I don't see any way to disentangle them. As I see it, the fundamental fact of our time is that people who might not want to live with each other (even in order to just preserve what they see as their culture) are forced together by circumstance, and there is no going back. And it is not any one crashing into any one else's land or community: we are all crashing into each other, and we are stuck with trying to create community out of this crashing together.

      Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but the main appeal of the biological concept of race seems to be that it promises a sense of community without all this chaos; community in a clear cut sense with some idea of how things used to be. I don't deny the appeal of this. I have often hoped for it myself, by, for example, trying to be "just" Indian with my family, hoping to lose myself in the deep similarities I have with them. But in my case, it led mainly to repression.

      I distrust, like you I think, the abstraction of the Enlightenment, and the false sense of progress it creates. At the other extreme is tribalism, which if taken seriously would mean you as a white person and me as brown person wouldn't be having this conversation. So where is the middle ground? The problem exists because nature doesn't automatically give us the middle ground, anymore than it just gives the natural ability to fly. We have no option but to create the middle ground.

      I am also enjoying this conversation. Great to talk openly and freely about this stuff without worrying about the categories as already set in stone.