February 24, 2015

Building on Wittgenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 21, 2015

Friendship Moderates

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

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

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

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

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

February 20, 2015

Freedom and Professionalization

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

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

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

February 12, 2015

I Don't Know ...

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

February 9, 2015

And So It Begins

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

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

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

February 2, 2015

A Break

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