November 8, 2012


Your way of being present to your community may require times of absence, prayer, writing or solitude. These too are times for your community. They allow you to be deeply present to your people and speak words that come from God in you. When it is part of your vocation to offer your people a vision that will nurture them and allow them to keep moving forward, it is crucial that you give yourself the time and space to let that vision mature in you and become an integral part of your being.

Your community needs you, but maybe not as a constant presence. Your community might need you as a presence that offers courage and spiritual food for the journey, a presence that creates the safe ground in which others can grow and develop, a presence that belongs to the matrix of the community. But your community also needs your creative absence.

You might need certain things that the community cannot provide. For these you may have to go elsewhere from time to time. This does not mean you are selfish, abnormal, or unfit for community life. It means that your way of being present to your people necessitates personal nurturing of a special kind. Do not be afraid to ask for these things. Doing so allows you to be faithful to your vocation and to feel safe. It is a service to those for whom you want to be a source of hope and life-giving presence.
- Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

November 5, 2012

Moving On

Is blogging holding me back? Is it a way in which I am still clinging to my old academic life? Is it a crutch I am depending on because I am afraid to be in the world on my own? If so, maybe it is time to let go of the crutch and to walk on my own two feet into the new world with philosophy in my heart, and not necessarily as a achievement which I can point to ("There! That blog is what I have achieved in my life!").
Why do I feel such a need to have the blog? At first I told myself it was a way to show that I was not afraid to speak out loud. Now I wonder if it is because I am afraid to be silent. Maybe I am afraid that all the philosophy ideas that I have will remain within me without expression, and will crumble and die away within me if I don't have a format in which I can make them public. But do I cling to the philosophy ideas as a way to escape from the world in front of me? Maybe because I lack the confidence to think that I can be in the world just by myself as I am? Possibly. Very likely.
I am tired of feeling as if my mind has this side project that I have to dedicate a lot of my energy to. And I am tired of wondering if having such a side project is keeping me from unifying my whole being into the present, just where I am. Perhaps this focus on blogging is keeping me from really thinking about and committing to a new career. And perhaps that is keeping me from moving on with my life and growing in new ways such that later philosophy might reenter my life in a fresh and unexpected way.
This much I know: I don't want the rest of my life to be defined by my writing random philosophy posts on a blog, and me telling myself that this is me doing a grand project. I want to grow. I want to experiment. I want to learn new things. I want a good, meaningful job. I want to be grateful for the academic philosophy I learnt and which I have internalized. And I want to be open to new ways in which that internalized knowledge might express itself in my life, without me constantly clinging to that knowledge as if it was a treasure I cannot let go.
Do I have ideas about mind, action, consciousness, philosophy, Wittgenstein, education, multi-culturalism, etc. which are interesting and possibly novel, and which could be appreciated in an academic context? I think so. But even if that is true, does that mean that is the path my life has to take, so that I have to cultivate those ideas and dedicate my life to them? I don't think so. I want more out of my life. Or at least something different. I want not just to understand the mind, but to experience new modes of consciousness. I want not just to have a theory of action, but to act in a way which reflects freedom and confidence. I want the knowledge of mind, action and philosophy to be reflected in my life, in my consciousness, in my very being. I want to see if such a life and such a mode of being produces new knowledge and new forms of awareness which I am not able to even imagine right now. My guess is "yes". That is an experiment, the experiment of my life.

October 25, 2012

All Things Shining

In their book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that in order to lead meaningful lives we have to go back to the mode of being of the Homeric Greeks. This is a striking and puzzling claim.
On one common story of human progress, life in the distant past was mainly tortured and meaningless for the vast majority of people, for they had to be the slaves or otherwise subordinate to the kings and priests who had the majority of power in society. On this common story, life became better, and so enabled most people to lead meaningful lives, only with the dawn of modernity and the rise of democracy and the idea that each person has an ineliminable right to choose their way of life; that instead of the kings or priests dictating how people in society should live, it is up to each person to determine for themselves how to live. With the casting away of the chains, people are now responsible for their own lives, and it is this capacity for self-determination which makes them free, and how they utilize that freedom is what determines how meaningful their life is. On this common story the basic point is that the distant past is horrible, the recent past enabled people to more free, and so we are generally better off now than in the distant past.
The striking aspect of Dreyfus and Kelly's argument is to turn this common story around. Their view is akin to Rosseau's Noble Savage view, where it was in the natural state of their distant past that human beings were truly free, and the introspective freedom of modern man is an ersatz freedom riddled with doubt and anxiety. Unlike Rosseau, Dreyfus and Kelly focus not on the noble savage free to roam the forests as he chooses, but on the citizens of polytheistic Greece before the advent of rationalistic Socratic philosophy. On Dreyfus and Kelly's view, before Socratic philosophy disrupted people from their habitual actions, people lived lives filled with meaning, for, free of nagging doubts of whether their upbringing was in fact right or whether there are reasons to believe in Gods, people were completely immersed in their actions and with the world, and in that immersion they experienced viscerally that every act they performed was magical and meaningful. Every action they performed was called out of them by the world, and the Gods were the locuses of meaning in the world towards which the actions were directed. Dreyfus and Kelly suggest that in order to find meaning in our contemporary world we have to go back to that Homeric mode of being, and live our lives being open to moments of being called by the world into action. Instead of thinking about the meaning of life, to lead meaningful lives we are better off not thinking, but simply being with the world, attuned to hidden dimensions of action which the world elicits from us.
In a way Dreyfus and Kelly's view can seem common sensical, as if it were a more scholarly version of the Zen idea of going with the flow. Dreyfus and Kelly see Achilles as a prototype of someone leading a meaningful life because he is loved by the Gods and is instinctively and skillfully pulled into the world of action. But one can imagine that on their view The Dude from The Big Lebowski also leads an exemplary meaningful life. For The Dude, like Achilles, goes with the flow and does not seek to impose meaning on the world through his deliberation, but stays open to the ways in which the world calls out to him to act. So one might boil down Dreyfus and Kelly's message as follows: think less, act more, be.
It is one thing to hear this advice from The Dude. Or from the Dalai Lama. Or Deepak Chopra. But it is interesting to hear this suggestion from two professional philosophers whose job it is to think. A lot. Whose professional expertise consists of interpreting texts, developing arguments, critiquing other views, and generally engaging in the kinds of activities which are more similar to Plato than to Achilles. In fact, the brunt of the book is not focused on how one can cultivate the kind of skillful actions which can lead to a meaningful life--it is not a practical book in that sense. Rather, most of the book consists of arguments for why other ways of conceiving of meaning, by Augustine or Dante or Kant or Nietzsche, are bound to fail--it is a theoretical book in that sense. The kind of convincing the book aims for is a theoretic ought: of how one ought think of a meaningful life, and importantly how not to think of it.
Here, though, there is a puzzle. The thesis of the book is that one lives meaningfully to the extent that one doesn't deliberate about how to live a meaningful life and instead throws oneself into, or opens oneself to, skillful actions developed through habit and practice. Given this thesis, what is one to make of the book itself? How is one supposed to use it? The most obvious way might be akin to how Wittgenstein suggested one use the Tractatus: that it is like a ladder one throws away after one has climbed it. On this possibility, the idea would be that one reads Dreyfus and Kelly's book, realizes that meaning in life is a matter of skillful engagement with the world, puts the book away and dedicates one's time to carpentary or cooking or sports, etc. This is in fact how Wittgenstein envisioned one would use the Tractatus: whether one stopped doing philosophy was for him a sign of whether one understood the book. However, this way of thinking of the Tractatus was only possible because Wittgenstein himself gave up philosophy, or felt that he no longer had the need to do it. Given that this is not true of Dreyfus and Kelly, given that they are still philosophy professors, it is hard to know what it might mean to say that their readers should discard the book after they have internalized it. Does it mean to discard just this book? Or philosophy books in general? But surely philosophy professors cannot advocate that people would be better off practicing their jump shot instead of reading philosophy books. Or could they advocate that?

October 14, 2012

Goodbye Monk Idea

I am not a monk.
I am not a monk. I am not a monk. I am not a monk.
This was obvious all along in my life. I never entered a monastery. I never publically identified with a religious order. I never took on vows of poverty or celibacy. I never committed in any systematic way to spiritual practices, even to more mundane ones such as prayer or meditation. I hardly ever sat still even for fifteen minutes with my mind focused on God or the Universe. I found that too hard. Maybe even more importantly, I found it too bizarre and other-wordly, as if it was voodoo magic.
Nonetheless, I felt within me that I was a monk, or on the path of one, or had the calling of one. And I felt that my philosopher identity was inseparably connected with that monk identity. Here was one of the reasons I had trouble identifying with the philosophy profession from early on. I got bent out of shape in my head about silly things such as how professional philosophers are always doing philosophy over drinks, or at nice restaurants, as if it was just another job. Somehow I imagined that the public philosophy I would be a part of would involve things like fasting or restraining from indulgences. Not that I ever did this myself. Though I tortured myself about it with pangs of guilt, as if I were a weak-willed hedonist. And I tortured myself about how I could be part of a profession which did not exhibit even the need for any such habits.
When I left the philosophy profession a part of me thought that I was now truly embarking on my monk path. That is, even though I was married and I was not part of any spiritual institution. So outwardly not a monk. But somehow, inwardly, finally, truly on the path of my monk calling.
But I realize now this whole monk thing in my head is over. Many of the questions I have been raising to myself about the philosophy profession--in particular, how it is compatible with everyone excelling at philosophy--are ones which apply equally to any monk role. If a philosophy professor is not universalizable, a monk is even less universalizable. I almost can't believe why I ever thought otherwise. Somehow for me being a monk was always equivalent with being on the side of the everyday joe. But, of course, monks have their structures of power and privilege, even if it is not explicitly in terms of money or fame. Monks were the product of an older time when they were seen as the spiritual shamans, who did, as it were, the spiritual work in the community, and which everyday householders could not do. In this sense, being a monk meant being initiated into a special, privileged knowledge, which was not in the purview of the everyday person. In our democratic age, can this idea still have a resonance? I don't think it can in the same way it did in the past.
Goodbye monk idea. I don't know how you came into my life, but it is long overdue that I said goodbye to you. Farewell. I am off into a new world without premeditated concepts constraining my sense of myself.

October 6, 2012

Detached Identification

There is an experience I often had in my philosophy education. It was prevalent in my college, as well as my graduate, studies. In retrospect I can see how this experience laid the foundations for my eventual departure from the profession. I will call it the detached identification experience.

I was reminded of it earlier today when I went to Richard Moran's website and was looking through some of his essays. I opened the link to his essay, "Anscombe on Practical Knowledge" and started to read through it. I have done this ritual many times before, with different philosophers, and each time the experience is the same. At first there is the being called to the website. I will be doing something at home or at work, and then suddenly something about the philosophy profession or my education will jolt through me: a habitual form of thinking or writing or speaking which I had internalized through my education, and which still functions in me vividly. It feels as if I had forgotten something, some interesting point or way of looking at the world, something which I associate with my education, and which calls out for me to reawake to it. So I go to Google and type in "Harvard Philosophy" or "Cornell Philosophy", or some philosopher who I associate with the profession. Today it was Moran. It has some special resonance since he was my main dissertation advisor. Perhaps "main" here is only a bureaucratic matter, but it still has some resonance.

Then I get to his website, and go to his writings. The array of essays and topics lay before me, and there is a thrill of excitement. I can still feel in a fresh way the happy anxiety of anticipating reading one of my teachers' works. The sense that there is something wonderful and beautiful here, something exciting and deep. Something that I want to understand and which is in the scope of my understanding. The feeling that the writing is an entry way into the mental terrain of someone I know, of someone who is my teacher, and so whose mental terrain might hold some clue to my own terrain, since my mind is being or has been shaped to some extent by his or her mind. The feeling that more than anything, even more than the personal information which their families and friends know about them, what I want to know is what they think on this topic, what they think as philosophers, what the writing illuminates about them as philosophers and how they are situated in the conceptual space with respect to other philosophers. The feeling of being a voyeur into someone's mind who in the normal interactions in the classroom or at a departmental event is separated from me by the difference in our positions on the academic ladder.

Then I start to read the essay. The sense that there is something for me here is still fresh. And as I read I seek to understand the framework of the question the author is working within, the topic he is interested in, the opponents he is marking himself against. At this point normally a vague feeling of whether I agree with the author or not starts to arise. With many of my teachers, even ones who I like as people, I start to have a sense that I don't really resonate with their way of setting up the debate or with some assumption they seem to be making which is kept in the backgrounds of the discussion. It was like this for me with reading Sydney Shoemaker or Jason Stanley or Susanna Siegel or Tamar Gendler or Richard Heck or Nicholas Sturgeon. I admired them as people (and still do), and yet something in the way they set up the debate, the interlocutors they choose for their views, the intonations with which they mark an argument or a philosophical move left me unmoved. It wasn't that I couldn't understand what they were saying. Or even why one might think it was important. And it wasn't that I didn't think they were smart or philosophically sharp. It was more that, having entered the mental terrain of their essay, I found myself adrift. It was like there was nothing for me to latch onto. I found myself with neither strong "Yes" or "No" feelings, but with a general sense of "OK, I guess one might talk that way". I could understand what I was reading as a way one could do philosophy, and yet not as the way that I found myself being called to do it. There was the initial identification with the essay ("This is an essay by a teacher I like"), and yet soon there was a detachment ("I am not sure this writing is mapping on to the internal dialogue of my philosophical questions"). The identification made me feel normatively that, whether I agree with it or not, I ought to internalize the essay, and that the views, debates and texts being referred to ought to be central to my future thinking. And yet the detachment made me feel that my own philosophical growth did not map on to the trajectory of discourse contained in the essay itself.

Sometimes I felt in grad school that the situation was different when reading Moran. Or Christine Korsgaard or Warren Goldfarb or Stanley Cavell or Hilary Putnam. Here the initial sense of identification with the essay lasted longer, and it felt as if the mental terrain of the author mapped on more to my own terrain, and that therefore it mattered to me whether I agreed or disagreed with the author. In grad school, and even when I was a professor, I implicitly assumed that it was the debates structured around these authors which would buttress my own professional life. That my own writing would take place within the nexus of texts these authors' work was a part of, and that explaining or criticizing their views and marking my view in that nexus would be more than enough of a lifetime's work. This was the sense of identification. And yet I can see now that the detachment wasn't far behind for me even with these authors. As I felt today when looking at Moran's essay. 

October 4, 2012


A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.

- Thomas Merton

October 2, 2012

The Divine

I belong to no nation, no civilisation, no society, no race, but to the Divine.
I obey no master, no ruler, no law, no social convention, but the Divine.
To Him I have surrendered all, will, life and self; for Him I am ready to give all my blood, drop by drop, if such is His Will, with complete joy; and nothing in His service can be sacrifice, for all is perfect delight.
- The Mother, Words of Long Ago, 1920

October 1, 2012


Enough about academic philosophy. Like all institutions it has its good and its bad. It is easy to focus on the less than perfect features of anything, and keep harping on those features as if one is fighting a great battle. But this can become a bit like running in place, huffing and puffing without getting anywhere.
The more interesting thing is to just think and to try to understand the world.
The point of the experiment is to do philosophy in everyday life. Not to harp about professional philosophy from everyday life. There is much that is good about academic philosophy. It is best to leave it at that, and to focus on the philosophy itself.
The joy of simply trying to understand the world. What a precious thing. Let me not take it for granted.
The desire to rail against professional philosophy comes from fear. The fear that I have lost out on my opportunity to do philosophy. That out here, in this everyday world, I am lost.
There is a lot of this fear. Often I now feel as if I do not belong anywhere or to any group. This blog, for instance. Who are its readers? To most non-academics it might seem like gibberish. What would or can most of my family or friends who have not read academic philosophy make of my reflections on Rorty or Wittgenstein or how classes are taught? Perhaps the blog seems to them as impenetrable as picking up Kant's First Critique or a random philosophy journal article. I imagine them thinking, "A lot of noise. But to what end? What is the point?" And to most academics the blog might seem like the ramblings of a disgruntled soul, someone who couldn't make it and yet can't let go. Can they relate to the blog as a space for seeking the kind of knowledge they seek? That the very same intelligence which I might have channeled into a journal article is channeled into the blog. I imagine them thinking, "But why does he have to do philosophy over there, in that way? Why not here, the way he used to? This is just confusion."
The fear of being stuck in between. Lost to both sides.
And what if something happens to me? What if I get sick? Or struggle financially and get lost in the efforts to simply survive? Then what? The fear that the experiment will have failed for purely non-intellectual reasons. That perhaps my life would become meaningless. That no one would understand why I chose the path I did. The fear of the remark, "How unfortunate. He wasted his life." The fear of the pain this would cause those close to me. The fear of letting people down. The fear of losing myself.
In the face of this fear, a desperate grasping for any sense of achievement. Any sense of I am doing something rational and good. What is the easiest thing I can try to prove so that the experiment will not be deemed a total failure? Ah, atleast this much: here are the problems with that institution. If nothing else, I managed in my life to show the inconsistencies of that. Maybe that will help future people avoid those inconsistencies. I can contribute in that way at least. Something tangible that I can leave behind, so that my life will not have been for nothing.

September 10, 2012


BV: Ludwig, you are generally quite critical of academic philosophy. What then do you make of your students, many of whom went on to have pretty normal academic lives? For example, what do you think of Anscombe, who many now consider the best among your students and an exemplary philosopher in her own right?
LW: Anscombe was intense. She would focus in on a problem and battle with it. But this doesn't mean I agreed with her! Or that she was a representative of my views! She was skeptical of the cogency of the philosophy problems from the early modern period (the mind-body problem, utilitarianism vs deontology, and so on), but she was generally more accepting than I was of the coherence of traditional philosophy problems, such as those inherited from Aristotle. She certainly would go on and on about Aristotle and Aquinas! This is a big difference between us. For me metaphysics is metaphysics, and I see all of it as a confusion. But for Anscombe there is a distinction between bad metaphysics (Descartes or Leibniz) and good metaphysics (Aristotle), and she saw her life project as defending a good metaphysics of human beings and highlighting its practical implications. That is certainly not how I saw things!
BV: It is ironic, isn't it, that you routinely told your students to leave academic philosophy, and yet the best of your students went on to become academics and never showed any of your torturedness about being academics?
LW: The best of my students? I don't think of Anscombe, Malcolm and so on as my best students! They were students I was close to, yes. They were students I depended on, yes. But did I think that these students would continue my life's work after I died? No. Because philosophy as I think of it is the deeply personal activity of rooting out one's own confusions so as to be at peace. It is a constant effort to see things just as they are, and not by gaining new knowledge we didn't have before, but by having the courage to see aright what we already know but refuse to see! This seeing aright no one else can do for me. That is each person's task and burden. My philosophy consisted of my attempting to clear my confusions. There was therefore nothing to pass on after I died as a philosophical tradition in my name.
BV: But you are an industry and a tradition, just like Plato or Spinoza or Kant. All your unpublished works were excavated and catalogued, and scholars pour through them to cull the insights from your gnomic sayings to see how they apply to traditional philosophical problems. Isn't this what your writings are meant for? If not, what is the point of the Philosophical Investigations?
LW: Maybe I should have burned my manuscript! This is exactly why I didn't publish it in my lifetime. Because I saw what people did with the Tractatus. I clearly said in the preface of the Tractatus that it was not a text book, and that only people who have already had the thoughts expressed in it will understand it. The book was not meant to teach others what to think. It was an expression of my journey from tortured philosophy to peace. If the book resonates with you, then it might move you to write your expression of your own journey. And yet people started treating it like a text book, and sought to use it for defending their philosophical views, even though if the book is right, no such views are sensical to begin with! But they brushed this off saying, "Oh, the genius says funny things!" I did not want to publish again when it was clear that my form of writing would be so grossly misunderstood. And after my death this is what has happened with the Investigations as well.

September 5, 2012

Philosophy as a Profession

BV: Mr. Wittgenstein, so it was around 1929 that you came back to philosophy and started teaching at Cambridge?
LW: That’s right. I was back in the thick of it all, and had to rethink what I had written earlier.
BV: When you came back to philosophy, did you change your mind about the idea that philosophy is a kind of disease?
LW: Not at all. That part remained the same. But I changed my views about how the disease gets a hold of us, what language is, and how language goes on a holiday.
BV: This is something I have always wanted to ask you. If you still thought that philosophy is a kind of disease, how were you able to be a philosophy professor? I mean, you were getting paid to do philosophy, right? Presumably your students were inspired by you and wanted to do philosophy more. Weren’t you worried that the fact that you were a teacher might mislead people into thinking that philosophy is a form of knowledge and something positive after all? And that in this way you might be spreading the disease to others?
LW: Yes! Yes! I did worry about that. I tell you, it was pure torture. I was a man with an illness. I couldn’t stop worrying about whether we know we have hands or if there is a non-physical realm of numbers, if others can know what I feel or if we could understand lions. I was like a man possessed. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about these issues, and I was driven every waking hour to find out how I could stop thinking about them. And if I succeeded in making some headway in freeing myself from these problems, suddenly some twit would come along and say how I was an exemplary philosopher and that I was making philosophy come alive for them. Come alive? Are you crazy? Why would you want to wake the demons? That is why I told them to become nurses and janitors and engineers. Anything but professional philosophers. But unfortunately, none of it helped. Somehow just because I was a professor of philosophy, they seemed to think that it was good to be one.
BV: That is a rather natural inference to make, wouldn’t you say? They admired you. So they wanted to be like you. They saw you were a professor. So they wanted to be a professor too.
LW: No! You don’t understand, just like they didn’t. True, later in 1939 I became a professor at Cambridge. Yes, I succeeded Moore in his position. But this was because of my weakness. I was addicted to philosophy, the way one might be to drugs or gambling. If I was capable of it, I would have left professional philosophy far behind, and never looked back. But the disease was too strong within me. It was like I was in an asylum seeking my cure. And I was the only sane one because I knew I was in an asylum. The others, the admiring throngs, didn’t realize that they were in an asylum. That is what I could never tolerate, never give my blessings for: their wanting to be philosophy professors as if it were an honorific! An honor? It was suffocating. That is why I had to leave it, give up my chair. How could I free myself of philosophy if through my job I was implying that philosophy is a virtue? So, yes, I was a professor. But was I proud of it? No. I had to be one because I gave away all my inheritance to my family (not to the poor, mind you, since they would only be corrupted by the wealth).

September 2, 2012

Nature of Philosophy

BV: Mr. Wittgenstein, I must ask you right away, what is your view of philosophy? What do you make of it?
LW: Philosophy is an abomination. It is a disease. A deadly vermin which crawls into your brain and lays eggs there and which slowly robs you of all sanity and peace. It is a bewitchment of language. A distortion of our ordinary words. Philosophy lives within us the way the alien lived within Sigourney Weaver, and we can only hope to be as strong as she was in rooting out this vile creature.
BV: Well, that is certainly a strong view. If philosophy is a disease, what do you make of the fact that you are considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century? I believe they mean that as a compliment. What do you make of such praise?
LW: Oh! Don't even mention that inane praise! The people who truly understand my view understand that the greatest philosopher is one who has no need for philosophy. And so one who is not a philosopher at all. I tell you, it is impossibly hard to be me. Most philosophers are trivial windbags who pontificate meaninglessly. And the good ones--that is, the ones who understand me--well, they show their limits by the desperate need they have to praise me, as if I were just another philosopher like Plato or Kant. So even the people who understand me don't understand me. They fail to see that if I have any merit as a philosopher, it is that I am closer than they are to not being a philosopher at all.
BV: Are you saying that your aim as a philosopher is to not be a philosopher?
LW: Exactly! It's good that you are able to grasp this. Even Russell and Moore failed to truly understand this about me. Do you know that apparently in a tenure letter for me, Moore said that I was the Einstein of philosophy? I was so pissed when I heard this. As if there can be a Einstein in philosophy! I tried to tell Moore so many times: philosophy is not a science, and it can never be. And unlike what his idiotic Bloomsbury group thought, philosophy is not art either. That's the thing, really: philosophy is not anything. It is a lack, a negation, a vice. It has to be rooted out of oneself, just that way that an ascetic tries to root out sexual desires from himself.
BV: Wow, that sounds really frustrating. And deep. If not the greatest, you must at least be the deepest philosopher of the 20th century?
LW: Yes, I am.
BV: So have you ever gotten close to rooting out this disease of philosophy from yourself?
LW: At one time I thought I did. It was after my Tractatus was published. I genuinely felt that I had solved all philosophy problems, and that there is nothing to be done in philosophy.

BV: That sounds... unfortunate. No more philosophy? At all?
LW: Silly man. It was not unfortunate. It was divine. I was finally free of the nagging of philosophy. "Ludwig, what is the self? Ludwig, what is language? Ludwig, what does it mean to exist?" I tell you doing philosophy is the greatest burden a person faces. And what makes it worse is that it is utterly meaningless! That is what we fail to see! We think we are asking something profound, as if we were peeling back the surface and looking at the real structures of the world underneath! As if just by thinking we are making a discovery, like a scientist but also not like a scientist! It aggrivates me so to even just think about it. But...were was I? Yes, the year was 1920. The book was completed. And I washed my hands of the whole bloody subject. I was free to do what I always dreamed of doing: teaching elementary school in a remote village.

August 27, 2012

Accepting What Happens

"Words once in common use now sound so archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus... Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest -- unknown, unasked for a minute after death. What is 'eternal' fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish actions; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

At the moment I write this, there are homeless people in the city I live in. There are people with families and children who have no money and who are facing eviction; who right now, as I write this, are dreading tomorrow morning because they will no longer be able to have a home. There are people who have burden upon burden pile upon them or their families: poverty, sickness, physical and mental abuse, physical and mental illness, lack of education or opportunities. People with such clear disadvantages in life that it is hard to fathom what the point was in their being born at all. Why be born only to struggle in such harrowing conditions. To have the powerful pulse to live, only to be constantly thwarted by the difficulty in achieving even the most basic securities required for living well. People in such hard circumstances that to even think about the possibility of my life looking like theirs makes me shudder with incomprehension.
Those people, how far they seem from Obama and Bill Gates, from Michael Jordan and Madonna, from Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. These people seem to exemplify human life in some form. They seem to transcend even the question of whether their life was worth living, for the answer seems so obviously "yes!" They seem like paradigms of what a human life can look like, paradigms which call out for emulation. Can we imagine Michael Jordan homeless? Or Rawls living in the projects as a drug addict? The mind rebels at the thought. At least my mind rebels, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. The mind cries out, "No, not Michael Jordon! He is the very exemplar of being an athlete!" He embodies excellence in such a pure form that we can only imagine him as a shining beacon, a distant star which we are lucky to behold in our midst. He is so perfect at what he does that he seems to have achieved a kind of perfection as a human being, as if the halo of his excellence at basketball has expanded to envelope his whole life, and he stands forth as an ideal of humanness--a modern day Achilles.
These people's lives seem meaningful because it is their lives that we orient our own life around. It is tempting and natural to say, "Of course Einstein or Mother Teresa or Gandhi lived worthwhile lives!" For their lives have become for us not just the lives of particular people, but something more. Something much more. They have become ideals by which we define what a worthwhile life looks like.
These people, the greats, seem unique because they exhibit a skill which the vast majority of people can't even hope to have--a skill which in fact seems particular just to those great people. In contrast, those people, the utter have nots, seem to barely be managing a human life because they cannot consistently exercise even the most basic skills which most people take completely for granted; skills of self-sufficiency such as having a bed for the night and a shower in the morning.
These people are at one end, and those people are at the other end. I seem to be in the middle, along with multitudes of people.

August 13, 2012

Being Positive

When I decided to leave academia, it was a tumultuous period emotionally and intellectually. It was a time of personal transformation and expansion of horizons. It was also a time of some unclarity and not being able to even think about some basic issues. Such as what other job I was going to have. I resigned without looking for another job. Without even thinking about an alternate career. And I didn't even know exactly why I was resigning. There were reasons I gave myself (I didn't enjoy the contorting I felt I had to go through to put my thoughts in publishable form), but even to me it was unclear why such reasons had to imply leaving the profession. After all, if I wasn't enjoying what I was writing, perhaps I could write in a different way. Or on different topics. Or seek to go to different conferences. Why leave the profession altogether? It was hard to answer these questions when colleagues, family or friends would seek to raise them, because I myself did not know the answers.
What I felt though was that making this decision and following this path was something I absolutely had to do. Even though I could not give clear reasons to myself for my decision, what I felt strongly was that down this path lay my intellectual and personal growth. That somewhat down this path I would better understand the reasons, but that at first it was imperative for me that I make the choice and plunge into this path.
I firmly believed that what I was doing was not irrational. That it was a perfectly rational action, which was being guided by a grasp of reasons which in principle could be shared with other people. However, I also strongly felt at the time that I couldn't express those reasons clearly to myself or to other people. What I felt was that I was grasping and being moved by reasons which I was still unable to grasp clearly in thought. That I would be able to grasp them in thought only by allowing myself to be moved by an intuitive awareness of the reasons. That a life transformation motivated by a fledgling awareness of the reasons was necessary before I could be able to articulate them more clearly. That I had to act now, and that the reasons would come to the surface in the ensuing years. As if my leaving was like a seed which had to be planted and that the reasons for leaving were like the branches of a tree which would grow from the earth over many years.
What I felt strongly when resigning was that this was a decision I was actively making. That it was a positive action, a movement towards growth and not merely a reactive decision. That I wasn't leaving the profession out of resentment or anger or lack of confidence. That I was leaving because I felt it was the right thing for me to do in better understanding myself and the world.
In the past year, however, it was not always easy to think of my leaving as a positive action. Suddenly bereft of a career, and still thinking all the time about philosophy and so not having much energy for thinking of a new career, it was natural for me to cast about trying to understand this decision I had made. Unable to hold on at times to the sense that I choose to do it, it was natural to feel that circumstances had driven me out of the profession. That the profession was unjust! Close minded! Arcane! That a great ill was done to me, and that somebody or some institution has to be held accountable for it! Filled with sadness and bitterness at my fate, I felt at times that I did not so much choose to leave as that my pain in the profession made me leave. And with this thought deep seated and long hidden anger, frustration and resentment rose to the surface of my consciousness. I mourned for the Bharath I could have been, the Bharath I imagined when I was twenty that I would become, the essays and books I felt I would write as a professor, the classes I would teach, the changes I would help make from within the profession. Even after leaving the profession, my desire for that path was still strong and it seemed at times as if left to my own volition I would have never made this decision. That the decision was so unnatural and so contorted that it could only be a reactive decision. A decision made only out of pain and not out of joy. And the more I felt this, the more the anger and the resentment got a grip on me.

July 30, 2012

Balancing Philosophy and Life

In my previous post I gave one reason I haven't been blogging. There is another reason as well. It is that I was having difficulty balancing my philosophy and my everyday life.

This was most obvious in the case of my work. I have been working at a non-profit as a temp for the past six months. In the first three months I completely enjoyed the work: it was new and refreshing, a welcome relief to be working again after the six months I took for myself after leaving academia. And it was invigorating to be doing something practical after years of thinking of work in terms of making progress on interminable conceptual problems. It was great as well to come home from work and not have to think about it. The work felt fresh and freeing, as if it drew me into itself and I was doing it with a smile.
Then I started blogging. I wrote the blog posts with the exhilaration of long pent up ideas and emotions. To even just be writing about these ideas into a public space felt new and amazing. Here was an experience I had never had before with philosophy: expressing it in public from the bottom of my heart, with full conviction, with complete identification with what I was saying. As a student and even as a professor I always felt that an essential part of me was missing from my expressions, that there was always a part of me which held back from affirming what I said or wrote. As if I wasn't fully present in my expressions. And I wasn't. Back then I was so busy constantly trying to show only this side of me here, and only that side of me there that I hardly had the feeling of expressing myself fully. After a while it became such a habit that I would do it even when it wasn't necessary, just because I never developed the capacity of expressing myself with a unified voice. But when I started to blog, here was this unified voice which I was suddenly writing with. What a gift and treasure to speak with one's whole being! Instead of all the parts of oneself squabbling amongst themselves, they work together, march together and point towards a common goal which they aim to achieve together. The way a country enjoys the declaration of peace after years of seemingly interminable civil war, so too my spirit rejoiced at the peace I felt at having finally found a unified voice.
Part of the excitement was also that I was doing philosophy publicly again. True, it wasn't the same as talking philosophy with colleagues or students. With a blog many of the joys of doing philosophy physically together are lost. But when blogging there is at least the having of a public voice of philosophy--of speaking out into a public space and expressing oneself philosophically. In a way I had not expected when deciding to leave academia, the thing I missed the most about academia was the opportunity it provided to have a public voice. A teacher is like an actor or an athlete in that she performs her task on a public stage, a platform which unites her with the history of the subject and with all the men and women through the ages who have contributed to that platform. To speak with a public voice in this sense is to speak with the voice of humanity, as part of something larger than oneself. Certainly any person can speak with this voice when they express the common humanity they share with all people. Just as any person can enjoy the pleasures of basketball in their driveway or of singing in their shower. But it is a different thing to do it in a public way where other people look to you to channel such a voice. Once one experiences this public persona, it can be addictive.
And I was addicted to it, even though I didn't know it. I realized it after I left academia when I found myself thrashing about for something that I seemed to have unexpectedly misplaced. I was grasping for the public voice I had lost. No longer a professor, I discovered that when I did philosophy by myself it was still fun and pressing and exciting, though it felt 2-dimensional instead of 3-dimensional. A certain resonance was lost. The boom of the voice displaced by a quiet speaking to oneself. That I had gone from playing in the NBA back to playing in my driveway. No doubt it was an unconscious desire for my lost public voice which drove me to blog in the first place. And having found some semblance of a public voice, I held on to it for dear life, as if I would never let go of it again even for a second.
And after blogging for a few months that holding on desperately to a public voice started to suffocate the rest of my life. Suddenly I wanted to blog all the time, feeling excited to have found again some link to a public voice. I was most happy when I was blogging. When I wasn't blogging, I was thinking about possible blog posts. In a way I had not anticipated when I started to blog, the blog suddenly threatened to take over my whole life, and I was loathe to distance myself from it lest I lose the public voice of philosophy once more.

July 19, 2012

Guilt, You Don't Own Me

I haven't blogged in more than a month. It was partly because it was good to take a break. Recharge. Clear my head.

But there was another reason too. And I could feel it even as I was finishing my previous post. The post in which I expressed publically for the first time the pain I felt in college of not having the philosophy of my home reflected in my education. I had felt this pain for fifteen years, from when I went to college to when I was a professor. Most of the time I repressed the pain. Though I could feel it then, I couldn't see it. I couldn't identify it. And I wouldn't identify it.
If anyone had said to me in college, "Bharath, do you have any culture issues about your classes in terms of combining your Indian and American halves?", I would have said, "No way. I am quite lucky. I don't have any such issues." I would have smiled broadly and thanked my stars for being part of such a wonderful world. I wouldn't have let the thought linger in my mind for even a second, so sure I was then that such issues didn't apply to me. I would have said then, "I am simply interested in philosophical truths. Cultural, sociological issues--those subjective domains of human messiness-- those have nothing to do with me!"
I see now that I dismissed such thoughts not because I didn't have any issues about understanding myself as an Indian-American (a hybrid, a mongrel, belonging neither here nor there uniquely, but belonging to both fully). I really didn't consider the question long enough to truly entertain it.
Instead, I dismissed it because of GUILT.
How could I say that I have an issue about how my home life relates to my school life when neither my family nor my teachers acknowledge any such thing? Here was the root of the double-edged guilt.
On the one hand, to claim that I have such an issue seems to draw a sharp line between myself and, say, my father. After all, as someone who grew up in India and was there till his forties, my father's experience of education did not involve any sharp difference between his home life and his education. Thus to say that I am having an issue at school would be to say that my experience of education was different from my father's. But if we are different in such a fundamental way, then in what way could I think that my father's life could be a guide to my life? If we are different in terms of how we learnt about the world, are we essentially living in two different worlds? Such a thought felt like a betrayal to me, and out of my love and respect for my father and my family, I buried the thought as totally irrelevant to me.
The issue here is not that because I grew up in a Indian home, my individuality was somehow thwarted. The same issue arose for me with my decidedly American teachers. That is the other edge of the guilt.
As far as I could tell, my teachers too did not have the kind of issues I did in reconciling the culture of their homes with that of their education. If for them there was any such tension, it seemed to me that it was because their families might have been religious (Christian or Jewish), and they were breaking free of that to embrace the Enlightenment values and language taught in the philosophy departments. Though this can be a big rift, it is hardly of the magnitude which I would have to contemplate in my own case.
For my teachers the rift, it there was one, was centered on the issue of religion. But issues of race and of culture, and the hundreds of other issues that come with that--these did not apply to them. Breaking with the Bible to embrace Kant's Groundwork can no doubt be a big break. But in a way that break happens against the background of a common shared culture. After all, Kant, like Descartes and Leibniz and scores of other greats, was Christian, even if his understanding of it was totally different from that an Augustine or an Aquinas. And even the atheist greats like Hobbes and Hume and Nietzsche -- they are responding to the Western tradition, and saw themselves as part of that tradition.

June 1, 2012

My Story 2

In an earlier post I described how I was conflicted for many years about academic philosophy. Why was that? Why did I resist committing fully to the profession even as I was a part of it? In thinking about this question, I have found myself going back to how I initially came to philosophy.

I first became aware of philosophy through conversations with my father; conversations which continue to this day. When I was about 15 we started talking about The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita. About the nature of the self and consciousness, and how to live a good life, and the meaning of existence. About what Krishna meant by saying that we should act without thinking of the results of the action, or what is Brahman and how we can experience it within ourselves as the truest reality. The discussions made a great impact on me. I felt, perhaps like many adolescent sons, that my father was living a full life, and that he was striving to grasp the essence of being human. I admired, as I still do, my father's unwavering positivity and spiritual equanimity, and sensing that for him these virtues were rooted in his understanding of The Gita, I was eager to understand the text so as to gain for myself the fullness of human life. Even in the situations where I felt that my father, being a person, had limitations, I still respected the ideal of how to live which he valued. Philosophy, as I grasped it in relation to my father, was mainly a way of living, one which was open to any person so that they could lead, irrespective of their circumstances, a flourishing life in the deepest sense. Here was the first concept of philosopher I came to cherish: the philosopher as any person.

As I became more enthusiastic about philosophy, I wanted to do it all the time. I wanted philosophy to reverberate in every aspect of me, constantly and with great energy. This desire took a hold of me when I was about 16, around the time most kids in America start thinking about who they want to be after high school. My fledgling interest in philosophy thus took on for me a possible social and career identity. I was still unaware of academic philosophy, and, at any rate, I needed at that time a form of public philosophy which had the language and the cultural rhythms of my conversations with my father. I found the image of this in the 8th century Hindu philosopher-monk Adi Shankaracharya. It was a natural extension, since my father's interpretation of The Gita is similar to Shankara's (Advaita Vedanta). I was particularly drawn to the ideal of the monastic life, and the idea that a life of renunciation might foster certain forms of spiritual and intellectual consciousness which might be otherwise hard to acquire. Here was the second concept of philosopher I came to cherish: the philosopher as monk.
It was easy enough to imagine how one might become a Hindu monk in 8th century India. But how does one do that in 20th century America? I didn't know. And how does one become a philosopher as monk even while remaining a philosopher as any person? That is, how do I follow Shankara's path without turning my back on my father's form of life? I didn't know. These two questions were the most pressing questions I had when I started college. When in my freshman year I discovered the philosophy department, I latched on to it as the answer to these two questions. On the one hand, philosophy classes seemed no different in principle than my physics or math or language classes, and so by becoming a philosophy major I felt that I could study philosophy without breaking with the general trajectory of life presupposed by my family. On the other hand, philosophy professors seemed not so different from Shankara in that both dedicated their lives to philosophy, and I hoped that here perhaps was the 20th century American version of the 8th century Indian monk life. Here was the third concept of philosopher I came to cherish: the philosopher as professor.

May 30, 2012

Meta-Philosophy Conference

"Is philosophy out of touch with everyday life?"

This question is sometimes posed to academic philosophers. It is not always clear in what way the question is intended. But somewhere behind it seems to lie an accusation of some kind. Or, at any rate, a worry about a possible accusation.

Here is one way to interpret the question: "Is academic philosophy failing in its responsibility to everyday people?" On this interpretation, one imagines that academic philosophers have been given a great task--of enlightening the population--and that perhaps they have been delinquent with regard to this task. That whereas philosophy is a grand, mighty subject, the academics have turned it into a trivial, silly game centered on getting tenure and academic recognition. That academic philosophers, with their tenure and their summers off and their conferences in exotic (as well as non-exotic) locations, are selling the public a false bill of goods while living the high life. Call this the accusation interpretation, since on this interpretation the very question amounts to an accusation.

In September of 2011 I went to a meta-philosophy conference at Harvard. By that time I had been out of academic philosophy for a few months. I was trying to make sense of my decision. Attempting to understand why I felt alienated from my education and from my job as a philosophy professor. A meta-philosophy conference at Harvard seemed just the ticket: an opportunity to hear others on the nature of philosophy, and to walk around campus and process the nine years I had spent there.
For me, as I imagine it was for many people, the main event of the conference was on Friday Night: a discussion between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano. Stanley is a well reputed philosopher who teaches at a highly ranked philosophy program. He was one of my teachers at Cornell. I hadn't heard of Romano before, though a little web search suggested that he seemed to have a penchant for creating controversy and for speaking his mind about what he perceived to be the failings of academic philosophy. Given that he had been one of my teachers, I felt my loyalties were with Stanley, but, given my move out of the profession, it seemed as if Romano might speak for my frustrations. As much as anything, I wanted to go to the conference to see how I would balance these opposing sides within me.

A video of the discussion (debate? confrontation?) can be found here.

As anticipated, there was much disagreement between Stanley and Romano. Stanley defended academic philosophy and its necessity in society. He highlighted the good things professional philosophy does, and bemoaned a world without the advances made possible by a Frege or a Quine. Romano, for his part, called most professional ("analytic") philosophy a sham and criticized the manner in which academic philosophers write for each other without even attempting to be intelligible to non-academics. Stanley suggested that is part of the natural process for a specialized discipline. Romano retorted that it is an evasion of the true spirit of philosophy. Romano said Stanley should learn to write better. Stanley said that Romano might benefit from an introductory philosophy class. It seemed as if Stanley and Romano do not agree on much.

Yet, as I was sitting there listening, as if Stanley and Romano were externalizing a tension I felt within myself, it seemed to me that there was a crucial assumption they both shared. They both assumed the accusation interpretation of the question of philosophy's relation to the broader culture. Hence Stanley vehement affirmation that professional philosophy matters and is good. Stanley concedes that most people will not read his works, but he is quick to affirm (understandably) that it doesn't mean that his work is bad--or that he is derelict in his duties as a professional philosopher. The accusation assumption is even clearer with Romano, since his main thrust is to make the accusation that the kind of work which most of the people in the room do is trivial and insular--disconnected from broader inter-subjective discourse, and assuming that broad inter-subjective discourse is the method of grasping reality, disconnected from reality itself.

May 26, 2012

Philosophy in Public Spaces

A striking fact of non-academic life is how little philosophy comes up in one's interactions with other people. In my normal exchanges at work or at the shopping mall very rarely do philosophical topics come up in conversation. When sitting on a bus or walking down a street, there is hardly any sign that at one time Socrates or Plato existed, or that even in this century there was a Wittgenstein or a Dewey, or that even at this very time there are thousands of people pouring over philosophy texts seeking the deeper truths of life. In the normal course of life, everything seems so settled, as if the only task for each person is to get through the events of the day.

Of course, it is not that philosophical topics can't be found at every street corner or in every interaction with another person. Certainly they can be found. When looking at a Gap ad, one can wonder, "What concept of human excellence is being assumed here? Why do people find it natural to think that this is a form of excellence?" Or when seeing people packed like sardines into the subway, one might ask, "What is individual and what is communal in each person? How much can people be in control of their lives, and how much are they at the mercy of nature and society?" These strike me as completely natural questions, which arise from just looking at the world. And yet, try raising these questions with other people in the flow of everyday life. It is exceedingly hard. "What is the matter with you? It's just an ad. Get it together. Are you feeling ok?" Or: "Damn. We shouldn't have taken the subway in rush hour. Stop pontificating, and move further in!" The real difficulty isn't even that others will shoot down the philosophical questions. It is to even express it to another person. And even more: to hold on to it within oneself as something important and pressing and exciting.

This isn't because most people are stupid or disinterested in broad questions of human life. I think the reason for the paucity of philosophy in everyday life is that the world one engages with is now so diverse. Here is a European descended Christian. There an African descended Muslim. And here an atheist from Australia. And there an agnostic from Chile. And it is not just about countries. Or religions. Here is a person without many extended family ties, and who thinks of the world more in terms of friends than family. There another person who is defined by his family ties, and identifies with them deeply. Here is a person who loves sports. There a person who doesn't care about them at all. Here is someone who loves Hollywood movies. There someone who thinks that such movies are trivial. Etc. And etc. Society is now so diverse that there is no guarantee that one shares palpable deep values and commitments with most people one encounters.
Philosophy concerns abstract questions. But this doesn't mean that therefore one can talk about philosophy with anyone. As if since philosophy is abstract, conversations about it can bypass the ordinary norms of human bonds. To the contrary. Ironically, the very abstractness of the questions implies that they are best pursued with people with whom one has a certain kind of closeness fostered by shared habits: friends, colleagues, family, etc. One doesn't say to a stranger, "So, about the meaning of life..." More likely, one keeps quiet. Or else: "It's a nice day today", and so on. A philosophy conversation is a joint reflection on shared forms of life. When there is no palpable sense of a shared form of life between people, a philosophy conversation seems out of grasp. When it feels as if one can't even talk to a person about the weather, it is hard to talk about the nature of the self or freedom or the good life.

May 18, 2012

Amateur Philosopher

Here are two facts. I chose not to be a philosophy professor. And I still want to do philosophy. This combination can make it seem as if my attitude to the profession must be a combative one, as if I don't like the profession. I fall prey to thinking this sometimes too. But it's not correct.
There are different ways in which one might be contrasted with a professional philosopher.
1) A professional philosopher as opposed to not being a philosopher at all.
2) A professional philosopher as opposed to a critic of professional philosophy.
3) A professional philosopher as opposed to being an amateur philosopher.
When I tell people I left professional philosophy, mostly their response seems to be to think that I didn't like philosophy, and so want to leave that behind. They are assuming here contrast (1).
When I say that isn't the case, and that I still like and envision doing philosophy, they get a worried look. As if I had just declared war. I imagine they think that I have it in for the profession for some personal reason (maybe I dislike my former colleagues, or I resented not publishing, or maybe I just wasn't good at it but am not able to accept that). By saying that I still want to do philosophy, I seem to be implying that the philosophy profession is somehow corrupt or trivial or some other dirty thing. They expect me to be mad. Angry. Or to at least take a righteous tone, as if I had some principles which I wasn't willing to sacrifice, and which the profession was asking me to sacrifice. When I sense this look in others, it brings out similar conceptions in myself. So I take on an angry tone. Or a righteous tone. As if I am Luther putting up my 95 theses. Here contrast (2) is assumed.
I have spent a year fluctuating between contrast (1) and (2). Sometimes I would think, "I just didn't want to do that". But this seems hard to tell myself, since I think about philosophy pretty much constantly. So then contrast (2) presents itself. And so I would think, "Yes, the profession is all wrong! What craziness! Why is no one else seeing this? I must be a great philosopher, ahead of the curve. A prophet. Ok, then, I will speak out as a prophet. I will criticize the profession, like Jesus knocking over the tables of the money changers." A great energy would overtake me. And then....frustration. And then...depression. The whole thing seems forced. Not natural. As if I am taking on some grand project to justify my decision to leave. As if I creating an enemy to prop myself up. I ask myself, "Is the philosophy profession bad? Deeply wrong?" I think there are deep assumptions of the profession I disagree with, but that doesn't make the profession unjust or vicious. It just means I have a disagreement with some of the ways the profession functions. And where exactly do I disagree with the profession? To take on the critic stand a battery of charges is needed. Do I have such a list? As I think about it, I realize: "No, I don't have such a list." I don't even know what exactly philosophy is. I have ideas, like any one else. But if I am honest with myself, I know that I am puttering around just like anyone else. This recognition takes out the venom from my mind. It deflates the call to revolution. And then at first I feel lost, as if a public stance I could take has been lost. But slowly I feel more peaceful. Because I know in my heart that I was not meant to be a critic of the profession. That is not why I left. It is a pose I could take, but it is also a pose in which I could lose myself. Better to avoid it altogether.
Recently, in the past few weeks, I have started to think that contrast (3) is what applies to me. "Amateur philosopher" can be understood in two ways: one who has not acquired the skills of a professional philosopher, or one who does not make an income as a philosopher. The former does not fit me, since I did acquire such skills. But the latter does now apply to me. Philosophy is no longer my career.

May 14, 2012

Let It Be

Some days it feels like the experiment is a bust. I must be crazy. What am I going on about? If I care about philosophy enough to have this blog, why didn't I just stay in academia? Perhaps I am missing something. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I have a character flaw which makes me not commit to things. Or maybe it is like what some people say to me regarding my decision to leave: "Oh, you were burned out, huh?" The implication that I failed stings. All the more so because deep within me that is the one interpretation of the events which I fear. And which I worry might be true. Maybe all the hoopla of my ideas about why the experiment matters is just a cover for the fact that I failed. Maybe I just couldn't cut it, and I couldn't face up to it. Is that what I am doing by writing now? More cover up?
This self-flagellation and dejection didn't come out of nowhere. I knew I shouldn't do it, but I did it again today. I went to the websites: Harvard, Berkeley, Pitt, Chicago. To the Leiter blog. To see what the professionals are doing. What is happening there. What am I missing out on. Some part of me feels desperate to reaffirm some connection to the profession.
And yet what I see on the websites only makes me feel more distant. For where on those websites can I find my story? Or stories of others like me who had trouble committing? The websites depict only the humming machinery of the profession. The talks. The publications. The same circles of people going around giving talks at each other's departments. The polished sense of progress. And commitment. Why did I have so much trouble with that commitment? Why is it that they were able to do it, and I wasn't? My mind unconsciously asks these questions over and over again, and unable to answer clearly, it gives up, exhausted. The fall back answer arises readily: "because I did something wrong, or I didn't do something enough, or I was too stubborn. It is my fault. Something in me is lacking." And the voice which speaks this answer in my mind suggests the path of action: "Hide all this. Don't let it come to light. Your feelings of insecurity--those are your fault. Just having the feelings shows that there is something wrong with you. You are weak. Don't perpetuate the weakness by showing it to others. Bury it. Don't give a hint of it to anyone. Look normal. Be normal."
In the past I fell prey to this voice. I accepted it's claim that my pain is my fault. But now I see that is not true. The pain is not my fault. Nor any one else's fault. It is simply a fact of my consciousness this evening. Caused, like all facts, by the flux of events in the world. It is not a fact to run away from. To the contrary, it is a fact which holds the clue to my self-understanding. If I can look the pain in the eye and accept it as it is, without putting myself or others down, then some new understanding of myself and the world is possible. The new understanding is always only around the corner from simply acknowledging the pain. From letting it be. Given the turbulence of this evening, no point thinking too much. Or trying too hard to understand. The only way to gain understanding is to be good to oneself. To acknowledge that the deepest part of who one is can only be good. To let the pain be. And to let the understanding come in its own time. To trust and to know that it will come. To let it be.

May 12, 2012

How Not to Leave the Profession

In the 1970s Richard Rorty was a professor of philosophy at Princeton. He was well-known in the profession. He had edited a well received anthology, The Linguistic Turn, and was considered a sharp, if idiosyncratic, thinker since he defended views such as that mental states don't exist. He could have spent the rest of his life at Princeton, fine tuning his views and resting on his laurels. But in 1979 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The book made him infamous in the philosophy profession, and a celebrity in the humanities.
Written as a cross between a scholarly work and a manifesto (Word and Object crossed with The Communist Manifesto), Rorty argues that certain projects of philosophy which have been dominant since the 17th Century are bankrupt and have run their ground. The book aimed to deliver the final blow to these projects, and to help start a new way of doing philosophy. He claimed the old way tried to find universal philosophical truths which were supposed to be independent of humans, and that this project has to be dismissed because there are no such truths. It was a hopeless search. On the new way, philosophy isn't about finding universal truths, but about creating interesting conversations which mobalize the world towards greater social justice. On the old way philosophers are more like physicists. On the new way philosophers are more like artists. Actually, on the new way even physicists are like artists! Viva la revolution!
The publication of the book was an event. Like any academic text, Rorty's book is filled with arguments, interpretations of authors, subtle distinctions. But what gives the book life, and its distinctive voice, is that one senses in Rorty's writing deep wells of pent up frustration, resentment, anger. As if he woke up one day and decided, "Enough is enough. I will finally say what I really believe." One has the feeling that he is coming out of some kind of a closet. As if he is emerging from the Ivory Tower of Princeton with some glimmering secret. That some gig is up. Kind of like an informant who was on the board of a corrupt company and is finally speaking out.
The book reads in a way more like a piece of investigative journalism than like a normal academic text. Where a mild-mannered professor might have written, "Descartes had a false view of the mind, and here are my reasons for thinking so", Rorty writes as if to insinuate: "Descartes pulled a wool over our eyes, but we can finally overcome his treachery! We can now wake up!" There is the persistent feeling in the book that there has been a centuries long conspiracy, and that Rorty is uncovering it with the help of his intellectual heroes such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey and Davidson. I remember reading Rorty's book periodically in grad school. I am not sure I ever agreed with much of what he was saying. But given my own frustrations with the profession, it was the tone of the book which I found soothing. In contrast to the normally self-satisfied tone of academics, here was a genuinely frustrated academic. Most strange to me as a grad student: he had gotten tenure and was still frustrated! And he tried to express that, however vaguely. I admired that.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature made Rorty one of the "IT" guys in literature departments and the humanities. Academics who felt that philosophy had lost its way, and that it had become reduced to squabbling over the meaning of words now had something to point to and say, "See, even a Princeton professor of philosophy says so!" Naturally the idea that philosophy should seek to emulate literature was a welcome view to many literature professors. By the 70s this idea already had some grip in literature departments due to the influence of "continental" thinkers such as Derrida. The real coup provided by Rorty was that he was using the seemingly logic chopping views of "analytic" thinkers such as Quine and Davidson to argue that actually Derrida was right. The broader academic world applauded the call to revolution. Rorty won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 1981. And in 1982 Rorty left the philosophy department at Princeton to become a general professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. It was if Rorty had called out the philosophy profession with his book, and then decided that he can't wait for old-fashioned philosophy professors to catch up to him. He was going to lead the revolution from outside philosophy departments.

May 8, 2012

Descartes' Meditations

It is the second class of an introductory philosophy course. The first class where the stage for the semester is set is over. It is now time to dive into the philosophy. The reading for the day: Descartes' First Meditation. The Professor begins: "We ordinarily think there is a world external to us. But is there? What if it is all an illusion? Perhaps we are dreaming? Maybe there is an evil demon deceiving us? If we can't know there is an external world, how we can know anything else? Therefore before we can claim to know anything, we need to address this doubt." A challenge has been laid down. The implication has been made that if the students don't take on the challenge, they are being dogmatic; willing to rest content with their beliefs without really questioning them. The students' response to the challenge varies: some feel the force of the challenge and are excited, some are skeptical, some are bored, some don't understand. Which is the right response to have? Is there a right response to have to the professor's comments? The students look to the professor to see how to respond, and seek to follow the professor's actions. So they nod along. The professor interprets the nodding as affirmation from the students that they see the intrinsic worth of the questions. So the professor continues, confident that the doubt which has been introduced is shared by everyone in the room.

She begins again, "Let us turn to page 2 of The Meditations, and see how Descartes addresses the doubt of whether there is an external world...." Another example of pretend doubt.

No one stops the professor and says, "But, professor, I am already hooked by the doubt. How do we even know that Descartes' book is real? That there is even a book in front of me? That even Descartes was real? Oh my God, are you even real? Are you only a robot without a mind? Maybe you are the creation of the evil demon controlling my mind? Is this really a classroom, or am I dreaming? I don't know what to believe!" Call this taking the doubt personally.

I have been in countless philosophy classrooms where Descartes's text was discussed; as a student, as a teaching assistant and as a professor. Not once did I see any student respond in this way. Not even by the students who are most gripped by Descartes' text. I certainly didn't respond this way as a student. Even more, in those classes it seems altogether natural that no one would respond in this way. It never seems like a relevant possibility. Why?

Because a student who takes the doubt personally dislodges the assumption in the classroom that the professor knows something which the students don't, and that the professor will pass on some of that knowledge in due time. For a professor raising the Cartesian Doubt on the second day of class is part of a well rehearsed narrative, one which is like a play with 25 parts (one part for each day of class in the semester). Preparing for class is part of the professor's job, and the preparation partly consists of fine tuning the narrative so that each class session links naturally together. In part a good profession is one who takes the effort to tell a coherent narrative.

Unconsciously the students know this. The professor knows this more consciously, though she brackets it from the students while rehearsing the Cartesian doubt. Everyone in the room knows that what is being introduced in the second lecture is a set up for the third lecture, and so on; that the materials from these lectures will be on the essays or the exams for the class, and that what is happening in this second class is part of something larger --the class as a whole. And that the class is part of something ever larger--a college education which takes place on campuses.

The class functions because it has an order, and the professor is in charge of maintaining the pace and rhythm of that order. Like a conductor with an orchestra. The trouble with the student who takes the doubt personally is that he disrupts this order. Someone for whom the Cartesian doubt becomes real is like a member of the orchestra who ignores the conductor and insists on playing solo. He becomes a hurricane in the room--an unpredictable force which threatens to take over the content for that class. And the professor will then fall behind a day in the syllabus, and the narrative for the semester will have to be adjusted accordingly.

The planned rhythm of the class is: press the Cartesian doubt for half an hour or one hour; get the students into a state of admitted perplexity; and then introduce Descartes' knowledge of himself as a thinking thing in the Second Meditation as the purported solution. Do that for one class. Then move on to the proof of God's existence in the Third Meditation, cover the normal objections to it, and so on. The student who takes the doubt seriously in the second class comes across as a trouble maker because he is disrupting this flow. If the student persists in affirming the doubt, the only recourse for the professor is to say, "You are asking good questions. Let's talk after class." In this way the professor is forced to admit that she has a narrative planned. This can be embarrassing, since the professor's planned task for that class is to stroke the Cartesian doubt and not to down play it.

May 5, 2012

My Story 1

It is amazing how a change in one's life can reorient one's perspective and shed new light on oneself.

From 2008 to 2011, I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College. I often enjoyed the job. I was surrounded by wonderful and smart colleagues and students. I was one of the lucky ones--I got a tenure track job in academia. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about leaving my job. I didn't go to conferences. I didn't seek to publish. I avoided actions which required committing to the profession. Why? Even I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Look how good you have it! What is the matter with you? You are a cry baby! Get it together!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my colleagues about what I was feeling. Outwardly everything seemed well, so I assumed that the source of the dissatisfaction must be me. There must be something wrong with me. I felt ashamed of my inability to commit to the profession. I tried to get it together. But the day dreams persisted.

From 1999 to 2008, I was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University. I often enjoyed it. My professors and fellow grad students were smart and friendly. I was one of the lucky ones--I had an opportunity to spend all my time doing philosophy, aided by the resources and prestige Harvard offered. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about quitting grad school. I had trouble identifying with my dissertation. Often I wasn't excited about what I wrote, feeling that my voice in the thesis was different from the inner voice of my thinking. I avoided going to conferences and developing a professional identity. At unexpected moments I would take a combative attitude to the profession I was seeking to enter. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself. "All grad students feel some kind of dissatisfaction. Don't let it get to you! Be strong! Overcome it. Don't be weak." I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my advisers or friends about what I was feeling. It felt like I was betraying my teachers and friends to share with them that I felt a big gulf between myself and the profession, that at times to be in the profession felt as if the walls were closing in on me. How do I share that without losing my ties with them? Without losing my own ties to philosophy? I tried to get it together. But the disquiet and confusion persisted.

From 1995 to 1999, I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I enjoyed it often. My professors and friends were kind and considerate. I was one of the lucky ones--I was at an Ivy League school, and I could study anything I wanted. I chose philosophy. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: often I felt disconnected from everyone, and day dreamed about leaving college. In classrooms I often sought out the seats in the corner where I would be least conspicuous. I looked forward to my senior thesis, but abandoned it half way through. I was eager to take as many philosophy classes as I could, but found myself frequently bored in them. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Here you are at this beautiful campus, surrounded by knowledge and books. What more could you want? You are just afraid of success. Of commitment. Your parents worked hard to put you in this position. Don't waste it!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my teachers or my family about how I was feeling. I only felt a vague dissatisfaction, which seemed to thwart  my commitment to my education. But I was unable to conceptualize the uneasiness, or express it clearly in words. I assumed this was because the uneasiness was my fault, that there was some malfunction within me. Since I felt ashamed of my dissatisfaction, it seemed best to hide it from others. I tried to get with the program. But the dissatisfaction persisted.

For fifteen years the questions reverberated in my mind. Stay in college or not? Stay in grad school or not? Stay as a professor or not?

I finally left academia last year. On January 31, 2011 at 3:00pm, I went into my department chair's office and resigned from my job. It was a Monday, and my application for reappointment was due the next day. I taught my last class on April 27. I graded my last paper on May 13.

For the past one year, I have taken time for myself. Did temp work. Listened to music. Played the guitar. Wrote for myself. Read others who had trouble identifying with their education: Salinger, Ellison, Rodriguez. Mainly, I finally started telling myself: "It's not your fault." I stopped blaming myself. Instead of feeling ashamed of my inability to commit to the philosophy profession, I started to try to understand it. Why did I feel that way for fifteen years? What were the causes? What is this peace I am experiencing being out of the profession? Why am I feeling it now? How has my life been affected by events in the world? How can the world be affected by my life?

When I was ashamed of what I felt, I was powerless to understand it. Being unable to understand it, I was powerless to express it. Once I stopped being ashamed, I could stay still long enough to observe what I was feeling. By observing it, I gained the power to understand it. And by understanding it, I gained the power to express it.

"I have striven not to laugh at human actions, nor to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them." - Spinoza

May 3, 2012

Thank You

In this blog so far I have been critical of the philosophy profession. It is just the beginning. As I become more free in my writing and discover my voice more, I sense that the criticism will become even stronger - and hopefully clearer and more focused.

I don't want to give the impression, though, that my education in the philosophy profession was only negative. It wasn't.

It was also wonderful and beautiful and inspiring. As people my teachers and colleagues were kind and caring, considerate and thoughtful. In many ways I was lucky to have the education I had. I thought so when I was in college and grad school, and I continue to think so now.

I would like to offer my teachers a heartfelt thank you. I have learnt a lot from you and I cherish my education. Even as I aim to think critically about it.

What I seek to understand and to help change, to the extent I can, is the institutional momentum of professional philosophy. It is not possible for me to understand myself, or for me to tell the story of my life, without speaking of the pain I experienced as a student. It is a murky pain which has long been unconscious. It is a pain I would like to process and understand consciously. Because the pain was real. Because the pain matters. The pain was not caused by any particular people. Instead, it was caused by institutional structures which have not been able to keep up with a rapidly globalizing world. It is these structures, and how to improve them, that I seek to understand.

I hope my blog posts will be taken in the spirit they are intended: as a honest search for the truth.