April 29, 2012

The Pretend Doubt Phenomenon

There is a phenomenon which often happens in philosophy classrooms. I will call it "the pretend doubt phenomenon".

An example. It is the first day of an introductory ethics class. The professor raises the questions, "What is ethics? Why does it matter?" A moment of reflection has been introduced. The students await the answer. The professor continues, "Ethics is the study of values. Are there any objective values? Or is everything subjective? For instance, we normally believe that lying is wrong. But is it really wrong? How can we know? Is there a fact of the matter about that? Similarly, we think that killing is wrong. But could it be that it is simply a subjective claim? These question are enormously significant because the answers to them matter to our everyday lives. If we can't justify that there are objective values, then we would have to rethink our whole way of living. Ethics is the study of these questions. It concerns the most basic questions of value, and they are essential for every human being to think about." The professor has given the justification for the subject matter of the course. The students are excited.

Now the professor hands out the syllabus. Goes through the readings. She comes to the requirements for the course: "The main work for this course will be writing essays. The university has a strong no plagarism policy. If you plagarize, you will fail the course. Also, doing philosophy involves a lot conversation, and so we will be talking with each other a fair amount in this course. So it is expected that you will be civil with your classmates. Getting angry will not be tolerated. Nor interrupting others. The use of laptops for anything other than taking notes is strictly prohibited. If you miss class more than 5 times, your grade will be docked a third of a grade. These are common sense points, so I expect and hope that no one will have a problem following them." The terms for the semester have been set.

The professor concludes the class by saying, "Ok, for next time we will read Harman's essay on relativism, and we will consider if there are any objective values. See you then."

This is usually the first day in many introductory ethics classes. It can be seen as having two parts. In the first part a pressing doubt is introduced: Are there any objective values? Oh no, what will happen if there are no such values? How will we survive as a society? We need to think about this. You need to think about this. Once the pressing doubt has been introduced, and the justification for the course established, the doubt seems to magically disappear. There is no more doubt. There is only the mechanical procedure of setting the terms for the semester, and of what values will guide the course. In the first part of the class - the content part - the doubt is raised as deep and pressing. In the second part of the class - the procedural part - the doubt is set aside to go over the basic values which are going to be taken for granted in the class.

As the philosopher J.L.Austin said, regarding a similar kind of double move, "There's the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back."

"Back to the rough ground!"

One of the hard things about doing philosophy outside of academia - and without mimicking academic habits - is that it can feel as if the endeavor is pointless. Due to my education in the philosophy profession, there is within me a strong sense that excellent, "cutting edge" philosophers look like professors. And not being a professor any longer, it feels as if by leaving the philosophy profession I have lost out on the opportunity to contribute deeply and intellectually to the subject. I still want to be an excellent philosopher, and to be on the cutting edge of the subject. Can I do that while not worrying about keeping in touch with the latest academic writing?

This is the worry which I voiced as an objection to myself in this post.

In order to be free of the voice in my head which says that by leaving the philosophy profession I have left philosophy, I have to push back against this line of thought. This will require a series of posts. I will begin today.

The idea that the philosophy profession is the best context for doing philosophy depends on the sense that in the profession one can engage with all philosophical issues, and that therefore it is a completely neutral ground for doing philosophy. The worry is that to leave the profession is to leave this neutral ground, and so one's ability to do philosophy will be compromised.

But is it true that the philosophy profession can engage with all philosophical topics? I believe: No. Could it be that just in virtue of professionalizing philosophy, one loses the ability to engage with certain kinds of philosophical issues? I believe: Yes. Here is an example.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a wonderful philosopher in the 20th century, and Philosophical Investigations was one of his main works (published after his death in 1953). In addition to being a work on the nature of language and the mind, it is a meditation on the nature of philosophy itself. At one point (section 107), he writes:
"[In philosophy] we have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!" 

What does this statement mean? What is Wittgenstein saying?

April 28, 2012

Blog vs. Academic Essay

Note to self: blogging isn't like writing an academic article. Don't get hung up on having an intro, and setting up the topic, referencing others constantly, etc. Don't treat a blog post as an academic essay which I am self-publishing.

When one is an academic it can feel as if writing a professional essay is nothing other than simply thinking out loud; that is, one is just following a train of thought in a rational way. Of course, even for academics it doesn't always feel this way. If one is not well known in the profession, there is a need to keep explaining one's ideas in terms of other, well-reputed thinkers. This can be wonderful at times. But it can also be grating and deeply annoying. At its worst, it can feel oppressive.

One of my favorite contemporary academic philosophers is John McDowell, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He has some very interesting things to say, and when I was in grad school I especially loved his book Mind and World. But even when writing my dissertation I would wonder: why do I have to explain my own thinking in terms of McDowell's work, or any one else's work? Does the fact that I resonate with his book mean that in some sense his thoughts have infiltrated my mind, and now I can't explain my own ideas independently of his vocabulary and his way of setting up the debates?

This raises a deep issue. In writing an academic essay it is essential that other professionals can see the essay as reflecting some accepted ways of formulating the debates, ways of argumentation, and ways of making a move within the debate. "Accepted" doesn't mean accepted by every academic; there is no such thing. But it does mean accepted by some group which has some sway in the profession, so that there will be at least some people who will stand up and say, "Yes, this essay is advancing knowledge, and it is wonderful!". If one writes in a way independent of any such group, one courts the objection that one has lost touch with academic standards and is not contributing to objective inquiry.

What does this kind of a process mean for the subject of philosophy? In the classrooms philosophy professors often say things like, "In philosophy we question all assumptions. Nothing is taken for granted." As a professor, I said the same kind of thing. It is inspiring stuff. It inspired me when I was a philosophy student. It still inspires me.

But, how does one professionalize the process of questioning all assumptions?

April 20, 2012

End of the Work Day

I feel exhausted after work today. It was a good day. A good week. Am helping a wonderful non-profit with a conference they have coming up, and doing data entry and coordinating work for that. I am glad to be contributing.

I remember being tired like this after a day's work of being a professor as well. Preparing for class, grading, working on my own research, keeping up with new articles--that was non-stop work. The people in academia are some of the hardest working people I know.

There is an important difference, though, between how I feel now after a day's work and how I felt when I was in academia. Back then relaxing from work meant taking a break from philosophical thinking. Obviously I don't speak for how it is with all academics. But for me, after 8-10 hours of reading, writing, teaching philosophy, I needed a break from anything philosophical. I think that is why I started learning the piano then; something different, something which engaged a different part of me than what I was using all day.

Interestingly, now after a day's work I feel like relaxing by thinking philosophically. I get to experience philosophy again as something refreshing and simple. As something I come to on my own, without constantly worrying about if someone else already had the idea I am thinking or if enough people will like what I write in order for it to be published.

I am glad that now my job and my philosophy are separate. I find my current job intellectually and emotionally exciting and fulfilling. Because the habits I am learning are different from what I was used to, I feel like all of me is fully engaged when I am at work. I am fully present, and that is a nice experience. And since my job involves tasks like making phone calls, cataloging information and being present for any new tasks that come up, I can't follow any philosophical train of thoughts that pass through my mind. I have to pause when a philosophical thought comes, note it, and save it for later. I was worried when I left academia that perhaps this kind of situation would make me yearn for academia again. But now I don't feel that way at all. Saving the philosophical thought for later is actually a great experience. By noting it, it is like the thought is lodged in my mind, and while I am doing my work, my unconscious is working over the thought and fine tuning it. Actually not consciously thinking and brooding over the idea does wonders for keeping the idea fresh and alive. And when I take a break for lunch or am taking the metro home, the thought is there for me--polished by the unconscious, ready for me to examine with the happy realization that after a good day's work, the idea is there for me to play around with it.

April 19, 2012

Who is a Philosopher?

Oh man, Bharath, you are crazy! You say in The Experiment that you want to see what will happen if you think philosophically about life without following the habits of professional philosophers (reading the latest books by professors, going to conferences, etc.). You even say that you are curious to see if perhaps through this experiment you might gain some philosophical knowledge. That's absurd! How can you gain philosophical knowledge without doing what the philosophy experts do? Are you also going to find a cure for cancer without reading what medical experts have to say? Or build a house without knowing anything about construction? Come on! There is no need to do the experiment; we know in advance how it will turn out. You can't gain philosophical knowledge if you don't follow the latest, cutting edge advances in philosophy, which is what professional philosophy is about. This is obvious.

I feel the force of this thought. Since I left professional philosophy this argument will sometimes come to mind with an urgent energy, suggesting that perhaps I have made a big mistake; that perhaps I must be deluded or insane. What am I thinking?! It has been a year since I read any professional philosophy. How could I possibly think this can help me somehow improve my philosophical thinking?

It is interesting that I feel this worry mainly when I am by myself; if I am talking a walk and am a bit sad, or if I am at home and not sure how to spend the time. I have noticed that I almost never feel this worry when I am in public spaces, such as in the metro or the grocery store. To the contrary, I have noticed that especially when I am in the metro even the hint of the worry seems to disappear. So much so that I now love riding the metro to work. It is soothing and calming. It makes me feel connected to people, and in that connection I realize that I am not at all deluded or insane. That I am perfectly well, and that all is well.

What is it about the metro that has this effect on me? It's because it gives me a chance to really think about the above objection. And I find myself responding to it in the following way.

Look at all these people. Some might be doctors or lawyers. Some security guards or secretaries. Maybe artists or stay at home parents. Or maybe they never got a steady career. Whatever they are, surely most of them aren't philosophy professors. And what does that mean about their philosophical ability? If the philosophy professors are the experts in philosophy, and they are discovering the deepest philosophical truths of the universe, then what does that mean about these peoples' lives?

Most of these people sitting in front of me on the metro don't worry about finding medical cures because the medical researchers are responsible for that. Similarly, they don't worry about building bridges, because the engineers are responsible for that. So could these everyday people leave philosophical questions as well to the philosophy experts? So if someone asks them, "Do you have free will? Or are you determined by your upbringing?", could they just say, "Hey, why are you asking me? Let's ask the philosophy professors, and they will tell us. I haven't read all the great philosophers and the latest journal articles, so what clue could I possibly have on the topic? I get my philosophical views from the professors the same way I get my medical knowledge from the researchers. After all, they are the experts. We would be crazy to think that we--silly old us who can't even read a page of Aristotle or Kant without getting confused--can contribute anything on the issue of whether we have free will."

And perhaps they say the same thing when asked, "Is there a God?" Or "Do you think it's OK to ban gay marriage?" Or "Does human life have meaning?" Or "Is a democracy a better form of government than a dictatorship?" If they keep responding in the same way--"Hey, the philosophy professors will tell us!"--then in what way is society cultivating the art and skill of self-reflection in its citizens?

The idea that philosophy professors are the only ones who discover philosophical knowledge seems innocent enough, if one doesn't really think about it. But if one does think it through, it can be a frightening thought which seems to actually imply a kind of mindless, unreflective society.

The majority of people are not professional philosophers. If that means that they cannot contribute to the content of philosophical knowledge (as opposed to contributing by funding professional philosophers), then what responsibility can they have for thinking philosophically in their own lives? And if they don't have that responsibility, how can we have a flourishing, intellectually vigorous and free society?

April 17, 2012

The Experiment

When I was a student I wondered if it was possible to do experiments with respect to philosophical topics. It seemed so cool that scientists could formulate hypotheses, structure experiments, and work step by step towards knowledge. An experiment suggested a democratic approach to knowledge: it is not the prestige of a thinker or her charisma which dictates what is true. It is the facts themselves, which are carefully accumulated to avoid biases of any kind. I felt this is the method of finding knowledge. And as a philosophy student, I wanted to find philosophical knowledge. And yet: what kind of an experiment could one do in philosophy?

I have finally found a form of experiment which is applicable to philosophy. It is to think of one's life itself as an experiment, and to use philosophy to explore new and interesting ways of life. In this blog I will think out loud about an experiment of this form I am engaged in. The blog will be a space to process my thoughts about it. And to discuss it with anyone who wishes to engage with me about it in the comments section. No background knowledge is required in order to talk about the issues addressed in this blog. It only requires the desire to think about life and to engage in conversation.

The Question

For sixteen years I was trained in professional, academic philosophy. Four years in undergrad, nine years in graduateschool and three years as a professor. This was for me a very beneficial period in which I learnt a lot and worked with good people.

During this time I learnt the trade of professional philosophy. This involved two things:

1. I learnt the manner of thinking which is taught in philosophy classrooms: questioning basic assumptions of life, analyzing arguments, articulating one's views, drawing connections between abstract viewpoints, etc.

2. I learnt the habits of being a professional philosopher: writing journal articles meant for fellow professionals, going to conferences, grading students' essays, applying for grants, etc.

During my initiation into the profession in graduate school, there was no distinction between (1) and (2). In my twenties when I was getting a graduate education, I was learning to think philosophically by learning the habits of being a professional philosopher. Like any graduate student I tried to improve my philosophical thinking by improving my ability to do the things professional philosophers do: by improving my dissertation, trying to get better at writing grants for funding, by aiming to get published, seeking to go to conferences. It felt as if the better I did at these activities the better I would be at philosophical thinking, and so the better I would be better as a philosopher.

It never occurred to me then that perhaps (1) and (2) can come apart. That maybe I could improve my philosophical thinking without worrying about the habits of professional philosophers.

A few years ago I started to wonder: What would happen if I used my ability to think philosophically completely independently of the habits of being a professional philosopher? What if I used my ability to think philosophically not to write for professional philosophers or to teach Plato and Russell to undergraduates, but to reflect on my life without the trappings of a profession? What if I took the energy I was expending on trying to publish or keep up with the latest journal articles (like any professional philosopher, I was expending a lot of energy on this), and instead used that energy to cultivate habits for improving myself as a human being? What would happen then?

If I did that, would I gain a kind of philosophical knowledge which perhaps I wasn't gaining as a professional philosopher? Could it be that philosophical thinking free of professional habits might lead to a kind of knowledge which maybe I wasn't learning or teaching in the classroom? Is there any such non-professional philosophical knowledge to be found?

The more I thought about this question, the more exciting it seemed.