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.