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.

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There is an obvious conflict between the concept of the philosopher as any person and the concept of the philosopher as monk. While the first concept suggests that no esoteric knowledge or form of life is needed to be a philosopher, the latter suggests precisely the opposite. When I became a philosophy major I hoped that this sense of conflict was ultimately illusory and that these two concepts of philosopher can be reconciled. In fact, that they had been reconciled in the concept of the philosopher as professor. Hence I had a certain kind of awe with regard to my professors, as if they were able to pull off effortlessly the trick of combining two things which I was having a very hard time reconciling. The more I felt that they were able to reconcile these two ways of being a philosopher, the more I wanted to become a professional philosopher myself.
But at times I also had the feeling that perhaps my professors did not manage to combine the two concepts after all. And that, in fact, far from combining the two concepts of philosopher I cherished, they dismissed both altogether.
Implicit in the concept of philosopher as professor, at least as this concept is currently realized, is the idea that philosophy is a specialized discipline that one enters in virtue of becoming a fellow professor, and that in this regard being a philosopher is no different from being a physicist or a doctor or a major league baseball player. Understood in this sense, the philosopher as professor seems a different kind of philosopher than the everyday sense in which anyone who reflects deeply on life is a philosopher. This sense of contrast was in the background of a guilt which I started to have (more or less unconsciously) when I began taking philosophy classes: By becoming a philosophy major was I turning my back on the concept of philosopher as any person?  If so, by becoming a philosophy major was I turning my back on the philosophy which I shared with my father and which was my first love in philosophy? Could it be that the expertise I was gaining through my philosophy education came at a cost of turning away from another part of me which I deeply identified with? The sense that it came at such a cost was the beginning of my resisting my education.

There was a similar guilt about the concept of the philosopher as monk. For in an even more obvious way a sharp contrast was drawn between the concept of the philosopher as professor and the philosopher as monk. Since the philosophy profession is a part of colleges, which aim to exemplify the secular ideals governing our society, it was assumed that philosophy professors were certainly not monks. Unlike monks, philosophy professors did not presuppose any religious or spiritual background. Philosophy professors were not sages or wise people. They were just professionals, working hard in the mines of philosophy just like any other academic laborer searching for truths. This meant furthermore that, also unlike monks, philosophy professors did not have to give up any form of life in order to seek philosophical knowledge. I had a vague sense in classes that the image of philosophers as monks was somewhat outdated and passe. The more I picked up on that sense, the more I dug in my heels in resistance against my education. For I had implicitly assumed that my philosophy education was going to help me realize the form of life that Shankara had. And when I sensed that might not be the case, I resisted out of a worry of not knowing what I was getting myself into.

When I was in college I could very well understand that the concept of philosopher as professor might be contrasted with the other two concepts of philosopher I cherished. What I wasn't sure of was which sense of philosopher I most wanted for myself. Until I got to college all my momentum was oriented towards philosopher as any person and as a monk. When I got to college the concept of philosopher as professor suddenly took central stage and in the classrooms the other concepts of philosophers were cleared out. In this way my pre-college philosophy momentum was suddenly thwarted by my college education, and I was disoriented and in a daze. In this way when I was in college the deepest question I had about philosophy was: what does a philosophical life look like? Does it look like my father's? Or like Shankara's? Or like my professors'? I loved all three forms of philosophical life, but I wanted to understand which one I wanted as my own. Which one I was going to grow into.
Yet precisely the contrast in my classes between the philosopher as professor and the other two concepts of philosophers made the discussion of the relations between these concepts extremely hard. It was foundational to my classes that philosophers have a kind of specialized knowledge (for, otherwise, how could the professors' jobs as professors be justified?) and that philosophers are not monks (for, otherwise, how can the secular dimension of the education be justified?). Hence my persistent feeling that the most pressing question I had about philosophy never quite made into the classroom discussion. That somehow my most pressing question would be seen to be simplistic or backward, as if it was the remnant of a past time which the smooth progress of the philosophy profession had left behind. As if it was my bad luck that because I was enamored with Shankara as a youth and saw him as a potential role model for my future, I was now faced with a tension which more progressive philosophy students, who never seriously considered such foolish ideas, didn't have to face.
The less I saw in the classroom any semblance of my first role models in philosophy, the more I took a combative stance to my education. For it felt as if my professors were not rationally leading me from where conceptually I was to where they were, but that instead they were simply affirming their role models of philosophy as right and that mine were simply irrelevant to the discussions in the classrooms.

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"But what difference does it make what kind of philosophical life one leads? Why get so hung up on definitions of philosophy? Just focus on the philosophical ideas--about truth, knowledge, justice--and don't worry about anything else."
This is what I often told myself, hoping that the tensions in my education were merely in my mind, and that they would disappear if only I would focus better on the philosophical issues themselves. But what I did not realize back then, and which I was only able to grasp this year, is that it was the philosophical issues themselves which most keenly gave rise to the tensions I was struggling with.
For example, what is the self? Driven by an interest in this question I would take a class, say with Sydney Shoemaker on personal identity. In the class we would read Locke, Hume, Williams, Parfit, etc. A lot of genuine, interesting philosophy is happening in the class. But given my initial entry into the subject, what I am most conscious of is the view of the self which is not even considered--the self as Brahman, the self as the all pervasive, unifying feature of the world, the self as the ultimate reality of the universe. The concept of the self which is central to my conversations at home, and which is at the heart of Shankara's philosophy.

What would Shoemaker say if I said after looking at the syllabus, "But, Professor Shoemaker, where is the discussion of the view of the self as Brahman here?" He might say, "Ah, good question. Unfortunately, we won't have time to consider all concepts of the self. So we will restrict ourselves to the ones on the syllabus." But then in what sense is the discussion we are having in the class objective and aiming to track truths about the nature of the self? It is not hard to sense that perhaps the response is at best convenient, since the concept of the Self as Brahman is not one which most academic philosophers even take seriously.

Or he might say: "Oh, that is a mystical view. And we are not talking about mysticism or spirituality in this class. We are talking about the normal, everyday concept of the self. The sense in which I am one self and you are another, different self. It is this concept of the self we are trying to understand." But then this seems to involve a blatant misunderstanding of the concept of Brahman, since it too is meant to be an analysis of the ordinary concept of self. After all, the claim that the everyday self is identical to Brahman is a claim about the nature of the everyday self.

Or he might say: "Yes, you are right. So we are going to spend two weeks reading Shankara's arguments about the illusion of the ordinary sense of self, and compare those arguments with those of Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Thanks for bringing up this point." But then is it really possible to discuss effectively the idea that the self is Brahman independently of living life and cultivating habits such that one starts to experience the oneness of the universe? If the arguments are considered in a way divorced from the cultivation of such habits, isn't it likely that the arguments might seem like mere intellectual games (like discussing the ontological argument divorced from the practices of a life of faith)? So can Shankara's arguments be properly grasped completely independently of the form of life which he was using those arguments to motivate?
When I was in class I often found myself having these kinds of imaginary conversations with my professors (juxtaposing, say, Shoemaker with Shankara or Richard Boyd with Aurobindo across their differences in times and cultures). Since I felt that disagreements about philosophical topics could not be divorced from disagreements about forms of philosophical lives, I felt that the topics in my classes ultimately boiled down in one form or another to the question of what form a philosophical life could take. And since I hardly ever heard this question explicitly addressed in my classes, I often would mentally leave the conversations in the classroom and ponder about the meaning of my education. In what ways it was speaking to my interests, and in what it wasn't. In what ways it aimed to speak to my interests, and in what ways it didn't.
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I most vividly felt these tensions when I was writing essays for classes. In class participation one can take a kind of passive role, or dislodge from the conversation or one can simply speak in someone else's voice. One can do something similar when writing an essay, but eventually when writing one is forced to confront the question, "What am I trying to say?" When I got to this question my mind would sometimes just freeze. I could write with relative ease about what Hume or Russell or Quine were saying; or at least what I thought they were saying. But often I would fall into existential dilemmas when I confronted the issue of whether I agreed with them or not. For to speak for oneself is a kind of unifying act in which one brings different dimensions of one's thinking together, and the voice with which one writes it the voice aiming for such a unity. But given that large parts of my inner voices were not represented in my classes, and given that I had no role models in the authors I read in my classes who were trying to bring together Quine with The Gita, when writing I felt overwhelmed--as if the philosophical voices in my head were too disparate and too far apart for me to bring them together. Lacking in this way the ability to unify my inner voices, I felt at a loss to know what I believed or what I was trying to say in the essay. As a student I was largely unaware of what exactly was happening or why. But I did experience vividly a sense of lack of identification with what I wrote, as if what I handed in and got back was merely someone else's work which was no longer relevant to me.
And the larger the writing project, the greater was my sense of being unable to identify with it. For the larger the project, the greater the number of strands of my thinking I was supposed to bring together--and for me that meant the greater the number of strands which I felt I couldn't reconcile. It was for this reason that several times I was unable to finish my term papers, and why I abandoned my senior thesis after the fall semester, and why I often felt distant from my dissertation. And the more public the project, the greater my fear that my persistent inability to have a unified voice would be found out. Hence I avoided any public projects, such as conference presentations or publications, for I didn't want my lack of an inner voice to be made public--my inner failing evident for all to see.

When I became a professor it was no longer possible to avoid large, public written projects. For those are the bread and butter of an academic's life--the source of one's sense of community and the basis of one's evaluations and promotions. And yet even as a professor I hardly felt much identification with what I wrote. For in my mind the voices of my first love in philosophy were too far removed from the voices of my philosophical education. It was not a matter of just writing simple essays for publication. For writing anything required identifying with it, and that required that I find some unity between the disparate ways in which I thought of philosophy. Thus in order to write anything I could identify with I first needed to make some sense for myself of the broad themes of my life--the Indian and the American, the secular and the religious, the philosopher as a specialist and as any person. In order to speak as myself I felt I needed a voice that was as wide as the earth and as diverse as the sea. A voice with which I could write one true phrase.
I am still in search of such a voice.

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