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.