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.