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.
As I read the essay I resonate with how Moran situates his explication of Anscombe's idea of practical knowledge and non-observational knowledge. It is not so much that I agree or disagree with Moran as much as that I have a sense for what he is up to, and a sense that I could go on in the same way. That sense-- that I can go on in the same way, that I could write an essay critiquing, extending or ruminating on Moran's essay, that I can write something which has Moran's essay in its intellectual ancestry, in the bibliography--that sense underlies the identification with the essay. But for me the detachment is not far behind, for there is the palpable feeling that though I could go on in that same way, I sense more deeply that, as a matter of fact, I won't. Not in this life time. Not in my future as it seems to be opening out in front of me. That the sense of "could" here is one of possibility without any sense of it becoming an actuality. That, as a matter of fact, it will not be actualized. After a few minutes of reading the essay it is this sense of detachment which wins out, and as it does I can feel my grip on the words on the page loosening and that the mental terrain opened up by the essay is starting to recede from me. With the detachment there arises the awareness that Moran and I are two different people after all, with different backgrounds and life trajectories, with possibly different interests and different callings. That the fact that I like him as a person and that he might like me as a person (as I presume), does not imply that a space for joint philosophy, of going on in the same way together, has been created or is possible for us as our lives are at this time.
When writing my dissertation I had a persistent sense that I did not know what kind of work I was writing. Of what this thing was that I was authoring. It seemed easy enough to say that I was writing a dissertation. Why wasn't that enough? I didn't know then. But now I know. It was because I never developed a sense of clear identification with the texts I was writing about. I never completely had the feeling that the writings of David Chalmers, David Lewis, John McDowell and Christine Korsgaard (the authors I discuss in the four chapers of my thesis) are central to, and are models for, my own intellectual life. The fact that this is what their writing was like, and was what they identified with, was important to me. But I did not see in those writings my own developing voice as a writer. What I had was detached identification. I partially identified with the texts and felt especially that I ought to identify with the texts ("After all, what is wrong with these texts? Why don't you identify with them? What, you think your thinking is so special, so much better than them?"). But the partial identification and even the desire for full identification were never enough to automatically create such deep seated identification. If anything, my trying consciously to identify with the texts only sharpened the detachment. For instead of cementing the deeper bonds required for identification, the conscious trying only highlighted the fragility of the identification.
Am I wrong for writing this way about some of my experiences with my teacher's writings? Am I crossing some line of professional and personal decency? Am I betraying them? Perhaps even more importantly, am I being overly negative and so cutting off any chance of engaging in joint philosophy reflection with them in the future? To say "I disagree with your views" can be harsh, but at least it involves a level of engagement, a soothing sense of being similar enough to disagree. But what does it mean to say "I feel detached from your writing" and "I don't sense in that form of writing my own voice as a writer"? This criticism seems more sinister, harsher, as if to imply that we are not similar enough to even disagree. Given the closeness engendered by the teacher-student relationship and the friendships as fellow philosophers, it is this implication that I feel too distant to even disagree with the writings which can feel painful. Resulting perhaps in others' confusion. Or disappointment. Or anger. Or annoyance. Creating a sense that perhaps I have gone crazy or have given myself over to some dark side of pessimism.
I know well these worries. They are the worries I had for as long as I was a philosophy student. Worries which engendered a kind of self-censorship in order to cover up the vague, vile thoughts of detachment in the inner recesses of my mind.
At the end of the day, however, it cannot be wrong for me to write of my experiences. For this was a real part of my life. The feeling of detached identification was real. Genuine. I didn't want to feel this way. I didn't make it up. It was part of my experience of my education, always there, lurking so constantly that it posed an issue for me of why it was a part of me at all. Why, indeed, such a deep part of me? Am I misshapen? Deformed? What is this feeling, and why does it persist?
To better understand the experience of detached identification it is helpful to consider this question: Why is racism wrong? It is clear that there is something wrong and horrible about racism. But what exactly is wrong with it?
Imagine a scene from mid twentieth century America. A black person is thirsty and there is a water fountain in front of him. But he cannot drink from there. It is only for white people. He has to be careful not to get even near that fountain. Instead he can drink only from a nearby fountain meant for black people. He has to drink only from here, but not from there. Well, what is wrong with this?
There might not be anything wrong with it if the black person could himself say, "Oh, I don't want to drink from the white fountains. They taste awful!" But, of course, the black person could not say this. Because part of accepting segregation meant that one accepted that fountains for white people are somehow better than fountains for black people. The issue in segregation is not just to keep the whites and blacks apart, but keeping them apart while insisting that what the whites have is better than what the blacks have. That the white water fountain encapsulates a more flourishing life than a black water fountain. And that this sense of betterness is to be recognized not just by the whites but, and equally importantly, that it has to be recognized by the blacks. In this sense, in a segregated society there is meant to be one, common conception of the best life, and that is the life associated with the whites. That the blacks are themselves supposed to share in this common conception of the best life, and in this way contribute to society by acknowledging that indeed it is the white people's form of life that is best.
In such a situation a black person can have at most detached identification with the flourishing life as encapsulated by the prized artifacts in the society. For a black person to accept segregation is to accept that the houses, cars, water fountains, clothes, food, etc. of white people are better than his own. Or at least to be committed to espousing such an acceptance in public. So in public the black person has to show his identification with the ideals as defined by the white person. And with persistent, life long public affirmation of that kind, a black person might come to in fact identify with such ideals and think that the life of white people is just better than that of black people, and that the very whiteness and blackness of people contributes to how good a life they can have. This is the Uncle Tom. But even the Uncle Tom cannot identify wholesale with the values of a segregated society. For given that he is himself black, his identification with the white man's values can at best only be from a distance. His identification with the white man's flourishing life as in fact the best kind of life implies that he himself can never actually realize a fully flourishing life. And therefore he is forced to accept that no matter how much he recognizes that the white man's water fountain is the best kind of water fountain, because of the color of his skin he is disqualified from ever being able to drink from the best water fountain. Or the best food. Or the best house. Or belonging to the best tradition. Or being the best orator. And so on.
Identification, when it functions properly, is meant to enable a person to latch onto an ideal which they can themselves realize in due course. The ideal one identifies with is the ideal that one can grow into. In this way identification is the mechanism by which one locates and works towards a future self as the extension of one's own current self. The task of a good society, therefore, is to have public values which enable every person to form identifications which will help them lead a flourishing life.
It is in this way that a segregated society is horrible: its public values do not enable all of its members to form the kinds of identifications which will lead to their having a flourishing life. To the contrary, in a segregated society some members are forced to form identifications which they can never actually realize. A black person who identifies good looks with how a white person looks is one who can never recognize themselves as growing into a beautiful person. For that black person growing into beauty is forever out of reach; not just currently not yet realized, but never realizable. The fact that the society enables, and in fact requires, the person to form the identification seems to suggest that in principle the person could grow into that ideal. For the white person to force the black person to accept that the most beautiful person necessarily is white is for the white person to imply that the black person can be cultivated enough to know what true beauty looks like. But how can a person accept an ideal of true beauty without in some sense orienting one's own life towards such an ideal? And how can one orient one's life towards an ideal when their skin color already disqualifies them from ever realizing it? Accepting the white person's ideal is the identification, but realizing even unconsciously that the ideal is not realizable by oneself is the detachment. Thus a person with detached identification has a kind of paralysis, a kind of stand stillness. When one feels that what one identifies with is in principle out of grasp, it can result in a kind of stagnation, as if one's life force is blocked and one's growth stunted. As if one's soul has been shackled and put in a tight cage so that one's natural tendency to grow upwards has been thwarted and the growth becomes either blocked or misshapen.
So why did I experience detached identification in my education? Was it because the philosophy profession is racist? No. The general spirit of my education was open mindedness and a broad cosmopolitanism--values far removed from racism, at least in its normal forms.
True, my philosophy teachers were all white and I was brown. I never had the experience of learning philosophy in a classroom from someone who outwardly looked like me or who I felt knew instinctively what my home life was like. I would have enjoyed that. But this is neither here nor there. For there are people who are Indian or Indian-American or of Indian origins who are professional philosophers in America. Some of the big names are Sen, Mohanty, and Anil Gupta. And Matilal in England. And in my generation there are more people of Indian background who are in the profession, and it is probably only a matter of time (a generation or two or five) before many philosophy departments will have some Indian looking person teaching there.
Whatever was bothering me wasn't just an issue of race because I felt the same detachment to the writings of Gupta. I didn't magically bond with his writing because he was of Indian origins. As with many other good philosophers, such as Parfit or Nagel, when I read Gupta I felt the intelligence in the work, but the work itself remained alien to me. Closed off to me as opening into my own future voice. I understood the writings enough to feel that I could in principle continue in the same way and make a move in that dialogue. But feeling that I could do that is different from feeling that I would like to do that or, especially, that doing that is essential to my own intellectual growth. Was this because I didn't care about the topics Gupta writes on: experience, reason, thought? Here was the rub: I cared a lot, and still do, about those topics! So what kept me at a distance? Why didn't I feel that Gupta's writings could be a model for my own?
Perhaps the reason was that Gupta didn't write explicitly about his Indianness. Other than the fact of his name and how he looked, there seemed to be no sense in which being an Indian was relevant to his work.
But this can't be it because I had the same detachment from the writings of Amartya Sen, who has written broadly about Indian culture and intellectual history, and how they relate to Western intellectual culture. Reading his The Argumentative Indian, I felt vividly the sense of detached identification. On the one hand, there was the identification with an Indian author who had scaled the highest peaks of the Western intellectual world. There was the mystery of what all he must know and have experienced about the mixing of the Indian and the Western, and in that mystery I felt that here could be a person of a past generation from whom I could carry the baton into the next generation. Yet, on the other hand, I felt a persistent sense of detachment, a sense that the trajectory of my intellectual life would be defined not by following Sen's path but rather by the extent to which I would veer away from his path. That though he was Indian and American, he didn't thereby automatically speak to me as an Indian-American. That his way of living and his ideas are one way in which one might bring together India and the West, but that it was by no means the only way or the best way. That in fact there was something in what I identified with my Indianness which never seemed to appear in Sen's ruminations on India, and that India and America are too vast as categories to assume that any one person could find the right or complete way of merging the two. So what was it that I identified with that I felt Sen was leaving out?
Perhaps it was that Sen didn't delve deeply into Indian Philosophy, and write as much from within the Indian philosophical tradition as he did from the Western philosophical tradition. Perhaps I longed for a merging of Indian philosophy with Western philosophy, one which showed in detail that both traditions addressed similar questions. Perhaps though Sen indicated this kind of view, I longed for a more scholarly explication of this view.
But this can't be it because I had the same detachment from the writings of Mohanty and Matilal. Each had done a great deal to illuminate aspects of Indian philosophy and how they relate to certain aspects of the Western philosophical tradition: Mohanty more to the phenomenological tradition and Matilal more to the analytic tradition. Lacking any professional expertise in Indian philosophy, I particularly admired Mohanty and Matilal for what seemed to me their deep wells of knowledge about Indian philosophy, and their ability to move seemlessly from one tradition to the other. Whereas the philosophy in my classroom often seemed to me tinged with a monochromatic universalism (the universality of philosophy pursued only from within the Western tradition; universality in white), Mohanty and Matilal seemed to stand for a future age of philosophy with a more polychromatic universalism (the universality of philosophy pursued with the merging of different hues from across the globe). Yes, here was a form of merging which seemed deep and real and profound, one with which I could definitely identify.
And yet, there it was: the familiar detachment, as if even this form of philosophical life and writing wasn't enough to hold the promise of my own philosophical voice. The identification was continually tinged with a detachment which soured the sweet optimism of feeling that these authors could be role models for me, and that all I had to do was to commit to pursuing the path they opened up for people like me. Behind the identification there was still a doubt of whether their writing were real models of true merging of the different traditions, of whether some aspects of Western philosophy and Indian philosophy were not getting left out of the picture. Of whether because they were merging some strands of Western philosophy with some strands of Indian philosophy, a false generalization was being drawn that Western and Indian philosophy as such were being merged. That the too happy sense of merging traditions might indicate just how truly foreign Indian philosophy still is in most American philosophy departments. That whereas no one presumes that a Plato scholar is an expert on Western philosophy as such (since there are Aristotle or Hume or Wittgenstein scholars in the same department who make a different claim to what Western philosophy is about), nonetheless an expert on Shankara or Nagarjuna is instantly thereby also an expert on Indian philosophy as such.
My sense of detachment was driven by the feeling that before a substantial merging of Indian and Western philosophy is possible, the problems and difficulties of such merging have to be better recognized and cataloged. I never sensed in Mohanty and Matilal an articulation of the conceptual difficulties of the merging, but just a sense that as long we find common problems in the two traditions and highlight those and fight for more exposure in the philosophy profession, then the merging is well on the way. Without denying the significance of their work, I felt with a skeptical detachment that the kind of merging that I sought within myself had yet to be recognized, let alone undertaken. I resisted a ready identification with Mohanty or Matilal, as with Sen or Gupta, because though they spoke of or exhibited some merging of Indian and Western philosophy, I still felt that they were not expressing or giving voice to the merging which pertained to my situation and my life. But it was hard to understand this back when I was in school, because back then my situation was itself still unclear to me.
My detachment from the writings of Matilal or Sen wasn't driven by the sense that somehow they were being untrue to their Indianness, or their Indian-Americanness. As if they were a kind of Uncle Tom. I never felt this. The criticism that these thinkers strive to highlight the analytic rigor in the Indian tradition because they are unduly Westernized, that in order to be proud of Indian philosophy they feel the need to express it in the analytic vocabulary of the White Man--this criticism has always struck me as reactionary and confused. That the criticism assumes falsely that the Indian and the Western are sharply defined contrasts, as if each was defined by some Platonic Form of "Reason" as opposed to "Spirituality", or "Argument" as opposed to "Intuition". There is in fact no one thing called Western Philosophy: in the Western philosophical tradition there are deep disagreements about the nature of human beings, reason, experience, values and ultimately even the nature of philosophy itself. The same is true for Indian Philosophy: it is as heterogeneous and internally contentious as the Western Philosophical tradition. The idea that each is defined by a crystalline purity which are in contrast seems driven not so much by how Indian Philosophy was in the past, but by how it ought to be now going into the future, and that we should mark such as a sharp contrast now. As an Indian-American, as someone who belongs to both the East and the West, as someone for whom the two are inseparably intertwined, this nostalgic sense of separation seems not just theoretically wrong but practically, and emotionally, impossible. Who is this person who lays claim to being purely and only an Indian? This person is as foreign to me as the supposed pure Americanness of a George Washington.
No, I didn't feel detached from the writings of Mohanty or Sen because I took them to be too Western. Rather, I agreed with them that there was no such thing as being too Indian or too Western, since "Indian" and "Western" are already complex terms filled with an overflowing of diversity. One might assume that the term "Indian" connotes some essence of Indianness, and that is how the word is able to able to have a meaning. And one might assume the same about "Western". In this light the sharp separation of Indian and Western seems written into the very language we use. But the work of Mohanty and Sen is meant to show how misleading this linguistic essentialism is, and that the meanings of "Indian" and "Western" are fluid and dynamic, changing over time and different circumstances, and that though sometimes they are contrasted, at others times they are not, and that understanding both means understanding the diversity of our common global humanity.
Once it is acknowledged that there is no one sense of "Indian" or "Western", then it raises complex questions of what it means to merge the Indian and the Western. If there are a thousand ways to be an Indian and a thousand ways to be an American, then there are millions of ways of being an Indian-American.
So what does a philosophy which merges the Indian and Western traditions look like? The question almost pulls one back into the sense that there is one thing here--the Indian tradition--and one thing there--the Western tradition--and the issue is how to make the two into one. One kind of answer is to say that they cannot be made into one because the two are resolute opposites. Mohanty and Sen resist this view, but they seem to do it by suggesting that actually it was just one all along! "Look, the Indian philosophers all along have been pursuing the same kind of questions and answers as the Western philosophers!"The source of my detachment was the feeling that this way of resisting the polar opposites view seemed to concede through the back door that there is actually an essence to Indian or Western philosophy because they are now being claimed to have, as it turns out, the same essence. And, lo and behold, that same essence maps on beautifully to just the research projects which happen to be in vogue at the moment in professional philosophy!
The worry I had with Mohanty or Sen wasn't that somehow Indian philosophy in particular was being short changed. The worry I had was that aspects of both Indian and Western philosophy are being short changed.
Independent of any worries of Indian philosophy, there is the question of whether professional philosophy in America now can capture all the movements of the Western philosophical tradition. For example, whether the philosophy of Socrates or Marcus Aurelius or Sextus Empiricus or Augustine or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Emerson or Wittgenstein can be fully professionalized. Whether the current state of the philosophy profession implied that some aspects of these thinkers views could not be properly articulated in the context of a classroom or by a professor. The issue is not whether the philosophy profession in America at present totally misunderstands these thinkers. I think the answer to that worry is "no". For just as with "Indian" or "Western", there is no one essence of Socratic or Kierkegaardian or Wittgensteinian philosophy--and so there is no one essence of these philosophies which the profession might be overlooking. We can grant easily that the philosophy profession at present incorporates some interpretations of Socrates or Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein, and so in this way it is a continuation of the tradition of these thinkers. But does the profession incorporate all interpretations of these thinkers? Could it do that? Could any institutionalized understanding of philosophy do that?
The same kind of worry can be extended to Indian philosophy, and how much of that tradition can be professionalized in the current society. Let us take all the greats of Indian philosophy--Shankara, Nagarjuna, Madhvacharya, Kapila, etc.--and certainly one can find many topics and views in these thinkers which are similar to the kind of questions that professional philosophers now think about. This is the kind of work that Mohanty and Matilal did. Important, significant, ground breaking work. But this does not show that all aspects of these thinkers can be professionalized now. There is at least here a conceptual distinction: between what the current philosophy profession can incorporate and the many interpretations of these thinkers. And once we have this distinction, other similar distinctions arise. For example, between scholastic philosophers in the Indian tradition (who wrote for fellow scholars) and non-scholastic philosophers who were spiritual teachers to everyday folk. Most of the ancient Indian philosophers were both, and so contemporary thinkers who fit into either category (say, Radhakrishnan in the scholastic camp and Jiddu Krishnamurti in the non-scholastic camp) can lay equal claim to continuing some philosophical tradition of India. Where in Mohanty or Matilal is discussion of Krishnamurti or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa? Or of any of the thousands of spiritual figures who define philosophy at the ground level for millions of Indians? These thinkers are seen by millions of people as in the tradition of the great Indian classical philosophers. Can they be recognized as philosophers in a professional sense? If so, how wide can we stretch the boundaries of professional philosophy? If not, by what criteria can they be left out?
What arises from these questions is that the issue of what counts as Indian or Western philosophy, and as professional philosophy or not, are not simply determined by facts in the world which we discover or which we magically intuit. Rather, they are also partly determined by what we commit ourselves to, by how we think we should understand these concepts now and how we choose through deliberation and our actions to carve up the world. That any affirmation of what "Indian" or "American", or "Philosophy" or "Spirituality", or "Professional" or "Amateur" mean is partly an issue of how one is committing to use those words, and what stand one is taking in potential debates on the correct understanding of these concepts. Here is at least one understanding of the idea that all philosophy is political: that no philosophizing is independent of one's taking a stand on the kind of philosophy one would like to see done, and what kind of philosophy one finds important.
Here, then, is a possible source of my detachment from the writings of Moran or Stanley or Gupta or Mohanty: the sense I feel that in their writing philosophy in general and professional philosophy in particular is not problematized. That they seem to have a clear sense for what philosophy is and what it ought to be, how it can be an institution and how it cannot be, and that the only thing to do is to get on with the professional work itself. These thinkers might disagree among themselves on how to characterize that professional work, but they seem content with the direction of the profession and with what philosophy can be. If this is right, I do not find it helpful to think about whether they are correct or wrong. For I do not feel to begin with that I ever had such a contentedness about what philosophy is or how it can be a profession or how it can be a global endeavor. These issues seemed to confuse me to the root of my being, so much so that I couldn't simply think about whether consciousness is a brain process or what Anscombe meant by practical knowledge or how this Indian thinker is similar to that Western thinker. Such intellectual activities presuppose a general background way of life of doing philosophy. And it is that way of life that has always been a question for me.
What does my way of life as a philosopher look like? What will my writing be? Do I have to write to be a philosopher? Will I write? How will it integrate the difference sides of me? Before one can agree or disagree with another thinker, there has to be a sense that that thinker faces the same questions one faces, and has something of the same background form of life that one does. When there is no firm sense of such a shared background and life experiences, one might still understand the other thinker, but as it were from across a gulf, separated from easily going on together in the same way.