There are two very different uses of wealth. One use is as a way to show that one is succeeding in the market place; this is how wealth is displayed in Beverly Hills or Las Vegas. The other way is to use the wealth as a protective shield from the market place, so that the wealth itself functions as a way to keep away the feeling of capitalist forces; this is the point of wealth in well off college towns such as Cambridge and Berkeley.
I was aware of this second use of wealth as I was walking around the Princeton campus yesterday. As soon as I was on the campus, I could feel that distinctive feeling one gets at a rich university. I felt it walking around the grounds, taking in the beautiful architecture and the serene air of a life of the mind. But what is that feeling capturing exactly? At first I wasn’t sure; I walked around just taking it in, trying to understand it.
I was in Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, and I was checking out the philosophy section. It turns out there is no section simply called philosophy. There is one large section called “Western Philosophy”, which has the usual texts of a Leiterific department, though with more representation of continental philosophy.
Several aisles over, next to the spirituality and and Jewish studies and Islamic studies section, there is a smaller section on “Eastern Philosophy”. It mainly consists of Eastern religious texts and commentary on them. From a casual glance, much of it seems to have the vibe of self-help philosophy.
My edition of The Souls of Black Folks has an introduction to the text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A fine introduction which situates the text in its historical context. Reading the introduction, though, I can see why Du Bois’ text hasn’t made it as a standard part of the philosophy classroom.
Du Bois’ mentors in philosophy at Harvard were William James and George Santayana. Gates writes, “Du Bois’ first love was philosophy. But, because employment opportunities were limited for black philosophers, he decided on graduate study in history.” What would academic philosophy in America have looked like if Du Bois had stayed in it? A fascinating thought. Ironically, while Gates makes clear Du Bois’s philosophical education, in the introduction he hardly makes it clear what could be the philosophical import of the text.
Gates emphasizes two dimensions of the text. First, that it is a literary and aesthetic masterpiece: “Long after the social issues with which Du Bois wrestled so intensely and so passionately have become chapters in the chronicle of African-American history, students and their professions continue to turn to The Souls to experience the power of its lyricism, the “poetry” of its prose.”
“Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” is a fantastic essay by Wendell Berry (thanks to Cathy Legg for pointing me to it). It was published in 1992, which is amazing because that is only four years after I moved to this country with my family. Meaning: many of the issues I am only now starting to be conscious of, others such as Berry have been addressing since I was a teenager. It is a nice experience, central to feeling part of a community, to know that the problems one identifies with are not unique to oneself or one’s generation. Reading Berry’s essay I felt this very strongly, even though I don’t fully agree with it.
The central insight of Berry’s essay is what I will call the primacy of the community. Berry argues that the public domain in America has become identified with the market forces of capitalism, and this has resulted in a kind of bleaching of substantively shared values from the public domain. He writes:
The indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community. The concerns of public and private, republic and citizen, necessary as they are, are not adequate for the shaping of human life. Community alone, as principle and as fact, can raise the standards of local health (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) without which the other two interests will destroy one another. (Pg. 119)
In the essay Berry uses the examples of sex and freedom to show, very convincingly to my mind, how there are forms of objective values and shared modes of life which are lost when the pubic domain is identified with a view-from-nowhere type of disembodied neutrality.
Right now public philosophy in America is a desert. A land barren of rich vegetation and plentiful water. Academic philosophy is like a neighboring land of resources, green and lush – or, at least, that is how it seems to itself. Academic philosophers, like Nussbaum, Singer, Dennett and many others, who engage in public philosophy are like visitors to the desert from that neighboring land, bringing some of the plants from their land in the hopes of creating new pastures in the desert.
When Tania Lombrozo writes, “We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public wiling to engage them”, she is exhorting more academic philosophers to go into the desert and plant their crops there as well. And she is exhorting the public in the desert to give the new crops a chance to grow.
But there is something Lombrozo and others are over looking when they argue for academic philosophers entering the public arena. They treat it as if the reason most academic philosophers are not doing so is a matter of weakness of the will: either negligence on the academics’ part, or a failure to pay attention on the public’s part. Being a matter of weakness of the will, exhortation or a call to arms is what is seen to move the will in the right direction.
The problem, however, is deeper. A gambler who vows to not gamble any more, but runs to the casino at the next available chance – that is weakness of the will. A mathematician who is not able to solve a difficult problem – that is lack of knowledge, not weakness of the will. The academic philosopher mainly lacks knowledge of what a sustained and helpful engagement with the public can look like. What can sustained public philosophy be? That is a hard problem, which requires, to be sure, a strong will and motivation, but it mainly and firstly requires intellectual imagination and theoretical insight.
I am at a diner, and I just realized something. The lack of public philosophy in America is positively, physically dangerous.
What am I paying for in the diner? Certainly for the food and for the service. But also for being in a public space where I can experience a sense of togetherness with fellow human beings. In a society where public culture is bleached in order to be neutral, the main form of being-with others, beyond one’s family, friends and colleagues, is as fellow customers. You could be the poorest person in a village and be generally made fun of, and still, sitting in the public square you would experience a sense of shared, public culture. This is a form of culture and experience that is lost to us now. Like everything else, we have to buy such an experience. This is neither good nor bad in itself. It is just the reality.
I am sitting in the food court of a mall. I am surrounded by white, black, Asian and Latino families, each minding their own business, engaging with members of their family as if they are in little cultural islands. Every once in a while a group of middle or high school kids walk by, often with kids from different cultures in the group, seemingly laughing at the status quo and confident in their cosmopolitan togetherness. The elders in the Asian or Latino families stare blankly at the passing scene, as if there is nothing in the scene that is an affordance for them to act.
What a scene! How commonplace now and yet how bizarre!
What is holding everyone here in the food court, all of us, together? What do we have in common?
One thing in common is obvious: the market. We are in a public space which is defined by each of us being customers. Each cultural island around me holds a window into a more lush world, their home, where people of that island are able to express other parts of themselves, parts which they trace to their “culture”. But here, in this public space, that is set aside.
If there was a magic wand such that with it we could get everything we wanted from philosophy, what would we ask for? There would probably be innumerable things, but near the top of the list would be having a conceptual framework which can enable:
1) Integrating older philosophical frameworks: a way to make sense of the different philosophical traditions from around the world, and see their similarities and differences;
2) Understanding the mind: a way to conceptualize the mechanisms underlying human cognition such that we can see how our present mental states resulted through cultural evolution since the dawn of human beings;
3) Addressing changing times: a way to make sense of and deal with new circumstances and situations, such as global warming, new technologies, scientific progress, globalization, changing identities and so on;
4) Creating dialogue: a way for people across diverse cultures and backgrounds to productively and peacefully talk to each other; and
5) Living meaningfully: a way for each each individual to flourish and grow, and have a lived experience of a synergy between oneself, others and the world.
(1)-(5) are inter-connected in interesting ways. For instance, there can’t be (2) without (1), since our older philosophical frameworks from around the world are part of our cultural history going back thousands of years. This shows the limits of a science of the mind purely based on understanding the brain. That would be like saying we can fully understand the human body without tracing the history of how it physically evolved through millions of years. Similarly, we can’t fully understand our modes of cognition now without tracing our cognitive history.
As is well known, modern science became possible when scientists tried to understand the physical world independent of intentional categories. It was an intellectual breakthrough to be able to look upon the moon and the stars, or the falling apple without imposing on them the categories by which human beings make sense of each other’s actions. The intentional description of the apple’s trajectory provided a false sense of understanding, as if one had a universal understanding of the world when the mode of intentional explanation was applied to everything.
Imagine you are the Pope in the early 17th century, and you see yourself as God’s voice on earth. Everything you look upon seems to you tied in with the institution of the Catholic Church. Why does the Pope care whether the earth is the center of the universe? It isn’t because the Pope just cares for astronomy. It’s because the Pope was unable to separate astronomy from politics. He sensed dissension all around him, various forces vying to subvert the influence of the Church. The Pope interpreted astronomy itself through the lens of such institutional struggles. The Earth had to be the center of the universe because, here on Earth, the Catholic church had to be the center of human society.
I have suggested (here and here) that what started with the pre-Socratics was not fundamentally different in kind from either the Homeric or the Abrahamic traditions. All three traditions valued reflective distance, and there was individual reflective distance in both the Abrahamic and Socratic traditions. True, the way the individual reflective distance was realized in the two traditions was different, but we can only understand this in light of what they have in common.
If there is this similarity between the three traditions, why does the origin claim (that questioning tradition began with the pre-Socratics) seem so intuitive? Why does the origin claim have such a grip on the philosophical landscape in the West?
It is for the same reason the Biblical origin story has such a grip in churches. On a given Sunday, a pastor says as part of his sermon that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. This is how the world began! What is the structural function of this assertion in the organization of the church? This is not a question of the pastor’s intentions. He intends to simply state a fact, and perhaps to impress the majesty of the fact on his audience. The function of the assertion might be hidden to the pastor himself, as well as to the congregation. To see the function, one has to be able to step back from the assertion and contemplate that it might be false.