Monthly Archives: July 2015

Talking About Oppression

There was an interesting debate a few months back between Joseph Heath and Audrey Yap about what Health called “Me studies”. The issue: what is the best way to study mechanisms of oppression?

Heath cautions against the idea that the oppressed are best suited to study it. Because the oppressed are too close to the thing being studied, and so it clouds their judgment and perception. A consequence is that the oppressed, in the name of enabling the oppressed to speak up, draw boundaries of who can participate in the debate, or what participation is supposed to look like. Heath’s point: these boundaries are inimical to rational debate and critical thinking because it creates the sense that disagreeing with the oppressed person’s philosophical thesis is to support oppression. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of ‘critical studies,’ who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met.”

Yap responded by suggesting that we “treat issues of oppression the way we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics.” On this view, there should be boundaries of who can participate and how just as there are in any sub-field of philosophy. A non-oppressed person can’t just chime in on a debate about oppression just as someone who doesn’t know logic can’t chime in on a talk on Godel. The oppressed person, just in virtue of being oppressed, has knowledge that the non-oppressed person doesn’t. So when a non-oppressed person presumes to chime in without due deference, that is a form of reenforcing oppression. Especially because it is the oppressing mechanisms which give the non-oppressed person the leverage to speak up even when the topic is out of their depth.

Both Heath and Yap engage with the issue in a thoughtful way. Still, I think both are missing something significant: namely, the distinction between the oppressed and the non-oppressed no longer makes any sense. To put the point in a pragmatist way: it is a distinction without a practical difference.

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My View

Contemporary philosophy in America is in the midst of a sea change. In simplest terms, it is going from being mainly about a canon of white males to becoming more pluralistic. But this is not a binary issue: traditional or pluralistic. There is much scope for genuine, productive philosophical disagreement on what pluralism can look like, and what form it can take.

To see this, consider the following three questions:

1) Is Pluralism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, correct?

2) Is there merit to Wittgensteinian criticisms of philosophy? (One might ask similarly of Heidegerrian or Pragmatist criticisms, and so on.)

3) Is it possible to do cutting-edge philosophy outside academia?

Each of these questions can be answered yes or no. That means there are eight possible views in conceptual space.

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There Are No Shoulds

Academic moral philosophy normally deals with the question: In a world of atoms, how can there be moral “shoulds”? Where does normativity come from in a world fundamentally without norms? Standard answers: from desires, the rational will, community, God, etc.

This debate misses the essence of human flourishing. For flourishing involves seeing that there really are no shoulds at all in the fabric of the world.

Seeing this not just in the scientific sense. But seeing it in lived experience. Someone can believe that the world is made up of atoms, and affirm that the world is fundamentally non-normative. And yet at the same time they might get furious at the waiter for bringing the wrong order.

It is easy to scientifically see the world as non-normative. It takes skill and mindfulness and attention to the right things to see, in the midst of day to day life, that the world is non-normative. To see it from the inner core of our life. That is wisdom. But we don’t need a fancy word like that to talk about it. We can just say: it is merely being fully alive.

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A Historical Narrative

Once a long time ago, about 200,000 years in the past, there was a small group of early humans. Consisting of a dozen or two dozen individuals, they were hunter-gatherers. They had the use of fire, stone weapons, early forms of burials and rudimentary jewelry.

This community was hierarchical: there was an alpha-male who was the CPU (central processing unit) of the group, and he was seen as a God who was able to engage with the Gods of nature. Others in the group listened to him not just out of fear, but because they related to him as their own best self. They listened to him the way we listen now to our inspiration.

The community was also sectarian: there was a sharp sense of who belonged to the group and who didn’t. There was a strong sense of us versus them. You belonged to the group if you were a part of the energy of the internal hierarchy. If you were outside the group and seemed innocuous, you were tolerated. Otherwise, you were torn down and killed.

The community was also symbolic: the hierarchy and sectarianness were sustained through tattoos, masks, rudimentary art and song, initiation and burial rituals. The symbols guided the people’s activity, the way a hose guides water or a ladder guides movement. Without the need for explicit thought or blame, but as just the things to be done. If you resisted or failed to catch on (which were the same), you were killed. The group didn’t have enough resources to handle dissent.

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The Vedas and the Upanishads

Part I of Bina Gupta’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy is titled “The Foundations”, and it has chapters on the Vedas and the Upanishads. The main feeling I had when reading these chapters was that I was doing something illicit. The more I felt this, the more I understood why Indian philosophy is not taught more widely in American colleges.

Gupta in the book doesn’t address the elephant in the room: How can a philosophy which supposedly has its foundations in the Vedas and the Upanishads be taught in a public space in a secular society? 

This leads to the feeling of illicitness, as if the proponent of Indian philosophy in academia is trying to sneak in something through the back door. This much we know: the Enlightenment values which are the basis of public discourse in America involve rendering religion and spirituality private. This we also know: this conception of the public domain has lead to deep quarrels about the role of religion in the public domain. Given this context, how can one read about the Vedas without feeling that a) the Enlightenment values are under attack, and b) the Christian theologians are getting the short end of the stick, since they are being asked, as theologians, to leave the public domain only to give minority “theologians” a voice?

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The Philosophy of Pluralism

I have started reading An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (2012) by Bina Gupta. It seems so far very good. This is the kind of book which in the past I would read a chapter or two, and set aside. But now I am intent on reading the whole book, and others like it.

Reading the Introduction, I could already feel my old instinct to set the book aside. Why? Let’s distinguish three things: Western philosophy, Indian philosophy and philosophy of pluralism. By “philosophy of pluralism” I mean a theoretical framework which raises questions about, and provides a context for, the coming together of different philosophical traditions. In the Introduction, Gupta aims to situate Indian philosophy for a reader who is familiar with Western philosophy. But what is missing is a framework for how any such comparison can happen. It leads to treating things as clear which are anything but clear. It is that lack of clarity, which I experienced in picking up a book like this as I don’t get it or that’s not quite right, which made me put it down.

This is not a criticism of Gupta’s knowledge of philosophy, either Indian or Western (which I am certainly not in a position to question). Nor is it to fault her. It is a catch 22. Before there can be a substantial philosophy of pluralism, there would have to be more awareness of other traditions (as is the aim of this book). And yet before such awareness can arise more substantially, there has to be a philosophy of pluralism.

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Three Forms of Pluralism

If we give up Eurocentrism and embrace pluralism, what does that look like? What are the options? I think there are three main options for being a pluralist.

On the first view, which I will call universal pluralismthe reason to look to other traditions is to enhance and supplement the universal methods and views which your own tradition has already discovered. Suppose you are an analytic philosopher of language trained in Western philosophy. Why should you be a pluralist and engage with, and learn from, other philosophical traditions? According to universal pluralism, it is because other traditions might have views pertinent to the questions you are interested in.

On this view, Western philosophy on its own has already caught hold of the universal questions of philosophy, and has mapped out some of the main possible answers. But if other traditions already also came to those questions and answers, then in a spirit of open inquiry, we should accept and learn from that. And perhaps other traditions have approaches to the universal questions which illuminate new possibilities for lines of inquiry.

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Philosophy and Capitalism

Normally academics shudder at the thought that academia is getting engulfed in market forces. There are protests of how the dignity and majesty of the intellectual life, and especially of the humanities, are going to be rendered profane if even academia is seen through the lens of capitalism. No, this is not a space about buying and selling; no, here we don’t primarily interact as customers; no, here we interact in terms of our shared humanity which is more fundamental than our relations in the market place!

This is a fascinating response. It depends on a fundamental divide between the academic space and the market space. On this view, ideally before a person enters the market place as an employee or a business owner, or any other capitalist identity, their consciousness needs to be first raised to care about more than just making it in the market. They need to be made into critical thinkers and citizens.

Where can this happen? It can’t be a space which is itself mired in capitalism, for that does not afford the necessary reflective distance from capitalism to gain a humanistic perspective. So it has to be a space set over and above market forces, and this is academia. The medieval colleges were literally set apart from the town. Contemporary colleges no longer are literally set apart that way (though a Cornell or a Williams might feel as if they were), but, the idea goes, they are conceptually set apart nonetheless. They can be in downtown Manhattan or right next to the inner cities of West Philadelphia, but in principle they are not caught up in either the wealth of Manhattan or the poverty of West Philadelphia. They stand apart with a critical gaze on capitalism, and focus instead on cultivating the humanity of the students.

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