What is the experience of the sublime? You are walking along and suddenly catch the sunset, and you are stopped in your tracks. You experience a peace, a reprieve from ordinary thoughts. What is happening here?
Here perception has latched onto an event that is not defined through the prism of social relationships and identities. Walking along you see houses (rich, poor, gawdy, sophisticated), people (pretty, ugly, tall, short, nice clothes, homeless), cars (Benz, Chevy). All the while you are comparing and contrasting yourself in relation to these objects and people. You move in a matrix of judgments defined by who can have access to what and who can’t; that guy can drive the Benz but you can’t, you can afford going into that restaurant but the person next to you can’t. The sunset breaks through this matrix as something that is equally available to all. Irrespective of your social standing, in looking at the sunset all are equal. It seems immune to the human world. A sign that we have not managed to capture and define everything within the matrix of our social interactions.
The sunset brings out our fundamental equality as people, what we have in common and not what sets some people apart from others. Not just an abstract sense of equality or sameness, like we are all mammals. But a brief but vivid sense of that equality, experienced as an event that is equally available to all. One experiences the beauty of the sunset not as someone with such and such a job, but as a human being, as even just an animal.
Oh, dear soul , you want so much to do good. To matter. To contribute. To make a difference. To live fully, joyously.
What is holding you back? What is the obstacle between you and that joy?
“If only things were different, then I would be so filled with joy, so open to radiance all around me. If only I had such and such more. If only he did that less. If only they were kinder. Then… oh then…how I would soar through life with nothing to hold me back. So much would then be possible. If only…”
Yes, you see the obstacle as outside yourself, and so draw the boundary between yourself and the world. The boundary feels like a protection, buffering you from blame, pointing to the root cause out there, away from you. Protecting your inner sanctity, your joy.
The same boundary shuts you in, disconnects you from the world. From the joy of being fully in the world, carefree, roaming as you please. The buffer you hold onto to protect yourself from the indignities of the world is also the buffer that draws a circle between you and others and constrains your natural unbounded nature.
The root obstacle to joy is not out there in the world. It is the perception that the root cause is out there in the world.
There are two kinds of pain: instinctive and reflective.
Instinctive pain happens in a flash of a second before it can be controlled. Bodily pain is like this – stubbing one’s foot, breaking a leg, a headache. So is a lot of pain related to social identity: feeling ugly, being yelled at, put down, being low on the status totem pole, not measuring up to someone else. Instinctive pain is just there. It can’t be eliminated altogether. It comes with having a body, with being a social being.
Reflective pain is the magnification of instinctive pain through one’s misguided reactions to instinctive pain. Reflective pain is the meaning one imposes onto the instinctive pain.
A headache is a headache. It is instinctive pain. The narrative that the neighbor’s music is to be blamed for my headache, the sense that the neighbor is the culprit who has to be taught a lesson is reflective pain.
Instinctive pain is part of being in the world. Reflective pain is the superimposed self-understanding of our being in the world.
Halfway through this lecture by Stanley Cavell, I stopped listening to it. It is not just that the lecture comes across – to me and to many others – as boring and self-involved. More than that, I had a moment of enough is enough. Not only do I not feel like listening more. I will not listen more. It was a flashback to fifteen years ago when, though at the time I poured through his writings, I stopped going to his classes. I wasn’t going to put myself through it anymore.
Not put myself through what anymore? What am I feeling when watching the lecture? There is a pain, a sense of frustration. A feeling that I am torturing myself by listening to this. But why?
It is the sense of a siren call, a pleasant, melodious, hopeful song luring me into its orbit even as ultimately it leads only to my entrapment and an intellectual dead end. That what I am listening to is really, for me, a mirage, a false hope, an illusion of a future at the end of the talk.
In this lecture, Alain Badiou suggests the task of philosophy is to avoid two extremes. One extreme – abstract universality – is to state in abstract and theoretical terms what unifies all people. Badiou identifies this with science, technology, business, capitalism. The other extreme – particularity – resists abstract universality by focusing on bounded groups, such as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, and so on. The task of philosophy is to thread the needle and create, what one might call, universality of particulars, where people discover their shared universality through an openness to each others’ particularity.
For Badiou philosophy – the universality of particularity – is always oriented towards the future. Particularity is focused on the past: it says we need to hold on to the communal bonds which are being dissolved by the push towards universality. In contrast, abstract universality is focused on the present: it says we have discovered the universal categories (evolution, cognitive science, the rational foundations of morality, etc.) and now the task is mainly to apply them to our situation. But for Badiou philosophy is neither about preservation of the past nor sustaining the present, but about creating the future.
It is evident through the talk that fundamentalist religion is particularity and the past. About an hour into the talk, he suggests that analytic philosophy is abstract universality and the present. This leads to the striking claim that if analytic philosophy dominates, then creativity and philosophy and love and, indeed the essence of humanity, will come to an end. On this picture, analytic philosophy succumbed to technicism and lost itself in scientism.
Here is an interesting snippet of an interview between Deepak Chopra and Joshua Knobe:
Seeing the interview is like seeing two people speaking different languages all the while hoping, based on the similarity in sounds of some of the words, that they are speaking the same language and so are actually communicating.
Part of the fascination of the interaction is that it is between between two people high up in institutional structures which normally don’t engage with each other: new-age philosophy and academic philosophy. In one way the new-age philosophy has a greater grip on the public, since most people don’t have a sense for the circles Knobe moves in. In another way academic philosophy has a greater grip on the public, because the institution Knobe belongs to (Yale) has a greater grip on the public than do structures of new age philosophy.
Importantly, both structures aim for, and presume to speak from, a universal space of philosophy. Both Chopra and Knobe are trying, in different ways, to make philosophy connect to the public by wrapping philosophy in the language of science: Chopra as a doctor, Knobe as an experimenter.
This much is clear: In my life I am no longer part of the apparatus of creating philosophical knowledge in the academic way. That apparatus involves people relating to each other through scholarship, through institutional structures of classrooms, conferences, journal articles. From time to time I will still read academic books when I want to learn particular things. But when I do, I am not part of the inner dynamic of the assessment of those texts. I am a curious lay reader.
Is there then still a path of creating philosophical knowledge that is left to me? Yes. This is what I will dedicate myself to now. It is the path of gaining greater awareness of the world through cultivating stillness.
For the last twenty years as I sought to understand the world, I read books, I engaged in passionate debates, took and taught classes. As I was doing this, I moved in the world at great speed: moving from task to task, constantly running after the next philosophical insight, needing to respond to that objection, fine tuning this argument, defending that line of thought. My mind was like a battle ground, and my beliefs and views like fortresses I had to protect against enemy attacks. My mental energy was mainly taken up with plotting this advance or that counter attack or negotiating some truce with a new found ally.
In the process, I paid little attention to myself and to my surroundings. I assumed I could see the world and was focused instead on understanding it.
Now my aim is to cultivate the converse skill: to not worry about understanding the world, but to first simply experience it in each moment as fully as I can. To clear my mind of the battleground of ideas, and to simply be with, and in, the world.
What is the point of this? Where will be lead? Is there any knowledge to be found through this process? Only time will tell.
I have recently been reading Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter‘s Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. It is a fascinating read. Especially for someone like me who has spent most of my life under the assumption that I am a part of the counter-culture. Not in the sense of being a punk rocker or smoking weed. But at least in the sense that since I went to college at 18, I defined myself against, as I saw it, the materialist, non-intellectual and non-spiritual forces of capitalism.
One of my vivid memories from college is going to a Indian-American Student Association party, the kind which I normally avoided, and thinking, while talking to the students studying computer science, medicine, law, business and so on, I am not like them. More: I will not be like them. It’s not that I didn’t like them or couldn’t identify with them. They were just like people my age in my family, and I liked my family.
What was motivating me rather was the question: If everyone has a job like they are planning to have, how will reflective distance about the core assumptions of our society be possible? It was precisely the fact that being a doctor or a programmer, etc. are central to our society which made me wonder: how can the cultural assumptions of the mode of life of these professionals be questioned? Who is going to do that questioning? From what space can such questioning happen?