New Age Philosophy and Academic Philosophy

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.

And yet, even as each presumes to speak from a voice of universal philosophy, there is a clear and obvious sense in which Chopra and Knobe are strangers to each other’s thoughts and modes of life. At the very least, that is how they come across in the video. Chopra asks, “Is there a true self beyond that perspective (of what one thinks)?”, and Knobe responds, like a professor responding to a student, “You know, I don’t know the answer. What do you think is the answer?” Chopra responds with a blank look, as if he were thinking to himself, “You do know who I am, right? Of course, I think there is a true self beyond our thoughts. Have you seen any of my books?” But since he is the interviewer in this case, he assumes the tone of just someone searching, as if he is a researcher waiting for the results to come in. Even though his entire life’s work is premised on the idea that there is such a true Self behind the appearances.

What we have here is politeness being used to cover over claims of universality. If Chopra’s intellectual framework is really a science of the human being, it seems obvious that he should be well versed in Western, academic philosophy. But he is not. Then he faces a choice: he can either dismiss it as confused (which he cannot do when talking to a philosophy professor without questioning academia as it is right now in general), or he can use politeness, and the meekness of an interviewer, as a way to make it seem as if the two people do have a shared framework. Naturally, Chopra chooses the second option.

Same with Knobe. As a philosophy professor, unless he is actively open and critical about it, he is committed to the idea that academic philosophy is universal – that, as philosophy, it can speak to the human condition as shared by all people. And yet can a philosophy professor claim such universality without engaging with the modes of philosophy which most of the public thinks of as philosophy – that is, spirituality and new age philosophy? The lack of engagement with new age philosophy threatens to make academic philosophy seem out of touch, and so not really universal after all. Instead of being open about this situation – this gulf in our society between new age philosophy and academic philosophy – Knobe, like Chopra, covers it over with politeness, as if it can be taken for granted that he and Chopra talking about the same thing, in roughly the same way.

The interview is like watching one person dancing the Tango next to another person Disco dancing, and presuming that because they dancing close to each other, or touch other or catch a beat together once in a while, they are dancing as a pair. For people who are familiar with both kinds of dance, this can be comical, as well as disheartening. Mainly, like it is a wasted opportunity. If only they would take the risk of smiling less at each other, and speak completely openly about whatever doubts and reservations they have about the other approach, more could be accomplished.

This interview reminded me of a different interview, thirty years old, between Jiddu Krishnamurti and Iris Murdoch. A much more substantial interview, but with still many of the same pitfalls.

Where the new-age philosopher Chopra is interviewing the academic philosopher Knobe, in this video the academic philosopher Murdoch is interviewing the new-age philosopher Krishnamurti. Hence the power dynamics are the other way around.

During much of the interview, Krishnamurti and Murdoch are engaged in back and forth about how to use the words in the conversation: experience, consciousness, self, love and so on. Murdoch relates to Krishnamurti as if he has some insight and realization which she lacks, and Krishnamurti accepts this mode of interaction, often talking down to Murdoch as if she is misunderstanding the basic meaning of the words which he presumes are universal.

When Krishnamurti asks, “Is there an experiencer different from the experiences?”, Murdoch often hems and haws. Why? Because in the way the interaction is set up, to accept Krishnamurti’s mode of asking the question – to treat it as if he and Murdoch are in a position to entertain the same question, as if Krishamurti is asking a shared or common question – is to concede ground and power to Krishamurti.

Krishamurti’s mode of asking that question is inseparable from Krishnamurti then presenting himself as the person, between him and Murdoch, who is better suited and qualified to answer the question. So when he asks, as if to clarify, “Do you see what I mean?”, he is taking for granted the power differential in the interaction between him and Murdoch, and then reaffirming it even as he assumes that he is simply clarifying the shared meanings of the terms of the debate.

Any professor or student knows this dynamic well. For it is what happens when a professor lays the foundation for how to appreciate a philosophical question, one which then the professor will answer as the person with the appropriate authority. The professor: “Can we really know there is an external world?” The student: “Well, I know I have a soccer game tonight.” Professor: “But do you really know? What is knowledge?” The question is treated as a shared question because the situation of the classroom guarantees that there is a shared framework, and the student has to accept the sense of the question at issue if they are to participate in the framework. A professor or student who assumes that the framework of the classroom is universal will assume that the meaning of the words in the question are themselves universal.

Krishnamurti is famous for suggesting that no one should follow any institutional structures in pursuing their self-realization, and that churches, temples, and even the Theosophical society he was a part of, and which treated him as a messiah are all obstacles to one’s own spiritual journey. A fantastic idea.

Yet, Krishnamurti, as seen in this video and countless others, failed to appreciate the power dynamics implicit in language itself. This is obvious in his assumption that the questions he raises, and the words he uses, and how he uses them, are somehow something that Murdoch has to share in just in virtue of being a speaker of English, as if he is merely using the meanings that all English speakers share. As if the use of those words and questions doesn’t help give him a leverage in the conversation.

It would have been a much more fascinating discussion if Murdoch, who normally suffers no fools, called Krishnamurti out on this point. She doesn’t in part because Krishnamurti is no fool and is an exceptional thinker. But also she doesn’t in part because she confuses being deferential to Krishnamuri with being culturally sensitive, as if she doesn’t want to come across as the Westerner using Western philosophy to chop down the Indian’s mysticism. Too bad. It would have been much more interesting and productive to see these two powerful intellectuals, and proponents of philosophy as a lived activity, take their gloves off in engaging with each others’ worldviews.

Then again, how could Murdoch level this charge of Krishnamurti using language as a mode of enforcing power differentials when, as an academic, the very same thing could apply to her? In this Krishnamurti and Murdoch – like Chopra and Knobe a generation later – are caught in similar institutional patterns, where in their home institutional setting each has the power to assert not what is the truth, since they disavow any such power, but to assert what are the meanings of words, and which questions are the right questions to ask, and in what order, and in what context. This is the power not of claiming how the world is, but of claiming what are the meanings of the words and the conceptual structures which are the appropriate ones for understanding how the world is.

To have a significant interaction between new age philosophy and academic philosophy, it is not enough to put people in the same room and have them talk at each other. Members of both institutional structures have to acknowledge their own limitations in being able to speak with the other group, and through such an acknowledgement, make room for a shared project of creating new meanings together.

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