I was recently talking to a new friend, someone who describes himself as a “Europhile”. We were talking, among other things, of our shared interest in Western classical music. The conversation brought out an interesting irony which I hadn’t realized keenly enough before: that four years ago, as I left academia in part because of its Eurocentrism, I became increasingly interested in Western classical music. As I stopped teaching Descartes and Kant, my interest in Beethoven and Schubert grew.
The criticism of Eurocentric philosophy is that it is too focused on white men. So why was I getting interested in Bach and Mozart even as I was coming to consciousness of Eurocentrism in philosophy?
One explanation is that unconsciously I was trying to get to know better “the enemy”. I already read Locke and Spinoza. So in order to bolster my knowledge of the dead white men, I was immersing myself in the music of their times.
The problem with this interpretation is: I wasn’t just listening to the music as an exercise. I was identifying with the music. It was in fact the same kind of identification I had had when I first read Kant, and had the feeling, as any philosophy major knows, that I could lose myself in his works for the rest of my life. That those texts were part of an infinite framework within which I could forever grow and try to understand myself and the society of my time.
There is another problem with the above interpretation. As I listened to Beethoven, not only did I identify with his music, I started to identify anew with Kant and Spinoza. Even Descartes – that great source of confusion in modernity, according to Ryle, Rorty and others.
Now this was a strange thing indeed: an Indian-American man leaving academic philosophy because it is too Eurocentric, only to in the process reaffirm his identification with the European culture of modernity. Here I felt altogether differently than my “heroes” such as Wittgenstein and Anscombe. No needless bashing of modern philosophy for me. A year after I left academia, I picked up, and read, Descartes’ Meditations. I was expecting to see better how hollow it was, how confused. After all, that is what I thought when I was in academia, and now having left academia, I was in a better position to see its confusions. Strangely: I loved the book on this rereading. It spoke to me the way Mozart’s 25th symphony or Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet started to speak to me. I am no more an expert on Schubert than I am an expert on Descartes. But, of course, that kind of expertise isn’t needed for identification, which is a much more precious gift.
An alternate interpretation is that I was suffering from Stockholm syndrome, that I was unable to let go of my intellectual captors. Having lost the institutional link to European philosophy, I poured my captive imagination into the European classical world that was more readily available to me: the music, and, relatedly, the history of European modernity.
The trouble with this interpretation is that it conflates modern philosophy with the teaching of modern philosophy in contemporary classrooms. Yes, there is something outrageously, and tragically, wrong with Eurocentrism in the classroom. Our generation is coming to awareness of this just as earlier generations came to awareness of the wrongs of apartheid or Jim Crow laws. But it is to misperceive what is wrong to throw the baby out with the bath water, to see the problem was intrinsic to modern, European philosophy itself.
So why then did I start to identify with European music, and even modern European philosophy after I left academia? Identification is bred by a recognition of a similarity of situation. What is the similar situation between our generation now and, say, Descartes’ generation in 17th century Europe?
Most obviously: they were engaged in the pursuit of pluralism. In their case, religious pluralism. They were trying to figure out how society should be reorganized so that pluralism can be accommodated. And they were trying to ground such pluralism in the new sciences. The idea being that the new sciences provide a pluralism-friendly language that ground human nature in a framework broader than any particular religious framework. Modern philosophy, pluralism and the new sciences went hand in hand together.
Of course, this doesn’t mean modern philosophers were for pluralism in all its forms, or in the form of our current needs. But you can’t judge someone only based on whether they are like us. They have to be judged on how much they were doing in the context they were in.
To acknowledge this isn’t to say that the push for pluralism now needs modern philosophy. As if we are all indebted to white, male philosophers of the Enlightenment for having discovered pluralism. They did no such thing. The history of human kind, in Europe or Asia or Africa, is the history of ever expanding pluralism: each generation and culture making sense of their changing times, of merging communities, of expanding horizons. To acknowledge that European modernity is a part of this global history is to see it as a part of human history, rather than seeing human history as a part of it.
Changes have been so vast in the last 400 years that it is fool-hardy to imagine that Modern European philosophy holds the template for how we can now be a pluralistic society, as if we just have to practically realize what they theoretically discovered. That narrative of their discovery – as if all was darkness before them, or outside of Europe – is what has to overcome in order to better realize pluralism. This was not their project. It was their limitation to assume that they were discovering someone altogether new.
To identify with someone isn’t think that they got it right. It is to think that they were trying as best as they could in their time. It is to say that the changes that are to happen now don’t have to seen as something altogether opposed to modern European philosophy, but as their natural extension, like a river merging into the ocean. Identification therefore doesn’t have to be only a conservative mechanism. It can also be one in which one learns to move on, to place things in a broader context. A way to see Descartes and Kant in a broader context, such that they are themselves no longer the horizon, but are, along with all the rest of us, just some more people tying to find their way to the horizon. Descartes and Kant were also people. Just people. That can be a source of identification.
Descartes and Kant aren’t the problem. The current institutional structures which remain rigid, falsely in their name, are the problem.