Identifying with Descartes and Mozart

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.

10 thoughts on “Identifying with Descartes and Mozart

  1. JH

    One thing that I am not always in agreement with you is your stance against ‘Eurocentrism’. I think there has to be a certain necessary difference between Western and Eastern philosophy; thinking that they can easily go back and forth, I think, in an academic setting would not be so fruitful most of the times. We have figures like Descartes and Kant because in the West, there has been a volatile conflict between science and religion which philosophy aimed to resolve somehow, whereas in the East, there has not been a conflict of that degree between the two. Whereas Western philosophy is a rigorous, textual practice, Eastern philosophy is more of a practice of embodiment, so that how philosophy is practiced in the East has to be very different from that of the West. I still think trying to interpret and talk about thinkers like Confucius and the Buddha to the extent we’d do the same to Descartes is an oxymoron of some sort.

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  2. Bharath Vallabha

    Certainly newtonian physics was discovered in the west. So how newtonian physics can be compatible with human values was posed most starkly in the west. But this is not the foundation of western philosophy. The foundation, atleast on the standard story, is socrates, and he didn’t know newtonian physics. So what then is the in principle distinction between the philosophies of Socrates and the Buddha? One option is that socrates was already struggling with a prototype of what Descartes was struggling with, the tension between religion and science, where the Buddha was not. This seems to me implausible: just as socrates was reacting about Homeric gods, the Buddha was reacting against the Hindu gods. Also, the Buddha is more similar to Aristotle in that both had a similar kind of scientific bent.

    As I see it, there is no deep east and west divide in how philosophy is done. The philosophy of Descartes engages with modern science in a way that an Eastern contemporary of Descartes doesn’t. But this isn’t because there is a deep divide between east and west. After all, many European contemporaries of Descartes didn’t engage with modern science the way Descartes did. Is there is a fundamental difference between Descartes and Aquinas? There are big differences, but differences of the kind that suggest there shouldn’t be a class on juxtaposing the philosophies of the two thinkers? Certainly not. In fact, it is just such juxtaposition that people like Anscombe, MacIntyre and Foot have been doing it the 20th century, and it is exciting, or at least interesting, stuff. There is a similar juxtaposition of Socrates and the Homeric Greeks. A current example is Hubert Dreyfus, but also Nietzsche and Heidegger.

    So I think the contrast between east and west is overstated. A book that brings this out well is Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason, which suggests how much interaction there already was between Indian, Islamic and Western philosophy in the 1500s. And even supposing there is a contrast between east and west philosophy, philosophy is advanced not by keeping them seperate but by bringing them into interesting dialogue with each other.

    One objection often made to Amscombe and also to Dreyfus is that they are threatening secularism by polluting rational philosophy with forms of religious irrationality. On this view, the seperation of the worldviews of Homeric Greeks and socrates, or Aquinas and Descartes, is something we should now insist on as a way of keeping secularism alive. Similarly, there is the idea the Western and eastern philosophy have to be kept apart because any merging of the two threatens secularism.

    I think the right response to this is the kind of point Foucault highlighted: a political reality is maintained by reading the political differences into the human nature, as if there was an objective distinction of Eastern and western, religious and non-religious. The interesting stuff often happens in the grey areas which push through old dichotomies. It is an open and hard question how a society which incorporates Dreyfus’ philosophy can be secular. The response shouldn’t be to dismiss Dreyfus or Heidegger as not really philosophy, but to create new and better forms of secularism. Similarly, we shouldn’t keep the East and the West apart based on some outdated conceptions of East and West and of secularism, but should bring them together to create better, more elastic conceptions of secularism.

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    1. JH

      Okay, I do agree that the division between the East and the West can be overstated and as you mentioned, there have been many instances where certain thinkers seemed to work within both fields, without the necessary gap between the Eastern and Western ways of thinking. Maybe my concern arose from the fact that I simply do not know how this “gap” in philosophy, which the American academia clearly presupposes, can be overcome. For example, during a Pragmatism course (Dewey, Pierce, James), a professor and students might be able to briefly reference history of Neo-Confucianism in its own long-lasting internal debates between different modes of truth, but this intervention might only have been initiated if it was a specific reference, deemed important, from the professor or a student who is interested in the topic. Requiring such a reference as a mandatory set of practice in a curriculum, forcing the pluralism from the outside, I hope you would agree, would not be so helpful all the time.

      Also, for me, pluralism does not necessarily entail considering many thinkers from many places. I am not sure whether you would agree here, but it is surely interesting if we can briefly talk about the similarities and differences between the Stoics and the Buddhist thought in a classroom, but rarely, spending too much time ‘forcing a parallel’ has been so helpful. Seeing pluralism, a conflict and a coming-together within a specific point of reference, case-by-case, seems to me more helpful. Unless the class is specifically concerned with ‘comparative philosophy’, bringing in multitudes of thinkers does not always help.

      I wonder, if you have a chance to design a curriculum, or a whole set of philosophy courses for a semester in a given institution, how you would do it. For me, the paradigmatic philosopher who really does not care about Eastern and Western modes of thinking is Peter Sloterdijk. He, also, does not approve of academic philosophy in general and has established his own school and his own way of pedagogy, completely from the outside. Though some might criticize him for refusing to take any part in academic philosophy and not even attempting to change things from within, I think his success is due to his complete disregard for academic philosophers and their hegemony. Rather than trying to fit himself into the ‘Humanities’ or ‘Social Sciences’ which an institution like to shelter the discipline of philosophy in, he is the head of an art school, University of Art and Design Karlsruhe. He appeals to artists, critical theorists, media designers – and he also have aired his own television show in Germany. I am not suggesting that this is always the way to go, but want to make clear of the fact that you seem to still hold onto academic philosophy as the philosophical procedure and have not suggested how academic philosophy can change. In my own place in academia, I try to do the best I can in ‘thinking pluralistically’, but if one asks me what a more radical solution would be, I would suggest that the whole Anglo-Saxon culture of the present has to go on a completely different direction for philosophy taught in school to improve.

      Do you still have hope for academic philosophy?

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  3. terenceblake

    I agree with Bharath that philosophy as a way of life, or mode of embodiment, continued long after the closing of the Greco-Roman schools, at least into the Enlightenment. Descartes partakes of the Enlightenment contradiction between pluralist individuation (think for yourself) and monist doctrine (science, and I, have found the right answers). Cavell argues that this “strained” union is continued in Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau), Wittgenstein, and (modestly) himself. Yet I can only partly agree with Cavell as I see the individuation in his work, but it is more (élitist) aristocratic than pluralist (democratic).

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  4. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    JH, I certainly have hope for academic philosophy. We are long past the age of human life where we can destroy old structures and start anew from scratch. Too much of our society and life is tied up with academia for academic philosophy to be irrelevant or hopeless. And also, academia is one of the main, if not the main, carrier of traditional structures and debates in philosophy, which are esoteric to most of the public, but which are not thereby useless or silly. As I see it, the task is to make what used to be the domain of only a small group in society (and so was esoteric) into something that is accessible to more people (and so less esoteric). That transition is the current task of philosophy, and denying the continuing value of academic philosophy sidesteps this whole task through a kind of fantasy of pure non-academic philosophy. I don’t know about Sloterdijk; thanks for the reference. He sounds interesting, and I will look him up.

    The issue of the syllabus is complicated for the reasons you give. I agree you with what you say. Simply tacking on some Eastern thinkers in a class is not very productive, though it might be one kind of a start. Nor is forcing the parallel, which can feel desperate and motivated from social justice rather than from the philosophy itself (not that, of course, the two are exclusive).

    Due to my criticism of Eurocentrism, I have often gotten asked to provide an alternate syllabus. I feel you are asking it genuinely; many have asked it simply to throw the burden onto the pluralist side, as if until such a working, alternate syllabus is presented, the status quo is fine. But I think the syllabus, though important, is not the heart of the issue.

    Academic philosophy right now, at least in America and probably elsewhere, lacks a coherent framework for a world philosophy. One way to start to create such a framework is to compare and contrast particular philosophers. But it is not the only way, since even such comparing presupposes that there is a framework for such comparison. And what is that framework? Comparison by itself doesn’t provide it. What we have to confront is the question: What does it even mean, and what could it mean, to say that all the different traditions of philosophy in Europe, Asia, Africa and so on are traditions of the same kind of activity? This is an extremely hard question, akin to the hardness of any other deep philosophical problem. And yet without a coherent answer to this question, we cannot have a thriving, global conversation. Our globalization so far is mainly a result of economic forces, and the resulting mix of cultures. But philosophy is the heart of any culture, and so far we have not managed, or even come close to getting, a synthesis of cultures at that depth. This is not a matter of just comparing and contrasting philosophers; it is a matter of thinking freshly from within the changing contours of our lives.

    Academic philosophy has a big role to play here. But it is also not the only role to be played. The push for a global framework has to happen inside and outside academic philosophy. Which path one takes is mainly to due to contingent features of one’s life: whether one wants to be a professor, grade papers, go to committee meetings, write in the form of journal articles or academic books, whether one has the opportunities to make it in academia, or to leave academia, etc. Academia provides an existing framework to think within, but it also brings all the momentum and status quo of an existing framework. Non-academia provides a more open canvas to try new things, but the very openness of that can be as nerve racking as it can be freeing. Which path works for a person involves lots of little life choices, which in principle could go either way. But in the big picture what matters is that both paths are taken by people in general so that philosophy, in its academic and non-academic forms, is thriving.

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    1. JH

      Yes, I should make it clear that I am sympathetic to your views that academic philosophy can be more pluralistic and allow a true “globalization” to form, so that every thinker, every concept and every method can come into play. Two concerns, however, remain, which you might agree with me here.

      First is that though I have mentioned Sloterdjik in rejecting academic philosophy but still teaching/doing philosophy, I think we have to go beyond certain individuals doing the best of their works on their own, forming their own groups and talking to themselves. (This is a painful realization in my part, since I have believed that this insular activity is the only way to go and that it is impossible penetrate into the academic philosophy, or change things from within such a rigid structure) I do not think philosophy is any salvation of some sort, but see it as a very useful tool, which every student can benefit from a good exposure, from English literature to computer science students. Since in the United States, since college is the first place where students learn how to systemically think about philosophy, I see introductory philosophy classes in philosophy as really crucial in helping students to learn whether they are even a bit interested in philosophy. However, from experience of witnessing academic philosophy being to many students just another course to get by, have frustrations over, with the non-help of unhelpful professors who try too hard to justify their own professional work, I’ve began to think that maybe academic philosophy is dead-end and we can only rely on bright, inspiring professors who are hard to come by if we stick to the academia model. This thought still remains – academic philosophy is not the only ground which the students can learn philosophy. Students can learn for themselves through reading, talk with others and find things which speak to them – all of which can be philosophical motives in core, but not philosophy necessarily. We can read Zizek, Badiou, Latour, Cavell, Dreyfus, Chalmers or any other ‘influential’ contemporary philosopher, but how they will help us in terms of academic philosophy, I do not know.

      Second is my difficulty in articulating for myself your notion of plurality and how it might be applied. I wonder whether there was any instance in history where philosophy was really plural. Philosophy has always been insular, but what few people wrote and discussed have universal significance which can speak to many people. I see your approach not necessarily as plural, but integrative. (Yet, I am sure that you do not have something like the integral theory of Ken Wilber in mind) Thinking beyond ethnicity and worries over having to read the canon of “dead white men” (even as a non-Caucasian, I do not see this as a problem), my asking for how you would organize a pluralistic philosophy department was a pretty genuine one. It does seem like I am taking your ‘search of an ideal’ too literally, but if a certain concrete model of how academic philosophy can be done differently cannot be formed on your part, I am not sure whether it would be a true search or simply wandering around.

      In my own attempts, for example, though I am a student without any administrative power, I organize a reading group which discusses books and papers on neuroscience & philosophy from both the analytic and continental traditions. Every student, regardless of a major, is welcome; I try to make the discussions possible so that someone who does not have much previous knowledge on the given topic can readily participate in the discussions. Aside from my interests in the topic, I wish that participants would take different things with them from the group and learn to encounter new things on their own without much external guidance. As I cannot radically change the structure of Western education as of now, I try to do my best by discussing things amongst interested people. Such a method can be said to be both in and outside of academia, but I do see, like you, that the notions of a ‘school’ and learning with others have to be saved on a larger scale.

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  5. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Actually, I have something very much like Wilber’s integrative philosophy in mind. Except one which does a better job of connecting to philosophy as it happens in academic philosophy, and also which is not as specialized and esoteric as Wilber, who is a good example of a non-academic philosopher who is nonetheless inaccessible to most of the public.

    It is helpful to conceptually distinguish two things, which is perhaps the distinction you are drawing as well: integrative philosophy and pluralism. Integrative philosophy concerns how to integrate theory and practice in philosophy so that it is about living a philosophical life in the most robust sense, beyond analyzing arguments or doing only meta-science. Integrative philosophy is a project very much within Western philosophy, as is it within non-Western philosophy as well. Pluralism concerns how to integrate Western and non-Western philosophy.

    The two are related in that integrative philosophy is the foundation of a real pluralism. This is because often the argument given against pluralism presupposes some kind of distinction between the kind of philosophy done in the West and the East, as if one were more intellectual and the other more practical. One possible response is to say: “No, the East is just as intellectual as the West!” No doubt this is true in some sense, but even if it is true in the same sense, it doesn’t give the kind of pluralism that is best I think. As I see it, there is no point in only saying that Eastern philosophy is as argumentative and logic-chopping as Western philosophy, since then one can then just ask: well, what is the point then of either kind of philosophy? It is not enough to bring the Eastern and Western philosophy together; they have to come together in a way that is socially useful, and that means in a way that takes more seriously how they can both be forms of integrative, holistic, lived philosophies.

    The fact that integrative philosophy is the foundation of pluralism is one of the reasons I don’t always look at the color or gender of the authors being read. Irrespective of one’s identity, if one is contributing to integrative philosophy, then they are, at least indirectly, contributing to pluralism, which is an extension of integrative philosophy. Here it is helpful to see that the main obstacle to pluralism in academia isn’t white men. It is the difficulties of doing integrative philosophy in academia, which is seen as a model of secularism, where secularism is seen as a space where human life is divided into the reasonable public discourse part and the meaningful private discourse part, and where the two shall be kept apart. And secularism in this sense isn’t just the creation of white men, or Asian men, or men in general, or white people in general, etc.; it’s foundations are in the economic and social conditions of a society.

    It’s great to take the “In Search of an Ideal” title literally. That is how I think of it. But here too it is helpful to distinguish two things: general public discourse and classroom discourse. What has to be created, first and foremost, is integrative and pluralistic public discourse. This is conceptually distinct from, and also conceptually prior to, the question of what an integrative and pluralistic classroom discourse looks like. This is one of the advantages of being outside academia, where it is easier to keep this distinction in mind. In academia it is too easy to conflate academic discourse (what happens in conferences and classrooms) with public discourse, and to think that changing academic discourse is the first step to changing public discourse. Hence most of the conversations in academia gets bogged down in the issue of representation of diversity in publications and classrooms. An important issue, but really not the same as what a pluralistic discourse can look like in the public domain.

    A better way of doing things is to focus first on the public discourse directly, whether one is an academic or not. And then what one talks about in the classroom is how to improve the public discourse, or how to practice it. Then the necessary integrative and pluralistic dimensions of the syllabus will automatically start to take shape, as it responds to the needs of the general public philosophical discourse. Since pluralism and globalization and merging cultures is a big topic in public discourse, pluralism will get integrated into the syllabus, and in an organic way rather than someone deciding in advance who the best Western and Eastern thinkers are and worrying, and feeling guilty, over the seemingly impossible task of representing hundreds of cultures, and thousands of identities, in a 13 week course, or even a four year education. Of course, the syllabus is an instance of public discourse, and so it is important in that sense as well. But it is not the primary instance of public discourse, and hopefully developing a broader perspective beyond the syllabus can help to sidestep some of the pitfalls of the canon wars.

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    1. JH

      Thank you – certain things seem to be a bit clearer to me now.

      However, it seems like the major problem persists. Is today’s global public discourse pluralistic? Yes, since every major country has to participate in global economy and “no country is left out” in its expected contribution to a wider financial discourse. Even in terms of work and education, it seems like there has never been more efficiently “nomadic” discourse of people moving from country to country depending on one perceived benefit after another. However, today’s public discourse is also NOT pluralistic if we move from a quantitative view of pluralism to a qualitative view; no matter how many people, how many countries get to participate in a system, it remains a necessarily limiting and oppressive system where a participation is taken for granted in its expectation to follow a strict demand with little room for truly innovative participation.

      Can I ask how the public discourse can aspire to become more pluralistic but also improve qualitatively? As much as I respect Ken Wilber and integral theory, I see that it has been realized in one form as a political-correct, but definitely not politically-liberating neo-liberal discourse, where we can have ‘something’ from here and ‘something else’ from there to reach a more ‘holistic’ vision where no one view wins. Yet, in actuality, against neo-liberalism, Ken Wilber teaches us that the therapy is not necessarily for us to know that “everything is right”, but seeing how a certain concept, already unified, is divided into different points of view. Thus, his pluralism, I see, if properly applied, is that of concentration, of definitive action and focused meditation.

      With “public discourse”, it seems as if you assume that we know what you mean, but I wish you can begin to more explicitly conceptualize a therapeutic method. You mentioned that our societies have gone through too many radical purges and we do not need another one. However, I do not know anything more radical than suggesting that the whole of public discourse has to change in order for the academia to change as well. Rather than “purging”, how can this change come through more modestly in your terms?

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  6. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Thank you for your critical engagement. I agree that we don’t have, in your helpful phrase, a qualitative pluralism in the public discourse. Developing that is the key thing. So, how to do that? I agree as well that what is needed for this is to conceptualize a therapeutic method. It is not an issue of simply stating that here is what everyone should believe, but is a matter of a way of thinking, speaking and being which reverberates from within one’s life to others. That is the next thing for me to make explicit. I have spent a lot of time articulating what I see as the narrowness of academic philosophy, and also the barrenness for the most part of philosophy in public discourse outside academia, so it is only natural that the question arises of what positive thing I am oriented towards. Right now I don’t have a clear answer for this, though I am moving more in the direction of making it explicit.

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  7. robertmwallace2

    A way of thinking, speaking, and being which does what you want it to do (“reverberate from within one’s life to others”) will convey itself, won’t it? “Explicitly,” perhaps, in some cases…. It’s interesting that Hegel’s discussion of “method” occurs at the end, rather than the beginning, of his Science of Logic. Where by “method” he certainly has in mind (importantly) the Greek etymology, “path taken.”

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