Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Best Philosopher I Knew


Three months ago my father, Satyam Vallabha, passed away. He was 74. My mother, brother and myself were with him in his last moments. He was on his bed, in my parent’s apartment. It was 11:30 at night. I remember his breathing becoming labored, drawn out, just for a few minutes. But it was still him. He was there, with us. And then, in the blink of an eye, there was no more breathing. He was gone.

When I think of him now, I think of him the same way I thought of him since my late teens – as the best philosopher I know. As the most inspirational philosopher I was ever around.

Until I was about sixteen I knew him just as a loving and doting father. Didn’t really think much beyond that. But then I started getting interested in philosophy. There were the stirrings of the sense that there is more to life than being a good son, or becoming an engineer or whatever it is I would do as a job when I grew up. Even more than being a good person, helping others. That there was a deeper reality to grow into, to become aware of. There was the meaning of life, the purpose of existence – waiting to be discovered, uncovered within my own inner being.

Big, heady thoughts. They were like sparks of my imagination, starting to flicker and glow. Looking for oxygen to feed on and grow bigger. At the time my father became my oxygen.

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Do I Believe in God?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends. Sort of. What do you mean by “believe” and “God”?

This hemming and hawing is usually seen by the person I am talking to as sign of confusion on my part, or an inability to take a side. The idea hangs in the air: “It is so straight-forward. Do you believe in God? Just yes or no?”

I reject the strait-forwardness of the question. I reject that I have to give a single answer which I affirm in all contexts, with all people, in every moment of my life. Instead, the answer I give varies with who I am with.

If I am with believers, I say “I believe in God”. If I am with atheists, I say, “I don’t believe in God.” If I am with Christians, I say, “Christ is my savior.” If I am with Hindus, I say, “Krishna is God.”

Am I being wishy-washy in being like this? Blatently contradictory? No.

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Will I Read Kant Again? Probably Not.

I remember a time, sometimes early in grad school, when I pored through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The book was exhilarating. Captivating. Infuriating. But mostly it felt like it was expanding my consciousness. Understanding the book felt essential to understanding myself and the world. What was the argument of the Transcendental Deduction? How can reason recognize its own limits? Is metaphysics an illusion? The questions felt gripping, and thinking through Kant’s writing seemed to help me think through my own ideas.

Will I ever read the first critique again? Probably not. I don’t see it happening. Why would I? In what context would I say to myself, “Well, let me sit down with the first critique and read it”?

I am glad I read it. I feel I got out of it what I needed. But I don’t see the book addressing anymore the questions I am most interested in now.

It’s not just Kant. Will I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations? Or Aristotle’s Metaphysics? Or Russell’s Philosophy of Logical Atomism? Or Heidegger’s Being and Time? 

I really doubt it.

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Indian Philosophy in America

Indian philosophy has had a double life in America – a split identity which sheds much light on current state of philosophy overall.

The first wave of Indian philosophy in America was in the mid 1800s with the Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau who saw in The Bhagavad-Gita an affirmation of the mystical oneness in nature. Vivekananda’s visit to America in 1893 reaffirmed this vision of the Indian philosophy – which Vivekananda identified with Hindu philosophy, which he further identified with a version of Advaita philosophy. The foundations were laid for Indian philosophy being seen as essentially a spiritual, mystical view of oneness.

Of course, this view exploded in American culture in the 1960s, with many hippies seemingly abandoning not only their family’s Christianity but also, as they saw it, their society and education’s rationalist, imperialistic, false-universal, scientistic secularism. With the rise of gurus and swamis, transcendental meditation and the Hare Krishna movement, Indian philosophy became cool – the glorified, deified Other to hippi American youth’s disenchantment with Western culture.

This spiritual vision of Indian philosophy has so seeped into American culture that yoga, karma, meditation and reincarnation are common words that most people understand, however vaguely and incorrectly.

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The Power of Philosophy

I have spent the last twenty years reading, studying and doing philosophy. What has it gotten me?

Well, let me compare myself with Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, with Michael Jordan and Bill Gates. As far as I am aware, none of these people read Plato or Kant, or spent years thinking about the Bible and the Gita, or about Wittgenstein and Aurobindo.

Clinton and Trump, Jordan and Gates – they are rich and famous, more than I will ever be. But if philosophy is worth anything, what is it I have that they don’t?

This: I am able to reflect on the conceptual structures of our society which they take entirely for granted. Clinton and Trump speak of democracy and are trying to implement democracy. And yet because they are focused only on implementation, they see every problem regarding democracy simply as an implementation problem. As if they already have the solution in theory, and they will guide us to realizing it.

But they don’t know the conceptual foundations of democracy, of pluralism, or secularism. They don’t know how these concepts came to exist, what conceptual problems past philosophers and intellectuals struggled with, and how those past philosophers introduced the concepts we now take for granted.

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9/11 and Philosophy

The morning of 9/11, I was walking through Harvard Yard. I was on my way to an event for new teaching assistants when I was handed a large, freshly printed sheet which said, “America under attack!” I don’t remember any more what happened to the event I was going to. I remember spending the rest of the day in the university’s Graduate Student Center watching the events unfold on TV.

The next day the classes began, and I began my dual life for that semester. Half my time was spent on Wittgenstein (the class I was a TA for), philosophy of mind (my area of focus) and the general activities of a philosophy graduate student. The rest of my time was spent going to rallies, public lectures and in general trying to understand what 9/11 meant and what a justified American response could be. During the day I would think about the private language argument or qualia or the nature of philosophy, and during the evenings I would go to talks by people like Chomsky or Zinn, and think about how I could make a difference.

At the time it seemed natural to me that the two halves of my life were separate and distinct. The day time activities were philosophy, and the evening activities politics. I assumed 9/11 was mainly a political event, as if that meant it was not a philosophical event.

I was wrong.

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Anger and Social Justice

What is the role of anger in creating greater social justice? Some say anger is justified and productive. Others say anger is unhelpful and thwarts progress. As usual, the truth is some where in between.

When one is in institutional contexts which are unjust – when one feels unheard, silenced, one’s voice minimized and labeled and degraded – anger is the inevitable emotional response. Along with being hurt, frustrated, doubting oneself and much else. But as one find’s one’s voice and comes to awareness of the institutional unfairness, anger is usually front and center. Anger is the wave through which one’s awareness grows.

But the form that initial anger takes is crucial: it usually focuses not just on some generic thing called the institution, but on particular people or groups of people. Anger being what it is, it needs as its fuel a particularity, a target, a locus of human agency which is experienced as wielding brute power. Anger is a response to the growing self-awareness of one’s self as oppressed in some way, and it is fueled by a sense that they, those over there, that person or group, are the oppressors.

Anger is one’s attunement to being ready and willing to fight. But fight what? The initial force of anger needs some person or group to be the object of the fight.

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Trump and Public Discourse

The most telling feature of Trump’s presidential run was the supposed exchange between Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., and a Kasich advisor discussing the possibility of Kasich as a vice president. When apparently Donald Jr. approached the Kasich team with the offer that Kasich can be the most powerful vice president in history being in charge of both foreign and domestic policy, the Kasich advisor, puzzled, asked: “What is Trump going to do?” Donald Jr.’s response: “Make America great again.”

In the media and on comedy shows, this exchange got the usual response of how crazy Trump’s campaign is. But there is more going on here than just a delusional candidate. What this exchange, and Trump’s campaign in general, shows is that there are two levels to public discourse: what we can call the rational level and the trust level.

Trust is the foundation of rational discourse. For two people to see what the other is saying as reasons, there has to be a certain implicit, unarticulated, taken-for-granted trust that the two people are living similar lives, with similar concerns.

What the Trump phenomenon is bringing out is that for all the distrust and anger for the past several decades between the Clinton democrats and the Bush republicans, they were both generally centrist enough to have sufficient trust so as to see each others’ reasons as reasons. They disagreed deeply with each other’s reasons, but didn’t question each were giving reasons.

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