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.

Given the nature of philosophy, every event is a philosophy event. John sees a red apple – there are questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind all right there in that one event. Shankar makes a promise to Jane – nothing could be simpler as an everyday event, and it raises questions of ethics, freedom, community and identity.

This is no less true of the event of 10 hijackers flying 2 planes into skyscrapers. Of course there are many philosophical issues at play here: What should a secular society look like? How are religion, philosophy and science related? Does might make right? Are norms culturally relative? Were the terrorists free to act otherwise? Is European, Enlightenment philosophy more universal than Islamic philosophy?

Once one thinks about it, 9/11 not only seems like a philosophical event, but in fact like a world-historical one. An event which is at the center of so many interesting and pressing philosophical issues that a philosophical understanding of it could shed light on a great many issues at once.

Why then was I so convinced fifteen years ago that it is philosophically not interesting? And not just me. After 9/11, I hardly heard any one in my graduate department, or when I was a professor, speak of 9/11 in classrooms or philosophy talks. What gives?

It’s because I, like everyone else in our society, was conditioned to not see the terrorists as thinkers. To say that 9/11 is a philosophical event is to see the terrorists as people whose views can be philosophically debated.

Of course, this is not to agree with their ideas, let alone agree with their actions. I certainly don’t agree with them. Perhaps I should say that again: I definitely don’t agree with the terrorists or with their actions.

But to see the terrorists as thinkers is to humanize them. To see them not just as agents of envy or hatred, or even as political opponents of American imperialism, but as people with opinions about modernity, democracy and what it means to live a flourishing life. As people who struggled with some of the same issues of modernity that Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein did, but who were not able to transform that struggle into a positive affirmation of life for everyone.

Was Heidegger’s philosophy connected to his Nazism? Of course. But that does not render all of Heidegger’s philosophy moot. What it shows instead is that one can act cruelly based on misunderstanding philosophical ideas. I suspect the same is true of the terrorists. These are people struggling with modernity, but who are unable to transform that struggle into something positive for the world as a whole.

To see 9/11 as a philosophical event is to see the terrorists as philosophers – people guided by philosophical ideas which they could not harness or properly understand. To combat terrorism, then, what is needed is to have public dialogue about the merits and pitfalls of modernity openly and honestly so that no one will feel trapped in the dichotomy of modernity vs. fundamentalism. To get beyond the sense that the only way to be critical of modernity is to be a fundamentalist.

Of course there is no hope of philosophical dialogue with someone intent on blowing themselves up. But if public philosophy which genuinely engages with issues of modernity gains traction and becomes a part of our shared lives, then perhaps such philosophy can reach someone before they get pulled into fundamentalism. Such philosophy can give them an alternate way to understand their frustrations, and a chance to transform their frustrations into something positive and life affirming.

3 thoughts on “9/11 and Philosophy

  1. robertmwallace2

    Indeed yes. It must be very easy, from a locus that identifies with the Middle East, to see Euro-American culture as hopelessly shallow and hypocritical. As its long history of self-criticism shows (cf. Chomsky and Zinn!), it needn’t be that. But we who identify with central parts of the Euro-American tradition have a long way to go to demonstrate that these parts are capable of embracing value from every culture and every part of human experience.

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  2. Gautam

    > Such philosophy can give them an alternate way to understand their frustrations,

    Possibly so, but one caveat. This post makes it seem as if “public philosophy” is a new mode of thought that we (in the west) need to reach out with. However, there has already been a ongoing vigorous internal debate in the Middle East about, albeit couched in tradionalist terms. E.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayyid_Qutb for a more intellectualist lens, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_Brotherhood for a more activist-oriented lens.Surely you wouldn’t say that such a debate has to be couched in terms of Kant or Mill … given that there are preexisting organizations that are having some kind of internal debate, how would you see the engagement take place?

    Part of the philosophical-debate challenge here is that someone from a Salafist background (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salafi_movement) may cite or react to religious sources of authority, in the same way that a Western philosopher may cite/react to Plato or Kant, and often core terms may not have equivalents (e.g., “free will” doesn’t map cleanly onto Hindu traditionalism).

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      I definitely don’t mean that public philosophy is a western invention with which to reach out to the Middle East (reach out to who exactly?). The internal discussions within the Middle East about Islam are great. One thinker I find compelling is Tariq Ramadan, a scholar of Islam who engages with the Islamic tradition and also with the West.

      My point rather is that there is a double standard here in American and European thinking. Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s criticisms of Western modernity are treated as amazing insights (by some anyway), whereas if a devout Muslim or Hindu articulates the same kind of criticism, in Western society it is treated as if those people are backward and pre-modern.

      There is a certain kind of public discussion that is just not taking place, as far as I can see. And that is getting beyond unhelpful dichotomies such as the West versus Islam, etc. One way to get beyond such a dichotomy is to see that in the last two centuries there were a great many Western thinkers (yes, white males) who were arguing that Enlightenment philosophy, for all its greatness, had deep flaws, particularly in dismantling certain communal forms of being and fosters a sense of nihilism and rootlessness.

      For non-muslims, such as myself, it is helpful to see people like Ramadan, and to see that there is vigorous internal debate in Islam. Abstractly I assume there is bound to be such internal debate, but it is helpful to actually see it. Similarly, I think it would be enormously helpful to people in the Middle East to see Americans debating not just American foreign policy (Chomsky vs Bush, etc.), but to see Americans debating the merits and pitfalls of the philosophical foundations of the Enlightenment ideals it was founded on. And as it happens, philosophical debate about those Enlightenment foundations has been central to Western philosophy for the last two centuries, culminating in thinkers like Wittgenstein and Foucault.

      I admit I am tempted to the Indian Jones mindset: world historical issues and wars ultimately turn on seemingly arcane academic matters. I think this is actually true in terms of philosophy. Debates in philosophy get to, at least, certain depths of our more ordinary political and social issues, and the more we can bring the philosophical debates to social consciousness, the more we can address the issues.

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