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.
Is this because I don’t care about philosophy anymore? No. I feel as passionate about philosophy now as I ever felt. And it’s not that I feel reading those books will be a waste of my time. If I were somehow enticed to read them again, I am sure I would get something out of them. They repay re-reading. But that is different from saying that I need to read them, or keep reading them, for my own philosophical growth.
Is this because they are Western texts? Not really. I haven’t read Nagarjuna or Shankara either. But am I now going to spend my time reading their works? I highly doubt it. I have read Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan and Bhattacharya. And I got a lot out of it. But am I going to keep reading them? Unlikely.
What’s going on? How can I be interested in philosophy and still not feel drawn to reading any philosophy in this academic mode?
One option is to say: “Enough of the abstract stuff. Time to get practical!” But that is not what I feel either. I still want to think abstractly, and spend a fair amount of time doing so. What I don’t do, or feel any inclination to do, is to organize my thinking in terms of the categories and structures as found in these old, famous texts. I don’t feel the need to think in terms of those texts, from within them, in terms of the positions and arguments and histories of those texts.
What I feel is: I want to think for myself. Since these texts are a part of my cognitive history and are a part of who I am, I think in terms of the ideas in some of those texts. But I am no longer beholden to those texts. Or to the idea that those texts provide the grounds on which I have to graze, that I can’t graze outside of their boundaries.
Ultimately, this is the reason I left academia: because I got bored having to define my thinking in terms of Plato and Kant and Wittgenstein.
But didn’t I leave because of academic philosophy’s lack of pluralism? Yes, that too.
Pluralism as pursued in academia seemed to me ultimately stale. It seemed to suggest that instead of defining my thinking in terms of only Plato and Kant, I need to also include some women and minorities and global traditions. That the grounds on which I can graze must be more diverse.
But I still would have to graze only on those grounds. Define my thinking through those books and authors – even the expanded pantheon of a global academic philosophy all-stars.
There is a different option, which I find more compelling. That is to not let my thinking be defined in terms of the constraints posed by other, even famous authors. To not take for granted that of course Aristotle and Confucius must be greater philosophers than me, and that my thinking has to unfold through an interpretation of their texts.
No. I use reading them for my benefit, as it suits me. And then I move on, not beholden to them in any way. Free to reconceptualize the issues as it suits me. To not be hemmed in to the supposed problems of philosophy as set in introductory philosophy classes, but to stand apart and free to be able to say, “Yes, we can now move beyond those problems, and confront new problems which these authors didn’t face.” To not feel that somehow the classic philosophy books have figured out the philosophy problems for all time, and that we have to constantly look through the eyes of an Aristotle or a Kant or a Shankara what philosophy is and can be.
Such freedom is the first step to fully embrace pluralism. To not be committed from the get go that some texts are somehow the essence of philosophy. To be open to the idea that philosophy might not have an essence in that sense at all.