Monthly Archives: October 2016

Breakdown of the Liberal Fantasy

The most relevant question isn’t whether Trump or Clinton win the election. Irrespective of who wins the election, it is certain there are going to be deep culture clashes in America, most probably resulting in violence, riots and protests in some form. The most pertinent thing is to understand these clashes and how to navigate them.

I think from the 1960s there has been a liberal fantasy. According to this fantasy, there are two main forces in society: the conservative force and the progressive force. The conservatives want to retain the world prior to the 60s when white men dominated American society, and progressives want to change that world to create a world where all the oppressed groups prior to the 60s gain their rightful place of equality in society. On this story, the conservatives want to keep in place the monolithic power of the white male hierarchy, and the progressives wants to replace that with a rainbow coalition of equality along all the dimensions of gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, class, and so on.

Liberals in the grip of the liberal fantasy claim Trump is appealing just because of the brute conservative forces in society, those who want to take America back to its pre 60s world.

This vastly underestimates the issues at stake.

What the Trump phenomenon actually shows is the breakdown of the liberal fantasy. The liberal fantasy is no longer a good guide to understanding the complexities in our society.

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Adi Shankara and McDonald’s

adi-shankaraMy father’s favorite philosopher was the 8th century Hindu thinker Adi Shankaracharya. Like many Hindus, Dad was convinced that Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta captured the essence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita – that in reality there is only an all pervasive Self-Consciousness, and that any appearance of a duality (of different selves, or even the separation between me and the objects around me) is an illusion.

Given Dad’s influence on me as I discovered philosophy, Shankara was also one of my favorite philosophers. I was particularly enthralled as a sixteen year old by the depiction of Shankara in G.V. Iyer’s 1983 film Adi Shankaracharya. We had the movie on video, and while in high school I must have watched it at least a half dozen times. I probably never watched it all in one sitting. It is an intense, thoughtful movie in Sanskrit with English subtitles and almost three hours long. I would watch it in half hour snippets, letting it sink in slowly.

Neither Dad nor I were experts in Shankara’s philosophy. I doubt Dad ever read in detail Shankara’s works, and as a teenager I certainly hadn’t. But in both our minds Shankara loomed as an archetype of the philosopher. In time though it started to become evident that Dad and I liked Shankara for different reasons.

Dad liked Shankara mainly for the content of his views. Advaita (non-duality) was for Dad the essence of Shankara, and of philosophy. Dad would wax poetic sometimes about how Shankara had pierced to the root of the Gita, intellectually defeating Buddhist and dvaita (dualistic) Hindu philosophers along the way.

I found Advaita interesting enough, but what I was most drawn to in Shankara was his life – in particular, the fact that he was a monk. I admired the simplicity of the monk ideal: philosophy is supposed to expand our mental horizons and help us move beyond our more immediate circles, and Shankara became a monk in order to not be limited by the concerns of his family or his particular community, but to embrace a more universal perspective.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

I completely agree with Wittgenstein and Heidegger on this: philosophy questions as traditionally posed are a dead end. For example, the main issue isn’t which answer to the mind-body problem is right, whether it materialism or dualism, etc. Dualism is totally unhelpful as an answer, and materialism is trivally true. The problem is that the question, “How is the mind related to the body?” is too general a question to get a grip on clarifying the issues. There isn’t one question there. There are thousands and progress requires asking new questions that might shed a new light on how to understand ourselves as minded and material beings.

If this is right, what about the thousands of people who find the mind-body problem as traditionally stated compelling? What do we make of them? Well, what do we make of the millions of people who still think that the Bible or the Koran or the Gita is the only one true word of God, and so who insist on asking questions from that perspective? There are many reasons why people get stuck in certain frames of inquiry.

There is no point trying to argue someone out of a question which is gripping to them. The only thing one can do is to follow the questions that are interesting to oneself. This was Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s limitations. They, and many of their followers, got stuck arguing against others, rather than focusing on the new questions they find interesting.

That’s what I am going to do now. Follow my own sense of interesting questions, no matter how unlike traditional questions they are, philosophical or not.

Here is  a question: Why do people sexually attracted to women (be they straight men or gay women) find women’s breasts sexually exciting? 

This is puzzling. What do organs meant for feeding babies have to do with being sexually exciting?

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