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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Often eurocentrism, scientism and racism are conflated, as if they are really just the same thing. This comes out in broad generalizations like that western philosophy is scientific, but eastern philosophy is spiritual. Or that western philosophy is racist and there has to be a distinct Asian philosophy which captures “the Asian experience”.
If we are to truly get beyond eurocentrism, we have to tease apart these concepts and move beyond unhelpful generalizations.
Eurocentrism is the claim that European (and Anglo-American) philosophical texts are the most central to philosophy. That they should be the foundation of our philosophical education and inquiry more generally.
Scientism and racism are two very different – and independent – reasons one can give for eurocentrism. One might say: “We should focus on Descartes, Kant and Quine because they are white, and white people are the smartest.” This is racism in a very crude form, where one race is just bluntly asserted as superior. But often even racism isn’t asserted so bluntly. Rather, some specific achievements of a race are specified as proof of the superiority of that race. Like that, supposedly, white people discovered science or democracy or the one true religion, etc.
Why are black people being killed by the police? What does it mean?
At root is the assumption of the black person’s intellectual darkness. In America blacks are experienced by many whites and others as basically non-intellectual beings, as not carrying within them the light of reason and enlightenment, as animalistic.
Frantz Fanon captures this phenomenon in a colonist framework as follows:
The colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil. Colonized society is not merely portrayed as a society without value. The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil. (The Wretched of the Earth, Chapter 1)
This is the pervasive, still lasting influence of slavery in our society. The slave owner doesn’t think the slaves are intellectual beings with whom he might discuss arguments for God’s existence or play chess, but who just happen to be his slaves. To affirm total power over the slaves, it is essential to see the slaves as beings who, left to themselves, would degrade themselves and the world. Slavery then is a burden, a kindness taken on by the slave owner to improve the world and improve the slaves. It is seen by the slave owner as his gift to the slave.
The institutional racism in academic philosophy comes down most basically to this fact: while a black or brown philosopher is supposed to read a white author like Russell and think, “Russell speaks to my human potential beyond racial differences,” it is completely permitted, even encouraged, for a white philosopher to read Du Bois and think, “Du Bois speaks as a black person to the black experience, and so doesn’t speak to my human potential beyond racial differences.”
This is the brute force of Eurocentrism in philosophy: it is asserted, without argument, even without self-awareness really, that the universal is found only in the European tradition. All others traditions are local, to be transcended. Only European philosophy is the space of having transcended.
What a twisted effect this can have on a black or brown philosopher’s mind! From the get go, the black philosopher is set an enormous hurdle which is not there for the white philosopher: that the black thinker has to overcome their entire being – their culture, their history, their physical appearances and unreflective modes of comportment – to transcend to philosophy. For the white philosopher the message is: think for yourself. For the black philosopher it is: think beyond yourself.
The white philosopher is seen as going from one aspect of white culture, that of their upbringing, to another aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). The black philosopher is required to go from their culture to an aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). If the reflective distance required to go from C.S. Lewis to Quine is like crossing a river, the reflective distance required to go from Malcolm X to Quine is like crossing an ocean. And yet what is the conclusion? It is the white philosopher who can teach how to have reflective distance, and the black philosopher who has to learn it. The person swimming the ocean has to take swimming lessons from the person swimming the river!
The central disagreement between Russell and Wittgenstein was on the question: is philosophy universal in the way science is universal?
Two different aims are being run together in the Black Lives Matter movement: one for which protest is apt, and the other for which protest is not. The difference is essential.
One aim of the BLM movement is to make sure officers who kill innocent blacks are not protected by police departments. This is the immediate aim. It’s clear what would count as succeeding in this aim, and when the protests can stop: if police departments reform their practices and hold officers accountable for killing innocent black citizens.
But there is something much bigger which the BLM movement highlights: that America is waking up from its fantasy of the last 50 years. There has been the illusion that the civil rights movement of the 60s basically made America equal for all its citizens. Part of what the BLM movement is bringing out is just how untrue this is: ending slavery didn’t make blacks equal as citizens, and ending segregation didn’t either. Much more work was needed after ending slavery, and there is much more work to do after ending segregation. This is the bigger aim. But protest doesn’t help with this aim.
Protest to achieve the bigger aim assumes there is already a theoretical answer about what true equality in America looks like. Protest is seen as the way to actualize that answer. But do we actually have such an answer even in theory? Who figured it out?