I have recently been reading Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter‘s Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. It is a fascinating read. Especially for someone like me who has spent most of my life under the assumption that I am a part of the counter-culture. Not in the sense of being a punk rocker or smoking weed. But at least in the sense that since I went to college at 18, I defined myself against, as I saw it, the materialist, non-intellectual and non-spiritual forces of capitalism.
One of my vivid memories from college is going to a Indian-American Student Association party, the kind which I normally avoided, and thinking, while talking to the students studying computer science, medicine, law, business and so on, I am not like them. More: I will not be like them. It’s not that I didn’t like them or couldn’t identify with them. They were just like people my age in my family, and I liked my family.
What was motivating me rather was the question: If everyone has a job like they are planning to have, how will reflective distance about the core assumptions of our society be possible? It was precisely the fact that being a doctor or a programmer, etc. are central to our society which made me wonder: how can the cultural assumptions of the mode of life of these professionals be questioned? Who is going to do that questioning? From what space can such questioning happen?
Part I of Bina Gupta’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy is titled “The Foundations”, and it has chapters on the Vedas and the Upanishads. The main feeling I had when reading these chapters was that I was doing something illicit. The more I felt this, the more I understood why Indian philosophy is not taught more widely in American colleges.
Gupta in the book doesn’t address the elephant in the room: How can a philosophy which supposedly has its foundations in the Vedas and the Upanishads be taught in a public space in a secular society?
This leads to the feeling of illicitness, as if the proponent of Indian philosophy in academia is trying to sneak in something through the back door. This much we know: the Enlightenment values which are the basis of public discourse in America involve rendering religion and spirituality private. This we also know: this conception of the public domain has lead to deep quarrels about the role of religion in the public domain. Given this context, how can one read about the Vedas without feeling that a) the Enlightenment values are under attack, and b) the Christian theologians are getting the short end of the stick, since they are being asked, as theologians, to leave the public domain only to give minority “theologians” a voice?
I have started reading An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (2012) by Bina Gupta. It seems so far very good. This is the kind of book which in the past I would read a chapter or two, and set aside. But now I am intent on reading the whole book, and others like it.
Reading the Introduction, I could already feel my old instinct to set the book aside. Why? Let’s distinguish three things: Western philosophy, Indian philosophy and philosophy of pluralism. By “philosophy of pluralism” I mean a theoretical framework which raises questions about, and provides a context for, the coming together of different philosophical traditions. In the Introduction, Gupta aims to situate Indian philosophy for a reader who is familiar with Western philosophy. But what is missing is a framework for how any such comparison can happen. It leads to treating things as clear which are anything but clear. It is that lack of clarity, which I experienced in picking up a book like this as I don’t get it or that’s not quite right, which made me put it down.
This is not a criticism of Gupta’s knowledge of philosophy, either Indian or Western (which I am certainly not in a position to question). Nor is it to fault her. It is a catch 22. Before there can be a substantial philosophy of pluralism, there would have to be more awareness of other traditions (as is the aim of this book). And yet before such awareness can arise more substantially, there has to be a philosophy of pluralism.
My edition of The Souls of Black Folks has an introduction to the text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A fine introduction which situates the text in its historical context. Reading the introduction, though, I can see why Du Bois’ text hasn’t made it as a standard part of the philosophy classroom.
Du Bois’ mentors in philosophy at Harvard were William James and George Santayana. Gates writes, “Du Bois’ first love was philosophy. But, because employment opportunities were limited for black philosophers, he decided on graduate study in history.” What would academic philosophy in America have looked like if Du Bois had stayed in it? A fascinating thought. Ironically, while Gates makes clear Du Bois’s philosophical education, in the introduction he hardly makes it clear what could be the philosophical import of the text.
Gates emphasizes two dimensions of the text. First, that it is a literary and aesthetic masterpiece: “Long after the social issues with which Du Bois wrestled so intensely and so passionately have become chapters in the chronicle of African-American history, students and their professions continue to turn to The Souls to experience the power of its lyricism, the “poetry” of its prose.”
One thing I want to do on this blog is think out loud about texts which I think are central to pluralism. Often these will be texts I haven’t read, or read carefully, before. So I am not an expert on these texts and what I say about them is not in any way exhaustive. If any reader find errors in what I way, I am grateful to have it pointed out in the comments. I write about these texts simply because I am drawn to them in my own thinking, and because they seem to me incredibly philosophically fertile. In what ways fertile exactly, and how that relates to pluralism, is what I try to understand as I read the texts.
The first text is W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and in this post I focus on Chapter 1 of the book.
In thinking of Du Bois’ book, even before picking it up, one question presents itself: “Is this philosophy? In particular, is it universally applicable to all human beings?” The title itself seems to announce its limitations: The Souls of Black Folk. So is this book mainly about, or for, blacks? What can, say, an Indian-American such an myself gain about his life and his philosophical interests by reading it? Does the book translate beyond African-Americans to all people in the way philosophy purports to?