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?
I have suggested here and here that Stanley’s book is filled with the very kind of double-talk he aims to diagnose in democratic societies. There is a deep tension in the book: it aims to engender democratic discourse by affirming the epistemic authority through specialization that the analytic, academic philosopher has over the reader.
One might say: “But this claim about Stanley’s book is not engaging with the book as philosophy! What about the claims he defends and the arguments he gives? You have to engage with those.”
My response: Once you treat the arguments as on a level-ground, as if Stanley the author and the reader are simply engaging in an intellectual conversation stripped of power and epistemic differentials, then you have already lost the possibility of a democratic conversation between the author and the reader. There is no non-power-laden space of pure rational conversation, and engagement as equal citizens. The problem with Stanley’s book, as it many philosophy books, is that works under the illusion that there is such a space: that in fact that space is being realized right now between the author and the reader!
As I suggested in the last post, by the end of the 80s, there were at least four groups in analytic philosophy. There were the 80s status quo, who were working on the debates and texts central to analytic philosophy at the time, and who seemed content with just that. There were the culture radicals, who were working on the same debates and texts as the 80s status quo, but who sought to change the culture of analytic philosophy, its background habits and norms. There were the outside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts of analytic philosophy by rejecting the core assumptions and methods of analytic philosophy. And there were the inside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts but through the methods of analytic philosophy.
If I were to put them in order of influence at the end of the 80s, I would say in descending order: the 80s status quo, the culture radicals, the outside radicals and the inside radicals. Now, 25 years later, the landscape is different: the culture radicals are merging with the inside radicals, the 80s status quo is on the defensive and waning, and the outside radicals are almost out of the game. What happened? How did this change come about?
In the previous post I suggested that in academic philosophy there is double-talk regarding friendship. Just as in America talk of democracy can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures, so too in an institutional structure like academic philosophy talk of friendship can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures.
Some clarifications. First, I am not saying there aren’t normal friendships in academic philosophy; of course, there are. Just as there can be, and is, some genuine discourse for democracy in America. The issue is that just as in America the language of democracy can be used to undermine democracy, so too the language of friendship can be used to undermine greater equality in institutional structures.
Second, I am not saying this use of friendship talk is intentional. That makes it seem as if people “in power” are purposefully using the rhetoric of friendship to cover over institutional hierarchies. And that in turn makes it seem as if we already know in principle how people should interact to foster real equality, but that we are failing to live up to that. But I don’t think we know what it would be for people to really engage as equals, since we don’t yet know how to structure our society to enable that. Of what “true equality” could even mean. Lacking such knowledge, but also not being to confront the essentially hierarchical structures of our society, can lead to a general discourse of “we are all friends” which is mainly a form of wish fulfillment. As Stanley suggests in his book, this is perfectly compatible with people having good intentions. But as long as we don’t become aware of it as wish fulfillment, we assume that the ideal is already close to hand, and in that way re-enforce the existing structures.
Oh my God. I finally get it! It is starting to make sense.
As I mentioned in posts in my earlier blogs (here and here), in September of 2011 I went to a conference at Harvard on meta-philosophy. By that time I had been out of academia for a few months. One thing that stayed with me from that conference was that people at the conference who I thought were my friends, who insisted that we were friends, who were my former colleagues and teachers turned away from me when I told them that I left academia.
When I told a few of them at the conference that I had left academia, they didn’t ask, as one imagines friends would, why I left, what the matter was, what might help me to stay in academia. What I got instead were blank stares and pleasant smiles, as if by leaving academia and yet coming to the conference I was doing something rude. As if I were betraying them as friends. And that their smiling pleasantly at me was a sign of their magnanimity, that they were willing to overlook my rudeness and still show their friendliness.
In the previous post I suggested that Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is filled with double-talk. On the one hand, Stanley argues that in order to have a thriving democracy we have to be wary of technicism, the view that we as the citizens have to kowtow to scientific expertise in all domains of human life. He cautions that epistemic inequalities undermine democracy.
But on the other hand, in arguing for this view Stanley relies on some of the most technical areas of analytic philosophy, regarding which the lay reader is not in an epistemic position to think critically and can only take Stanley’s expertise on trust. There is the persistent feeling in the text that when Stanley argues against technicism, what he means is: Don’t trust those experts, who aim to take away your critical thinking skills; trust experts like me, who will teach you how you can think for yourself.
One way this double-talk is achieved in the book is that Stanley is completely silent about the institutional structures from within which he is writing. Some institutional facts are apparent just from the book cover: the publisher is Princeton University Press, the quotes on the back are from professors at MIT, Harvard and Cambridge, and that Stanley teaches at Yale. There is the air that the text is arriving into the public’s hands from the most upper echelons of academia. By the time a lay reader starts reading, he has already been unconsciously reminded in a dozen ways of how he as the reader ought to trust the expertise of the author. Of who in this context is the expert and who is but a novice in need of guidance.
The topic of Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is public discourse which is a kind of double-talk: it appears to be fostering an ideal that is important, but is in fact undermining that very ideal. For example, it is talk which appears to foster equality, but which in fact re-enforces inequality.
In an explicitly totalitarian state, there is no such double-talk, since there is no appearance of equality. In an ideally democratic state, there is no such double-talk, since there are no inequalities to reaffirm. Double-talk is a feature of a flawed democracy: the very discourse of democracy is used to undermine democracy. If we want to improve our democracy, we need to understand double-talk, and see how it can be minimized. That is Stanley’s project. This is an important project, and I am fully on board with it.
The key terms for Stanley are what he calls “undermining propaganda” and “undermining demagoguery”. Undermining propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.”(53) Undermining demagoguery is a kind of undermining propaganda: it is presented as fostering worthy ideals, but in fact undermines those ideals. Undermining demagoguery is what I above call “double-talk.”
I recently read, with great interest, Jason Stanley’s new book How Propaganda Works. I often hoped to read a book like this: one which reorients analytic philosophy to address pressing social problems of the day. Part of the joy of reading the book was the sense that here is an author who is attempting to do just that. It might be lost on most of the public, but it would be hard for people familiar with academic philosophy to read the book without a vivid sense that this is a new, and desperately welcome, direction for analytic philosophy. Not new as in the first book to do it, since many other authors, some noted by Stanley, have been working along these lines for a long time. But new in being part of a new wave in philosophy. In this sense, the book greatly deserves the praise it has received and, no doubt, will receive.
Still, we have to distinguish between the aim of a project and its realization. The aim of Stanley’s project is fantastic. The realization, however, not so much. It perpetuates much that is problematic about analytic philosophy, and in a way that is all the more troubling because in the book it happens under the rubric of change and finally seeing the light. The book is a step in the right direction, but progressing in that direction will require being critical of many of the moves in the book.
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.