Forgetting Philosophy

It was ten years ago that I left academic philosophy. I still remember it clearly. It was January 31, 2011, a Monday. All through the weekend my wife and I had discussed my resigning from my job as a professor. Monday afternoon we drove around, talking, thinking, making sense to ourselves of the decision we had come to. At 2pm she dropped me in front of the philosophy department building. I went into my department chair’s office, had a conversation for half hour in which I told him I will be leaving and this will be my last semester. He was shocked, but perhaps not entirely. Afterwards I went into my office and cried. It felt painful but also good.

For the first five years after I left I was angry. I blogged a lot from that anger. Of how academic philosophy hadn’t worked for me, and why, who was to blame, and what can be done about it. Then slowly, thankfully the anger dissolved. The anger at the time felt righteous, but it was mainly grief for a life path that had run its course. I wanted to be angry at the system that I couldn’t be part of, but then again, I was the one who chose to leave. And I still didn’t regret it.

For the next five years I was trying to build on the ideas I still believed from when I was an academic. Thinkers that still mattered to me: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kant, Dewey, etc. Topics which were close to my heart, like what a global philosophy curriculum might be like, how Indian and Western philosophy might be brought together and so on. Pursuing ideas which built on the expertise I felt I had gained in my 13 years in academic philosophy as a student, and 3 years as a professor. So that it wouldn’t disappear into the air.

Now I realize I am forgetting a great deal of that philosophy I learnt. Forgetting not just this or that argument, or what this or that text said. But forgetting in a more basic sense: not seeing the world through the lens of those texts and arguments. I have tried from time to time picking up a text of Plato or Descartes or Wittgenstein. I know what is being said, I can sense what it will be like if I were to dive into those texts. But I have lost the desire to jump in. It’s not that central to how life appears to me now, or how I make sense of it.

I was recently watching some clips of philosophy talks by professors, some by my professors, some people I studied with, some people who I taught. And I had the same general feeling: it’s not my world, and it’s not that interesting to me. Not even interesting enough to feel I want to object or argue in opposition, or expand on it. I kind of relate to it the way I relate to my calculus textbook from high school – a relic from the past which is mainly not relevant to my present.

This is not unique to how I relate to academic texts. Since I was a teenager, discussing philosophy with my father, texts like The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads meant a great deal to me. Like entryways into the deepest mysteries of the world. I still feel that way about that in theory, just as in theory I still find Plato and Wittgenstein amazing philosophers. But practically, in a visceral sense, I am not as moved by The Gita and The Upanishads anymore. The truths they are speaking of seem pertinent to me not mainly through those texts, but just through my own consciousness.

It’s an interesting feeling. I am not sad I am forgetting these philosophical texts. Not sad or angry or distraught that the texts and institutions which were at the center of my life now feel secondary, like a dim, distant reality. I know of course that they – both texts like Plato’s Republic and The Gita – are vitally important to many people even now, in this very moment. But not so much to me. So much so that when I think about them, I almost can feel that beginner sense of wonder about them, as in: Hhmm, I wonder what those texts are about? I wonder if they have something I want? Except now I also think: Maybe they still have insights I can grasp, but…that’s ok. I don’t need that right now.

I am actually rather happy to be forgetting them. For I realize this is probably why I left academia in the first place. Not because I was angry about academia. Or because I wasn’t interested in it. But because it started to seem really interesting to me what my life and my consciousness would be like if, after 16 years of immersing myself professionally in texts like The Republic and personally in texts like The Gita, I then went over there, away from them, and saw the world fresh, with new sight. I was driven by a simple curiosity: What would that be like? And by a simple voice, pulsating within me, which said: it will be good for you and your understanding of the world and for your mode of being in the world.

In these past ten years I resisted this forgetting because it might render me without a platform. After all, if I forget Plato and Wittgenstein, and if I can’t speak to any mystical experiences inspired by The Gita, would or should anyone listen to me? Surely I have something! Just look at my cv, and look at how long I have been trying to live my life based on the wisdom of texts like The Gita or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! Surely my long dedication itself must warrant why people might listen to me! But how can any of that happen if Plato and the Meditations feel distant to me, as if I were once again mainly a beginner in thinking about them, and that too a beginner who doesn’t really think about them? If I was like a beginner who picks them up on a library shelf, flips the pages a little and puts them back and moves on to the magazine section?

And what if as I forget not only will no one listen to me, but my desire to speak and to be heard itself starts to fade? What if just like I don’t mind anymore not claiming to know what Plato or Wittgenstein were saying, I also don’t really mind not having a platform? What if when I write a blog post it is not a preliminary to a future project, but just that: writing a blog post in this moment, the way I drink a glass of water not for the thirst I will have tomorrow, but just for now and for no other reason?

That actually seems….nice.

I don’t remember, nor care to remember, anymore the finer details of Wittgenstein’s private language argument or what exactly was said in the fourth chapter of The Gita. But I do remember and still believe some of the beliefs I developed in the last twenty years. And high on that list of beliefs is this: there is more to life than what one believes, and definitely more to life than what one wants to argue for or get others to believe.

Believing, like trying and striving, is not an end in itself, but a background necessity of life. We can never stop believing and trying to improve our beliefs and actions. Just like we cannot stop eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. But a life focused mainly on eating and drinking and going to the bathroom is a limited life. Just as a life focused mainly on believing and convincing and trying harder is a limited life.

But without believing and striving and effort and convincing, how will we ever grow and improve? How will we ever address the pressing problems in our society? Won’t we stagnate if we don’t try to get just the right beliefs about morality and politics and mind and science, and spread those right beliefs so people aren’t confused? Without focusing on beliefs and what should be done, how will we change and transform?

Then again, what if what is holding back change is not having the wrong beliefs but being obsessed with beliefs and being unable to let go of that even for a few minutes? What if what is holding back transformation isn’t not trying to change but trying too hard to change, to push oneself and not let oneself just be? What if thinking has become so second nature to us that it is attending to the pauses between the thoughts which is new and hard and unusual for us? What if the change that needs to be happen isn’t mainly a change in beliefs or effort, but in allowing ourselves to grow in new ways, to leave behind what we have been holding onto for decades, thinking always “one day I will get there”, only to find that thought of the distant future has itself become a warm, comforting blanket?

Now I find the pauses between my thoughts as interesting as I used to find texts by Kant or Aurobindo. Maybe I am delusional. Maybe I only think this now because I am forgetting Kant and Aurobindo, Wittgenstein and Shankara. Maybe. Still, forgetting those texts as I am, I am not bothered by this possibility. There are other new, interesting things to explore and to delight in.

11 thoughts on “Forgetting Philosophy”

    1. Like anyone, I have all sorts of beliefs now, including philosophical beliefs about God, meaning of life, politics, etc. What I don’t have is my philosophical beliefs being backed by some authority or with institutional validation. I even have beliefs about Plato, Kant, the nature of philosophy, etc., but I see my beliefs more as those of an interested amateur. This is actually kind of freeing. Removed from the matrix of institutional claims of who can speak about what, and who is more of an expert, it feels very much like seeing the world anew and discovering the topics afresh. I can step back from intellectual choices I made 20 years ago, independent of what I wrote my dissertation on or what I could teach, and I can reconfigure my choices and commitments as it suits me now.

      It’s a very interesting issue what the tradeoffs are between being a professional philosopher and an amateur philosopher. In some subjects, an amateur can only be a beginner and always has to defer to the professional; say, in parts of physics or history, etc. Even true in parts of philosophy – logic, philosophy of physics, but also when it comes to historical interpretation, etc. But there are elements of philosophy where being an amateur doesn’t mean being a beginner; it means only instead not having a social claim to be heard. A professional philosopher has a claim on students to listen to him/her, other professionals, even the larger public in some ways. While empowering, this claim can also be stultifying. An amateur philosopher need not be a beginner: Socrates, Descartes, Nietzsche were all amateurs in this sense. Nietzsche’s views on Plato, Kant, etc. would be rightly seen by Plato and Kant scholars as unjustified. But there is still something to what Nietzsche says, which can be appreciated outside of the matrix of who is qualified to say what, and when taken mainly in terms of “does it seem interesting to a reader and spark new thinking?”

      I have come to think being an amateur philosopher is a skill in its own right, and is not just the lack of being a professional. And that society needs more philosophers, not just professionally, but also and especially in an amateur sense – where people talk and think not with institutional claims hanging over each other (“I am an expert in phil of mind and the public should listen to me”), but with a more open-ended approach (“Here is what I think. We don’t have to listen to each other, but maybe we will anyway and that might be interesting.”)

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      1. The distinction you are drawing between “professional” and “amateur” philosopher is interesting. I think by “professional philosopher” you mean an academic, right (in the sense of being inside the “academic club” of being cited and citing others & having narrow & deep expertise). Would someone like Mortimer Adler (or Will Durant) count as a professional philosopher? What about someone is a lawyer during the day, but at night likes to read Kant scholarship and attends APA meetings because he likes the feeling of being “in the club”?

        Maybe another way of slicing this: in many fields, there are people drawn to it because it poses an intellectual challenge (puzzle-solving, story-building) – this is true in engineering, sciences and also in humanities (‘how to reconcile what Spinoza said *there* with what he says *here*?”). Other people may be drawn to a field because it helps them make better sense of their own life and world. Crudely, we might call these third-person vs. first-person views of the subject, and my sense is that this is what you are getting at by professional vs. amateur.

        This first-person view isn’t just something for philosophy either. One could study biology (for example) and be deeply aware of what it means for say, organic connectedness of life. Another example: Ulric Neisser, one of the seminal researchers in cognitive psychology, made his name in the third-person view and over his career gravitated more & more toward the first-person view (away from view of cognition as a kind of machine toward the constructiveness of self and memory), though he was an academic throughout.

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        1. I think the distinction I drew here was a first pass, and definitely can be made clearer. I elaborate on it in the new post I just put up.

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  1. Thanks for these reflections – I am reminded of Nozick’s quip “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about, either.”

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  2. Bharath,
    You’re a philosopher. You don’t have to qualify this assertion by saying “amateur philosopher” or “professional philosopher.” You’re a philosopher. Period. You have things to say that we need to hear and that need to be heard, Don’t lose faith in yourself. You’re one of the most gifted philosophers I’ve ever read. –But of course I’ve no right to tell you who or what you are. I admire your seeking something new, fresh, and intellectually inspiring. You’re the best judge of how good a philosopher you are. But don’t forget what initially attracted you to philosophy. Does philosophy, like art, always have to be “socially important” or “relevant” or revealing of an examined life or a life worth living? Is your “forgetting philosophy” simply a case of pandemic fatigue or of not having continuing contact with a community of philosophers? Believe me, I’m waiting for what you have next to say about Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche, even if they don’t seem as important to you anymore. I’m happy you can find peace with “forgetting philosophy,” but please, for the sake of people like me who need to be educated and who value your teaching and insights, “remember philosophy.”

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    1. Alex, Thanks for the supportive thoughts. I very much appreciate them! The new post I put up addresses some of the issues you raise. In particular, what I was thinking of as “amateur philosophy” doesn’t have anything to do with losing faith in oneself, or not treating oneself as a philosopher. It’s mainly a structural issue, of the ways in which one communicates. I think it’s important to distinguish the two and see the pros and cons of each.

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