Two Ways of Speaking

In a comment in the last post, I made a distinction between being a professional philosopher and an amateur philosopher, and said I am now an amateur philosopher. And that I am happy to be so. But what is the distinction I am making here? Upon reflection, I think professional vs amateur is not getting at the distinction I want exactly. So let me try again.

At its root the distinction I am interested in concerns the manner in which one speaks. One way of speaking is as a representative of a body of knowledge. So that when one speaks, one intends to speak with the weight of the authority of that body of knowledge behind one. So when I go to see a doctor and he talks to me, he is speaking as a doctor, not simply as a person who has medical opinions. The doctor takes himself to know things I don’t know, and for which he expects me to be deferential as someone who doesn’t have his knowledge. Patients at times might balk at this, saying “Who are you to tell me?” This is akin to a student balking at a professor saying, “Why do you get to judge me?” The answer is all too obvious, written into the structure of a doctor’s office or a lecture hall. Let’s call this speaking with authority.

We can contrast speaking with authority with speaking just as a person. Here one intends to speak without the weight of any authority, and not as the representative of any body of knowledge. One is speaking just for oneself. And so therefore one doesn’t expect the other person has to listen to them, either in terms of devoting time to listening to them or in terms of giving their words any extra credence. In speaking just as a person one is saying, as it were, “Here are some ideas. You can take it or leave it. I don’t claim to know more about this topic than you do or indeed more than any person in general. I am speaking not as one in the know, but more like one of the multitudes, one in the crowd. My aim is for us to speak as equals, as two people sharing our observations. Nothing more.”

Of course, academic philosophers often speak with authority about philosophy. That is just part of lecturing. When a philosophy professor starts an intro course by saying, “Philosophy began in ancient times and has been with us since…”, he is aligning himself with that “tradition” and aims to be speaking as a representative of it. Sometimes professors don’t intend this, and aim instead, even while lecturing, to speak just as a person. I will come back to that.

One doesn’t have to be an academic philosopher to speak with authority about philosophy. There are many ways in which one can be a non-academic and still aim to speak with authority. Popularizers of philosophy like Will Durant are an example (I am not saying “popularizer” to minimize Durant’s achievements as a philosopher and a writer, which were great). This is a form of lecturing without a lecture hall, where the author aims to speak on behalf of a tradition to the masses. Often the author’s educational background or the decades of their study shine through each page, letting the reader know that while what they are reading might not be the thoughts of a professor, they aren’t the thoughts of a ordinary lay person like the reader either. Sometimes the popularizer also sets himself apart from the professors, suggesting academic philosophy has gotten mired in specialization and so lost touch with the tradition, which the author is trying to rekindle for the reader.

Religious and spiritual contexts are another area where people who are not academics often speak with authority about philosophy. With spiritual thinkers like Eckhart Tolle the speaking with authority is grounded not in academic degrees but in the achievement of mystical experiences. One is then saying implicitly, if not sometimes even explicitly, “I am speaking with the authority of the experiences I have had, which connect me to the philosophers and mystics through the centuries.” One can sense this even in resolutely anti-gurus figure such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, where the authority in question is still an experience or a skill or an independence of mind which links one with the great figures of the past. In JK I often sense a sneer behind the smile, as if to say, “You people are still too caught up in tradition and hero worship and can’t think for yourself.”

My first steps into philosophy, both academically and non-academically, were with people who were very intent on speaking with authority. My father was neither a professor nor a spiritual teacher like Tolle. But his philosophical speech was permeated with speaking with authority – granted to him, as he saw it, not by any degrees or institutions, but by the philosophical insights he gained and his experience of the Ultimate Self. And when I went to college, the professors were speaking with authority, granted them by their PhDs and which connected them, in their mind, to philosophers all the way back in ancient times.

A part of me always resisted being spoken to with authority when it came to philosophy. The reason now seems obvious. For my father the authority he spoke with went back to sages like Yajnavalkya in The Upanishads. For my professors the authority they spoke with went back to Socrates. But what is the relation between Yajnavalkya and Socrates? Neither my father nor my professors had any remotely satisfying answer to that question, because really they had no real connection to the other tradition. The authority they spoke from had the form of being given to them by the philosophical tradition. And yet for both of them the tradition meant something very different. It was like having divorced parents, and each parent telling me their individual family history by itself captures the entirety of my family history – as if each parent had given birth to me all on their own.

When one speaks with authority about philosophy, the question naturally arises: where does that authority come from? I can see no answer to this question that is really satisfactory. Either the answer will be (a) contentful but limited, or (b) general but contentless. “The philosophical tradition” can mean a particular tradition, as it did for my father and my professors. But then of course “the” is entirely misleading: there is no unified philosophical tradition they are speaking of, and boils down to something more like, “the kind of things I read and was inspired by”. To counter this one can say something like “The global philosophical tradition”, or even more desperately “All the philosophical traditions together”. But what does that mean? Do we have any grasp on what “all” is here picking out other than just as a way to think there must be something called “philosophy” which holds it all together in all cultures? But why must there be something which holds it all together? Why assume philosophy is any one thing at all, instead of hundreds of different things, and which sometimes is science and religion and art and history and so on?

As we start to think about what a global perspective on philosophy might mean, we can see two broad camps, what I will call The Uber-Philosophy Camp and The Dissolution of Philosophy Camp. The Uber-Philosophy Camp sees the transition to a global perspective like rivers merging into the ocean. Whereas so far we have only seen individual traditions, now with a global eye we can see the philosophy tradition. The fight for the global philosophy curriculum, for example, then becomes a fight to reflect the one, uber-philosophy tradition rather than a few more local traditions which had institutional power.

The Dissolution of Philosophy Camp sees the transition to a global perspective more like big rivers breaking apart into thousands of rivulets. Instead of consolidating the European river with the Indian river with the Chinese river and so on, according to the dissolution of philosophy camp the global eye helps us see that to begin with the idea of these rivers being unitary entities was an illusion. Globalizing philosophy isn’t just a matter of consolidation – for example, of seeing how all the traditions were asking the same few big philosophy questions – but rather it is a matter of seeing the enormous complexity within each tradition, the very complexity which was hidden before by the need within each tradition to think of itself as the tradition.

My leaving academic philosophy was driven by the fact that I am strongly in the dissolution of philosophy camp. The kind of global philosophy I was, and am, seeking isn’t the big ocean of the one global tradition, but the rivulet of my own life in which different traditions come together in the very particular, contextual and contingent way that they do in my life. In this sense, for me global philosophy and understanding myself were always very closely connected. Not in the sense that if I understand the uber-ocean of global philosophy that will tell me who I am, but in the more particular sense that understanding philosophy globally means understanding the thousands, and indeed millions, of unique ways in which the rivers merge to create all of us as the individual people that we are – and so means, in the very first instance, me better understanding myself in my particularity.

You might see why on this picture speaking with authority felt strange to me. For if what I am seeking to understand is myself as the particular confluence of global traditions that is me, what kind of an authority can that give me about what philosophy can or must or will be for another person? If I believe in the tradition of philosophy (be it European or global or whatever), then me and another person belonging to that tradition would underscore why I can speak to him with authority. But if I don’t believe there is any such thing as the tradition of philosophy, and that there is only people seeking to understand themselves in their particular confluence of diverse influences, then each person is like a fractal. And it would be strange for one fractal to turn to another fractal and say, “I know our shared essence, so listen to me.”

In this way the dissolution of philosophy camp dovetails into embracing speaking just as a person as a mode of philosophical speech. I find myself less and less interested in telling anyone anything about philosophy in an authoritative way. I find myself more and more interested in understanding myself in terms of the myriad aspects of human history which come together in me. And I find myself sometimes interested to share that with others. Not speaking with authority but speaking just as a person to another person.

When I was in academia I knew of academics who tried to be academics while trying to speak just as a person even when they were lecturing or when giving talks. I found them charismatic because I resonated with their desire to not take on speaking with authority. In philosophy I felt Stanley Cavell tried to talk like this, where the boundary between philosophy and autobiography was deeply blurred, and where philosophy was seen not as a way to get at an essence of itself but as a way to be open to each other’s irreducible individuality. And I think he found inspiration for this mode of speech in Wittgenstein’s later writing. Richard Rorty is another thinker like this, who in giving up the ideas of truth as a mirror of nature sought to see philosophy as a way of creating and sharing stories that matter to us as individuals. Rorty, following Dewey, saw embracing this form of philosophical speech as just a person as essential to a democracy.

Ultimately I found the Cavell and Rorty approach unsatisfying. For whether one speaks with authority or just as a person is not only a matter of intention. It is also a matter of the institutional structures within which the speech takes place. Cavell might not have intended to speak with authority and even might have eschewed that in his mode of writing and communicating philosophy. But when you are a professor, that too at a prestigious department and with all the trappings of that prestige, speaking just as a person ends up becoming mainly a kind of fantasy – as if Cavell or Rorty weren’t really grading their students’ papers, or didn’t have institutional power over others just because they spoke autobiographically or gave up truth. It is not possible to be a professor and speak philosophy just as a person, for as with the doctor speaking with authority, sometimes the structure of the doctor’s office or the lecture hall itself determines the mode of communication.

Central to speaking just as a person is the possibility that no one might choose to listen to you. Because there is nothing compelling them, either institutionally or otherwise, to listen to you. In speaking just as a person one offers one’s thoughts not as lectures or as grounded by tradition or by mystical experiences, but rather just as bubbles being floated into the air, to be taken or not, without any compulsion. Often people won’t take them and will dismiss them as mere bubbles. And when one speaks as just a person there is nothing to be done then, nothing to complain about, no grievance to air. In appreciating the individuality of each person, there are no claims about what ought to be most relevant to another person. But just for that very reason, when one speaks just as a person and another speaks back just as a person, it is all the more rewarding.

2 thoughts on “Two Ways of Speaking”

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