A Declaration of Independence

When we as a society read The Bible, many people don’t think, “I need to learn what the Catholic Church says about The Bible before I can absorb it for myself.”

When we read The Bhagavad Gita, most people don’t think, “I need to be beholden to what Indian gurus say about it.”

When we read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we aren’t constrained in our imaginative engagement with it by firs thinking, “I better read The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy to have an opinion about the book and how it matters to me.”

When we listen to a Beethoven symphony or a Beatles album, we don’t think, “That’s nice, but I better figure out what the music critics think before I make up my mind about whether I like this music!”

When we watch a Tom Cruise movie or an Akira Kurosawa movie, we don’t think, “I better confirm my opinion to what film professors say about them!”

And yet: This is exactly how academic philosophy trains our minds to relate classic philosophical texts. To Plato’s Republic. To Descartes’ Meditations. To Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

This is why philosophy is so marginalized in our society. Because academic philosophers are unwilling to let go of the texts. And because most people don’t know how to enjoy the texts for themselves. This combination is absolutely pernicious.

The cart is put before the horse. Instead of seeing The Republic as a text like Anna Karenina – complicated, subtle, can benefit from scholarly insight, but which also has to be first absorbed as a creative text we engage with imaginatively for ourselves – the classic philosophy texts are seen through the prism of what professionals need to do to remain professionals: write scholarly articles.

This creates the impression that The Republic is actually a old, literary version of a journal article. So just as people can’t understand Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” without understanding the academic disagreements between him and Carnap, so too it is assumed The Republic is really at heart a professional dispute between Plato and Aristotle, or Plato and Rawls, etc.

The current academic situation is imposed onto the past, so that even the great philosophers and their texts are seen through the lens of the academic philosopher’s daily professional hoops.

This is no different from churchs claiming authority over The Bible or pundits claiming authority over The Gita or nationalists claiming authority over The Constitution.

This is the grave sin of contemporary academic philosophy: they are starving the population of philosophy, so that they can step in as saviors and provide morsels of food, just in the way they want, and with them holding control of the supply. It is a crime to horde food when the people are starving, just for the pitiable reason of retaining power.

The sad thing is most academic philosophers don’t even know they are doing this. They are like the priests who genuinely believe that they hold the keys to God’s words and are simply helping the masses who cannot decipher God’s words by themselves.

The reason is simple and it’s not malicious intent. It’s that often academic philosophers themselves discovered the classic texts in academia. And they enjoyed it so much and it was so absorbing for them that they stayed in academia. So it is entirely natural that they would see the history of philosophy itself through the academic lens.

They just don’t know better.

That they are chaired professors, or at Ivy League departments or write a book every three years or teach classes that reach thousands of people – none of this implies they understand the nature of philosophical texts better than anyone else.

If such an implication held, it would radically alter the nature of classic philosophical texts. Rendering them more like mere textbooks. Just as Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby would be different as texts in a society where all readers assumed they can engage with novels only through the prism of literature professors.

As someone who went through the mind warping forces of academic philosophy, I feel the pull of these forces. And it is no use to keep harping about how academic philosophers need to be different. How they need to let go.

The reality is it is not primarily they who need to let go. It is I who has to let go.

They are doing what they are doing. What works for them. Or even often they are themselves trapped in what doesn’t work for them. But whatever the case, it is their battle of how to engage with philosophical texts, just as it is each person’s battle.

Some posts ago I said I might be forgetting philosophy. And that yet this feels like a good thing, even though I still love philosophy. How can all this be true?

What I am forgetting in the main is the academic manner of looking at philosophical texts. If I went into an academic arena, I can’t play that game anymore. I can’t present arguments in that way, reference books and authors in that way, stay up to date on the latest academic articles and books. A year or two after I left academia, there was still a chance I could still apply again to be a professor. Now there is little to no chance.

Not because I would be a bad teacher of philosophy – I would be a good one, better for sure than I was ten years ago. Not because I don’t still love philosophy – I still do.

But because for me now the history and importance of philosophy has been severed from the trials and tribulations of academic philosophy.

I first loved philosophical texts not through classrooms but through my own engagement with them as texts I could delve into on my own, using my own intelligence and desire to become friends with Plato or the Buddha, Russell or Aurobindo.

I first knew philosophers as family members: as father and mother, brother, grandparents, uncles and aunts. And I first knew the great, famous philosophers no differently than I knew great, famous novelists or musicians or artists: as personal intellectual friends, who often meant more to me as friends and mentors, even as other parts of myself, than my normal, in the flesh friends. Who mattered to me even more than many parts of my normal self.

It is nice to get back to that.

Compared to the personal, meaningful friendships I had and have with some of the great philosophers of the past, being an expert on them and so relating to them as my subjects of expertise was for me hollow – and an awful trade.

Why give up my friendship with Socrates and Shankara, with Lao Tzu and Marcus Aurelius, with Wittgenstein and Sartre only to treat them like unreachable figures far above and away from me, and with whom I can interact only through the norms decided by other professionals? How can that trade possibly make sense?

And why would I do that to others? Why would I tell them that instead of learning to relate to Plato and Descartes as their friends, they need to treat them as august figures who can “improve your thinking” and help you get better GRE scores and who, if you read humbly and with due deference to the professors and the latest journal articles, you might just understand a little bit of why they matter? Is that a way of empowering a person’s potential friendships with the great thinkers or a way of undercutting it?

I now know what I believe.

Two Simple Truths

I had a conversation with my mother today in which I think she articulated two simple truths about global philosophy. I don’t know if she thought what she said was significant, but they jumped out to me. It is one of the fascinations of philosophy how a “non-expert” can sometimes get to the heart of an issue, often better and with more openness than most experts.

My mother’s philosophical interests have long centered around Aurobindo Ghose (known as Sri Aurobindo) and especially his spiritual partner Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother). From the asharam they started in Pondicherry, India, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the 20th century pioneered a modern, Hinduism-infused global, spiritual consciousness. In addition, my mother has been influenced by classic Hindu texts such as The Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Vasistha. By instinct she has an ecumenical spirit which sees the world’s spiritual traditions as different paths to a common truth.

She is not very familiar with Western philosophy. She has been reading a book on Western philosophers written in Telugu by an Indian scholar (Telugu being our mother tongue). That is the context for the following conversation, which I am paraphrasing, and which even in its brevity I believe gets to some core issues.


Mom: I was amazed to read in the book about Spinoza. What he said seems to be just what we believe [advaita vedanta view in Hindu philosophy]. Could you not have written about that connection when you were in graduate school?

Me: There was a Indian philosophy scholar in the Asian Studies department at Harvard when I was there [he is still there and more integrated into the philosophy department now]. So in principle I could have written a thesis about Spinoza and Shankara. But the trouble is I don’t much about Shankara. I never studied Indian philosophy, not in the way required to write a PhD.

Mom: I guess what you know about Indian philosophy is mostly from talking to Dad, and your general reading. You couldn’t learn it in the philosophy departments you were in. If Indian philosophy was taught at Cornell and Harvard, would you have been happy?

Me: Happier. But not entirely. The question I was interested in about global philosophy wasn’t just how Shankara is related to Spinoza, or how Aurobindo is related to Hegel, and so on. The main question I was interested in was: what can a truly global philosophy perspective look like?

Mom: What is the problem if they teach both Western and Indian philosophy? Doesn’t that solve the issue?

Me: Those aren’t the only philosophical traditions. There is Chinese philosophy, African philosophy, Latin American philosophy, Native American philosophy, Islamic philosophy, and so on. I didn’t want to just know how our philosophy and European philosophy can come together. They have to come together in a global awareness, in the broader context of how all traditions are related. Someone can know two or maybe three or amazingly four or five of these traditions – they have to learn a lot, but they can do that. But there is still so much that would be left out.

Mom: Your professors were also in a difficult situation. How can they open up to all those traditions?

Me: Universities have students from so many countries. If a student from each country went to the philosophy department and said, “Why aren’t you teaching my tradition?”, how can they satisfy all those students? Who can know all these traditions?

Mom (shaking her head): No one can. That’s not possible. [BV: This is simple truth #1.]

Me: Right. This is what I wanted to think about in graduate school. What can global philosophy mean when however much the Harvard department expanded to include other traditions, it would leave out so much? What can global philosophical awareness mean then?

Mom: Maybe it means accepting there is a common truth which can’t be stated, which all the traditions are pointing to. [BV: This is simple truth #2.]

Me: I think that’s exactly right. That is the deeper issue. Are universities now set up in a way that makes it hard to find this common truth? This is why I wasn’t looking just to find the commonalities between Spinoza and Shankara. Ok, they both said things like “All is one”. But is that the essence of what they were saying, or are the words just pointers towards a deeper spiritual awareness? Finding the commonality then is a matter of actually transcending the concepts they used and not being limited by them.

Mom: The Mother says exactly this . We get attached to thinking and to books. That can hold us back just like we get attached to poojas and rituals.

Me: Right. This is the real problem for academic philosophy. The problem at Harvard isn’t just that they don’t teach Indian philosophy. They don’t even teach spiritual Western philosophy. They teach philosophy only as thinking well, but not also as an activity of getting beyond thinking. So even if they teach Asian philosophy, African philosophy and so on, that is only a start. They will get stuck at the level of what these traditions said. But really finding the commonality might mean getting beyond the words and concepts in all these traditions.

Mom: That is a very big task. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Me: I agree. We are just at the very beginning of this new global consciousness. It’s not just about bringing together traditions, like taking books written in different languages and putting them on the same bookshelf. It is about how the diversity of traditions frees us from old patterns of thought itself in some ways, and so opens up a new mode of consciousness. That is not about Harvard hiring a few people to teach other traditions. It is about whether universities as they are now are even a natural place for this kind of opening of consciousness.

Mom: This change will come. But there will be a lot of trouble along the way. The old energy has to play out so that the new energy can rise to the surface.

Me: Absolutely.

Visions of a Fulfilling Life

Much of my life has been a tension between five visions of a fulfilling life. Five visons of what one is willing and even wanting to give up.

The monk focuses on giving up physical and social needs: sex, food, money, a family. For the monk battling with sexual desire or cravings for food or social recognition are not set apart from being reflective, but are constitutive of it. For him to be reflective is to give up these ordinary animal and human drives.

The sage focuses on giving up ordinary modes of consciousness, exemplified in giving up an attachment to the ego. Whereas the monk starts with giving up the act (of sex or luxury), the sage starts with giving up attachment to the act. The sage might regularly have sex, eat fine food or be wealthy or even be a king. His focus isn’t on giving up things, as much as doing whatever he does with a certain detachment.

The intellectual focuses on giving up beliefs. Intellectuals, as exemplified by modern professors, don’t care in the first instance about your sexual habits, or your eating habits, or how much money you have, or how you cultivate your character. The focus instead is on ideas – which are true or false, justified or unjustified, which are stale, old or outdated. He aims to give up his attachment to his beliefs and to continually question them.

The revolutionary focuses on giving up institutional structures. Driven by a strong sense that humans are fundamentally social creatures defined by the roles and structures available to us, the revolutionary sees social change as the root change for growth and transformation. This is not to set social change against thinking, but rather to see social change as a form of thinking.

The householder mainly gives up the need to be, or at least to seem, extraordinary. For most people this is not so much an active giving up as it is a not striving to begin with. But the philosophical householder embraces the very seeming outward mundaneness of his life. He might be married or not, have kids or not, have a house or not, have a stable career or not. From the outside he looks no different from the masses struggling to live minimally reflective lives or have some sense of excellence. Where others see this mundaneness as a burden, he sees it as not a problem.

The thinkers and people I have been drawn to combine various aspects of these visions of life.

Wittgenstein was a monkish intellectual. An engineer by background, most of his work is highly analytic and technical, focusing on logic and philosophy of language. Yet the form of his philosophical struggles was like that of a monk: he experienced differing intellectual positions (logicism, dualism, materialism, etc) as if he were a monk trying to give up his sexual desires. For most academics this combination is absurd. And it is absurd in a way: if you are drawn to mind-body dualism, you might be wrong or confused or unjustified, but guilty or sinful is the wrong kind of category! And yet there is also something poignant and mesmerizing in the way Wittgenstein thought not just with his mind, as it were, but with his whole being.

One can do this with other thinkers too. Heidegger: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary (all too wrong as a revolutionary in his embrace of Nazism). Aurobindo: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Thomas Merton: Monk, sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Gandhi: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Martin Luther King: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Bertrand Russell: Intellectual, revolutionary. Eckhart Tolle: Sage, intellectual. Vivekananda: Monk, sage, intellectual.

Of course, because all these people were famous, they don’t fit into the householder category as I defined it. They were extraordinary and they were seen to be extraordinary.

For me the emblem of the householder philosopher is – as a regular reader of this blog can tell – my father.

Perhaps the greatest intellectual tension between my father and me was on this issue. By instinct, I react strongly against the householder image. Since I was a teenager, I had a great sense that I have something big to contribute to the world – that I am extraordinary. Beneath the mild-mannered, humble exterior, in my own mind I was like the heroes I admired: Shankara, Aurobindo, Malcolm X, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Socrates, Kant, etc. I experienced my householder exterior – the very ordinaryness of my life and of my achievements, of what I actually accomplished or didn’t accomplish – like a great cloak and prison from which one day I will be released, and I will burst forth out of the category of the masses and into the category of the extraordinary.

My father, in contrast, had actively embraced the householder category. He seemed – or claimed – to be unmoved by the fact that most people didn’t know of him as a thinker. Or that he couldn’t share or have his ideas challenged in the broader intellectual world. That even the people in his life, like most of his family and friends, had no idea of the volcanoes of thought and transformations of consciousness of his mental life.

For me this picture was – and still is to a great deal – extremely claustrophobic. This is one reason I blog. The feeling that the upheavels of my mind might remain just within my mind is jarring and uncomfortable to me. Embracing the householder picture felt to me like Shakespeare writing beautiful sonnets only to toss them into the river for no one to see. Or for a scientist to discover cures for illnesses but be content with his own understanding, and letting them lie undiscovered in his desk drawer. What a waste! What a tragedy! Why would anyone do that?

My father’s response to me was: “You are seeking social recognition and so bound by the ego. You need to let go and give up the pride of your own achievements. That is part of the path of philosophy.”

This has been a central question of my life. Is my felt need for a social expression of my thoughts a failing on my part? An inability to be serene in the face of my being one of the masses? Or is it a natural expression of my mind and character and fate? Surely my father was wrong to think I must be like him, that somehow his embrace of the householder form of life could be transferred to me along with his genes? And yet: if he was wrong, why has it been so hard for me to get heard, to break into the public intellectual world? Why didn’t I identify with academia, and why don’t I write and express myself in ways which seem natural to be published in magazines or as books? Could it be because my father was right: I am supposed to be a householder philosopher, and my ego needs for recognition is getting in the way and that is why I didn’t make it in academia and also why I haven’t become a non-academic author in the last ten years? What a painful thought.

And yet: I have grown as a person precisely in seeing how limited and wrong this doubt is. There is no one way to be a person or a philosopher. And no only one way. In fact, even my father was not only a householder philosopher. He was also a sage and an intellectual. It is hard to imagine anyone putting all their philosophical energies into just being a householder philosopher – into just giving up the ego attachments of recognition. What would be the point of that?

I admire my father as a thinker not because he overcame his ego needs of recognition. As a matter of fact, he didn’t manage that. He wanted to be seen as a sage and an intellectual by me and others with whom he would talk philosophy. As he would put it, he would “get a kick” out of talking philosophy – but where usually “the kick” or the thrill for him consisted in the fact that he was the one in center stage in the conversation. He was Socrates and the rest of us were Glaucon and Crito putting questions to Socrates, being amazed at his conceptual and spiritual insights.

Instead, I admire my father because his life was a particular, beautiful blend of sage, intellectual and householder. By the time I was born there was little of his youthful monk energy in him, and he was not particularly revolutionary in a social sense. But there was a way the life approaches of being a sage, an intellectual and a householder came together in him which was…fascinating. Not because everyone should be like him. Not even because I should be like him. It was fascinating in the way a rose is fascinating, or the way a rock is fascinating to a geologist – as a particular blend of forces which is evocative.

This is how I have come to think of the thinkers who have meant a great deal to me, like Wittgenstein or Aurobindo, Eckhart Tolle or Kant. Not as which of them is right, or who figured out the way to be a philosopher or a person. But as fascinating blends of different visions of life. Each person is like a melody composed of different notes. It would be silly to say, “This melody is confused: it begins on A and ends on G!” One can make a criticism like that if it meant the melody lacked coherence. But not just because it uses different notes and chords. It is meant to have different notes and chords! And not the same notes and chords as other melodies, arranged in the same way! That is the point.

My father was right in this sense: the greatness of a thinker doesn’t come from the social recognition. When we think of people in the pantheon – Socrates, Kant, the Buddha, MLK, etc. – it is hard to make this distinction because their greatness and our recognition of their greatness seem merged together. But if the recognition is deserved, it is picking up on an actual greatness, not merely creating it. They are not famous just for being famous, even if that is how it can feel sometimes. The greatness they achieved was in the particular blend of life visions they internalized in themselves. This looked one way with Marx, another with Nietzsche, yet another with Russell.

So are Marx or Nietzsche or Russell, or Socrates, or Kant or the Buddha, greater than me as thinkers? Of course, in terms of the recognition they have. Also in terms of the achievements they had. But they are not greater than me in that their blend of life visions has to apply to me. As if I have to replicate the blend which worked for them. That is impossible since they all blended the visions of life very differently. In this regard we are, and can only be, equals. Or at least have the potential to be equals. If I pursue the particular blend of my life visions with the zeal and commitment they did to theirs. If I can see myself as a rose alongside them in a field of flowers.

Wittgenstein and the Arc of Human Life

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is one of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century. I often keep coming back to his thought. Why? I want to get at this through a puzzle.

A Puzzle

I noted in my last post the main things I normally think about – ranging from the dawn of human history to our current political and institutional transformations to the near and distant future of humanity. Call this range of topics the arc of human life. It ranges from about 200,000 years ago (when modern humans arrived on the scene) to a 1,000 years from now (which is about how far into the future my mind can meaningfully project).

So 200,000BC to 3,000AD – that is the range of time that feels immediately relevant to my life and my thinking. Of course, this doesn’t mean I know much about this time. Beyond the written history of the last 4,000 years, a great deal of the past is shrouded in mystery. And I don’t know a lot that scholars know – historians, anthropologists, sociologists, religion scholars, historians of philosophy, biologists, etc. Just as I have no idea what will happen a year or 10 years from now, let alone a 1,000 years from now.

But still, 200,000BC to 3,000AD is temporally like the Earth for me. There is a lot I don’t know about the planet I live on. I don’t know 99% of the places on it. I don’t even know a lot about the city or even the neighborhood I live in. But nonetheless my lived sense as a human being is as a person on the planet Earth. The fact that I know so little about the Earth (geologically, culturally, historically, what are all the cities and villages, languages, etc.) doesn’t mean the Earth isn’t the taken-for-granted background of my life. I have a sense of Earth as a planet moving through space and I am a creature on that planet – and this sense isn’t because of all the facts I know about the Earth or the facts I could get wrong about it. It is a complicated, interesting question how the factual knowledge of the Earth and the lived-background sense of the Earth are interconnected. My lived sense of the Earth is surely different from someone 5,000 years ago who didn’t know the basics of physics and astronomy. And yet some lived sense of being on Earth is something I share with the person from 5,000 years ago.

So here is a puzzle. Even though I don’t read him anymore, I think a lot about Wittgenstein and the importance of his philosophy. And yet: Wittgenstein didn’t have much to say directly about the arc of human life I think so much about. The main thrust of his work was in assembling reminders of how we talk and think, in this and that context. He believed a greater attunement to the nuances of our linguistic practices could dissolve philosophical questions.

In his work there is little discussion of world history, the actual historical cognitive development of human beings, or of the axial age. Certainly nothing about colonialism or about Asia or Africa or other parts of the world. He thought a lot about how to live a meaningful life, but he didn’t address how to be a good family person or about the future of work (even more: as a friend and as a colleague he often could be needy, angry and petulant). And he pre-dated the internet era, so his work doesn’t address questions of our cyborg future or AI. He doesn’t talk about global warming or the future of human beings in a hundred years, let alone a thousand years.

Why do I think Wittgenstein’s thinking is important even though he didn’t talk about the things I think about viscerally on a day to day basis? That is the puzzle.

One way to respond to the puzzle is the social justice warrior way: to ditch Wittgenstein as just a colonial era white philosopher. This is a non-starter. Though Wittgenstein’s family was one of the richest in Austria and he had immense privileges in being seen as a genius in his philosophy circles, it’s not obvious he can be just put in the role of an oppressor. His was an assimilated Jewish family which struggled to find a balance in many ways (three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein was often suicidal). He was gay at a time when it was illegal in England (where he was a professor at Cambridge). He had mental health issues, including severe depression. So no use doing the checklist of privileges against him (which I don’t find helpful with people in general).

Another response to the puzzle is the timeless philosophy way: to treat Wittgenstein’s importance as obvious because he is addressing universal questions of philosophy. On this view, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t address many of the factual, contingent issues of my life because philosophy is about abstract, universal issues. This is also a non-starter because it is not Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy. In fact, at the center of his view was exactly an aim to demolish such a picture of philosophy – as concerned with abstract topics of The Mind, Morality, Political Philosophy, Language, Meaning of Life, etc. Wittgenstein believed philosophy focused just at that abstract level was a confusion – in darker moments he treated it as a disease, like a mental illness. Hence his continual conflict with academic philosophy. In contrast to the happy image of intro classes and seminars discussing grand, abstract topics of the mind and morality, Wittgenstein saw most philosophy professors as inmates running the asylum. For him philosophy questions were not grand questions to be answered, but powerful illusions to be overcome. Not the kind of vision professors can easily sell to parents and donors.

A New Conception of World History

To answer the puzzle, we need to first see just how recent an awareness of the 200,000BC – 3,000AD arc of human life actually is. Of course, every generation has its own sense for the arc of human life. But it was only in the last two centuries that the arc expanded in the way we are aware now.

World history is nothing new. People have been writing it for millennia. But modern physics, Darwin and colonialism changed it in a deep way. Prior to the 19th century, the conception of world history was really the conception of the conqueror’s history. World history was told through the perspective of the empire that saw itself as the culmination of that history. Or as the history of the downfall of a civilization. The claim to it being human history as such was buttressed by treating the conquering empire as the central point of human history.

With Newton and modern physics we got a different conception of Earth – one described purely in mechanical and mathematical terms. Earth was no longer in the first instance the realm which the Roman or the Persian or the Chinese or the Islamic empires controlled. In seeing Earth first and foremost as a planet in the solar system, we developed a sense of Earth removed from the question of civilizational power dynamics, and so developed a different sense of the people on Earth and what we have in common.

The deep impact of Darwin was that the theory of evolution brought together the new mechanical view of Earth with the human perspective. The idea of evolution as such is not new with Darwin. An evolutionary picture of humans and animals was central to many ancient worldviews, such as that of Hindus. What was new with Darwin wasn’t the idea that humans evolved from animals. Rather, it was the picture of the animals from whom humans evolved. Even more: it was the picture of the Earth which produced humans.

In pre-Newtonian physics, the world, in an Aristotelian way, was seen as filled with form. Everything had its place and its natural path based on its essence. It was an anthropomorphic view of the world. The categories of human society – of each person’s nature and their place in society – are seen to be how everything in the world is organized. This was the vision of the ancient Hindus as well, where people were seen as being reborn as cats and insects and trees, because the whole world is shot through with similar categories of form. Post Newton this became a fantasy – just a way of speaking of the world. Not the intrinsic nature of the world, which was mechanical.

People often bemoan how the Newtonian view robbed the world of meaning. In fact, to the contrary, it expanded human consciousness – by giving a palpable, clear sense of how humans are all the same as physical beings. Darwin drew the natural consequence that what unites humans is our common history of how we came to be humans on this gigantic space rock.

New fields propelled by colonialists’ exploration and domination started to fill in the blanks. In the 19th and 20th centuries, modern biology, anthropology, archeology, religious studies, sociology and so on could start in a rudimentary way to fill in the gaps of the millions of years between apes and modern humans, and the tens of thousands of years of human history. This opened up a shared human history well beyond the standard picture of the “the ancient”. It turned out that Homer, Confucius, Abraham, Hammurabi and Akhenaten were not heroes at the start of human life. They were actually relatively recent in the big picture: 2,500 to 4,000 years ago, while agriculture itself went back 10,000 years and modern humans another 200,000 years.

So colonialism lay the seeds of its own downfall. What colonialists took to be the greatness of European achievements in science was indeed great – but precisely because it contributed to a new consciousness of the arc of human life. Colonialist Europeans thought the new physical and human sciences were a reflection of some magical European essence. But this was just a remnant of the old conquering empire vision of human history – the very conception of human history which the new sciences undercut.

Modern science wasn’t the product of only European reason going back to the ancient Greeks. Just as ancient Greek and Roman achievements built on Eqyptian, Persian, Indian and other civilizations, so too modern European achievements built on Chinese, Islamic and other empires in the modern era. Moreover, the new sciences showed that categories such as European, Islamic, Chinese and so on fail to reflect our human commonalities. That though the differences between cultures are great, they pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years of history – the vast subconscious of our shared consciousness – which predates our oral and written histories.

This awareness that all humans have a shared history which goes further into the past than is captured in any origin stories within each civilization is a fundamental shift in perspective. It expanded our background sense of the arc of human life. It is an achievement akin to realizing the Earth isn’t at the center of the universe: that no civilization is at the center of human life as such.

As is so often the case in the dynamics of reason and power, it is a great irony that this new, deep, global consciousness arose during the age of colonialism and from deep within the heart (and mind) of colonialism. This doesn’t make the new awareness essentially European, anymore than writing is essentially Mesopotamian or the number zero is Indian or gunpower is Chinese or algebra is Islamic. All achievements begin in a particular place and they spread as others internalize and transform it.

Here we can see the limits of the social justice warriors. Like the colonialists, they see recent centuries mainly through the antiquated model of empire consciousness – history as just the history written by the winners. The end of slavery and colonialism, the women’s movement, etc. are seen as a way for the formerly oppressed to tell a new story. This is right in one way. But in another way, it is too old-fashioned, modeled on the picture of the oppressed civilization rewriting the history books after overthrowing the conquerors.

In the bigger picture, the liberation movements weren’t a way to replace the old stories with other stories of that old kind. The liberation movements were part of our human attempt to come to grips with the new awareness of the past few centuries of how much we are all basically the same – and of how little we still know our common past and so how little we still understand ourselves.

The same is true of the future. The political movements of freedom are one aspect of the broader shift in our picture of the arc of life. Some of the big changes happening – like global warming or AI or how the internet is changing the human mind – can’t be shoe horned into a post-colonialism narrative without minimizing how all of us as people together are confronting the transformations.

Thick and Thin Concepts

The realization that all humans are mammals and we all developed from hunter gatherer communities hundreds of thousands of years ago is a very thin awareness of our commonality. It is so abstract that by itself it doesn’t guide us through the identities of our daily lives.

Our normal identities are rooted in thick concepts such as family (the Vallabhas, the Wittgensteins, the Obamas, the Trumps, etc.), careers (doctor, lawyer, writer, athlete, etc.), religion (Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, atheist, etc.), nationality (America, India, etc.), political and economic ideologies (capitalism, communism, monarchy, democracy, etc.) and so on. And these thick concepts are rooted in different times in the past and carry with them different visions of the arc of human life.

Many of the core habits and concepts of family life trace back hundreds of thousands of years when for hunter gatherers the arc of human life was limited to the narratives among the thirty members of their tribe. The idea of careers dates back to the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the rise of villages, when work started to become compartmentalized into the farmers, the blacksmiths, the priests, etc. The idea of religions as we now think of them – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. – date from 4,000 to 1,000 years ago, as they started to develop a broader consciousness which went beyond family and cultural differences. The categories of nations, modern democracy, communism, fundamentalism, racism and so on date to the last several centuries.

People and communities therefore are like archeological sites, layered with different artifacts dating from different periods, created for different purposes, mixed together through the contingencies of time and place. Excavating a place where different communities lived over thousands of years one might come across a ceremonial bowl from a 1,000 years ago, and ten yards from there and deeper dig up a tomb from 10,000 years ago, and near the surface come across bones from a person who was killed with a bullet from a 100 years ago, and so on. And all of these remains and artifacts might have gotten mixed together because of weather changes, erosion patterns, people digging around for fun and so on.

Imagine archeologists who come across this site and want to know, “What are the eating habits of the people who lived on this land?”, or “What were the burial practices of the community here?”

They might ask, “What is this interesting society which buried a person who died from a bullet wound, and in the burial process they used this ceremonial bowl, and yet nonetheless they chose to not bury him in the tomb they made nearby?” They come up with elaborate explanations for why a single society might have chosen to act so bizarrely and what that shows about their way of life. Of course this is a confusion, driven by the false assumption that the different remains and artifacts must have been united in a single act of burial just because they are found near each other.

The archeological site has remnants of different communities which had different arcs of life. The people who made the tomb 10,000 years ago categorized the world in one way. The people who used the ceremonial bowl a 1,000 years ago categorized it a different way. The person who was killed a 100 years ago belonged to a culture which categorized the world in yet another way. The archeologist who is looking at the archeological site is trying to come up with a new conception which incorporates these older conceptions. The archeologist’s challenge is: how to do that?

To create a unified, encompassing story, the archeologist can’t just treat the whole site as reflecting the artifacts of one community. There is no one set of thick concepts that capture all the artifacts across the span of the 10,000 years. Thick concepts are thick in part because they are context and situation specific. The concept of family guides my life not because there is a generic concept which applies to all human beings in all times. The concept of family which guides my life is set to my time period and my cultural contexts, and the changes in the concept reflect changes of my time.

It is also no use for the archeologist to tell a unified story by using only thin concepts like “human beings”. That remains too much at the level of abstraction to explain the kind of thick conceptual activities involved in burials, cooking, art, jewelry and so on. It would be like trying to explain the activities of animals in a jungle using mainly the thin concept of “animals“: animals ate other animals here, animals slept here, and they gave birth to little animals here! Perfectly true, and it captures something of the basic form of what is happening, but it misses much of the nuance provided by concepts like lions, deer, elephants and so on.

As our awareness of the arc of the human life changed in the last few centuries, we are like the archeologist looking at his complex, layered site. On the one hand, we have the complexity of the diverse, thick concepts which define our lives. On the other hand, we have concepts of our basic unity as human beings, given in abstract terms, such as that we are all created by God, or beings descended from apes, who are all made up of the same earth matter and so on. How are these two conceptual structures – the thick and the thin – related?

Philosophy as a Struggle with Thick and Thin Concepts

A great philosopher is usually animated by a main deep insight. The insight is so deep that it sheds a new light on many facets of our lives. But at its core there is the deep insight radiating outward, and understanding their thought means tracking that insight.

Wittgenstein’s deep insight is that when we are engaged in philosophical reflection we are often like that confused archeologist trying to fit artifacts from different time periods into a single event. We are so driven – psychologically – by a desire for a unity of thought that we fail to see the differences that are right in front of our eyes. We try to push away the differences so as to fixate on the universal, but often it is only by facing up to the differences that we gain clarity. The archeologist makes progress when he accepts the possibility that the tomb, the ceremonial bowl and the bullet wounded bone do not belong to a single time.

Consider the question, “Does God exist?” When we think of this question, the mind races to affirm or deny, as if the world consists of just two kinds of people – theists and atheists – and we have to figure out who is right. The very generality of the question can lull us into thinking it is carving nature at its joints. A good deal of reflection – in everyday life and in philosophy classrooms – jumps head long into deciding whether the answer should be “yes” or “no”.

And yet there is an obvious truth which is in plain sight: there is no one meaning of “God”. God is understood differently by different religions. Some have a concept of “God”, but others mainly have a concept of “Gods”. Sometimes “God” refers – especially for believers – to a kind of experience or mode of living (faith), whereas “God” refers – especially for unbelievers – to a concept embedded in outdated institutional practices (the power hungry church or temple). For some “God” is tied up with the center point of their family practices, whereas for others “God” is the subject of abstract argumentation (proofs for the existence of God). Sometimes one thinks of “God” as so infinite as to be beyond human comprehension, and yet at other times one thinks of “God” as like a parent or a lover or a friend (angrily asking, God, Why have you done this to me?)

These diversity of ways of understanding “God” are out in the open, obvious for all to see. So which is meant when one asks, “Does God exist?”

The diversity of uses speaks to the wide variety of the thick concept of “God”. Where the concept of “God” is deeply contextually bound to the religion, culture, time and event at hand: whether it is Christianity or Buddhism, Egyptian or Chinese, 3,000 years ago or the present, whether used at a funeral or in a weekly sermon, in a classroom or on a battlefield. And yet when we ask, “Does God exist?”, the temptation is to treat “God” as a thin concept – one which through its abstraction applies, we think, to all people and all contexts. As if to say, “Well, you know, the real meaning of God. What we all mean. God! The infinite being who created us!”

Wittgenstein’s main idea is that a lot of philosophical reflection is a struggle with thick and thin concepts.

There is a continual temptation to be pulled in one direction or the other. On the one hand, to say that philosophy is useless because it has become unmoored from thick concepts. When one is pulled in this direction, one assumes one can simply let the thickness of a concept in a given situation guide us – as if the thick uses of the concept don’t have internal tensions.

The opposite temptation is to say that philosophy is great because it is addressing universal thin concepts like “God”, “justice”, “mind”, etc. to figure out their nature. Here one assumes one can simply bypass the murkiness of detail and focus on the abstract concept as such, in its essence – as if the thin concept carries its meaning entirely within itself.

Often philosophy is described as the ascension from thick concepts to thin concepts. That through reflection we give up the thick concepts embedded in our lived, daily lives and focus mainly on the thin concepts radiating like jewels in the book of nature. On this picture, the aim of philosophy is to give up the limited concepts of our day to day lives in order to acquire the timeless concepts which reflect the true nature of the world.

There is a good deal of truth in this view. But Wittgenstein highlighted what is left out of this rosy picture of philosophy: that often philosophy can feel alienating and confused because we become so attached to thin concepts that in reflection we lose touch with the contextual situations which provide a grounding to our lives and concepts.

Wittgenstein described philosophy as the task of bringing words back to their ordinary contexts. This can seem a mainly conservative task: as if our non-philosophical uses of words are fine on their own, and that philosophy is a confusion which we fall into when we stray away from those ordinary uses. As if Wittgenstein was like a parent telling their child to stay away from philosophers lest they get pulled into useless navel gazing! Sometimes Wittgenstein seemed drawn to this kind of pessimism about philosophy.

But there is another, more dynamic way to interpret Wittgenstein. On this view, to bring words back to their ordinary context isn’t to use them just as one would before becoming philosophical. Rather: it is to create new versions of the thick concepts so as to better meet the needs of our daily lives. Here a thinker is akin to a conceptual artist. We find ourselves in the midst of thick concepts which define us, but which also we feel stymied by. Thin concepts give us a way to step away from the thick concepts, but we can’t live our lives only with thin concepts. So when we step back into everyday life as we reflect, we transform the thick concepts to meet the changing needs and situations.

Philosophy therefore is conceptual transformation. Sometime it involves creating entirely new concepts. But often it involves transforming older thick concepts to give them a new resonance. To make them relevant to our times and to our lived situations.

This is both a personal and a social struggle. Personal: in that transforming our thick concepts means changing our understanding of who we are from deep within ourselves. It is not simply a matter of coming up with clear arguments or interpreting texts, but of oneself being the arena of the creative transformation of the thick concepts in our lives.

And social: in that it requires being open to the fact that everyone in some fashion – whether through philosophy or religion or art or music or science – is engaged in this process of reflective living. Some are more reflective than others, but no one is bereft of reflection as such. So in a society there are millions of people going through their own personal reflections, at various levels of intensity, and trying to channel that into social transformation. At any given time there is no one social transformation happening. There are dozens and hundreds of social transformations happening, often in tension with each other or only marginally in connection with each other. This is the terrain we find ourselves in and which we have to navigate through in order to create the social changes one wants.

On this view of bringing words back to their ordinary use then, philosophy is the internal engine of human conceptual transformation. 10,000 years ago the analogue of “God” and “Gods” were used in certain ways in early agricultural societies. But as some of these societies started to transform and become cities and then civilizations, the way “God” and “Gods” were used started to change, to reflect the expansion of the arc of human life involved in going from villages to cities. Then as civilizations started to become more internally complex, as in the Axial age, thinkers had to reconceptualize the core concepts yet again – and so “God”, “reason”, “self” and so on gained a more inner dimension in human psychology.

Solution of the Puzzle

When I used to read Wittgenstein, many times I would become angry and confused about why such an amazing philosopher was so silent about issues happening around him which were of deep importance: the end of colonialism, the new global consciousness, how technologies are transforming our lives and so on. Why didn’t Wittgenstein address these problems in a way that made it seem to me, as his reader, that he understood something of my lived situation?

The anger was driven by frustration that, institutionally, Wittgenstein’s silence was used by academics to perpetuate older thick concepts which felt out of date to me. It seemed as if academics less interested in changing philosophical structures could look to a great thinker like Wittgenstein and say, “Look! Thinkers as great as Wittgenstein didn’t read Indian philosophy, so why should we? Philosophy is in the business of universal thinking, not parochial thinking of Indian or Chinese thought.”

As a student I couldn’t see how this was a deep misinterpretation of Wittgenstein. This conservative use of Wittgenstein’s philosophy misses the deeply existential and spiritual dimension of Wittgenstein. The conservative academics read off the fact that Wittgenstein didn’t engage with Indian or African-American or feminist philosophies to mean that those traditions are not important, or at best can only be of secondary importance. But even if Wittgenstein in his life might have thought that (it’s hard to tell), it is not central to the Wittgensteinian framework.

On Wittgenstein’s view, philosophical reflection is first and foremost deeply personal. That is, a person begins their reflection from the thick and thin concepts they are immersed in, and which they are trying to balance, and from which they trying to create new, more meaningful ordinary uses of those concepts. Wittgenstein was averse to the kind of lazy generalizing about which traditions of philosophy are really philosophy that many people fall into. For on his view, there is no external fact of the matter about what is really philosophy and what isn’t. About who should be read on syllabi and who should be removed.

At root there is only each person trying to battle their conceptual tensions. For Wittgenstein it was one way. For Du Bois it was another. For Simone Weil it was yet another. For Aurobindo it was another way. For Aquinas it was one way. For Confucius another way. For Socrates it was yet another way. There is no one thing called philosophy all these thinkers engaged in, which can be neatly packaged in classes and transmitted from person to person so that they know the history of philosophy.

This is for me the continual attraction of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He didn’t address all the philosophical concepts and traditions I find interesting. But he helped free me from old conceptual structures of my upbringing and my education by showing that the claims to speak of the history of philosophy and who are the great philosophers and who are not and which traditions are philosophy and which are not are confused.

To be a philosopher I don’t have to begin with conservative assumptions of how philosophy is an European invention and contort my mind to fit that narrative. At the same time, I also don’t have to begin with activist assumptions of what form a new global minded philosophy has to take and contort my mind to fit that narrative.

I can begin just where I am – with the thick and thin concepts, and their tensions, that I find in myself and which are driving me. And this freedom of thought which I take for myself, I also try to be mindful to let be for others, so that they can delve into the tensions in their mind more fully.

One of Wittgenstein’s main ideas is that we are fundamentally communal beings and there can be no such thing as a private language – or entirely private thought. So the conceptual tensions I find within myself are likely similar to the conceptual tensions others find in themselves, be they conservatives or social activists.

But our communal nature doesn’t mean I can simply read off our shared situation from my own mind. Our communal bonds are not simply facts which can be stated. They are shared forms of life which we have to co-create. Just as each person has to go through their personal struggle to clarify their concepts, so too we as a society have to go through shared struggles to create concepts for the 21st century.

This is both a personal and a communal task. Each person has to delve into their psyche and find from within themselves the communal bonds we can forge together into the future.

What I Think About

It is helpful to be clear about the different things I think about. I feel a good deal of my stress in life is not knowing how the different things I think about are related to each other. It feels like ships banging into each other on the stormy seas of my mind. Topics, ideas and issues running into each other in a haphazard way. If I can first state what are the different things I think about, then I can work through their connections and what a stable overall worldview might be.

The tensions in my life can be traced to the different ways the same words are used in different contexts: words like “self”, “reason”, “mind”, “God”, “meaning of life” and so on. I have come to think trying to find “the truth” about the self or God is pointless when the different uses of those words aren’t first clearly described so that we can see how the tensions arise. The tensions arise not just between cultures or between different people, but are implicit within each person’s ways of using the words. Our linguistic and cognitive capacities are remnants of various influences, often united by surface similarities which cover over deeper differences which create the cognitive tensions. Clarifying one’s thoughts means facing up to the diversity in one’s cognitive landscape.

I will divide what I think about into three categories: the past, the present and the future. These are not meant to be exhaustive of the topics as such that anyone might be interested in. They are the topics as I have been interested in them given the contingent path of my life.

A. The Past

1. World history. Can a unified history be told about human beings as such? Is there such a thing as the human history, or only different histories that groups tell about themselves? Examples of texts I find interesting when thinking about this topic: Harari, Sapiens. Ansari, The Invention of Yesterday. Christian, Maps of Time.

2. Cognitive history of humans. How did human cognition develop such that we became a species which could use tools, have languages, create societies? What kind of transformations – biological and cultural – enabled changes from apes to hominids to humans? Interesting texts: Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind. Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind. Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

3. Axial Age history. What sociological, institutional and psychological changes took place during the axial age (roughly 2,800-2,000 years ago) such that similar philosophical/religious/spiritual changes happened in different parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia? How similar were the changes and what were the differences between the rise of Greek philosophy, monotheism in the Middle East, Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy? Did they have a common source, say in the trade routes and empires which connected Eurasia? How do these relate to worldviews in other parts of the world? Interesting texts: Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution. Armstrong, The Great Transformation. Campbell, The Masks of God. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas.

4. Modern European Enlightenment. How did the modern European Enlightenment (300-500 years ago) change human cognition and society? How did changes in modern science, philosophy and politics come about? What were its inner tensions? How was the European Enlightenment influenced by Islamic, Chinese and other civilizations? Were there other forms of modernity happening outside of Europe? Texts: Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters. Israel, Radical Enlightenment. Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason.

5. Colonialism, liberation movements and the rise of modern “mixedness”. How did colonialism influence modern European philosophy? How it did it transform other cultures? What are the ways in which Europeans subjugated others, and also the ways in which the subjugation created “mixedness” in the subjugated peoples which made them more global minded than Europeans themselves? Texts: Park, Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire. Mills, The Racial Contract. Bhushan and Garfield, Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance.

6. My family history in 20th century. The changes in my grandparents’, parents’ and my generation’s lives as we went from an extended family Hindu Brahmin culture in pre-Independence India to being, in my case, an Indian-American with a cosmopolitan, global perspective. In what ways am I similar to my parents and grandparents, and what ways different? How to view the family level changes in light of the broader historical changes? Examples of texts exploring mix of autobiography, family, immigration and world history: Ansari, Road Trips. Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory. Appiah, In my Father’s House. Morton, Moving Up without Losing Your Way.

The Present

a. Personal. What is it for me to live a meaningful life of serenity and growth? How do I foster peace within myself and bring harmony to the tensions and anxieties I experience? Texts: Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. Tolle, A New Earth.

b. Family. How to navigate being in an inter-cultural marriage? What kind of a father do I want to be? What of the past will I pass on to my daughter, and how will I prepare her for the future? I grew up in a extended family context and now I am in a more nuclear family context. What will that future look like for me and my family? Texts: Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk. Lahiri, The Namesake.

c. Work. How do I navigate the social dynamics at work? How to balance work and life? Work and my intellectual interests? How will the transformations in our society regarding work – with the pandemic, with emerging AI and so on – affect my work? Texts: West, The Future of Work.

d. Politics. America is in the midst of a transition from being a democracy rooted in white culture to being a multi-cultural democracy. How will this affect the kind of democracy we can have? Will democracy survive or will a multi-cultural democracy prove so hard to keep together that new forms of government will arise? What kind of narratives of America and its history can foster the balance of diversity and unity? What will these kind of changes look like in other countries? Texts: Lepore, This America. Lila, The Once and Future Liberal. Mishra, Age of Anger.

e. New intellectual and spiritual structures. Many of our spiritual institutions go back several thousand years to the axial age. Our current academic institutions go back several hundred years to the colonial and the industrial ages. As we enter a new global, information age, what will that mean for how we communicate ideas, create communities and enable change? What will our cyborg type fusion with technology mean for our cognitive capacities such as memory, reasoning and sense of self? Can the wisdom of the past simply be translated into the current technological reality, or will it require rethinking spirituality and philosophy in a deeper way? Will academia continue to be the center for dissemination of knowledge, or will it become “unbundled” as non-academic structures rooted in new technologies better address the new situations? Texts: Selingo, College Unbound. Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs. Carr, The Shallows. Shirky, Here Comes Everybody.

The Future

I. Global Warming. What kind of calamities will we face due to global warming? It seems merely a question of when and not if we will face such calamities. How will we react to them? Can we foster enough unity as a species to address it? If we cannot foster unity, will those with more power (in whatever forms) simply enact what they think is best and that will be central to our new social reality? Texts: Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose. Holthaus, The Future Earth.

II. AI. Similar questions about artificial intelligence. What will happen when AI becomes a pervasive feature of our lives? What will that mean for work, communities, our sense of meaning? Will society be divided between those who can retain “control” over their lives in the face of AI, and those who experience AI as a tsunami wiping out their lives as they knew them? Will AI free people from monotonous work and so unleash great intellectual and creative energies within people? Or will AI rob people of the meaningfulness of work, and so undercut their sense of agency? Texts: Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Lee, AI Superpowers.

III. Shifts in Power? Will the balance of cultural and economic power shift to the East in this century? Will Europe and America be hampered by the weight of their older institutions, while the East and the Global South are able to harness new changes in new ways? Will Asia build off of European and American advances the way Europe during its Enlightenment built off of Chinese and Islamic advances? Or will the very contrasts between East and West, North and South dissolve in new ways as new modes of “mixedness” emerge? Texts: Khanna, The Future is Asian. Frankopan, The New Silk Roads.

IV. In two hundred years. What will human life look like in two hundred years? Will the next two centuries be similar to the axial age or the Enlightenment, a time of deep change which will create new modes of society, knowledge and modes of consciousness? If ecological and technological changes happen at a rapid rate, will it change basic concepts like that of “family” – rendering family too slow a mechanism for dealing with the changes? Like colleges, family might also become “unbundled”, where family might retain some of the core features but many of its current elements might be taken over by other social structures – maybe even by robots or AI. How will changes likes these in our families, societies and our very cognitive structures affect who we are and what our ideals will be? Will society be more egalitarian then, or less egalitarian with classes marked by cognitive enhancements based on technology? Texts: Harari, Homo Deus.

V. In a thousand years. Will we survive another thousand years? If not, what can that mean for us now? If we survive, will the changes between now and a thousand years from now be like the changes between now and a thousand years ago (vast changes with basic similarities), or like the changes between hunter gatherer societies and agricultural societies (deep changes in cognition, ways of life and worldviews), or like the changes between neanderthals and humans (changes at a genetic level which alter our mode of being human), or like the changes between apes and humans (changes which alter our basic ways of being animals and conscious beings)? How much of our spiritual and philosophical frameworks will still matter in a thousand years (or later)? Will most people then be like Socrates and the Buddha – where that level of self-awareness has become natural – or will they be so advanced that even Socrates and the Buddha will seem primitive to them? Or will society have stalled or even regressed after nuclear wars and global warming so that Socrates and the Buddha will still feel like distant ideals? Texts: Kaku, The Future of Humanity. Rees, On the Future.


I am in an intellectual freefall. Cognitive structures which buttressed me for decades are crumbling and it feels like I am unable to latch onto anything firm or sturdy.

Is this a bad thing? For years I have been building and climbing up cognitive structures, feeling sure they were leading me to the goal of thoughtthe height of self consciousness and awareness. In the process it even started to seem a bit monotonous, as if miraculously I somehow knew the end goal already and there was only the leg work left to get there. Now the monotony is replaced by disorientation. The structures I was climbing up are starting to shake and I am losing my footing. The floor is getting woobly, the walls are peeling off. I am falling but also not just falling, and floating almost. Is there a firm place to get a footing anywhere? Or is this the new reality? Or was this always the reality and I am waking from a dream of stability?

Descartes in his First Meditation decides to question everything, wondering even if his whole life was a dream and if an evil demon was deceiving him. He claims he is not even sure 1+1=2, or if he has a body. This never got a grip on me. It seemed strange to me that one could decide to question everything. What can be the basis of the decision and for keeping to the decision if one doesn’t even know if one is awake or if other people exist? It was a brilliant rhetorical move by Descartes to find a way to set aside his scholastic education and put in its place a new worldview based on the new mechanical physics and its implications for the rest of knowledge. But as true doubting from the first person perspective it is as hokey as Socrates claiming to not know anything and yet overwhelming all his interlocutors. It is not really doubting, as much as it is playing off of a certain image of what doubting looks like, especially when we already know who the hero is and how he will emerge victorious in the end.

I am not choosing to question everything. It’s more like the cognitive ground on which I stand is shaking and the buildings I have erected, and which I took to be firm, are starting to tumble. It feels a bit like Truman from the movie The Truman Show realizing that the world he took to be real is actually an elaborate prop. But in my case, a prop not set up by others to deceive me, but set up by my own mind through the years and also set up socially through the centuries to feel like there is a stable ground to our existence as human beings.

Perhaps this is what it’s like when a religious person starts to lose his faith, or when an atheist starts to discover faith. Or when in romantic comedies the no-nonsense-love-is-an-illusion claiming hero starts to fall in love.

For me the attraction of philosophy was that it seemed to provide a common basis for our shared humanity. As if the consciousness of the sages or the questions of the philosopher united beyond our differences of culture, race, gender and class, and any other difference. That philosophy I knew and that I studied wasn’t just my idiosyncratic interest, or the idiosyncratic interests of my fellow philosophers or thinkers, but that it was in fact tracking the deeper unifying bonds of all of us as people.

There was a fabulous wish at the root of this vision. Just the things my father happened to know and pass on to me and just the things my teachers knew and could pass on to me and just the things which I came across and read – all that contingent set of beliefs, books, conversations and assumptions which were propelling my growth as a thinker and which would give me a voice in society was also, wonderfully and amazingly, just what the world really needs and is in fact an objective, unifying vision of the world.

It’s a fantastic possibility, which is so embedded within so much of our way of thinking and talking. Why assume that my life might be tracking anything about the structure of the world, or indeed of what it is like for most other people? What if my thinking is ultimately just that – my thinking, my way of making sense of things I have seen and what I imagine would be good for the world?

One might say, “Well, of course, Bharath! No one assumed your thinking is tracking something objectively true and amazing. You are just a doofus like most people in the world, puttering along from day to day. Did you actually think your consciousness and thoughts could be tracking something more?”

Yes, I did. Very much so. I assumed from when I was a teenager that whatever the Buddha or Socrates or Christ or Lao Tzu had, I could gain too. That I am no different in kind from them, that I am no less smart, no less dedicated to the Truth, no less capable than them. If they can speak for humanity, then well, so can I…at some point. That was the foundation stone of my cognitive universe. That they in fact do speak for our shared humanity, and that I can be like them at least in my inner consciousness, if not in outer recognition.

But now I am losing my grip on this foundation stone. It no longer seems so sturdy and so unshakable. It seems all too shakable, for here it is in my mind, shaking right now.

Why assume that the Buddha or Socrates or Christ can speak for all people? To something transcendent that links us all as people. They too might have been just doofuses putzing along. Wonderful doofuses. Admirable. Profound. Great. Awakened. Wise. Son of God. Yes! But am I thinking that because they somehow were like that, or because that is how others characterized them, after their deaths, creating an aura of transcendental reality that their followers needed to believe, just as I needed to believe it all these years?

It is tempting to think the great thinkers we remember and read had something called great thinkingness(!) that made them great thinkers. That this great thinkingness descended on them like a spirit entering a body, and that it was through this great thinkingness that they were able to do great things in the world, so that people could then see that these special people had this amazing great thinkingness within them, and that if only we were like them, it could spread to us.

I am starting to think this is nonsense. There is no such thing as great thinkingness. It’s a cognitive illusion. It is impossible to relate to the Buddha or Socrates or Christ as the particular people they were back then. Rather, the sense of them as having the great thinkingness is created by the fact that their name and ideas have been kept alive and glamourized and reified and glorified by ordinary people who definitely were oridnary doofuses just like me. Like me, they built up cognitive structures premised on the assumption of someone else’s great thinkingness, and which they felt they had to defend because their own sense of their goodness and capacity and the light within them was defined entirely through their ability to see the masters’ great thinkingness.

You might think this is obvious with religion. This kind of deification of the greats and thinking entirely in terms of that. But it is really all around us. For most people their perception of spiritual, non-religious thinkers like Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle is entirely permeated with reifying the great thinkingness within them, those who got it, and appreciating one’s own link to it through one’s appreciation of them as great thinkers glowing with their great thinkingness.

The same is often true in academia. Helping students to think for themselves often is equated with helping them to see the great thinkingness in the great philosophers and so understanding better what Socrates or Kant said is seen as the most lesser mortals like us can do to get close to the glow of great thinkingness.

But there is a trap here. If there is in fact a great thinkingness which shines in us like a gem, then in order to appreciate it within myself I have to let it shine from within myself, and not just seek to find it through the reflective glow of great thinkers. Cognitive change and transformation is cyclical and has seasons. It is not just a flat line from the starting point of ignorance to the finish line of appreciating Socrates’ genius. Yes, one has to go through such a change to appreciate Socrates. But if the aim is to not just appreciate Socrates but to let flower the light within oneself, then one has to also be open to the season of leaving Socrates behind, to see him as just a man who was striving like we all are. We can sense the light within ourselves reflected off the light in the greats. But conversely, to see the light within ourselves more clearly we need to see the greats themselves as not so different from us – not just in that they also ate and slept and got mad and sad, but even more, not so different from us in how they sought the light.

It is in appreciating the thorough ordinariness of the famous thinkers that they become our friends. Not masters on high, but really like our friends, fellow doofuses who let the structures of their mind crumble time and time again. When the great thinkers are reified as walking manifestations of great thinkingness, it’s because of a certain picture of achievement. If we think of achievement as building stable things, then when looking at Socrates or Christ or the Buddha we strain to see what is the great thing they built. We sense the greatness but can’t see what they built exactly. So the mind infers it as that they built invisible structures of the mind which are sturdier than the sturdiest physical buildings we can see. Driven by the picture of achievement as building, the mind looks for the hidden building within them that the great thinkers must have built, and identifies one’s own achievement with building such a grand hidden building within oneself.

At any rate, that is what my mind did. It sought to mimic the great thinkers and to imagine what they must have built deep within themselves, and to build that within myself. I built and built. Constantly. Energetically. With inspiration and with desperation. Afraid all the while that perhaps my cognitive buildings are mere shams and not like the great thinkers’ buildings which were, I imagined, unshakable. How strong their bricks must have been to never break down. How sturdy their walls that they never collapsed. How firm their ground that it never shook.

This whole way of thinking collapses if the picture of achievement is changed. What if the image of their unshakable buildings is because of the reification of their followers, who in their desperation to hold onto an ideal turned their teachers into ideals. And so missed in the process the very ordinary human achievement of the masters. An achievement not of building, but of letting fall. Not of creating invisible, magical, transcendent cognitive structures, but of not holding on to the normal, earthly cognitive structures which are constantly, like fruit, growing, becoming ripe, falling to the ground and disintegrating. An achievement not of creating buildings so sturdy that they never break down, but of making peace with their inevitable break down.

In free fall, as so much of what I took for granted starts to crumble and fade, I see also in free fall next to me Socrates, the Buddha and Christ. In dismay I ask them, “What, you also experienced free fall? Why would you need to?” To which they reply, “How could we not? The first few times we were in free fall, we kicked and screamed and resisted, thinking this is not how the great people before us achieved greatness! But as we were in free fall again and again, after each time we thought we had finally built something unshakable, we stopped fighting it and realized the free fall is the growth. Then free fall didn’t seem like a loss but as a new mode of being. Like a child who finally learns to swim, we simply learnt how to move in free fall. That looked magical to others and they seemed to assume we must be walking on air or over water. They said they are in awe of us and they too want to walk on air and over water! Usually before we could say much in reply, our ground would shake and we would be in free fall again and so we let it be and embraced the fall.”

As they speak, I look at them and look at myself and laugh. How simple it is indeed. It is the very simplicity which my mind struggles to accept. I remember that long before I wanted to build unshakable structures which would last forever and would mimic the masters, I had a much simpler wish – to fly, to be like a bird in the skies, gliding with open wings, unrestrained by any structure, seeing the world just for the sake of seeing it. And then I think, “Am I falling or flying?”

Openness Without Relativism

In the last post I said I prefer speaking just as a person over speaking with authority about philosophy. And I said when one speaks just as a person one is speaking “like one of the multitudes, one in the crowd. [The] aim is for us to speak as equals, as two people sharing our observations. Nothing more.”

Is this a matter of temperament or personality? Do you have an aversion to philosophical authority the way a person might not like carrots?

No. I think I have the desire to be seen as an authority as much as others do. Moreover, in my life I have often looked up to philosophical authority and put myself in the position of the earnest student. So both from the perspective of the speaker and the listener, by personality I have been very much drawn to philosophical authority.

My preference to speak just as a person goes against strong elements of my personality. That’s why its challenging – and also exciting, laced with a sense of personal growth and an expansion of horizons.

If it is not just a matter of your temperament, are you saying that philosophy professors are wrong to speak from authority?

Yes and no.

Let me start with “no”. In one very clear sense, the authority philosophy professors have comes from those wanting to listen to them as authorities. Lots of people, inside and outside academia, clearly enjoy and benefit from listening to philosophy professors as authorities on philosophy. That is a way they learn and grow. When there is genuine learning and growing, that is justification enough for philosophy professors to speak from authority. If someone is enjoying speaking as a professor and another person is enjoying engaging with that professor as an authority, it’s silly for a third person to say, “That’s all bullshit.”

In fact, speaking just a person means precisely not making these kinds of judgments about what benefits others. It is to treat people not as defined by their roles (professor, student, politician, parent, etc.) but that for every person there is, behind the roles, an individual trying to make sense of their life as best as they can. It is a contingent fact that the structures which didn’t work for me work for many others, and in some cases work enough for them to stay in and try to change it from within. One of the reasons I like speaking just a person is because it helps me remember this.

Still, in another sense my answer is “yes”. I don’t listen to philosophy professors as authorities anymore. I see them as people pursuing their interests embedded in structures which help others listen to them as authorities.

In this regard, I think of them like priests. What gives priests authority to speak about religion? Not from God as an outside force which underlies the priests’ authority over everyone. Priests don’t have any authority over me unless I find their speaking from authority helpful to me. If you find religious texts important for your life and you find the way priests talk about them helpful, of course it makes sense to listen to them as authorities. But if you don’t, you don’t. Similarly, if you certain philosophical texts interesting and find it helpful to listen to people who spend talking about them as their jobs, great. But there is no claim of authority underwritten by something other than the listeners who find it interesting such as “the philosophical tradition”, “the nature of philosophy”, “the rational mind” or “thinking clearly”.

I gave all those kind of justifications for academic philosophy when I was in academia. A good deal of my tension back then was I didn’t entirely believe it even back then.

So are you now a relativist who thinks any philosophical view is as good as any other?

No. I have beliefs about many things: religion, philosophy, mind, politics, future of humanity, etc. Part of having these beliefs, as with any beliefs, is believing them to be true. Or at any rate trying to justify one’s sense that they are true. I also believe some texts are better to trying to understand these topics than other texts, some authors more interesting and more incisive than others.

What I don’t believe is that the contemporary academic philosophy structures are either necessary or the best way to channel and engage with philosophical texts. Not only because, say, American philosophy departments for the most part ignore other traditions. But because they are misinterpreting even Western authors like Plato and Descartes.

Western academic philosophers like to trace their origins to Socrates. But in a sense modern academic philosophy is only 250 years old. Even modern philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Hume predate it. The first great modern philosophy professor was Kant (1724-1804). Current philosophy departments are the result of at least four forces which came together in the second half of the 1700s in Europe:

1) the rise of modern universities linked to the industrial and political revolutions of the time;
2) universities moving theology from the center of the intellectual life to make room for the scientific revolution;
3) philosophy departments as the self-conscious expression of the best of human civilization, encapsulated in a hierarchy with European philosophy as the most rational; and
4) philosophy departments as the spaces which navigate in between religion and science by investigating the nature of knowledge.

The academic philosophy of Kant and Hegel which brought together (1)-(4) was a new transformation in its time. But it has now become antiquated.

(1) is being challenged as we move from the industrial age to the information age, and as that has implications for our political structures. So there is no reason to think the way Kant was a philosophy professor has to apply to our time. (2) is a done deal. There is no need anymore to justify the scientific revolution. The technological revolutions of the last 300 years justify it on their own, and even if they need some justification, that it is incompatible with parts of religion is low on the list of priorities. (3) is hard to believe shorn of the white supremacy which Kant and Hegel believed.

(4) is now the main remaining link between academic philosophy in Kant’s time and now. But (4) was really buttressed by (1)-(3). In Kant’s time religious, scientific, political, economic and colonial institutions were all being rethought. Kant’s great institutional achievement was to connect all these changes to philosophical questions and so to mark philosophy departments as the place in the university where meta-reflection on these changes happen. It was a great rethinking of philosophy and its tradition to make it fit into the new academic structures and the rapidly changing society of that time.

I respect Kant’s achievement. I just believe we need to do that now in our own time in our own way. Our societal changes are no less radical than those in Kant’s time, and our changes are overturning the very institutions set up in Kant’s time. It’s not obvious what the future of work will be, or the way people communicate, or share information, or how colleges more generally will be transformed. It is strange to think that in the midst of these huge changes, academic philosophy nonetheless can retain its identity from Kant’s time.

If philosophy professors don’t have authority grounded in the nature and history of philosophy, isn’t there going to be chaos in terms of philosophical thinking? How would we then know what distinguishes philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy?

Chaos is baked into human life. Every generation feels big, unprecedented changes are happening, because they are. Humans are defined by their cultural artifacts like tools, institutions, stories, identities and books, and humans are also defined by their continually changing those artifacts to their times. Culturally, humans are continually at sea, riding out the storms of transformation. This has been our fate at least since the dawn of mass civilizations and mass migrations around 6,000 years ago, and even before that from hunter gatherer life to agriculture or nomadic life.

The best way to deal with the chaos is to face up to it rather than to seek comfort in an imagined stability, either of a glorious past or a future utopia. To the extent one makes peace with the chaos, one can then ride with it, and that is the kind of stability and control we can genuinely have. But if we aim only for a stability that denies the chaos, like with any denial, it only pulls us deeper into the choas even as we live into a fantasy.

I certainly see this in current academic philosophy, which is being pulled apart by two fantasies. On the one side are those who miss the stability of the past decades, when it seemed like philosophy had a set curriculum and pantheon and method and topics, and it seemed like something which stretched from Plato to Quine (or whoever is their favorite contemporary). Of course, there was no such one thing stretching over 2,500 years and which neatly fits into philosophy departments. It was the Kantian and Hegelian achievement to create such a story which has been dominant in the West for the last 200 years. But from within the perspective of one who believes this story to be reality, the concerns raised by diversity feel like the barbarians attacking civilization. If they overtake civilization, all will be in ruins and all standards will be lost.

On the other side are those who want to embrace the diversity issues, challenge the status quo and the past and do all this from within academic philosophy. Here the fantasy is not of the past, but of the future. Can diversity be embraced in all its forms – comparative philosophy, feminism, critical race theory and so on, including deep challenges to what counts as philosophy and who counts as a philosopher, and even blurring the boundaries of inside and outside academia, and the boundaries between philosophy, politics, literature, science and religion – and yet package all that within the academic structures of intro courses, graduate education and tenure review, all the while also battling institutional problems like graduate students not getting jobs, and inequalities such as between tenure-track and adjunct professors? To me this seems like pouring – indeed, forcing – new wine into old wineskins. A valiant effort for those who want to try it, but, it seems to me, as doomed as trying to contain a hurricane in a room.

This division shows that already even within academic philosophy there is no agreed upon way to distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy. Accepting that philosophical authority isn’t grounded in the nature or history of philosophy isn’t a way of creating chaos. It is a way of appreciating the chaotic situation within which we already exist.

For some people Quine is an exemplar of a philosopher. For others it is Fanon. For yet others it is the Dalai Lama. Who is right? I think it’s the wrong question. Philosophy professors are forced to ask the question because of the practical issues they face as academics of determining what intro classes are taught, who gets hired and who gets the chaired professorships. The practical life of academia forces one to ask those questions – and so those questions become the trigger points in the profession, as if addressing the philosophical issues and the professional issues are the same.

If our aim is to deal with the broader chaotic situations of our lives and society in the 21st century, why should we think the way philosophy professors settle their chaotic internal institutional questions of advancement is the best, or even a good, way to do that? The world is already chaotic enough without forcing oneself to see it through the lens of an institution created 250 years ago. Sometimes it is better to step out and see things afresh.

Are you then siding with the conservative state governments who are trying to eliminate philosophy departments?

I don’t agree with their reasons for eliminating philosophy departments. They don’t want philosophy departments to be diverse. I left academic philosophy because it wasn’t diverse enough.

But since I think philosophy professors can speak with authority only insofar as people want to listen to them, I don’t object if people don’t want to listen to them. I think many conservatives, including religious conservatives, are justified to feel – as I did – that academic philosophers are not trying to speak to them. I can understand their annoyance that academic philosophers are trying to use the majesty or the essence or the history of philosophy as the justification for their authority rather than to try to gain the authority directly from the listeners’ interest.

Of course, I don’t agree with religious conservatives that instead of academic philosophy we need to go back to the church as the space of true authority. I don’t believe there is any such thing as the real institution of authority. There are only people trying to understand the world and listening to people who they find helpful. The trouble comes when we want to institutionally force others to find helpful what we find helpful.

In America the proximate cause of philosophy departments dwindling in the coming decades might be conservative governments. But we need to put it in the broader context of the internal tensions within academic philosophy and the way the Kantian model is becoming outdated. I support philosophy departments against conservative hit jobs, but I don’t thereby believe philosophy departments are essential for the future.

Current philosophy departments are like scholastic philosophy schools in the middle ages. The scholastic schoolmen experienced the new fangled philosophies of non-academics like Descartes and Spinoza as radical relativists overthrowing all standards. Of course, that’s not what Descartes and Spinoza were doing. They were rethinking philosophy and its possibilities without worrying about the internal institutional pressures faced by scholastics. By stepping out into the new, they were trying to meet the new situations and chaos head on without the weight of past institutions. I think that is a good spirit for our time as well.

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.

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.

Anatomy of an Argument

I said in my previous post that the selfful person sees others the way he sees trees and stars – as part of nature. Just as he doesn’t imagine he can control the stars, he doesn’t think he can control others.

But is this really plausible in human interactions? I wondered that today when I was on the verge of an argument with my wife.

I had a long day of work. Was tired and wanted to relax. I walk into the kitchen to help with dinner, and find my close to two year old daughter playing among a half box of uncooked spaghetti sticks all over the floor. I turn to my wife and she says, “It fell out and she was having fun, so I let it be. They say it’s good for children to play.”

I got annoyed and tried to not vent. I walked away. But the venting started in my mind: “Oh, you know this is just the kind of thing I don’t like. That too after a long day. Why can’t we have a nice mellow evening with everything in its place! Why does this have to happen? Why can’t you be different?” After a little while the venting kicked up a notch in my mind: “We didn’t play with food like this when I was growing up. Why can’t I pass on my childhood to my daughter? It’s like the way I was brought up is disappearing and we are not doing anything about it? How can you not care? My family’s form of life is disappearing and doesn’t that matter? We need to have our daughter have a link to that. How is that going to happen if she is allowed to throw and play with spaghetti all over the floor?”

I am writing this not to say my wife is wrong. I don’t think she was wrong. What is more interesting is the movement of my mind. In a matter of seconds, my mind went from spaghetti on the floor to feeling my kind of childhood is being lost to my daughter. Annoyance at cleaning up the mess merged with an existential angst of losing the past I knew, and all blurred together by a sense of this is not right!

And in the blur the focus becomes the other person. If only she wasn’t like this. If only she understood. How can I make her understand? Or at any rate make her change? Reasoning doesn’t seem to help. Maybe if I show my frustration and then my anger? Maybe if I seem sad or depressed? Maybe if I raise my voice or if I walk away and make her feel bad?

In that moment I wasn’t seeing my wife as if she was like the trees or the stars or the rain – something out of my control. To the contrary, I was upset because I was intent on seeing her as someone I should be able to control. To accept I can’t control her feels like a failure on my part, as if I were weak or not charasmatic enough to move her to be different. It’s as if my mind were saying: “No, she isn’t like the stars or the mountains. She is my friend, my wife, someone I share my life with. She is a part of me and I a part of her. How can I see her like the way I see the stars and the mountains? How can I see my daughter that way, or my mother? No! To be close means we can make claims on each other! That is what binds us together! And in this moment, damn it, this is the claim I make on this person in my life: I don’t like this! This will not do! I will show my dissatisfaction as a way of changing her, so that we can then be more in harmony.”

All this makes sense to the venting mind. But even through the haze of the venting and the argument I am having my mind (playing the parts of both myself and my wife), it is obvious this is not going to work. The more I get annoyed or sulk or show frustration, the more this moment is slipping away. Not towards a future where things will be how I want them to be, but towards a future where there will now only be yet another memory of a time when we didn’t see things in the same way. If I stick with my venting mind, the only thing which will be achieved is an evening of brooding.

The venting mind wants to blame this also on the other person. This evening is turning into a mess because she refuses to understand. If only she could see the point I am making and change and apologize and clean the mess quickly, we can have such a good evening. The problem is she is like the stars – unchangeable by me. She is not changing because she doesn’t care enough about me. If she cared, she wouldn’t be like the stars. She would be responsive to my feelings and desires, and would change here, now, in this instant. Instead of how she is, with her personality and her upbringing and her nature and her desires and her values, she would be more like me – she would push through all her background and her thoughts and feelings so that she can be responsive to me. Isn’t that what human relationships are about?

For the venting mind seeing the other as the stars is a sign of failure. As if the people don’t care enough about each other. As if caring would mean that they would be willing to change in each instant and be available to the other person.

The way I am willing to change in this instant to be available to her?

The venting mind continues: No, that’s totally different. I don’t have to change in this instance because I didn’t do anything wrong. She was wrong to make the mess. Why do I have to change to her? I dont have to. I won’t. I will not.

Here we see the basic illusion of the venting mind. The problem for the venting mind isn’t that a person might be like the stars to another person. It’s that I want to be like the stars to her! She should experience me as the unchanging and the unchangable, such that she feels she has to change for me.

If we pull on this thread, something interesting starts to surface. What is pushing the anger and the frustration, and the hurt and the disappointment – yes, even about something so trivial as spaghetti on the floor – is that I don’t experience myself like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Cool. Calm. Serene. Majestic. Still. At peace. Not easily perturbed.

No, clearly I don’t experience myself that way because here I am losing my cool and ready to spill my emotions all over the room just over some spaghetti on the floor.

What is hard for the venting mind to accept is that in this instance, in whole room the only thing which isn’t acting like the stars is me. My wife is fine. My daughter is fine. The spaghetti is fine. The floor is fine. The cat playing with the spaghetti is fine. The walls are fine. The tv is fine. The people on the tv arguing about politics are fine, least concerned by the spaghetti on the floor. My family are fine. India is fine. My childhood is fine. The past is fine. The future is fine.

None of these things are losing their cool. The only one getting upset is me. And that leads to a feedback loop. The more I see I am the only one getting upset, the more upset I get. The more upset I get, the more the situation feels wrong. And so the more wrong it seems that I am the only one getting upset.

The venting mind has gotten so bent out of shape because it identifies itself with me. The anxious mind says, “I am Bharath! Hear my troubles! I am troubled means Bharath is troubled. I am troubled means he is in danger. He might lose something important to him like his childhood or his self-image, and then he won’t be the same person. He will be a diminished person. He will less of who he is. His essence and his nature will be chipped away, one spaghetti like instance at a time. Unless he makes a stand now to stop the tide, he will be a pale reflection of himself. I am his essence and I am the only one protecting him. I am his defense. Without me he might perish. He isn’t like the stars – immutable and able to withstand anything. He is fragile, easily breakable if due care isn’t taken! I am that care. So hear me roar about the spaghetti on the floor!”

We are now very far indeed from the spaghetti on the floor. It was but an opportunity for the venting mind to release itself and to lay claim to who I am. To lay claim to itself as who I am.

The more I feed the venting, the more it spins its story: “I am you Bharath. You are not like the stars and the mountains. Don’t believe all that. You and what you hold dear, like the life you want for your daughter, are fragile. You have to be vigilant. Alert. On the guard for any crack which might lead to the slippery slope of change. Don’t believe all this stuff about you being part of the infinite nature of the world. Humbug. You need protection. You need me! Don’t set me aside! Don’t ignore me!”

Here if I manage to think of the other person as I think of the stars, something amazing happens. I don’t then think, “Oh, she is like the stars. That means she was right all along.” No. When I see her as the stars, I see that I cannot control her. That in fact the venting mind that has taken possession of my peace cannot control her. She like the stars is beyond the reach of my venting mind.

She is in her own world, living her own life. The spaghetti on the floor meant something different to her than it did to me. Something fun, something playful. Something to share with our daughter. In her world there was no problem. And no matter how much my venting mind wants to make it a problem for her, it is met over and over again with the hard reality that it isn’t a problem for her. At most my wife might appreciate it is a problem for me. But that doesn’t prove that it is a problem as such, that her instincts are all wrong and she needs to be a different person.

The life energy in each person resists this kind of change from outside. The life energy in each person is so strong and so potent that the venting mind’s delusional attempts to control the other person fall flat. And this is what the venting mind cannot accept – it’s own limits. That people are more than what the venting mind imagines people to be. That they are more than what the venting mind can understand.

To the venting mind accepting that the other person is like the stars is to accept defeat. But in reality, it is victory and freedom. For it is victory and freedom over the venting mind.

The moment I grasp that the venting mind can’t control the other person, I start to sense the possibility of another, more selfful truth: the venting mind doesn’t speak for me either! It has no more control over me than over other people.

The venting mind has power over me only as long as I give it that power. And I give it that power because I think I need it to control the other person. I try to use the venting mind as a weapon over the other person. But once it is activated, the venting mind doesn’t care which person it controls. It needs to control a person to survive. And when it sees it can’t control others, it turns on the person who activated it. It now says I am you and you are me, and spins its web over the person who tried to use it merely as a weapon.

Seeing the other person as the stars breaks the spell of the venting mind. By seeings its limits over others, I can see its limits over myself as well.

Then slowly an awareness starts to emerge. Maybe I am not the venting mind as it says I am. Maybe I am not fragile. Maybe I don’t have to constantly be on guard. Maybe there is something of the stars in me. Maybe I too am like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Maybe I can let go of the venting, scared mind and be with myself.

Then like the spaghetti on the floor, and my daughter playing with the spaghetti, and the cat playing next to her, and the trees outside, and the moon shining over those trees, and the stars sparkling next to the moon, I too am fine. Perfectly fine.