The Origins of Philosophy

Imagine physics departments didn’t pursue the inquiry, “When did the universe begin?” Or history departments didn’t ask “When were the first written records?” Or biology departments didn’t wonder, “When did life begin?” That would be odd.

This oddity is the norm in many philosophy departments in America, including and especially the most prestigious departments.

If you want to study “when did philosophy begin?”, you would be hard pressed to find a philosophy professor who specializes in that topic. What you would get instead – and what undergrads get in intro courses – are off hand, uncritical assertions that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece.

You would not get an inquiry into that question. Or even an affirmation of the openness of that question.

Imagine medical researches who act in their classes as if they know the cure for cancer. Or if literary theorists claim they have found the one right interpretation of Hamlet’s anxiety. That is what it’s like to be in philosophy classes.

The discipline which questions whether chairs exists, if we are dreaming, how many hairs make for baldness, which one of a dozen interpretations of Kant’s transcendental deduction is correct – that discipline has no sustained inquiry into its own origins.

Of course philosophy departments offer courses on Ancient Greek philosophy. So many courses on the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Over and over again. But do those courses raise the question of when philosophy began or simply assume the answer as obvious and settled?

Questions which are treated as settled before they are raised for inquiry – that is institutionalized ignorance.

What if courses are added in Ancient Chinese or Indian philosophy? Does that solve the problem? No more than simply teaching Ancient Greek philosophy. For the assumption that instead of in one place in Southern Europe, philosophy also began in a few other places in Asia doesn’t open the question for inquiry. It keeps it shut down, but now with a veneer of openness and cosmopolitanism. In introductory Indian philosophy books, it is as unquestioned an assumption that philosophy began with the Vedas as it is in European philosophy books that it began with the pre-Socratics.

Combining different unquestioned assumptions of the origins of philosophy – which are in effect different cultures’ chauvinisms – doesn’t make for a global understanding of philosophy. It makes for global institutionalized ignorance.

The way out of the ignorance isn’t to combine answers without reflection. It is to first raise for open inquiry the question and to problematize the question. It is to acknowledge that we don’t know. The mind which accepts ignorance will find the path to an answer in the future. The mind which denies ignorance remains the same in the past, present and future – and confuses that continuity with having already found universal truth.

Obviously the reason the Greek origin story goes unquestioned in Western departments in eurocentrism. Now, eurocentrism isn’t all bad. Every culture will tell more, and prioritize, it’s own history more than that of other cultures. But that is no reason to rest content with unquestioned assumptions or to choose only the facts one wants.

Did philosophy begin in Greece, or India, or China, or Egypt, or Mesopotania, or Australia? Or did it begin not in any one place, but along  porous trade routes which united Europe with India, or Europe with the Middle East or with Egypt? The only way to know is to learn and better understand the intellectual histories around the world in the ancient world – and to put those histories through the fire of philosophical reflection. Any answer accepted before such inquiry is not justified. It is embraced for the sake of institutional continuity rather than out of a search for truth – choosing ignorance and a bond with past philosophy departments over inquiry and a bond with future departments.

This is the tacit shared assumption of the conservatives and the progressives in academic philosophy.

The conservatives affirm it as an already known, unimpeachable truth that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics. The justification for this is given in terms of other supposedly known, unimpeachable truths of the primitive nature of religious thinking, the unphilosophical nature of Greek mythology and the even less reflective nature of the mythologies of ancient non-Europeans. For the conservatives this vision of the ancient world is mere common sense – what we all know and which history demonstrates as conclusive, full stop, period. On this view, the origins of philosophy, it turns out, is not a philosophical question after all. It is a simply historical question, and appreciation of the history shows how sophisticated one is philosophically. If one wonders, “But weren’t Homer or Moses philosophers?”, the conservative responds, “No, no! That isn’t philosophy at all! Don’t you see?” So to appreciate the history in the right way already presupposes the philosophical insight of knowing what philosophy is and what it isn’t – and wasn’t, even in ancient times.

The progressive responds to this eurocentric vision with cries of racism. That in fact any affirmation that philosophy began in this culture as opposed to that culture, or in this hemisphere as opposed to that, is to impose imperialistic assumptions of the superiority of one culture over an another. To discard imperialistic thinking requires seeing every culture in the ancient world as being philosophical in their own way – for every culture tells stories and attempts to understand the big picture issues of the origins of the world, or right and wrong, of the nature of human beings and so on. On the progressive view, as well then, it turns out the origins of philosophy is not a philosophical question at all. It is a simply a question of respect, of “philosophical” being a honorific which it is racist to apply to some ancient cultures and not others. The relevant response isn’t to discover when or where in fact philosophy began. It is to overcome the chauvinistic impulse to apportion philosophical respect unevenly, and so to affirm every ancient culture as philosophical.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive visions of the origins of philosophy imply an open ended inquiry into the past or into the nature of philosophy. For both the nature and origins of philosophy are already settled – and the real task is to maintain or change the current academic structures appropriately. This means for the conservative fighting back the relativism and politicization of philosophy of the progressives. And it means for the progressives overcoming the racism and imperialism of the status quo of past decades.

In this fight between the conservatives and progressives there is therefore a blurring together of (1) historical inquiries of the past, (2) metaphilosophical reflections on the nature of philosophy and its relation to religion and mythology, (3) the racist elements in the formation of modern philosophy departments, (4) who should get what jobs now, and (5) what should be taught in intro philosophy courses and how.

If philosophical thinking shows anything, it is that clarity cannot arise from blurring together issues. The very assumption that issues as diverse and varied as (1) – (5) can neatly fall into two and only two camps, which then requires inquirers to choose sides, is absurd. As absurd as assuming that tax reform, health care, racial justice, religious tolerance, gay rights, immigration, global warming and a host of other urgent, vastly different issues can only be solved together by choosing one or the other political party.

Whether we call it philosophy or wisdom or just clear thinking, what is needed is the patience and the subtlety to disentangle issues, and pursue the separate threads of inquiry where they lead.

Real progress from a eurocentric vision of the origins of philosophy isn’t achieved by conflating the issue of origins with modern racial tensions. Rather, it is achieved by recognizing the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent, open ended inquiry, which is not defined by either chauvinistic or egalitarian concerns as such. Of course any inquiry into the origins of philosophy will have to respect the special relation of Europeans to European philosophy, and also respect the need to overcome the racist and chauvinistic assumptions of past times. But both of these aims are hindered by conflating them with an inquiry into the origins of philosophy. The more we can treat the origins inquiry as a question in it’s own right, which can stand on its own due to its own complexity and interest, the more we will be able to think about its implications for a culture’s special understanding of itself or for anti-racism.

Once we think of the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent inquiry, something magical happens: people can pursue it irrespective of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and so forth. The question becomes not only intellectually important and urgent, but also a unifying question that people can pursue together no matter their other differences.

The key to developing an academic philosophy which embraces diversity and unity is to foster these kinds of new, unifying questions – questions which are sufficiently unorthodox that many of the old moves, pro and con, seem irrelevant, and which through it’s very newness and freshness provides new avenues for people across different viewpoints to work together.

Plato, Confucius, Shankara, Du Bois, Anscombe — none of these great thinkers of the past truly faced up to the question of the origins of philosophy from a global perspective. This was not a personal failing on their part. We just didn’t know enough about the diversity of ways philosophy was pursued around the world (though many ancient and medieval philosophers were aware of, and engaged with, other philosophical traditions). Indeed, for the great philosophers of the pre-modern past, their sense of “the world” didn’t even encapsulate the entire globe. And for modern philosophers who did think of the world as the globe, the sense of the globe was mixed with chauvinistic cultural assumptions about the self-importance of their own culture.

We in the 21st century are at the beginning of a possibility which would have been unimaginable to both the ancients and the moderns: understanding the origins of philosophy while keeping in view peoples from across the entire globe. To the ancients the globe would have been unfathomable. To the moderns even a starting assumption of equal respect for all the peoples of the globe would have been unimaginable.

Where was gun power invented? Who invented writing? Where was the number zero first used? These are questions of our shared human heritage. That writing might have been invented in Egypt or in Mesopotamia is no claim against Europeans or Asians. Or that gun power was invented in China is no knock against Indians or Latin Americans. That the number zero might have originated in India is no claim against Australians or Americans. Different parts of the human species, in different parts of the world contributed different things to our shared life.

The same is true for philosophy. We as a species are now in a position finally to approach the origins of philosophy from such a global perspective. This is not a race for which culture or continent gets the prize for “getting to philosophy first”. The very abstractness and complexity of philosophy suggests that “it” is not any one thing, unique and indivisible, but is rather a complex set of diverse practices. Some of it will have originated here, some there. Some of it will have progressed in this way here, and in that way there.

Instead of reducing the origins of philosophy to already stock categories of how we divide ourselves, a true open minded inquiry into the subject can provide new facts, visions and categories for understanding our shared, mutual dependence as humans.

This is the potential of philosophy departments. And of ourselves as humans more generally.

Emotions, Public Reasoning and Logic

Disagreements about hot button topics are not only about ideas. Even more basically they are disagreements about emotions. In particular, about the emotional stance one should adopt to changes in society.

There are many policy differences between Trump and Hilary Clinton. But at root the disagreement is about emotional comportment regarding recent decades, and especially the Obama years. Were they good or bad? Is anger about them justified, or were they a move in the right direction? Or about the older days: Is it good we are leaving them behind as Clinton suggests, or should we reclaim them as Trump suggests?

Trump is not an intellectual. He doesn’t need to be to get his points across, because those points are mainly one of mood – of how one feels about this or that aspect of our society.  The power and grip of his points don’t require he defend them theoretically – maybe someone later will come along who will do that better. But for now his grip over his supporters comes from him not budging from his emotional state. What looks petulant to his opponents, looks strong to his supporters. Same with the Clinton, or the Bernie Sanders supporters, or anyone.

Our public discourse is not effective right now. It’s because before people can talk to each other, they need to acknowledge each other’s emotional states. Need to acknowledge that they have different emotional responses, before jumping into whether those responses are good or bad. If I can’t say to the other person, “Yes, I understand how you feel“, and he can’t say that back to me, then we are not going to be reason together.

Hence a primary condition for public reason is emotional equanimity. The ability to hold conflicting emotions in one’s consciousness without letting one’s own emotional response overwhelm one.

My emotional response to global warming is anxiety and concern. Most Trump supporters’ response is lack of concern and a sense they are being hoodwinked – global warming as just a ploy to steam roll them. If a dialogue is to be possible, and before we can get to a debate about the scientific facts, this difference in emotional outlooks has to be dealt with.

It is natural to bemoan the sorry state of debates on cable news. The screaming and the preening and posturing, instead of focusing on the ideas. But the cable news debates are not meant to be intellectual debates – even if the cable stations falsely, in their confusion, pitch them as such. Rather, those “debates” are useful and productive in bringing out the emotional disagreements that underlie the intellectual disagreements.

Where the cable news debates fail isn’t in upholding the standards of intellectual debate. They fail rather in the way a counselor fails to help a couple listen to each other during a fight. Were Ross and Rachel (from the TV show Friends) really on a break when Ross cheated on Rachel? The argument about the fact of the matter goes nowhere because it doesn’t address the core emotional disagreement, and each doesn’t acknowledge the other’s feelings.

The problem with cable news debates isn’t that they are not intellectual enough. If that were the problem, then presumably if a Trump supporter and critic were more like academics, then the problem would be solved. But the problem won’t be solved! For the academics are faced with the same situation.

In academic philosophy, what should be the emotional response to the direction of the profession? For some the right response is alarm, anger and nostalgia for the past that is being lost. For others it is a measured optimism that things are getting better. For still others it is anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal that the profession is still rooted in the past status quo. Here are a couple of recent examples of these emotional battles (one at Daily Nous, and another at the Electric Agora that involved me, where I got caught up in my emotions).

In a way, the academic philosophy battles are puzzling. They involve philosophy professors, graduate students and ex academics, all of whom probably have taken introduction to logic at some point, and some even teach it. Given that logic is the study of reasoning, why are people who studied it nonetheless not able to reason effectively about their disagreements regarding the profession?

The cause lies in the difference between emotional equanimity and setting aside emotions. Most introduction to logic courses do the latter – they treat reasoning as if it doesn’t concern emotions at all. As if reasoning consists simply in making inferences correctly, and being able to spot logical fallacies, and where we don’t have to worry about emotions – those pesky “irrational” forces of the mind. I am no expert in logic, ancient or modern. But this aemotional way of conceiving reasoning does seem to have its roots in  the modern treatment of logic as basically the same kind of inquiry as mathematics.

I took intro logic at Cornell. And the next level logic course, covering Godel’s theorems, at Harvard. I could follow the second level logic class enough to begin to appreciate the strange, self-referential beauty of Godel’s theorem. But mastering it was beyond me. It was clear there are vast realms of reasoning of which I could have only the dimmest sense – like my understanding of most areas of physics or math. Godel, Tarski, Kripke: they are geniuses in a field that is important and fundamental to human life.

But that importance isn’t related to fostering better public reasoning.

In most intro logic courses it is left mysterious why humans fall for logical fallacies. But it is obvious why. Most of the time in daily life the inability to appreciate another’s argument isn’t rooted in the intrinsic difficulties of the topic being discussed (people scream at each other about global warming not because global warming science is hard, though as a science it must be). Rather, it’s because we fail to appreciate the outlook of someone with a different emotional comportment than ours.

It is part of having an emotional comportment on a topic that any other emotional response to that topic feels irrational. In this sense, emotions are more like pains than like ideas. If I just entertain the idea “my leg is hurting”, then I can entertain the opposite idea just as easily. But if I am in pain and my leg hurts, then I can’t in that moment entertain the opposite idea. That defeats the point of the pain, which is to get me to act to help my body. Pain is experienced as calling for action; not for deliberation about whether the pain is real.

Emotions are similar. Especially strong, potent emotions. If I feel threatened by the other person, the emotional state of feeling threatened is experienced as calling for the action of shutting down that person, or distancing myself from them. Just as when in pain the knife which is thrust into my leg is experienced as to be removed, so too in the midst of emotions like anxiety or feeling threatened or betrayed the ideas of the person who is threatening is experiences as to be rejected. As not meeting the standards of rationality.

Hence often in public debates which go nowhere the conversation devolves into each side marking its boundaries, and drawing the other side as occupying the irrational camp. Knowledge of logical fallacies doesn’t help avoid this self-protective mode of interaction. For that knowledge itself just gets used as a weapon: it is the other side which is making all the fallacies, and my side which is resolutely seeing the right inferences.

If there is to be progress in the midst of such distrust, then the first condition will have to be for the participants to cultivate equanimity. To be able to observe their own emotions without jumping to action as the emotion calls for it – and from the space of such stillness, to be able to see the other person’s emotions as plausible, or at any rate, as where that person just happens to be, and so where, if I want to talk to them, where I have to begin with them.

This kind of cultivation of equanimity is not taught in our introduction to logic classes. But it should be, if the aim is to help those intro students reason better with their fellow citizens. It would be logic which concerns not just the relation between propositions, but a logic which concerns the interactions of people in a complex world.

Does this reduce logic then to therapy or counseling? No. Cultivating equanimity is not just therapy. It is something else very close to the hearts of philosophers: wisdom. Like philosophy courses in general, the introduction to logic courses have become separated from the concept of wisdom.

If we want to foster better conversations, we need to bring the concepts of rationality and wisdom back together in order to deal with our emotions.

The Evolving American Experiment

I love America. I admire America. As Bonasera says at the beginning of The Godfather, “I believe in America”.

Biographically, there is an obvious explanation. My father had a heart attack in India a few months before we moved here. A month after we immigrated, he had bypass surgery. To our great surprise and relief, New York State picked up the tab. I assume it was some version of Medicaid, and it was a heck of a welcome by the country. My father lived for another thirty years, twenty of them working in the Social Services department in Westchester County in the suburbs of New York City. Without America, I might not have had a father past my early teens.

But there is more to it than biography. When in college I read Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Rousseau and Kant, my admiration of America increased. The American Constitution of 1789 was a bold experiment in liberal democracy, a living example of Enlightenment values. The more it sank in that America was the first modern nation to try this experiment, the more I was grateful to be here. The American dream for me wasn’t mainly economical. It was intellectual and cultural: to contribute to the experiment started by the Founding Fathers.

However, there is a major difference between the America of the Founding Fathers and the America I immigrated to in 1988 at age 11. Since its beginning, America was ethnically diverse, with Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and later in the 19th century, Hispanics, Asians, and many others. But the governance and cultural self-representation of the country did not reflect this diversity. The liberal democracy experiment was limited to whites.

Naturally racism played a big part in this. But it’s worth noting how fantastical democracy seemed to even many whites at the time. Most Europeans then thought the colonists were crazy to try a government without a king. Many of the farmers who fought in the revolution might have been fine if George Washington became their king. But Washington wasn’t fine with it and that is his greatness. So democracy being limited to whites was like the training wheels used to achieve the balance of a representative government.

American history for the next two hundred years was the struggle to take the training wheels off. This culminated in the 1960s when, with the end of segregation, America became an explicitly multicultural liberal democracy.

This was the America I immigrated to. With the naiveté of a child I had first imagined that America was a completed project, one which I could simply benefit from. But far from being complete, America is continually evolving. The Founding Fathers did the hard work of establishing a democracy. Lincoln’s generation maintained that democracy. Martin Luther King’s generation transitioned America into a multicultural democracy. The current generation, like Lincoln’s, faces the task of maintaining and unifying the democracy we inherited.

Continue reading “The Evolving American Experiment”