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.

Longing for Home

If you are a fan of A. R. Rahman, or of fusion music, check out this video:

It made me cry.

The song is from the movie “Swades” and it captures an Indian living in America yearning for his home land (video of the song in the movie with subtitles is here).

I have had this feeling most of my life.

But unlike in the movie, my yearning hasn’t been for India. I left there when I was 11, just long enough to have the feeling for India in my bones and somehow not long enough (at least for me) to create an unshakable bond.

Since I moved to America, I have felt like a mutant. Half my body made with the soil of India, and the other half with the soil of America. That I am in my essence a trans-national and trans-racial being. That my being cannot be contained within national boundaries. That I am a being in search of that fusion soil which is my home.

Where the hero in the movie looks from America to India, I look from the present to the future.

To a time when my kind of fusion being feels grounded in a social fabric which self-consciously and openly nurtures it.

Is that future coming in a decade or a century? Or is that future what is called heaven or nirvana – which flowers not in physical or cultural terms primarily, but in terms of consciousness and spirituality?

Surely it is more the latter.

But still, the physical and the cultural are not nothing either. They can be powerful to lifting up consciousness.

That’s what I felt seeing the video of A. R. Rahman Meets Berklee College of Music.

Is everyone on that stage yearning for India? Maybe some. But not all. Many are Indian-Americans, who might be as in between worlds as I feel. Some aren’t even of Indian background. But they all share a common yearning, for a new mode of being, speaking to a hunger for going home.

Home – wherever that is for you. In whatever dimension or mode of consciousness.

It speaks to a growing global awareness – a new mode of cultural being. Where we can see that being fusion selves is not a new phenomenon, but has been the reality for thousands of years. Since the dawn of the first large societies, which were complex enough to have people of diverse backgrounds sharing a common life.

Does this mean I am against nations? Or that I am not committed to America? Not at all.

I am a resident of Maryland and also a citizen of America. My commitment to my city and to my state doesn’t take away from my commitment to my nation. Likewise, I am related to my family and friends in ways I am not to my neighbors.

That I have deep bonds with people outside America doesn’t take away from my bonds with fellow Americans.

Perhaps there is a guy born in America who moved to India when he was 11, and is now an Indian citizen, and who has the yearning for a global soil where the multiple sides of him can live together. I share something deep with that person.

But if I am trying to work on my country, I work with my fellow Americans. That only we can do together. I can do many things with my counterpart fusion guy in India . But I can’t vote for public officials with him, nor work as fellow citizens. Just as no matter how close I am to my neighbor, I need to first build my home with my spouse and my family.

Me and my fusion counterpart in India can share notes. Share life trajectories. Share ideals, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Share new cultures and modes of life. Share the dawning of a global spiritual awakening.

Even as we also wish each other luck in our engagements with our countries. I can be a fusion person and an American. Be a fusion person and be more –  politically and institutionally – American and Indian. In fact, that is how I am. There is a lot of India in me. But also a lot of India that is not in me, that I lost or that never developed after I moved here.

There are many different dimensions to human life. To any individual life. Cultural. Familial. National. Intellectual. Spiritual. And many others.

The longing for home can sometimes feel as if all these dimensions have to line up into one uber longing – the longing which underlies and unifies everything. As if really the cultural, national and spiritual longings are all the same. As if being Western, Christian and American overlap into one longing. Or Eastern, Hindu and Indian. And so on.

I can feel the pull of this temptation. It has a certain centrifugal force which can take root from deep within one’s soul.

But it tramples over the intrinsic diversity within one’s own life. There are – and can be – many different kinds of pains, longings and joys. There is no need for them all to line up. When I listen to A. R. Rahman’s music, or read Tolstoy, or watch the Super Bowl, or hang out with my family, or am engaged at work – there is no one longing which all these have to meet. There are many forms of longing, joy, curiosity, puzzlement, sadness and reflection.

Being with that diversity within oneself and in the world is itself a way of finding one’s way home.


Varieties of Globalism

There is much talk of globalism nowadays. I like this, as it is us coming to grips with our shared human situation. At the same time, much of the talk of globalism – pro and con – is confusing, because it blurs together so many different concepts of globalism.

I believe the 21st century is the dawn of a new era of human life. Future generations will look at this time the way we now look back to the Axial Age in the 5th century BC, or the Islamic middle ages, or the Western Enlightenment. But a new era means the conceptual framework for that era is also in its infancy, and so many of the concepts and distinctions that will be natural to people living in 2100 or later are for us still in their fledgling form.

Globalism is one such concept. There are so many things it means. Some we are already living with and are non-negotiable parts of our lives. Some we might want but don’t have. Some we are not sure we want or can have. And some which we probably don’t want or is impossible at any rate.

* Knowledge

Natural science globalism (Already here): In thinking about quantum mechanics or how the body works, it doesn’t matter in the least what one’s national or cultural identities are. All one needs is to be part of the conversation of science. Also true for technology. This kind of globalism started several millennia ago, but really ramped up in the last two centuries. The global infrastructure of the natural science and technological communities binds all of us now.

Human science globalism (Started and in early stages): This is trickier. There are obvious senses in which fields like psychology, anthropology and economics apply to all human beings, and they have developed in the last 100 years. And yet, these areas concern our modes of life that are fully cultural – which raises the question whether we have an understanding of ourselves as human beings which is global. That such a global understanding is possible in some sense and necessary, I don’t doubt. But what it means to have it is a big, wide open issue. For example, what does it mean to have a global human history, since the dawn of hominids to the present? Big history as a field attempts to tell such a story (humans from hunter gatherers to agricultural age to industrial age to beyond), and surely this is deeply right in some sense. But still, the question hangs in the air: is human history the kind of thing which can have just one narrative?

Philosophy-wisdom-religion globalism (Just starting): Philosophy aims to reflect on issues which pertain to all humans as humans. Same with wisdom and religion. Every culture has, and has had, some form of philosophical thinking. So what does a global philosophy look like, which incorporates the philosophical and wisdom traditions of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Australia and the Americas? No one knows. Collectively, we have a breadth of knowledge of traditions which was not there for previous generations. Yet, individually, no know so far has managed to integrate anything like a truly global perspective of philosophy. The Axial age 2,500-3,000 years ago was when humans developed the very idea of a global philosophy – something which applies irrespective of culture, gender, race, etc. Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Christ – there was a universal scope to their views which heralded a global perspective. But it is one thing to make a universal claim, another to truly achieve it. 3,000 years after the dawn of modern religion and philosophy, we are entering a century which might take the next steps forward.

* Culture

A global culture (Developing in one sense; impossible in another)Sometimes this is meant as if all local cultures are going to merge into one, mega, global culture. In one sense, insofar as people of all backgrounds are living and interacting together, this is in progress. But in another sense, this is far fetched and impossible. There isn’t going to be one culture – Human culture – which all humans will partake of, such that divisions between peoples will disappear. This idea vastly under-estimates the necessity of difference in human identity. There is not going to be one global culture – one way that people of all background will coexist – but there will be innumerable global cultures – many ways that of coming together to embrace global perspectives. A global era will be defined not by a kumbaya unity, but by the arguments/differences/contrasts of different ways of having a global perspective.

We are already seeing this in our politics. Contra liberals who see Trump as just the id of past racism, Trump is ushering in a new era with its disagreements about what taking a global perspective means – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, who should “we” be friends with, what are the issues on the global stage. What is developing are the contours of the debates of the coming century – debates about how to interpret and cultivate the reality that all nations are in some deep sense intertwined. We are all starting to understand ourselves as one big, global family. But, of course, families are filled with strife about themselves, and that is where we are headed.

Intra-national globalism (Developing): Globalism is often taken to mean a perspective on the whole globe. But there is another sense of globalism that has formed in the last fifty years. This sense contrasts with racial nationalism, which claims that nations are defined by a racial and cultural identity. Opposed to this is what might be called pluralist nationalism, which defines a nation mainly in terms of its laws and citizenship, and is compatible with pluralism of cultures, values, races and backgrounds.

A racial nationalist like Richard Spencer conflates Inter-national globalism with Intra-national globalism. The idea being that if American becomes a true melting pot of cultures, there is some international network of globalists who are trying to make this happen. Of course, that is not true. Even if American ends immigration altogether, there is still the fact that its existing citizens come from a great variety of cultures and backgrounds. Diverse Americans living together suggests a globalness, though it is not something that goes beyond national boundaries.

* Politics – Institutions

Global government (To be determined)The above kinds of globalism are compatible with their not being any global government. But should there be a global government. Many opponents of globalism see this as the big bug bear of globalism. As if any move towards pluralism or diversity is a move towards a global government, which is then seen as fascist. Paranoia  aside, there is still a big open question of what global governance can mean, and how feasible it is. Diversity as in intra-national globalism above is already a big issue. How can it be navigated at the inter-national level? Also, how to do so without further separating the majority of people from the power in the hands of the ultra-rich?

Open-borders globalism (To be determined)This is another big worry for the anti-globalists. As if embracing globalism in any form immediately implies leveling any boundaries between nations. It doesn’t help when proponents of diversity affirm the same implication. Perhaps this is the future. Perhaps not. But this is not implied by globalism as such, and not even if there is a global government. Open borders globalism is ultimately a balance between the right to self-determination (the right to, say, have a border wall) with the claims of morality and human decency (if people are seeking asylum or escaping disasters in their previous country). This is really tied to…

Disaster globalism (Imminent for all; already a reality for some)A big natural disaster which wipes out a major city, or a small country. Or nuclear war. Or artificial intelligence turns rogue. Or aliens. Well, maybe that last one won’t happen soon. But the others are real possibilities in the coming decades. At which point globalism in its starkest form – all countries on Earth working together to face a common problem – will go from being a hippie fantasy to an urgent reality. When that times comes, the more ground work we have laid for a global perspective – not just logistically and economically, but also intellectually, socially and philosophically – the better off we will be. Otherwise, we will have to fight the reality even as we continue to fight each other and our own habits of more local ways of thinking.

* The Future

Teleological globalism (Will be what we make of it)Perhaps the most basic form of globalism is the sense that all humans are headed towards a common goal. Whether this is in the form of a religious heaven, or a Hegelian or Marxist future state, or a Nietzschean or Aurobindoesque post-human consciousness, this teleological end is not guaranteed by nature. We might become extinct, or head back to a post-apocalyptic hunter-gather stage. But such a teleological end is part of our own shared consciousness as human beings. Not in the sense of where nature is inevitably taking us. But in the sense of: where do we want to go ourselves? What do we want to make of ourselves? What future do we want? What obstacles and what lower forms of consciousness do we want to overcome?

Though they are our ancestors, we cannot now imagine or inhabit the consciousness of hunter-gatherers 100,000 years ago. We have come a long way since then. Our genes might be basically the same, and so might our brains. But our culture, our habits, our social, cognitive infrastructure has changed deeply, and along with it, our modes of awareness, self-reflection and understanding of the world. But there is so much more we do not know, and so much more love and care we can nurture in our lives and interactions. We are not the end point of human cultural evolution. We are but a stage. And our shared journey beyond our current stage binds us together, as we grow together towards the potential of a greater, more heightened awareness.