Letting Go

I have been thinking about my last post in which I say that I feel alienated when reading great Western philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche.

This isn’t quite right. It’s better to say: the reasons I gave in that post are why I used to feel alienated when reading those philosophers.

Now I don’t feel alienated. It was helpful to write why I felt that for a long time. But it’s not my situation now.

I no longer read Kant or Nietzsche, Hume or Heidegger, Russell or Wittgenstein. I still from time to time think about these philosophers because I spent years pouring over their books. But they are not live authors for my thinking. Not thinkers who I engage with now in thinking about life.

This captures better why I left academia.

I didn’t leave academia because I was alienated from the great Modern Western philosophers. Rather, I left because I got what I could out of those texts and didn’t see much value for me in making them the center of my life.

If I am honest with myself, I see why I have been holding onto them for the past nine years.

When I left academia I wanted to be a writer. But a part of me was insecure. It was a big part really. That part wondered why anyone would listen to me as a writer. And so I held on mentally to the thing which I felt gave me standing as a writer: that I was an Ivy League educated philosopher who left a tenure track position at Bryn Mawr.

But this holding on perpetuated the same conflict I felt in academia. Yes I was alienated by large parts of academia. But could I have been more alienated than the many non-white male philosophers who stayed in academia? I don’t think so.

It’s important to distinguish not identifying with academic philosophy from feeling alienated from academic philosophy.

If you are feeling alienated, that makes it hard to identify. But not impossible. In fact, for many, their identification can be so strong that they choose to stay in academia to change what they feel alienated from.

For me the alienation certainly didn’t help. But I had other reasons for not identifying with academic philosophy.

This is because my earliest and strongest influence philosophically was by non academics. Personally my dad. But more generally Indian non academic philosophers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo. And Western non academics such as Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

For many academic philosophers none of these thinkers would count as philosophers. But in a more colloquial sense they are usually sense as wise thinkers and philosophers – which is the sense of “philosopher” which has had the most impact on me. And which continues to.

But my insecurity kept me holding onto academic philosophy as what can give me a voice. And yet – I resented academic philosophy for that too since my holding onto it was actually keeping me from simply speaking as myself, without worrying about whether people will find what I say interesting.

Over time I came to see that my resentment of academia had less to do with academia and more to do with my holding onto it mentally. That the resentment and anger was just the flip side of my insecurity. No amount of analysis of Kant or Russell or academia philosophy would soothe the anger as long as at root I didn’t let go of my insecurity.

When I step out of the insecurity, something wonderful happens: the old alienation disappears. Freed from my own compulsion to define myself in relation to Kant, Russell and others of my education, I can see them again from a distance. And remember the good times I had with their texts. And can wish that goodness and more for others. Even as I can move on to the next phase of my life – intellectually and otherwise.

Kant, Nietzsche and Alienation

I said in the discussion of the previous post that I found reading Nietzsche alienating. This is true, more generally, when I read the great white philosophers of the past couple of centuries. What do I mean by this, and why do I say it?

I can appreciate the pure literary genius – and fun – of Nietzsche’s writing. The exuberance, the purposely outlandish exaggerations, the dressing down of great thinkers. As well as the insightful ideas and cultural analysis. But when I speak of alienation, I mean that there is also a move to push the book away with a sense that Nietzsche isn’t speaking to my lived situation or my perspective. To continue reading, to hold on to the good stuff, requires a lot of mental work and struggle. A kind of being constantly on guard against letting myself be pulled into Nietzsche’s framing of the issues, lest I forget or lose grip on other things which are very important to my thinking, but which are entirely missing from Nietzsche’s thinking. And not missing just in an incidental way, but which is contrary to the spirit of the grand narratives and big picture that is Nietzsche’s concern.

When I read Nietzsche – as when I read Kant or Wittgenstein or Russell or Heidegger – I have to work to keep my own independent critical thinking alive by standing apart from some of their main moves. I have to work to resist their natural universalizing tone that they are speaking for the human condition. To be mindful of when they are actually speaking in a way which applies to all people and when they are speaking from a more blinkered perspective of taking their white maleness of their time for granted.

I don’t deny the greatness of these thinkers and of their appeal. Which is why I have to work to separate out what can apply to me – what is inspiring me in their writing – from what doesn’t apply to me and which is getting covered over by their prestige and position. With lesser thinkers I wouldn’t feel the need to do this, because there is nothing for me to gain by putting myself through this struggle of inspiration/alienation.

To some extent resisting an author’s worldview is just part of intellectual engagement. When Kant disagreed with Hume, he felt he had to resist being pulled into the extremes of empiricism and skepticism. But of course Kant wasn’t alienated from Hume’s writings. To the contrary, he found in the logical space of Hume’s views a possibility for a respectful disagreement, where in principle Hume might see Kant’s resistance as that of an equal.

In alienation, this sense of one’s resistance as that of an equal is precisely what is missing. Alienation from a text is to feel a blank stare from the author. It’s a form of unrequited love. When I spend time with the texts of Hume, Kant or Hegel, there is a kind of imaginative gaze of mutual recognition between us which doesn’t exist right now. I have to put in all the work to understand them, and they stand aloof, unmoved by my concerns and uninterested to understand me

But this is dance with three parties, not just two. It’s not just a question of me the reader and Kant the author. For my engagement with Kant the author is through the prism of contemporary academic philosophy – that is, through the gaze of current philosophy professors

When I read Kant I am aware of his greatness as a philosopher. It is exactly that awareness which hurts. For if such a great thinker accepted so easily that only Europeans can do philosophy, maybe there is an insight there. Maybe I don’t deserve the imaginative look of equality from Kant. Maybe I am unlovable, or at least not as lovable as Kant would find Strawson, McDowell or Rawls.

Perhaps this is a silly thought. Perhaps I should just push through and affirm a mutual recognition between me and Kant.

But this is made hard not by Kant or what he thought in his time. After all, Kant is long dead. Rather, It is made hard by the fact that Kant’s racism and its impact on his philosophy is ignored or excused by most of my contemporaries. The blank stare I experience peering back at me from Kant’s pages is actually a reflection of the blank stare of my professors and my colleagues. That blank stare is rooted in a presumption that I should just naturally be able to set aside Kant’s racism – and that if I am not able to, it must reflect my limitations as a philosopher. That I can’t get on in the right way. That I am like the student who continues “2..4..6..8..” with “-42!”.

Too often the picture of alienation is that of a reader who can’t enter, say, the world of Kant’s books. Where the racism is a block which keeps one from engaging with the books altogether. This is unfortunately true for many people – and the philosophy profession ignoring this is a moral, pedagogical mistake, akin to a math teacher who always sees a struggling student as a bad student.

But alienation can take on a more subtle and complicated form. A person can acknowledge the greatness in Kant’s work. That person can in fact love aspects of Kant, and so seek to find a wholesome, positive intellectual relationship to Kant. And yet that person can still be alienated, if he feels that his appreciation of Kant is premised on him having to squash doubts about Kant’s great mistakes about race or if he is supposed to dismiss them in a perfunctory way.

Developing a relationship with a great thinker is like developing a lifelong friendship. That is only possible if all the doubts and concerns one has about that thinker can be aired and discussed in an open and critical way. If one just asserts the answer is obvious – that obviously Kant’s racism is irrelevant to his philosophy, or that obviously it maligns all of his thinking – then one is cutting off the room for the give and take, the listening and the learning, the vulnerability and the growth required for a deep friendship.

***

So back to Nietzsche: why I do feel alienated when I read him?

Is it because he is white, and western philosophy in general is racist? No. I don’t feel alienated when I read Plato or Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. It makes no sense to speak of western philosophy as such as racist, for the racism we are familiar with is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Is it because Nietzsche is a part of modern Europe, and so implicated in the broader colonialist practices of his time? No. I don’t feel alienated listening to Mozart or Beethoven, which I greatly benefit from. In these cases I can obviously distinguish the work from the social context of its origins. When listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas I don’t find myself thinking, “This is really good, but I need to resist it also!” I find myself letting go fully and to immerse myself in it without reservation. Just the kind of immersion – of a philosophical kind – I find hard with modern Western philosophers.

Is it because, like Locke, Hume or Kant, Nietzsche said and did racist things which it is hard to ignore? The way in which one may find it alienating to read Heidegger knowing his embrace of Nazism? No, this isn’t it either. I don’t familiar of any particularly racist things Nietzsche said or did. It is by now pretty clear that he was, unlike many Europeans of his time, against anti-semitism, and was more cosmopolitan and against German nationalism.

So then what is it?

Let me get at this by first saying what I like about Nietzsche. I love the idea of the reevaluation of values. In particular, that people and organizations tend to reify old values and treat them as timeless, universal truths which we have to abide by. One of his great insights is that universities do this as much as churches – if in a different way. Metaphysical notions of faith and reason become limits on our sense of possibilities, creating boundaries which we feel we can’t trespass. Seeing that these reified abstract nouns – Faith, God, Reason, Philosophy – are mainly historical relics which are ossified is both necessary for growth and can be traumatic. The death of God – also of Philosophy – can shatter a sense of a well structured world, leaving one feeling disoriented. But in this time of crisis, Nietzsche affirms life by saying that idols are meant to be smashed, that the current idols are themselves the result of older idols having been smashed. That in the pain of the disorientation one can also find the will to power, to create anew, to say “Yes!” to life, not on anyone else’s terms, but in terms of the genius and the will to create that one find’s in oneself.

As with his book Thus Spoke Zarathurstra, all this is a kind of secular spirituality. Nietzsche captures – and lived – something like the phenomenology of spirituality, but written entirely in a modern, scientific, atheistic, playful, psychologically insightful way. It is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, but from the inside out – written not with James’ gaze of a sympathetic observer or with James’ ambivalence, but written by a true “believer” (as in James’ “Will to Believe”) who finds the strength to say yes without turning away from the pain of existence. To be sure, it is not a spirituality of serenity or equanimity, but more like that of a frenzied artist high on breaking through his own limits. This spiritual Nietzsche is not one that contemporary analytic philosophers usually highlight, but it is the Nietzsche I admire.

All this is great. But the problem – for me – arises when Nietzsche himself gives into wanton generalizing and abstractions – which he does constantly. The metaphysical impulse of turning away from life and of essentializing resentiment, it turns out, is what everyone from the past did who Nietzsche disagrees with. It is the fatal sin not just of Paul or the Church fathers, but also of Plato and Kant, of the Buddha and Hindu Vedanta, and also what is ultimately wrong with Schopenhauer and Wagner. Turns out all these people, across time and culture, are all implicated in the same mistake of denying life and the multiplicity of perspectives, and covering it over with a deceitful, resentful will.

Why does Nietzsche run all these different thinkers together? To understand that we need to turn to Kant.

***

Just as there is an important difference between pre-modern and modern Western philosophy in terms of racism, so too there is an important difference between pre-Kantian and post-Kantian modern philosophy in terms of racism. (The outlines of the following historical story I get from Peter Park here, and Bryan Van Norden here and here.)

Before Kant it was still common in Europe – even as it was pursuing colonialism – to think that philosophy began not with the ancient Greeks, but in Asia or in Africa. Pre-Kantian European philosophers were still living in a world with ties to the medieval world when the Islamic and the Chinese empires dominated – and so where a sense that other civilizations developed their own traditions of philosophy was natural.

With Kant this changes radically. Kant, along with Hegel after him, merges the history of philosophy with the developing pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy to suggest the new story that only Europeans are – and have been- capable of philosophy. Now the narrative takes hold that philosophy began in ancient Greece and only there. Not in Egypt or Mesopotamia, not in India or China, nor any place else. The story now goes that until the pre-Socratics abstract thought didn’t arise at all, but people were only mired in mytho-religious symbolism. Some of the ancient cultures – as with the Jews and perhaps the Hindus and a few others – were more advanced as religions (though not as advanced as what Christianity would become), but they couldn’t achieve the kind of self-conscious, conceptual inquiry which is philosophy.

Due to Kant and Hegel’s influence in the 19th century, this story of the uniqueness of Western philosophy spread and is now fossilized in the curriculum and practices of contemporary philosophy departments. So much so that the idea that philosophy began in ancient Greece is treated as common knowledge. But it is striking that this story is really no more than 250 years old, initiated in the later half of the 1700s, well after Descartes and well into the modern period.

Perhaps this story is only 250 years old because only then were Kant and Hegel, and their contemporaries, able to analyze all the world’s traditions and see that actually philosophy only began in Europe? If this were true, even if they got the story wrong, it would have right form of a justification. But that’s not what happened.

For Kant philosophy concerns the a priori conditions for experience and thought. Therefore philosophy cannot be empirical. It follows that an understanding of the nature of philosophy also cannot be empirical. But the origins of philosophy is part of the nature of philosophy. Therefore an a priori understanding of philosophy must include an a priori understanding of the origins of philosophy.

So in the Kantian framework, “Philosophy began in Europe” becomes a kind of synthethic, a priori truth. As far as I know, Kant never explicitly says this. But when I imagine why the idea that philosophy began only in Europe really takes hold with Kant, this starts to make sense. The claim is synthethic because the concept of began in Europe isn’t contained in the concept of philosophy; hence people can entertain the idea that philosophy began elsewhere. But it is also not an empirical truth, so Kant doesn’t have to go read other traditions to see if possibly philosophy began there. To the contrary, the a priori nature of philosophy means precisely that he doesn’t have to read other traditions to know how philosophy began.

On Kant’s view, space and time, and categories such as substance and causation are the lens through which we have to see the world to have experience at all. Kant pulled the history of philosophy into the realm of the lens as well, so that as Europeans were discovering more about other cultures’ intellectual traditions, none of those discoveries had to be engaged with alongside the texts of Plato, Hume and Kant

The Kantian framework of critical philosophy provided an a priori justification for why philosophy professors only had to read Western philosophy. Kant, beyond his great work in epistemology and ethics, thus had the greatest impact on the institution of modern academic philosophy. The “critical” philosophy was the foundation stone for a Eurocentric lens on the history of philosophy. “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” is not only treated as a truth, but as a foundational truth which justifies one in not engaging with other traditions so as to keep philosophy within the realm of “pure reason”. 

Hegel filled out this a priori history of philosophy beyond the basic “scientific” racial framework embraced by Kant. And this Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy spread along with German idealism. Institutional foundation stones being what they are, even as later thinkers started to disagree deeply with Kant or with Hegel, the “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” framing became more and more enmeshed in the background practices of academic philosophy.

The great breaks from German Idealism in the late 1800s and early 1900s – Analytic philosophy, Phenomenology and Pragmatism – still embraced the Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy. The disagreements between, say, Russell and Moore and their Idealist teachers were certainly enormously important and productive. But with regard to the Eurocentrism of philosophy, they were still essentially Kantian.

This is one way I find reading Russell or Heidegger alienating. If you take their texts at face value, they speak of the “revolution” in philosophy they are enacting – obviously very different revolutions for Russell and Heidegger. The sense of revolution speaks to a new beginning, a radical breaka starting fresh, standing apart from Kant and Hegel. As a student I was captivated by Russell or Wittgenstein, Husserl or Heidegger precisely because of their push for a radical transformation of philosophy.

And yet, what I felt over and over again was that their revolution in philosophy was never a revolution in rethinking the contours of – and the history of – philosophy departments. Of rethinking the curriculum, or even just trying to understand why the curriculum or the pantheon looks the way it does. Strangely, it seemed as if the very nature of philosophy was being rethought even as the way philosophy is taught and who is taught never changes much at all.

My alienation from the texts of Russell and Heidegger then are at root a cultivated cautiousness on my part. Developed over years of running head long into their texts with the excitement I shared in their projects, only to find – time and again – that at a crucial point, where I start to relate their revolution to my lived situation, I am met with the disappointing fact of a blank stare from them as an author. Which raises for me the question of the ways in which their revolutions left unearthed the Eurocentric foundation stone laid by Kant.

***

Nietzsche of course was not a philosophy professor. Along with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, he was part of an alternate, anti-academic trajectory in 19th century European philosophy that separated itself from the tradition of Kant and Hegel. Whereas Russell and Heidegger sought to revolutionize philosophy from within the academic structures influenced by Kant, Nietzsche stood apart from academia lobbing grenades at the entire edifice. Surely this is something I can identify with and appreciate?

Certainly it is, and I do. Yet my alienation persists when reading Nietzsche because his grenades never hit – nor even seek – the Kantian foundation stone which is the overall cause of my alienation.

Nietzsche is like an author in the 1850s in America who criticizes the American South for succumbing to metaphysical thinking and for embracing the “slave morality” of Christianity, while never mentioning in his criticisms the actual slavery in the South. What jumps out to me when I pick up Nietzsche is not only the fascinating stuff about morality and moral psychology, but the gaping hole of the things which even he – the great reevaluator of values and the great psychologist, who is “a destiny” unto human kind and who affirms the eternal recurrence of even the most painful experiences – passes over in silence and never mentions, let alone analyzes. 

As Nietzsche might say, surely that tells us something about the man and his thinking – and about the structure of thought and society – beyond what he says about himself!

It’s not just that when reading Nietzsche I have to set aside a few of the annoying mannerisms or some of the outdated ideas. Nietzsche’s entire tone as an author is as a renegade, as someone who is alone, and who alone sees the depths of the motivations of philosophers. The incessant self-affirmation of his genius is like a siren call, which if I am not on my guard I find myself nodding along to – especially because the affirmation of his misunderstood genius is now affirmed even in analytic philosophy departments.

And yet his very stance of questioning all values covers over so much that is of paramount and urgent importance, personally, culturally and philosophically to myself and to so many people that a part of me even says: Given how little we are thinking about the issues that have been covered over even by Nietzsche, I endorse feeling alienated when reading him.

The alienation I now feel is a marker of the end of my reading him subserviently – as if at every turn I have to accept that he is a genius and I am a mere reader and so I have to continue to learn my way into his framework. Being aware of my alienation and not feeling ashamed of it is my own will to power that Nietzsche – along with Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein and Heidegger – are idols whose turn it is now to be smashed while I philosophize with a hammer. Not smashed as in tossed aside, for I still benefit from reading them. Nor smashed as in smashing their statues, for that is not of interest to me. But smashed in terms of stepping out beyond the one sided gaze of recognition, and for me to look back at them as an equal. 

For years the alienation was painful – something I felt ashamed of – because it felt like a defeat on my part. That it shows I will never experience the mutual gaze of recognition with the authors I admired. Nietzsche was right that mutual recognition doesn’t have to take the form of two people engaged in polite, gentle conversation. Sometimes people recognize each other only in parting, only when a break happens, when one pushes through the structures limiting the interaction and wills a new mode of being. 

That will to power can not only be a will to change things and to stand up as an equal, but it can also be – which Nietzsche usually didn’t recognize – a will to love. A will to move from a position of pain to a position of strength while being mindful to try not to pass the pain onto others.

This is the opportunity afforded by truly shedding light on the Kantian foundation stone of Eurocentrism in philosophy. Not simply to push back against Kant and Nietzsche or to push them down. Nor to take over the building in the name of the oppressed. But to unearth the Kantian foundation stone in order to replace it with a better, more healing, more loving foundation which reflects our shared humanity.

Professors and Priests

Does academic philosophy have value?

I just finished reading Sue Prideaux’s interesting recent biography of Nietzsche. A persistent theme in Nietzsche’s work and life is how silly, obtuse, self-deluded most philosophers are, and especially professors of philosophy.

Nietzsche’s criticism of philosophy professors is analogous to his criticism of priests. He says both reify truth and then – conveniently – place themselves as gate keepers to the enchanted land of truth. But, Nietzsche asks, what if there is no truth as such? What if there is only individual transformations? Then what gives priests and professors their power isn’t a link to a deeper understanding of the world, but they are able to – or seek to – impose their will on the general population. But instead of being honest about it, they color it up with fancy words of truth, rationality and objectivity.

For Nietzsche this is not true just of professors and priests. All people seek to do this. And in history the great philosophers and religious seekers succeeded more than most. Socrates claimed not to know anything, but his will was strong. Similarly for St. Paul or the Buddha. Whether we are talking about philosophy or faith, for Nietzsche the main issue is whether one is being honest about their own will to power.

Nietzsche concludes from this that academic philosophy is mainly a fraud. Just like churches are a fraud. Both hide their own will to power behind a rhetoric of unbiased impartiality.

This is too strong. Nietzsche usually didn’t let subtlety get in the way of a strong conclusion.

This doesn’t show that philosophy departments don’t have value. It only shows they don’t have value for everyone. That indeed they never can. They can be valuable to people who like what professors will, the mode of inquiry and life they exhibit. But – and this is the kicker – there is no objective reality about the nature of philosophy or what Socrates or Kant “really” said which undergirds what the professors’ value. There is only at bottom the fact that the professors value it. Their own will to what they value.

Why is it, for example, that when I was an undergrad at Cornell Kant and Nietzsche were taught, but not Du Bois or the Buddha? When I asked this question back then, I was met with answers such as, “Those are not philosophers. Du Bois was a sociologist. The Buddha was a religious figure.” Nietzsche would have smelled the bad faith of these answers. One of his recurring themes – one which Wittgenstein picks up later on – is how often abstractions (Philosophy, Sociology, Religion…) are used as explanations, but without really explaining anything. For the use is not to explain, but to assert authority – that is, to assert one’s own will.

My undergrad professors would have been more honest if they said, “It never occurred to us to teach that. It’s not what we are interested in. We want to do what we are doing.”

In current times this kind of assertion would be met with a different criticism – that it is white supremacist. “Look at all these white professors asserting that they will just teach what they want to! They have the power and they don’t want to give it up!”

Let’s go slowly. “White Supremacy” is also another abstract noun which has the whiff of explaining something. But does it?

If we apply the Nietzschen view to the “woke” assertions of fighting racist structures, we have the thought: the woke critics are themselves simply asserting their will, but hiding this behind a vaneer of fighting the “objective” wrongness of how philosophy departments used to be.

It is clear enough why the old guard wants to do this. Because it’s easier for them to say their habits are grounded in the nature of Philosophy than to say it’s grounded simply in their will. But why does the new guard also fight using abstractions?

Well, imagine if they – the woke – said “We just want to do philosophy this way!” The question arises: who is this we? Is it just the people who now get to be professors? The problem is in form this is no different from what the old guard said. Those who get to be professors just do the kind of work they want to do. Professors at Cornell didn’t want to teach Buddhist philosophers 25 years ago. But the professors there now do.

Is this an objective improvement? It is certainly an improvement for those who want to study Buddhist philosophers. But what about people who want to study Native American philosophers? Or Mayan philosophers? Or those who don’t make a distinction between philosophy and religion and who see – like Thomas Merton – prayer as itself a form of contemplation? A slippery slope is forming.

Hence the woke also find abstractions useful. It gives the vaneer that the curriculum they will implement will somehow capture truly what Philosophy is. This is the myth of the diverse curriculum. The fantasy that their canon will be really the global philosophical canon.

In contrast to both the academic old guard and the new guard, I find Nietzsche’s view more honest. Or rather: more what I like. What I will. What I want to build on.

It’s revealing that Nietzsche was not a philosophy professor, or even a professor when he wrote his main works. Though for the last century Nietzsche is in the canon in academic departments – even in analytic departments for the last 40 years – that is not what mattered to Nietzsche. Nor is it why Nietzsche’s work found an audience in broader society.

Nietzsche didn’t write aiming to be part of the normal philosophy canon. He mostly piled criticism on the traditional canon, on Plato, Kant and Mill. He wrote because he wanted to. He wrote about whatever he was moved to, bringing various parts of his life together. And he struck a nerve in many readers because they liked what he willed. To explain his attraction to readers by reference to the nature of Philosophy misses that part of his attraction – at least to me and I think many others – is that one can meet his thoughts just on their own. Unlike with Kant or Hegel, or Quine or Rawls, or Husserl or Heidegger, his thoughts are not mediated through an institution of people who claim to speak for Philosophy.

Nietzsche at root speaks for no abstract noun. He speaks just for himself. When he wills, it is clear. It is sometimes moving and inspiring. Sometimes silly and sophomoric. The profound and the silly dance often together because that was his form of willing. He was grand and deep, but was also trapped in a teenage angst of mock rebellion against everything and everyone.

Nietzsche was on to something when he saw that the greatness of great thinkers concerned their will. Their effort to not just get closer to universal values, but to change our values. That change isn’t worthwhile because it gets closer to the truth. One can say that, but it is really a tautology. It just means: that change was worthwhile because we now value it too.

Hence his criticism of professors and priests. Churches aim to help people be like Christ. Philosophy departments to help people be like Socrates. And yet to truly be like Christ or Socrates means to find the greatness of one’s own will and to follow that – not because one can then be better at faith or reason, but because then one can open new horizons and reinterpret what faith and reason themselves can mean.

Philosophy departments, like churches, can help in this process. Not everyone can transfigure values on their own, without help. Most people need help. To that extent professors and priests are valuable. Can indeed be very valuable.

But that value isn’t an end in itself. It is realized when one moves beyond teachers and can rest in the ungrounded terrain of one’s own will. When one can grow by continually overcoming oneself.

Courage

Instead of “Philosophy is X”, try “This is the kind of philosophy I find interesting.” In place of essentializing, affirm your own preferences.

Doesn’t this make philosophy subjective? Just a matter of whatever anyone wants it to be? What if one says, “Philosophy is cooking”, or “Philosophy is gibberish”? Surely, these are objectively wrong?

Why surely? And why do we need it to be wrong, let alone objectively so?

I don’t breathe because breathing is good. If someone says, “Breathing is over-rated”, do I need to prove him wrong to feel confident in my breathing?

I breathe because I do. I don’t end my life because I don’t want to. To live I don’t have to show dying is wrong. Or Suicide is a mistake. We don’t choose by eliminating every alternative. We don’t have to.

In order to think how I want, I don’t need to fit it into a category first (philosophy, analytic philosophy, religious philosophy, spirituality), then defend that category against objections (why “religious philosophy” is not an oxymoron), and then – having secured the foundation – go on to think that way.

Courage is required to say: I do this because I want to. I am open to objections, but not constrained by them. I give others the same freedom I take in pursuing my path. I wish well those who choose a different path. And when we try to reach the same audience, may each try their best – and people respond as they will.

Future of Philosophy

I read two things today that show in stark relief how things have changed in academia.

The first is autobiographical reflections of Hans Sluga, a philosophy professor at Berkeley. Sluga writes of how he went from post WWII Germany to Oxford to study philosophy, and from there to teach philosophy at London and Berkeley. Around 1960, when he is studying philosophy at Oxford and embarking on his academic career, it must have looked like academia was going to keep expanding as higher education opened up to the masses (to people from lower economic classes, women, minorities, etc.)

The implicit assumption being of course that the expansion of higher education means the expansion of brick and morter colleges. That is, more and more spaces in the world would try to emulate Oxford, Harvard and so on, or emulate anyway less pretiguous physical colleges. That, looking 100 years down the line from 1960, one would see a blossoming of residential or at any rate physical universities and colleges. Certainly the expansion of colleges in America in the 50s and 60s probably gave this impression.

The other thing I read is an interview with Scott Galloway, in which he predicts: “In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000. What that means is the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. What it also means is that universities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. “

Galloway’s prediction is that there is going to be an confluence between big tech companies and the elite universities, resulting in MIT@Google or iStandford, or some such. These big tech-pretiguous college accrediting behemoths will dominate higher education, as through online teaching the pretiguous schools will have enrollments in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Tier 1 colleges will thrive and get richer in the long run and tier 2 schools will adjust and survive. But most brick and morter colleges will disappear, or be doing something very different from liberal arts education.

If Galloway is right – and I suspect he is – then the expansion of higher education will not only not mean the expansion of brick and morter colleges, but actually mean the significant closing of most such colleges. This is something most people could not have forseen in 1960. Or in 2000.

What does this mean for philosophy in academia, and also for philosophy in the broader society?

Right now some of the big issues in academic philosophy are seen to be broadly issues of diversity and global philosophy. That is, how to do philosophy that is more diverse and also open to the world’s traditions?

These important issues recently have been raised (say, in the last thirty years from 1990 – 2020) broadly under the old assumption of the brick and morter future. That is, the framing of the issue has been roughly: “Philosophy done in departments in 1900 or 1950 or 1980 were eurocentric, patriarchial, etc. How can we change the departments so they are more pluralistic?” Implicit in this framing is a kind of reimagining what could have happened in, say, the Harvard philosophy department in 1960. As if we were accepting the material conditions of the 1960 department, but thinking how it could be better intellectually, socially and morally.

But this way of framing the issue is soon to become moot. It’s like trying to think what diversifying the work place would look like while assuming a Feudal framework.

My sense is that a lot of the diversity philosophy stuff has hit a kind of intellectual dead end. Because they are trying to fit the diversity questions into the outdated model of academia.

Many of these questions are going to have to be reframed into the kind of academic world that Galloway is predicting. So the questions of diversity and opening of horizons into world philosophy will have be analyzed along side questions of how academia is entering a wholly new stage. The two sets of questions can’t be dealt with on their own, but have to be tackled together. I suspect that will open up a new exciting logical space of views.

And these two sets of questions – of diversifying philosophy and digitalizing academia – will have to go hand in hand with a third set of questions about philosophy outside academia.

When the expansion of mass education was assumed to go along with the expansion of brick and morter colleges, there was a natural link between the professor and the graduate students: the hope that the graduate students in turn will become professors at the one newly built physical colleges.

But if it turns out that in the near future (10 or 20 or 50 years) philosophy – like most of the humanities – will mainly be taught in the top 50 universities in the world, that means there is no hope even that most graduate students can live a life like their professors. Which in turn means that in the future the expansion of philosophy can’t mean the expansion of academic philosophy.

Academic philosophy as a job is going to become an extremely niche profession, available only to a very select few people. Those few people (say, 1000 around the world) might reach and teach millions of people.

The teaching philosophy to the millions is great. I love it. What are those millions going to do with the knowledge they gained in the classes? Less than 1% of them can hope to be a professor with a similar reach as their professor.

This sets up the future I am looking forward to: philosophy is going to be awakened at a vast rate through mass education, and there won’t be even a fantasy that the creative juices unleased in that way can be absorbed back into academia.

Which means: there are going to be new creative non-academic avenues for engaging in philosophy in the broader society. The end of most brick and morter philosophy departments will mean the flowering of a new era of philosophical salons, or other grass roots modes of doing philosophy. And since these modes could tap into the same kind of reach to the masses through online activity, it can be a real counterpoint to the work within academic philosophy.

In this future, philosophers who are not academics can push the future of philosophy in a way that academics might not be able to, and vice versa.

Happiness and Trauma

Yesterday I wrote about the part of us that is unconditionally happy. I didn’t write this (nor do I normally write) because I am deeply in touch with this part of myself. To the contrary, I write because I am so often not in touch with the unconditional happiness within me. Writing is a way for me to reorient myself towards that space. A way to tell myself and help me see and feel that wisdom is real, that it is alive within me, even if I so often feel lost, anxious and adrift.

Today was a day when the anxiety was particularly intense. I got triggered by something in an interaction with someone (doesn’t matter what or who exactly) and it created a sense of panic. Something like, “There it is. It’s happening again. I am going to be taken advantage of. I am going to lose out, while the person I am interacting with and others around me will get what they want. I need to protect myself. I need to fight for myself.” I hate feeling like this. I don’t actually end up “fighting for myself”. What happens instead is I freeze mentally. I get a panic attack which reverberates in the back of my mind all day. I don’t like being aggressive with people, nor do I like being submissive. I feel I have been submissive too much in my life, and I don’t want that anymore. And yet the alternative of being aggressive or fighting feels off putting, and perhaps just scary. Too much like things are out of control. I prefer control. And clarity. People getting along and taking care of each other.

I love to take care of others, as in think about their needs. It comes naturally to me. It always has. And yet I easily get upset because I feel others don’t think about my needs. Like I am being taken advantage of because of my kindness and goodness. Or maybe it is just because of my need for getting along. Others seem more ok to think about themselves without worrying about how it effects other people. I have never been able to do that. It always felt like a struggle to be selfish. Not that I am a saint. I mean rather that my default mindset is to begin with thinking, “what is the fair thing for everyone here?” My own selfishness – which is intense of course – never feels like the last word, or the first word, to me. The first word begins with a “we” and the last word ends with a “we”. This is not a virtue or wisdom. It is just my temperament or personality.

It’s one reason I love to discuss ideas and emotions – usually the mix of ideas and emotions. Engaging with a person or people as we navigate our collective “we”. Because for me the “I” – even my sense of my “I” – comes in the midst of a “we”, I am often feeling half empty or alienated, as if left to myself I am but a shell of myself. To understand myself, it feels like I have to understand a we that I am a part of. And so in interactions with people I long to find that we.

Yet often I have found that my hope for a we in this sense becomes dashed, as it seems like most people I interact with are happy to be simply “I”s who feel they are perfectly well defined without me. That they don’t look to me to better understand themselves and to be a better them the way I feel I look to them in order for me to be a better and more full me.

What it feels like is that I am doing the trust exercise with another person (you know the one where one person falls backwards and the other person catches them), only to have the other person turn around and walk away as I am falling. I fall down. Upset. Hurt. And I want to yell, “You should have been there. How could you walk away? You need to do X….” Yet all the other person seems to hear is not my desire for a common we but rather my trying to control them according to some magical, mysterious sense of how things “ought to be done.”

As I was saying, today I had another episode of this. It’s familiar to me. I have had it with colleagues. With family members. With friends. With my spouse. As I have seen this happen over and over again – me feeling somehow wronged by the others not listening to me enough and not reciprocating enough – I have come to see that what all these situations have in common is my own expectation and mode of being. Perhaps there is something in the way that the “I” and “we” concepts have been intertwined for me for so long that I keep having the same tension over and over again in different parts of my life.

As I was in the midst of this episode of anxiety and feeling out of control – almost like a panic attack – I thought of my post from yesterday. And I thought, “Yes, there is right now a part of me that is unconditionally happy. That part of me isn’t touched by this nausea I am feeling or sense of being trapped. Yes, there is that part of me. I can sense it. I can remember it. But I can’t really feel it.”

And I couldn’t feel it. The unconditional happiness felt like a medicine I had forgotten at home, and I couldn’t take it now that I am on the road, far from home.

I closed my eyes and tried to find a sliver of that unconditional happiness. But most everywhere I was feeling only the flames of the emotional unrest I was caught in. What I wanted was conditioned happiness – for the world to be a certain way, for other people to be different, for the we that I so long for to be palpable in my life so that I can rest assured within it, and can relax in the world that I belong in.

And then I had a thought, a flash of a memory, so dim that I could barely remember it, but full of reality. It was me playing cricket in the local park with my friends when I was 10 in India. I was set to bowl, and looked to my friends who were fielding and ready to catch the ball the batsman would hit. There was a we! A joint activity in which we were bound as one, in which I could hardly separate out myself from my friends, and themselves from me, bound together in our childhood in a way that is possible so easily in childhood.

As I thought of that Bharath, at ten years old, carefreely focused entirely on that game, I sensed how fragile that memory was. For in only a year or two I would never play cricket again. Never experience again that unthinking bond with other kids, and with a park and a land, and that street (oh that street where I grew up!), with our house at the other end of the street from the park.

A year or so later my father would have a heart attack. My parents would leave for America so that my father could get better medical care, and my brother and I stayed back for two months with other family members. Then after those two months, my brother and I boarded a plane to come to America. As my father was recovering from his surgery in New York, and he and my mom were trying to get jobs and get used to America, my brother and I went to live with other family members in Pittsburgh for four months. After that, we moved to New York, happily back with our parents again, settling into our new life.

But how much had changed in those six short months! The possibility of my father not surviving his heart attack or his surgery. A move from India to America. Not sure I ever really understood any of it at the time, at the age of 11. I moved in a daze. Just as I imagine my parents and my brother did in their own way. And every time I passed a park and say kids playing a funny game called baseball, which I didn’t understand and which I couldn’t play, I sensed the memory of the past that was now lost – the memory of the cricket game and the unreflective we that it provided.

Why did this memory come to me as I was searching today for my unconditional happiness within me?

I think because what lies between unconditional happiness and conditional happiness is trauma.

By “trauma” I don’t mean that my childhood experience of immigration was somehow particularly traumatic. In comparison to many others, it is pretty mild. It is a walk in the park compared to people dealing with memories from childhood of sexual abuse or starvation or loss of their parents or dealing with disabilities or not having loving parents and so on. Compared to all that, moving from India to America in a haze of concern for my father and our family is not all that bad.

But, for all that, it is part of my psyche. It is what I have to deal with. It is one of the things which convinced the young, child Bharath that happiness can be lost – that it is conditioned.

Children live in unconditional happiness without trying to. They do so mainly because they live mainly in the present. And also because they haven’t yet developed the memory of the loss, which ruptures the growing consciousness into the world as it was and the world as it is now, with the awareness that what was lost in the world as it was might never come back again.

As this awareness of loss starts to grow (for some probably as early as 2 or 3 – I was a late bloomer at 11!), they start to build their lives and sense of self from the happiness that they can construct. This is the beginning of conditioned happiness – also the beginning of what we call individuality or self. Personality is nothing other than the highly particular ways that children start to construct their conditional happiness. So much so that as the children become adults, these ways seem synonymous with who they are. I am joking of course that I didn’t start to do this until I was 11. What happened at 11 is just a particular intense series of experiences. But I started constructing my personality, like every one, well before then.

This construction of personality has a fatal limit. There is no guarantee that the conceptual and emotional infrastructure that was started to be built at 2 or 5 or 10 will do the job well when one is 18 or 35 or 60 or 90. In fact, as people grow what makes the conditionally happy itself starts to grow and change and evolve. And so it becomes ingrained in us that to be myself is to be conditionally happy – that is, to have the things that I want and to avoid the things I don’t want.

This sets the stage for adulthood. Millions of people basically in a sprint to be conditionally happy, vying with and against each other for the resources and recognition that enable conditional happiness. We can no more all be happy than all the animals in a jungle can be happy together. Even more: we can no more be happy than an addict can be continually happy. For that is what ultimately adulthood is – addiction to one’s conditional happiness. The excitement of getting what one wants, the sadness of losing it, the anxiety of withdrawal, the anger of being confronted, the high of hoping for a new day and a new possibility, and so on.

The anxiety I was feeling today was the screaming of the addict not getting his hit. Being confronted with the loss of the conditional happiness I want to take for granted – as what I am owed, what I deserve, what is supposed to be happen.

In the midst of that, of course the unconditional happiness feels far away. Because the me that craves the conditional happiness long ago gave up on unconditional happiness. He long ago accepted that he can never go back to that playground again and play cricket with this friends in the afternoon with their boyish sense of hope and that all things are possible.

In the face of my conditioned happiness not being met, it feels like adding insult to injury to suggest that I could be more than conditionally happy – that I could be unconditionally happy. Isn’t that like telling a starving person that though they lack food, they can have the fulfillment of having eaten in the finest restaurant! The mind wants to say: “No, that is a pipe dream! No, that kind of happiness is an illusion. Reserved at best for children. The most I can get is conditional happiness, and that is what matters!”

But perhaps there is a way to get to that unconditional happiness after all. If conditional happiness accepts the past traumas, and tries to build anew after the fall of those traumas, then unconditional happiness lies on the other side of those traumas. If we refuse to face up to the traumas, only conditional happiness seems possible. But if we face up to the traumas and relive them without fear, then we can tap back into the unconditional happiness.

Unconditional Happiness

“We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions. We’ve been taught to place our happiness in them.”

Anthony De Mello, Awareness

Here is the simplest definition of wisdom: being unconditionally happy.

As De Mello says, this is very counter-intuitive. Because it is natural to think – we are even encouraged to think – that happiness must be conditional. I need the things I love to be happy. If the things I love and want are bad things, then I am seen as a bad person – if I want drugs, bloodshed, to make others look bad, etc. If the things I love are good things, then I am seen as a good person – if I want peace, cures to diseases, to help others.

One sense of wisdom is knowing how to want the good things as opposed to the bad things. So that I want not to spend all my time belittling others or looking out only for myself, but that I want to focus on cultivating my talents or seek to help others or pray or meditate. If I can just do the latter, then I will be wise. So this thought goes.

But on this conception, wisdom itself is conditional. On my seeking the good things and avoiding seeking the bad things. Or on my gtting those good things rather than being stuck in a rut in making progress on the good things. If this happens, then I am fated to be unwise. So wisdom in this sense forever has a sword hanging over you to see if you are really being good, or if you are sliding bad into being bad.

In my experience, this is how most people think of wisdom. As a beautiful fruit to be gained as long as I can get things right. And so an internal pressure builds on getting things right, and maintaining that. This is how I thought of it too for a long time.

But I have come to think this is not really wisdom. It’s wanting to be a good person. It confuses being a wise person with being a good person. As if wisdom is something we need to grab hold off and not let go, lest we fall back into the morass of being bad.

It’s a simple enough distinction, but it cuts to the heart of the issue. Seeking to be a good person brings with it emotions of potential guilt, anxiety, nervousness – what if I don’t succeed? what if I don’t make it? what if the conditions I need to be good fail to obtain? what if I fail to be good and wise?

For wisdom in a deeper sense these doubts are entirely out of place. Its happiness is unconditional.

It is just there within us, untouched by the passing conditions. It never leaves us no matter what happens, or what doesn’t happen. Like an eternal flame it burns within us, oblivious to the winds and storms and sunny skies of life’s ups and downs passing by.

This kind of wisdom isn’t gained through vigorous planning. “I will first eat right, meditate, read the right books, be still, not get pulled into arguments with people… Then I will be with the eternal flame, I will catch it and it will be glorious.” The planning makes the happiness conditional – and so the unconditional happiness slips out of the hand. The more vigoriously you plan, the less it seems visible and graspable. Because you are treating the unconditional happiness as a special kind of conditioned happiness – as the best kind of conditional happiness. And so as you plan to get all the conditions just right, you feel the flickers of the happiness, but the essence of it – its unconditionality – feels out of grasp.

So what then: one just has to wait for a miracle to strike for me to just become unconditionally happy? No! That waiting too is just another condition.

Don’t wait. Don’t plan. Don’t think what you will do now so that later you can have wisdom and be serenely happy. Not even if the later is a hour from now or five minutes from now. Not even if the later comes after reading great books like The Bible or The Gita or the works of Emerson or Eckhart Tolle or Marcus Aurelius or Confucius. Not even if the later comes after, you swear and promise, you will try really, really hard to be the best you that you can be, and will get up on time and meditate and do all the right things needed to be wise.

Instead of waiting or planning, and thinking about how glorious that future moment will be when the conditions become just right for the light to dawn and for your soul to be opened to bliss – instead of waiting and planning, do something else right now.

Right now, in this instant, there is a part of you which is unconditionally happy. Find that part of you and focus on that. Worries about your income or your health or your loved ones or the coronovirus or politics and the fate of the world might be overwhelming your consciousness. But still, if you notice it, there it is: in a corner of your mind, just observing all of your worries, without judgment, without worry, without condescension.

A big part of you might be petrified with worry or buzzing on a sugar high or worried about the interview tomorrow or happy about how the date went tonight. These ups and downs loom large in your consciousness. But if you just notice, there is a part of you that doesn’t care how the interview goes tomorrow, or is indifferent to the how the date went tonight. Even if the concerns are as big as something horrific happening to you or to a loved one, and as exciting as winning the Nobel prize or the lottery – there is a part of you that just doesn’t care that much one way or the other. That part of you isn’t moved too much one way or the other.

It can be surprising to call this part of you unconditional happiness. Normally depending on the circumstance, we call it something else. If something bad happens to a loved one, then I might feel that part of me that is unmoved is callous or uncaring, selfish or emotionally distant. If something great happens and yet a part of me is unmoved, we might then call that part of me jaded or detached, pompous or holier than thou. Either way, when really painful or really happy things happy, we look on that part of us that is just observing with disdain, as if it were belittling our emotions and our situations. “I just lost my job, you sanctimonous prick! Feel something! It matters!” Or: “I am finally getting that promotion I have been waiting years for! Now my kids can go to a better school! I don’t care what you say: it matters! I am not going to be numb like you!”

Of course one can be a santimonous prick and not show concern. Or be numb even when happy things happen. We are familiar with those parts of us. We can be pricks and assholes, refusing to show sympathy. We can be numb and ironic, raining on happy events with a dour realism.

But we confuse these parts of us with the unconditionally happy part of us, as if any part of us that doesn’t go up and down with our conditions and emotions is lacking in life. And we distrust it. This is what De Mello means by, “We don’t want to be unconditionally happy.”

We trust wisdom when we think of it as a conditioned good – when wisdom itself is like the rest of our emotions. When we think of wisdom as the hard to grasp fruit, the very image of it as unavilable to me now is soothing – as if thereby that wisdom and my day to day concerns can co-exist. As if wisdom doesn’t have to remove me too far from the things I like and the things I hate. Wisdom as a future, conditional good I might get down the line if I am good feels ultimately non-threatning to my conditioned happiness now.

In contrast, that part of me right now which is unconditionally happy feels like it is an alien part of me. Something I can’t quite understand or fit into my narratives about where I am going in my life. I worry that it might be too intense or too flighty, too serious or not serious enough, too wise or not wise enough.

In the name of looking for the wisdom I hope to find tomorrow or a year from now, I push away from my mind the wisdom of unconditional happiness which is within me. I say, “That part of me – I don’t what that is. It’s too strange, too mysterious. Too unhuman. Too disconnected from my life. Too above my life. That is not what I am seeking. It will be the death of me and all that I hold dear.” This is our fears and our anxieties, our conditioning and our habits talking.

We have to do just one thing to be wise: make friends with the part of us that is unconditionally happy. It is there right now within you, as you are reading this, and right now within me as I am writing this. It is within us at every moment. It is unconditionally within us. Just there. Just happy. Just serene. Just observing. All of our awareness of life and the infinity of the universe is within that part of us.

In reality, it is not just a part of us, but the whole of us. We imagine the conditional happiness is who we are, and the unconditional happiness within us is but a nagging, confusing speck which we can do without. But as we open up to that unconditional happiness within us – as we let it into our lives and our habits, into our family and our jobs and our interactions with our neighbors and our politics and our ups and our downs – we find something magical and wonderful.

The unconditional happiness isn’t just a part of us. It is us. It isn’t one part of our consciousness. It is the essence of our consciousness. That all along when we tried so hard to find just the right kind of conditional happiness, what we were looking for was the unconditional happiness.

Disenchanting Political Philosophy

A key issue in current political philosophy is that between ideal vs non-ideal theory. But I would suggest a more productive contrast is between enchanted vs disenchanted theory.

Ideal theory concerns the justification of a political state under idealized conditions. The most famous recent version is Rawls. His question was, “What makes a society just?” His answer was that a society is just if it meets certain conditions – which we can reflect on without thinking about our actual political conditions. Rawls isn’t concerned – at least in his philosophical work – with how to bring about such a just society. His concern is: what would it be for a society to be just, irrespective of whether we can get there or not? Of course, you can take the ideal theory and try to bring it to bear to particular actual problems. But the starting point is with the ideal theory.

Non-ideal theory eschews the notion of an ideal starting point, and begins instead with current, actual unjust conditions, and is interested in changing those. It can involve a great deal of intellectual, theoretical work to understand the nature and causes of the existing, unjust conditions. But it’s starting point isn’t the skeptical question such as “Can a society be just?” or a metaphysical question such as “What is a just society?”, but rather the practical question, “How can our society become more just?” In this sense non-ideal theory is seen to be intrinsically political – as in, it aims not only at understanding, but even more primarily at changing our society. The most famous version of this was Marx. But other versions can be found in feminism (say, recently, Kate Manne) or critical race theory (say, Charles Mills), or recent work on fascism (say, Jason Stanley), and so on.

For the non-ideal theorist, ideal theory seems like pie-in-the-sky abstractionism, which, by ignoring the actual lived conditions of injustice, end up reenforcing those injustices. For the ideal theorist, non-ideal theory reduces all questions about the nature of justice to questions of political activism – as if only questions raised in the midst of activism can be appropriately good. Here is a crude analogy, but perhaps not far off: ideal theorists are like metaphysicians, while non-ideal theorists are like logical positivists claiming that metaphysics is the bain of actual, rigorous scientific knowledge.

Much as the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theorists can seem exhaustive, there is an important assumption that often the two sides have in common. They share what I will call an enchanted conception of political solidarity.

I am using “enchanted” here to echo Weber’s sense in which the pre-modern world was seen to be enchanted – that is, with the world itself filled with meaning and purpose. In the enchanted world we didn’t have to create meaning in life, or morality – those truths were assumed to be as much a part of the world as the sun and the moon and the stars, out in the world which we simply experienced and could take for granted. On the Webberian story, modernity broke this spell, leaving us with a world in which at most we have to create our meaning and root morality in ourselves. We can do it in a rationalist, Kantian way, or maybe an existentialist way, or a communitarian way, etc. Or if we can’t do it, we are stuck facing the void, staring into the abyss of nihilism.

By an “enchanted conception of political solidarity”, I mean the idea that we are simply given – or can take for granted – political solidarity. That it is obvious who the “we” are in “we the people”.

Many people have an enchanted conception of their nuclear family. They know exactly who their parents and sibling are, and who aren’t. Many people, however, don’t have such a conception. If they are adopted or have absent parents, etc., it might not be entirely obvious or clear even to themselves what “my family” picks out. For a person with an enchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” resonates with a clear sense of who is in and who is out – and so makes questions of “Is my family good or bad, or modern or traditional, etc?” seem kind of clear, even if hard to answer. But for a person with a disenchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” doesn’t automatically seem clear at all – and so even before addressing the question, “Is my family good or bad, modern or traditional?”, they are left wondering “who am I talking about in the first place? Who are the people I have this relation with, and how can I experience that more?”

In ideal political theory, when one asks, “What makes a society just?”, it is assumed that we already know who is a part of that society. Usually it is the trivial answer, “the members of the society”. It’s as if societies are natural kinds, with clearly defined boundaries of who is in and who is out, and with a sense for each other as “members of the same society”. The question the ideal theorist is interested in then is, “How should those people relate to each other such that their society is just?” In ideal theory “those people” is not defined any more than that. It is just an abstract sense of the people as members of the society.

It’s a genuine question – raised by the non-ideal theorist- whether much sense can be given to a question when it is pitched at the searing abstraction of “a society” or “the people of that society”. Does such abstraction give us insight into contested notions of justice and inequality, or does it abstract so far away that it seems to talk about difficult topics without any of the pain? For the ideal theorist the abstraction is an insight. For the non-ideal theorist, it is a dodge.

To avoid the dodge, the non-ideal theorist claims to “keep it real”. No fluffy notions of a faceless we and complacent assumptions of a shared solidarity, as if men and women, whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals, etc. can take for granted a common bond. “No!”, the non-ideal theorist says. “There is no such common bond yet! For the institutions of the past failed to treat the people fairly. What we need to do is to rectify the injustices of the past before we can even raise questions of our shared society as such. Otherwise talk of “our” is just another way of reenforcing the power imbalances of the past.”

Thus the non-ideal theorist is critical of the ideal theorist’s enchanted sense of political solidarity. But the non-ideal theorist falls into his own form of enchantment when he tries to describe the lived political reality. For feminists, “women” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity; as if just in virtue of identifying patriarchy, an invisible bond of solidarity had enveloped all women. Similarly, for marxists, “the workers” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity. And so on.

The trouble here is obvious. If “the people” as used as an ideal theorist is too abstract and removed from lived reality, so too are words like “women”, “the workers”, “the immigrants”, “the African-Americans”, “the colonized”, etc.

We might ordinarily say something like “The British were cruel to their colonized subjects”. But that doesn’t mean that there is any obvious group such as “the colonized”. In fact, “the colonized” only makes sense in relation to, not a specific group such as “the British”, but in relation to “the colonizers” – where that includes the British, the French, the Portugese, etc. Now we are off on the path of abstraction. And it is a tricky, complex issue what kind of abstractions or general claims we can make about what “the colonizers” did or how “the colonized” suffered.

This is one reason why so much of non-ideal theory, though it aims to be resolutely grounded, is still so theoretical. Though it presents itself as engaged and concrete in contrast to the abstractions and vagueries of ideal theory, non-ideal theory ends up being something far less than promised . It is just slightly less abstract theory. But now with the added confusion that terms like “women”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc. are treated as concrete terms. Which they are if they are contrasted to the works of Rawls, Kant or Hobbes. But by any normal understanding, these are not at all concrete terms, let alone terms which denote recognizable or established political solidarities.

In the face of the question, “Why don’t all women recognize their shared political solidarity?”, or the similar question for the disabled or the global south or the colonized, etc., the non-ideal theorist has to fall back onto a just so story, which is extremely abstract: that it is part of the work of the patriarchy, or the structures of the able bodied, or the colonizers, etc. to render the obvious solidarity unobvious. A metaphysical abstraction created an enchanted sense of solidarity, but then a political story gets told for why the solidarity isn’t more vividly felt. And the more the political story gets told (about patriarchy, colonizers, etc.), the more the sense of solidarity gets propped up.

I am not denying the reality that historically women were treated unjustly, or that the colonized were brutalized, and so on. But I think it is an open question whether accepting those realities and trying to change it requires the further, enchanted idea that there are obvious and special bonds of political solidarity among “the victims”.

Here some might fall back to ideal theory. For in rejecting the metaphysical abstractions of ideal theory, non-ideal theory seems to end up with a balkanized sense of political solidarity. “We the people” is diluted into “we the women”, “we the men”, “we the blacks” and “we the whites” and so on. Non-ideal theory was supposed to get us to be more concrete so as to focus more on the work of creating a just society. But instead of concreteness, we have gotten only a different kind of abstraction – which helps in some ways, but which fails to inspire an overall sense of “we the people”. At this point the ideal theorist steps back in, saying that the Rawlsian abstractions weren’t a dodge, but reflect our true, shared political solidarity.

We can avoid this see-saw between ideal and and non-ideal theory by giving up on their common assumption of the enchanted conception of political solidarity. Contra ideal theory, the best starting point for political philosophy is not the atemporal question, “What makes a society just?”, but rather the first-person plural perspective question, “How can we make our society more just?” But contra non-ideal theory, this first person, engaged, practical question is best addressed not just by asking how to rectify the injustices of particular groups, but by asking what holds us together at all. The more we face up to the fact that we live in a disenchanted political reality, the better we can work to change things.

Peace on Earth

If I was given the option, “Your life in exchange for peace on Earth?”, what would I choose?

Is there anything which could possibly justify choosing myself? Could I live with myself knowing my life is coming at the cost of the continued pain in the world? What would I do with a life I held onto at such cost?

A different, less extreme choice: peace on Earth not for my life, but for my fears? If I was promised there would be peace on Earth if I gave up being afraid, what would I do?

It would be silly for me to then hold onto my fears. The reward is great – peace on Earth. And what am I giving up: my life, my loved ones, my ideals, my hopes? No , just my fears. If I accept that I will not be afraid of anything or anyone, under any circumstances – if I make that the core of my being – what harm is coming to me? Why would I possibly choose holding onto my fears over peace in the world?

But I do everyday choose my fears over peace in the world. Is it because what I am imaging is a fantastical scenario? No one after all can promise me that there will be peace on Earth if I give up my fears. No one can even tell me what peace on Earth would mean. Is that why I normally feel ok to hold onto my fears?

Ok, let’s try this. What if I gave myself a choice: Peace within myself for giving up my fears? The more I resolve to be unmoved by any fear, the more I will be at peace. I will then be a person of peace.

Peace on Earth increases the more there are people of peace. People who choose to give up their fears in order to be at peace. So if I give up my fears, I contribute just through that to increasing Peace on Earth. It doesn’t create peace on Earth. But it enables me there to be more peace on Earth. Just by my acting on my choice for myself.

The normal delusion is that my fears help me survive, and a peaceful world is one in which I get to survive as I am. Hence peace on Earth requires not that I give up my fears but that I can rest assured that my fears will never come true.

Hence normally peace on Earth is not something I help create, but which has to be created for me. The world has to be made safe for me. By those with power like the politicians, the intellectuals, the priests, the rich, the celebrities, the Gurus, etc. Peace on Earth in this sense is the world’s promise to me that as long as I am basically a moral person (don’t kill, steal, etc), then I will be made safe in the world.

Of course peace on Earth in this sense is a total impossibility. There can be no peace on Earth if the people get to remain fundamentally mediocre, even if generally moral, beings. Human fighting results not necessarily from grand themes like evil, but from a resistance to transcend ourselves. Show me two people getting into a fight and I will show you two people embracing their emotional mediocrity.

Being moral is good. Better than killing and stealing. But it is also just an early stage of human potential. When the moral person asks himself, “Do I want to act beyond what morality requires?”, then new possibilities for human flourishing open up.

Peace on Earth isn’t a matter of everyone being moral. It is a matter of people undertaking the inner journey into their psyches and uprooting their long held fears and anxieties.

That is why we cannot imagine what peace on Earth would look like. Not because we can’t predict others’ behavior. But because we cannot see through – even in our own case – to the end of the tunnel of our own transformation.

Choose the self transformation. Choose the uncertainty of changing. Choose giving up fears. Then new visions of peace will blossom within you and from you.

No Fear & No Hate

It’s done. The knot which held together many of my conceptual confusions is loosened. I see clearly.

Reality is so simple. Like a sky clearing after a thunderstorm, awareness of truth shines after years of tormented reflection.

“Does God exist?” This is a confused question. Theists and atheists are caught in the confusion. Thinking answering “yes” or “no” is the way forward.

The way forward is to see beyond the question. To see the limits of the question. To see how much there is to experience and grow and do beyond the question.

What one believes about God is neither here nor there. It needn’t point to anything deeper. One can be a devout believer and miss the transcendent experience of feeling God’s love. One can be a serious unbeliever and be clueless about the rational nature of our lives.

Doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe. Or even what you do or don’t do. Thoughts and actions are only by products of a deeper way of being. Focusing on the by products can’t lead to the deeper reality.

You don’t get the by products right first and then get to the deeper reality. You leave the focus on the by products behind, and then through your being the right thoughts and actions arise on their own. And in a way you can’t predict.

It is not a limitation of the mind that you can’t predict the path. Just as it is not a limitation of the shell that it has to break for life to emerge.

The rootedness of life isn’t found in thought or in action. It is found in a way of being.

That way of being is characterized by two basic features: no fear & no hate. A total detachment from the fears and hates within yourself.

Be fearless. And be hateless. That is transcendence. That is most rational mode of being.

It’s that simple.

Keep an eye on the fears/anxieties/nervousness and the hate/annoyances/irritations without identifying with them.

Do that and you will understand more about God’s nature or about reason than any book or seminar can teach.

Awaken into the realm of your own being which is beyond your thoughts, identities and ideals. It is a vast ocean of consciousness waiting to be experienced and explored.

See you there.