Academic and New Age Philosophy

I am reading Tony Schwartz’s What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America. A fascinating book.

Schwartz was the ghostwriter for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. After the success of that book, Schwartz says he felt empty and longing for a greater purpose in his life. This led him to explore the human potential, new age and other movements that had arisen in America since the 60s. The book is a history of some of these movements.

Schwartz’s book was published in 1995. I just finished reading James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy from 1993. An excellent book, moving and expansive in its vision of spirituality and a world awakening. Redfield also was inspired by the human potential movement.

Thinking about these books from the 90s made me think of another one which has been very important for me: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now from 1999.

1995 was when I started undergrad. 1999 I started grad school. As I was learning about Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein, I hungered to connect my education not only with academic-ish Indian philosophy such as Nagarjuna and Shankara, but also with 19th and 20th century Indian spiritual philosophers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo.

Certainly remnants of racist institutional habits were, and are, part of the reason why Eurocentrism is so prevalent in American philosophy departments. But the fact that Aurobindo would not be taught at Harvard was not because – or mainly because – he is brown. It is for the same reason Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie or Ken Wilber aren’t taught at Harvard, Berkeley, NYU or most American philosophy departments. It’s because the modern philosophy departments from the late 18th century on – effectively from Kant and Hegel on – separated philosophy from spirituality.

The relation of philosophy to spirituality (or what we might call, individual development or even self-help) was a big issue in 19th century Europe and America. Emerson wouldn’t have recognized a difference between the two. Nor would Kierkegaard or even the Nietzsche of Zarathustra. The tension between philosophy and spirituality, and where his own thinking falls, was a persistent issue for William James.

Two of the main philosophers in the 20th century – Wittgenstein and Heidegger – both were firmly set against this separation of philosophy from spirituality. Though they explored the idea differently (in Wittgenstein it became an ultra-personal quietism and in Heidegger it turned into a mythic-nationalistic mysticism), they were similar in being essentially estranged from the normal, a-spiritual academic philosophy of their time.

No wonder that for me, as a young philosophy student who wanted to bridge not only Eastern and Western philosophy, but also spiritual and rationalistic philosophy, I was so drawn in my studies to Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Not just to their ideas, which are fascinating and important, but, first and foremost, to their lives and their attempts to engage with Kant or Frege while merging that with the personal spiritual focus of a Saint Francis of Assisi or a Marcus Aurelius.

This is one reason I found most Wittgenstein or Heidegger scholars boring. Their efforts were to cleanse these thinkers of their spiritual fervor so as to sanitize them for acceptable academic thought. My energy, like that of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, went in the other direction entirely: to rationally engage with the ideas of Aristotle, Descartes and Russell while making them a part of my spiritual journey.

When I think about how much academic philosophy brackets itself from spirituality, I realize the question isn’t, “Why did I leave academia?” It is rather: “Why didn’t Wittgenstein leave academia more resolutely?” If it is so hard to bring philosophy and spirituality together while being a professor, why stay as a professor and give up outward expressions of spirituality rather than leave academia and merge philosophy and spirituality as one wants? This is the path I chose.

Which brings me back to Schwartz’s book.

When one looks to the general cultural situation in America since the 1960s, it is clear that there has been a great focus on merging Western and Eastern philosophy. Only this happened not in most American philosophy departments (other than departments like that of the University of Hawaii), but rather in the broader new age philosophy.

I often heard my colleagues in academia speak of new age philosophy as if it were the delinquent sibling of academic philosophy. As if new age philosophy was either trying to be like academic philosophy and failing miserably, or was aiming for this other thing (self-help) which appeals only to people who lack confidence in themselves. As if to say, “We already have confidence in ourselves, and so we don’t need that new age mumbo jumbo. That is for weak willed people who don’t know any better.” There is no greater embarrassment to most academic philosophers than to find their books in a bookstore next to books by Deepak Chopra or Ken Wilber.

I never quite felt that way, but from peer pressure I nodded along to such sentiments when I was an academic. I see now how wrong and deluded this way of thinking is.

To reduce Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy to self-help in the sense of gathering the courage to ask out a girl, getting a job or not feeling bad about oneself is as absurd as reducing Quine’s philosophy to logic chopping or Austin’s philosophy to playing with words. It is the kind of characterization we make when we don’t understand something, but also don’t want to engage with it – and so dismissing it provides us with justification for ignoring it.

The point of Tolle’s philosophy, like that of Thich Nhat Hahn or Sadhguru or Pema Chodron, is not normal self-confidence, but rather the expansion of one’s consciousness. The kind of expansion that arises when one actually, consistently, habitually steps back from one’s emotions, thoughts, feelings, actions and observes them with a cool detachment. It is what is meant by the Kantian idea of reflective distance: not being driven by one’s impulses but being able to reflect on one’s own mental states in a rational way.

The academic assumption is that such reflective distance is best exhibited when one is writing books or listening to talks or engaging in seminar discussions. And so the more one does that, and the better one does that, the more one is living a reflective life.

Wittgenstein and Heidegger, like Tolle and Thomas Merton, knew this was not true. Nothing against seminars and writing journal articles. They are fine activities, even enjoyable. I miss them to this day. Well, maybe I don’t miss writing journal articles, but I certainly miss the social intellectual dynamics of academic life. But still! That doesn’t mean that seminar discussion or academic writing is the paradigm of self-reflective consciousness.

There is a simple way to see this. How attentive are the philosophers in the seminar room to each others’ emotional states? How easily perturbed are they by their “opponent’s” views? How possessive do they feel of “their” ideas?

In my experience, most seminar rooms, even when they are filled with genuine politeness, take for granted our “ordinary” sense of possessiveness, or the everyday sense of oneself vs one’s opponents. The normal academic energy is exerted at the level of understanding the relations between thoughts or ideas, but not exerted at the level of distancing oneself from one’s thoughts. To the contrary, frequently academic discourse presupposes identification with one’s thoughts, and the work is that of elaborating, defending, clarifying “my thoughts”.

Most academics relate to their mind the way body builders relate to their body. Which is to say: with extreme identification.

The issue here isn’t that academic philosophy is all wrong. Or limited. And that new age philosophy is more enlightened and better. I don’t think that. The issue is rather: the fact that academic philosophy and new age philosophy are seen by most people, and even by the practitioners on both sides, as two separate, independent realms which have nothing to do with each other says a lot about the our modern society, and about its particular difficulties.

Progress in our society, and indeed in one’s own intellectual and spiritual path, requires a synthesis and harmony between the ideals of academic and new age philosophy. This is a vast realm that is deeply under-explored right now. I bet exploring this terrain of synthesis will yield seismic results in the coming decades.

8 thoughts on “Academic and New Age Philosophy

  1. s. wallerstein

    Most academics relate to their mind the way body builders relate to their body. Which is to say: with extreme identification.

    I think that academic philosophy is more of a combat sport, as if they were boxers. Better still, arm wrestling, which isn’t a combat sport, but a test of strength.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Nice analogies. Whether as boxing or arm wrestling, the focus in academia often seems to be showing something about the other person’s thoughts. As opposed to going deeper into one’s own thoughts and even further, into detaching from one’s thoughts.

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      1. s. wallerstein

        Academic philosophy attracts very intellectually competitive people, people who need to win. That was true in the 60’s when I was in the university, and that competitiveness is increased today by the shortage of academic jobs. That need to win is a personality trait and like all personality traits, will not go away because you read a book or two about spirituality or about anything else. Nor will the study of spirituality ease the deadly competition for scarce jobs.

        Thus, if the same intellectually competitive people begin to study spirituality, they will become competitive about that, and your space of inner peace and inner silence will be invaded by spiritual arm wrestlers.

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        1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

          Interesting point. A few thoughts.

          It’s not just academic phil. People in general are competitive. Even new age people can be, and usually are, spiritually competitive. The root cause is the ego, which by its nature identities self worth with comparison.

          That said, I do think academic phil habits and structures (not necessarily the people’s personalities) foster competitiveness. Even more so now, as you say, due to job scarcity. Still, for their own survival, academic philosophers need to cultivate more mindfulness, which will help them relate and listen to people who otherwise want to now shut down the departments. Even more, they need mindfulness lest they fall into infighting as it is happening now between the more traditional and the woke elements.

          In any case, my point about bringing academic phil and new age together isn’t primarily about the practitioners or even the institutions, though I am interested in that. Rather, it is about bringing together ideas and practices from both realms together. Thinking about, say, how the ideas of Russell and Deepak Chopra are related, or Kant and Alan Watts. I think there are disagreements here of course, but also much more overlap and room for exploring shared aims and ideas than is normally seen. Most new age people might not care about Carnap or Husserl, about Spinoza or Aristotle. I think that is a mistake. The things that academic philosophers know can help many people on their spiritual journeys.

          I see the academic phil and new age reapproachment as a part of the broader reapproachment of academic phil and religion, which was sundered in the West with modernity. We need to keep all the advances of modernity while overcoming its limits, which have to do with a forgetting of the broader dimensions of human well being and its social manifestations.

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  2. Bob Wallace

    I have a book coming out from Bloomsbury this winter entitled _Philosophical Mysticism in Plato, Hegel, and the Present_. In chapter 2 I survey Emerson, James, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and others. I even have a couple of brief quotes from Eckhard Tolle!

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