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.