Waking From a Conceptual Dream

I had a fruitful conversation with my brother yesterday, which crystallized for me somethings I have been thinking vaguely for sometime. I am lucky to have a sibling with whom I can talk about family, philosophy, culture, politics and ourselves as individuals, and the connections between all of these.

Here is what came together for me.

1) The project I had for last 25 years never came to fruition. I kept trying to achieve it and it kept “failing” – for lack of a better word. This dominated my life since I was 18.

2) In reality it was not a failure, but rather a process of waking from a conceptual dream. The way the project was framed was confused and so success was impossible from the start. Not seeing that, I assumed it would succeed if only I got enough others to care, or if I tried harder, etc. I was like a neuroscientist whose life project was to find where the color red that we experience is in the brain – and keeps thinking if only he had better scanning mechanisms, he would find it. Then he thinks that perhaps “redness” doesn’t literally have to be in the brain to be an experience, and sees the futility of his past project. It can feel like a conversion experience. It is reorienting one’s conceptual framework, to be free from a conceptual lock so as to see things anew and differently.

3) The feeing of failing at this project was a constant companion for me. It was like I can’t relax because I need to complete this project. My very sense of self and self-esteem was tied with it. Failing at it made me feel like I was failing. That I couldn’t be myself until the project was a success. The project was my version of making a million dollars or becoming famous – an external achievement which becomes a substitute for inner confidence.

4) The project was to combine Indian philosophy with Western philosophy. And to have a community which cares about this combination in the way I do.

5) When I was an academic, I thought the constraints of academia made it hard to do my project. When I left academia, I thought the project would be easier outside academia. I would become a writer: an essayist or a book author, get a platform and spread my message. This didn’t happen. I felt the failure continued even outside academia.

6) What I see now is that the “failure” is not because of either external indifference nor my personal inabilities. It is more basic. The failure was caused by how I framed the project.

7) The project got a grip on me because I felt I was blessed to have two special experiences.

8) The first was being the son of, as I thought of it, a philosophical genius. I experienced my father as no less spiritually realized than a Vivekananda or a Dalai Lama. Except unlike them, no one knew about my father. Yet he passed on something to me, which I assumed I need to pass on to the world.

9) The second was studying philosophy at Cornell and Harvard. Being at these departments gave me the feeling that – like with my education with, in my eyes, my world historical father – my academic education propelled me into the circles of Quine, Rawls and Nozick. Into the realm of the elite departments in which Russell and Wittgenstein had moved. I was not just somebody reading philosophy. I could be the next Wittgenstein. This was an ever present feeling for me in my studies. The sense that I was at the top circles of the subject – and so changes I can make there can have a big ripple effect. (If this sounds narcissistic, I can only say, without self judgement, it is how it felt.)

10) I assumed my father passed on to me the essence of Indian philosophy. And that at Harvard I internalized the essence of Western philosophy. I was given these two great gifts. Now I simply have to combine them. And that synthesis can help the world dealing with globalization. That was the project. It seemed so simple.

11) My brother said that as an immigrant he feels his relation to India is mediated through our extended family in America – that in his mind our family feels more like the essence of India, and that the India over there (the actual India) feels like a dim reflection of the essence reflected through our family. This is how I experience it too. My sense of India is fused not only with my first 11 years in India, but with family life in New York. So “India” for me is tracking a kind of idiosyncratic combination of India the country with the particular family life I had in America. This sense of “India” might not be shared with many other people of Indian background in America, let alone the billion people in India.

12) “Indian philosophy” came to have a similar resonance for me. People often asked me in the last decade, “If you were so unhappy with philosophy at Harvard, why didn’t you go to a different department which actually taught Indian philosophy?” Here Indian philosophy means something like the millenia long tradition of debates and inquiries – as captured here or here. It’s a very good question, which I didn’t know how to answer. But now I see.

13) For me “Indian philosophy” didn’t refer primarily to the texts one reads in an Indian philosophy class. It referred to “my dad’s philosophy”. The way “India” felt synonymous for me with “my family life”, so too “Indian philosophy” became synonymous with “the philosophy of my family”, which for me meant my father’s philosophy. As my brother – a linguist and computer scientist – put it, I had kind of an idiolect. What “Indian philosophy” meant for me was not the same as it means for actual scholars of Indian philosophy. Harvard had such a scholar: Parimal Patil, who when I was there was not part of the philosophy department, but now is. I saw Patil with a certain suspicion, as if he was doing something different from what I was interested in. I see now why. Patil is tracking the more standard usage of “Indian philosophy” in academic philosophy, whereas mine was a more idiosyncratic conception, fused with my own family life. I know very little of the actual Indian philosophy that he is an expert in. But as I saw it, that is not relevant to my project of fusing Indian and Western philosophy.

14) Part of the complexity is that “Indian philosophy” has at least two very broad meanings. One is an academic sense, of scholars like Patil and the people who write on, say, The Indian Philosophy Blog. Another is a broader cultural sense, of spiritual thinkers like Vivekananda or Deepak Chopra. In Western culture, the latter sense of “Indian philosophy” is more prevalent. More people know of Deepak Chopra than on Parimal Patil. For me, part of the appeal of my father’s philosophy was that I thought he was combining these two senses into something like the deep essence of Indian philosophy. As I saw it, my dad had internalized this essence and had passed it on to me. So why do I need to go study it in a department, when I already carried its essence within me? Here the misleading effects of essentialization can be seen – and the roots of my failure.

15) So my project is better understood as that of combining Satyam Vallabha’s philosophy with Western philosophy. This is starting to seem like a category mistake: what is it to fuse one person’s philosophy with a whole other tradition? Even more, what is it to do this when no one other than a few people in my family know Satyam Vallabha’s philosophy? It’s like making sense of an esoteric philosopher to a public who never even knew of that philosopher. While assuming that esoteric philosopher captures the essence of a different cultural tradition.

16) I essentialized from the other direction as well. For me Western philosophy meant really the departments of Cornell and Harvard in the 1990s and 2000s. This is less idiosyncratic than identifying Indian philosophy with my father’s philosophy, but it’s still idiosyncratic. And becoming increasing so as the norms, interests and assumptions of academic philosophy are changing – so much so that I feel out of touch, having left ten years ago, with many of the latest changes taking place in the discipline.

17) It turns out my “two special experiences” – my tutelage with my father and my education at Harvard at a particular time – are now receding into the mists of the past. My father passed away in 2016, and even my extended family hardly talks about him as a philosopher. His philosophy is mainly alive for my mother, brother and me – and importantly so for us as family – and even us three have our own differences from my father. So I no longer feel the identification of my father’s philosophy with Indian philosophy – and therefore no longer feel I have any special link to Indian philosophy. Without a special link, the project fades away as well.

18) Similarly, as I become more detached from my academic philosophy past, the less I feel I have any special link to Western philosophy. There is no one thing Western philosophy is, and as the tumults in academic philosophy now suggest, a tradition reinterprets itself from age to age.

19) I used to experience the failure of my project intensely because I was holding onto the fantasies of “the essence” of Indian and Western philosophies. As if it was just this one thing and that one thing, both clearly defined – and all that is to be done is bring the two together. But I think now there was never any such essences in the first places. Holding onto the essences was like trying to hold onto fog moving in a mist.

20) So much now is changing. Not just cultures – Indian and American. Not just academic philosophy. Not just my family structures. Not just our politics and societies. But underlying all these are changes at a deep, tectonic level. Changes to our Earth itself and to our climate. And in human life, changes to the very modes of our interaction, of what is public and what is private, of the very boundaries of our selves – and of where and how we meet and talk. Technology in the broad sense is changing all that. And while there are a few big names and companies – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Google, Facebook, etc. – it is another form of essentialization to identify them with the technological changes. The changes are probably too vast and too multi-faceted to assume any one person or group is controlling it, or could control it.

21) I carried the project in me for so long, I am not sure what it is to see the world without it. But it feels better to live into an uncertain reality than to continue in a dream. I am glad to lay down the project and to leave it behind, to see the world anew, fresh, with new eyes.

22) If all is shifting, if there is no essence of Indian or Western philosophy, or no essence to technology or cultures, how can we manage our lives and deal with our problems? I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know. But somehow we will, as we have for thousands of years.

17 thoughts on “Waking From a Conceptual Dream”

  1. This sounds like very useful clarity. We do learn slowly, don’t we? Certainly I do. I don’t think I had the same illusions about Cornell or Harvard that you had, but I certainly had illusions about myself. But we can and sometimes do learn, about all of these things. Thank goodness! 🙂

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    1. Very true. Thank goodness we can keep learning and changing.

      If I didn’t go to Cornell and Harvard, I doubt I would have those illusions about it, as if they represented western philosophy. Just as if my father wasn’t my father, I wouldn’t have seen him as representing Indian philosophy. There seems to be an interesting connection between identification – or at least certain ways of identifying – and essentialization. The more I wanted to identify with Harvard philosophy circa 2000, the more it loomed large in my consciousness not just as a particular department but as representative of western philosophy. And the more I was critical of the department, the more this way of thinking of it become internalized – as if being critical of Harvard phil and being critical of Western phil was the same. I think very much these kinds of dynamics are in play as students now struggle with whether and how to identify with their education. In my own case, distance and time from academic phil helped me see that I learnt many things at Harvard without feeling that it is the essence of even 20th century European and American philosophy, let alone of western phil as such.

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      1. While I was at Cornell I developed a strong identification with Terry Irwin’s general view of Plato, Aristotle, and subsequent ethical thought in the west. But I had a few doubts, and within six years or so of leaving Cornell I had an emerging view–helped by Hegel, by more careful reading of Plato, and by my own personal evolution–that is no longer the same as his.

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        1. It’s amazing how much contingency plays a role in one’s developing a sense of what is essential to a tradition. If you were at Cornell when I was there and you were teaching your interpretation of Plato – as opposed to what Irwin and Fine were teaching – I doubt I would have seen western philosophy as in essence being so different from Indian philosophy. It’s an interesting thought experiment to think of such alternative pathways.

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    1. Thanks for the question. Of course, to be clear I don’t think there is a metric by which one determines who is spiritually realized. But it is interesting that I thought my father had spiritual insights and that I could feel it. What was it that I thought I could feel and which affected me so much? I will write more about that.

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  2. > 21) I carried the project in me for so long, I am not sure what it is to see the world without it.

    Possibly another way of seeing this – your project (synthesizing Indian and Western) is still relevant, it is just that you are letting go of treating it as a Universal. What you are outlining here is that the synthesis doesn’t take place “over there” in some abstract land of Essences of Philosophies, it takes place on the ground, in the particularities of your lived experience with its experimentation and contingencies.

    > 22) If all is shifting, if there is no essence of Indian or Western philosophy, or no essence to technology or cultures, how can we manage our lives and deal with our problems? I don’t know.

    But the fact that there is no Essence (with capital E) doesn’t mean there can’t be resemblances and patterns – otherwise how would be ever learn from each other or find someone else’s writing inspirational ! The framing of “without Essences, there is blooming buzzing chaos” seems to ignore that there is such a thing as emergent organic order. By analogy to biology: There is no essence to “species” but the natural world is filled with regularity and order in how individual organisms mate, reproduce, occupy ecological niches, have symbiotic relations with other organisms, and so on.

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    1. Points well taken. I agree.

      Here is another way to make the point you are making I think. What I have lost is an illusion. I assumed there was an essence to “Indian philosophy” and “Western philosophy”, and that their mixture meant a mixture of the essences. Now when I don’t look at things this way, what I see is how much mixing there is already happening and will be happening – just happening at a more fine grained level than at the more abstract level of traditions as such, or syllabi, etc. In fact, I myself as a fine grained instance of that mixture. That is the sense in which I don’t have to wait for the essences to mix before I can think “yes, now I can identify as a mixed thinker”. We can begin – and in a way can only begin – with the on the ground, messy, multifacited modes of mixing that are taking place at the level of particulars.

      The worry of “If there are no essences, how can we make progress?” is motived by the thought that otherwise there might be only, as you put it, “blooming, buzzing choas.” If mixedness is what is happening at the particular level, then now everyone seems mixed. You don’t have western philosophers on one side and indian philosophers on the other side; rather there are just mixed philosophers everywhere, with the only difference being the modes in which they are mixed. This might not be choas, but it can feel a bit disorienting. Kind of like if I think there is a difference between my family and my neighbors, and then I discover us and them are actually distant relatives. There is a comfort in “they are only neighbors, not family”, which suggests they don’t belong into the circle of people I have to care about too much. I think this is part of the comfort of essentialization – that sense of fixedness and familiarity of relations and groups. As the boundaries and lines of the group are shifting, it can be nerve racking.

      I like the idea of emergent organic order. There is no need to resist the blurring of boundaries in the name of maintaining order. Embracing the changes opens a path to new forms of order, which arise organically and in due course.

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      1. > You don’t have western philosophers on one side and indian philosophers on the other side; rather there are just mixed philosophers everywhere, with the only difference being the modes in which they are mixed. [ …]

        As you say, part of the anxiety of letting go of Essences is the feeling of “losing” something … “we had it all figured out and now we are losing all that!”. This anxiety cannot be addressed solely through rational argument but needs some “therapeutic” moves. Here, I find it useful to remind myself that that even “Western” and “Indian” philosophies are themselves very mixed. Historical “Indian” philosophy is much more than Advaita or even Vedanta, including Sufiism, Jainism, Buddhism (itself reflected back from China after mixing with Taoism and becoming Chan Buddhism, and its various strains). Even more so with Western Philosophy, which encompasses Socrates, Aquinas, Spinoza, Russell, Nietzsche and Heidegger (and that’s even including other traditions like Judaism!).

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  3. Hello Bharath, I was greatly moved by your post, and I felt that it described the basic structure of my life and explained its basic impasse. I too had (and still have, despite my attempts to dig myself out of it or to be rid of it) a grand project of unifying “spirituality” (philosophy as a spiritual practice) and “conceptuality” ( philosophy as discursive practice). Like you it filled up all my life with tension and exhaustion, lostness and frustration. I think you did a good job of describing how this attempt is doomed to failure, and how it turns in on itself to show that its firm bases with which we began are built on sand, indeed are made of sand themselves). Such ambition and such sadness are attached to such a project. It seems better to just abandon it and to “live life” without it, but even this is not available to me, as the major part of my life has been given over to it. Without this project, there is not much left except going through the motions of what I have put in place.

    However, paradoxically, I feel that never are you more “on mission” for your project than when you write this sort of post. One way of explaining this impression is to see that your project, like mine, is a deconstructive one, traversed by a pitiless impulse to undo all the “locks” and dissolve all the “essences” (your terms) in our minds and in our lives. This project is to combine conceptual deconstruction and self-deconstruction. I see this process continuing in you, and despite the shared sadness I am heartened. Yet, like you, like many, I feel that deconstruction is not enough, that something more is needed. As T.S. Eliot said “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

    I can translate this question as “after such deconstruction what joy?” The fear is of a failed and joyless life. The hope is in the idea that the failure is not just the result of a badly defined project, but rather that the failure is part of the mission, that the failure is part of the success of the project. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better…Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good” Beckett, Worstward Ho).

    Another thing: if I think of this project as “mine”, I am doomed to failure, always was, and always will be, there is no way out for me. But sometimes I think that I am just the “bearer”, one of the bearers, of a project that is vaster than me, that is going on all over the place, in many different forms. I can see signs of this, not just in your blogs (I have followed your work over seven or eight years) but in other philosophers (mostly “Continental”). So I know it is possible to achieve some partial, provisional, better-than-nothing successes, as I have seen it in others, and felt its (mitigated) presence in some of my writing.

    Somehow, referring back to Beckett’s talk of “try” and “fail”, I feel that if this project is nothing but an individual thing (a private neurosis) the feeling of failure predominates. If this effort is part of a collective project, a large scale spiritual/conceptual experiment, then the positive feeling of trying and sharing and improving prevails. I didn’t make this up and I don’t have to succeed all by myself. Keeping the whole thing alive is already a degree of success.

    I have no consolation to offer, neither for myself nor for others. “Keeping the whole thing alive” means also continuing to fail and to suffer in the hope of sporadic flashes of success and of joy. All I can offer is to “deconstruct” your title: “Waking from a Conceptual Dream”. There is nothing wrong with concepts, and one of the problems with your father’s heritage is its one-sidedness – he did not have enough concepts (mine didn’t). There is nothing wrong with dreaming, a project such as your is a dream that gets stuck (“locked”), and the best advice I have found for unlocking it is Jung’s “dream the dream onwards”. For me this maxim echoes Beckett’s, although the terms maybe scrambled (as happens in dreams), which I would reformulate as: Dream, wake, dream again, wake better, dream better etc.

    To conclude, I am glad you wake up and write such deep and moving texts (despite the pain) and I hope you go on dreaming, ever more deeply and more movingly.

    Friendly regards, Terence.

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    1. Hi Terence – Thanks for this rich and thoughtful comment. It was wonderful to read and to process. A lot of what you said resonated with me, and I responded to it in a new post.

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  4. Hi Bharath, I found your post on Terence’s blog and responded to him:

    I imagine quite a few of us would recognise ourselves in your comments, Terence!
    I can only say that I have found it valuable to consider esotericism, e.g. the ‘esoteric christianity’ of Gurdjieff.
    One could say that ‘dreaming the dream onwards’ requires not so much a reconciliation but the possibility of recognising a different approach…one that requires a different work on sensing – and our ability to receive something.
    I also found Agehananda Bharati’s autobiographical ‘The Ochre Robe’ v. useful in giving a real impression of the life of a sannyasin in the Ramakrisna Order (that of Vivekananda).
    Also his bk ‘The light at the centre: context and pretext in modern mysticism.’
    Apart from that I find Lee van Laer’s bIlog a valuable contemporary resource:
    http://zenyogagurdjieff.blogspot.com/

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