A Modern Yajnavalkya

1) I said in my last post that my father in his 20s was thinking of becoming a modern monk like Vivekananda. He decided against this path in 1972, when at the age of 31 he and my mother got married. I think he didn’t realize what a big effect this decision would have on his spiritual and psychological life. Following my father’s nonchalant demeanor about the transition, when I was growing up my family treated it with casual humor. One of his uncles once said to me, “Your father was very set on becoming a monk. We all thought he would.” Then he added with a chuckle, “He surprised us and got married.”

2) What must it have been like for him to go from wanting to be a monk to not just getting married, but to wanting to get married? He didn’t get married against his wishes; he actively wanted it. When my father and mother’s arraigned marriage was set, he was quite romantic in wanting to take his wife to be to the park and for them to get to know each other – a rather progressive attitude in my family circles at the time.

3) I often wished my father would speak about the transition from wanting to be a monk to becoming a husband. But he never really did. In fact, he himself usually never referred to him wanting to be a monk. He would assert instead that spiritually it was important to embrace life in all its forms – including marriage and having children. I felt however that he doth protest too much. That while he genuinely and fully was happy to be married, he downplayed the psychological turmoil he went through in the transition.

4) What interests me especially is the effect marriage had on him in his expressing and sharing his spiritual life with others. When someone wants to be a monk – or a priest or even a professor – it is not just an expression of their spiritual interests. It is also an expression of how they feel moved to pursue spirituality: where they fit into the social and cultural matrix of the spiritual life of the society. The desire to be a monk is like a desire to be a teacher. One doesn’t simply want to gain knowledge, but also share that knowledge publicly. For some people, these two things – the gaining and the sharing publicly – come apart. Like someone who is content to read or think on their own, without feeling the need to write books (or blog posts) to add to that public conversation. But for others these two are deeply fused together. Monks, priests, professors, authors – these are modern day shamans, exploring the collective unconscious and contributing to the conversations of humankind.

5) I am in the latter category: thinking and expression of my thinking in a public space are deeply interconnected. If I didn’t live in a time of blogging, I would probably be working on a book which in my mind would connect me to public discourse. My father also had this side to him. I was to discover it in the way he was to share his philosophy with me when I was 16: his ideas, his questions, his place in relation to Vivekananda, Russell, Gandhi, Christ, the Buddha and in general to the history of philosophy, it all poured out of him like water bursting through a dam.

6) My extended family knew this aspect of him, but mostly it was treated as a personal idiosyncrasy. That was just “his personality”. But as his son I knew there was more to it than his personality. For it didn’t really make sense. He loved me, as he loved my older brother, unconditionally. I am lucky to have known that kind of fatherly love: I felt always that he would drop anything, at any moment, to be by my side and help me. He loved me as an extension of himself.

7) But I started to notice something a year or so into my philosophical conversations with him: he wasn’t listening to me fully. This person who loved me as much as it is possible for one person to love another, couldn’t hear me say, “Dad, please stop for a minute and listen to my perspective and my life situation from which I am talking.” I was being thrust into a role beyond that of a son, and into that of a sishya (student). Or better put, I was being thrust into the role of a son-student, akin to how it was with some Indian sages and their children from antiquity.

8) The idea that two people simply talk as two thinkers is often a fantasy. Even when the conversation is about something as abstract as philosophy, we are navigating roles we internalized of how such conversations take place. It is possible for two people to talk just as two individuals, but that takes a lot of conscious work and mutual listening and understanding.

9) When my father and I started talking philosophy when I was 16, he had been married for 21 years. So if he was a philosopher, he was hardly so as a monk who gave up the married life. Nor was he an academic. But he wanted to share with me what he discovered in the course of his philosophical inquiries. Not simply share it as “Here is simply my opinion.” Rather to share it the way a teacher passes on to a student: “Here is what you will learn if you dedicate yourself to this path you have chosen.”

10) From the time of the Upanishads, about 2,500 years ago, there was already a form of a philosopher which could apply to my father – or so he thought. That was that of the husband-sage-teacher Yajnavalkya. I don’t know if Yajnavalkya had children, but famously he was married to Maithreyi, with whom he had philosophical discussions. But once there is the image of a married sage such as Yajnavalkya, it is easy enough to image him with children. As he lived in his hermitage with his wife and children and students, Yajnavalkya would combine being a philosopher, husband, father and guru.

11) This was the context in which I discovered philosophy. I was an Indian-American going to an American high school, with the aim of going to an American college and living an American life in the most public sense. But like most immigrants, I also had a home life which was set apart from the outside American world – the Indian home life with my parents, brother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, cousins and so forth. In this Indian home life, my father as a philosopher was generally not to be found explicitly. He moved in it mainly as my grandmother’s eldest son – firm in his convictions, but usually deferential to his widowed mother lest it break the harmony of the extended family (and when he was not deferential, there were generally family tensions).

12) And for me there was yet another inner circle – set apart even from the inner Indian, extended family home life, as that was set apart from the outer American life. And this innermost circle was the space of my father’s philosophical world come to life in our dining room or living room as he gave expression to his inner philosopher-sage. In the hours he would talk about philosophy – often with the ecstasy of a Sufi mystic merged with the analytic analysis of a logical positivist, a Krishna-love intoxicated bhakti-yogin merged with an advaita defending debater – our living room would morph into a hermitage from ancient India, with my father as a modern day Yajnavalkya.

13) Talking philosophy with my father as I was discovering philosophy felt like Einstein’s son being taught physics by Einstein. Except for one thing: it was all supposed to be a secret, not for public expression! No mention of it was to be made even to my grandmother or my cousins, let alone my friends from school, to whom in any case it would all be unbelievably foreign. It seemed foreign even to most of my extended family. Like most Hindu families, most people in my extended family don’t read the Gita or the Upanishads, or think about Yajnavalkya, Badarayana, Shankara or Aurobindo. Most of my family’s spiritual thinking is more religious, tied up with pujas, prayers and the social life of Hinduism. As most Hindus do, they know Vivekananda, but more as a cultural defender of Hinduism than as a Western philosophy educated, global minded, intellectual philosopher.

14) My father, ever one to embrace contradictions, was like an esoteric Yajnavalkya. A modern day Yajnavalkya, who instead of passing on philosophical insights in his hermitage or debating in front of kings, was passing it on just to his closest family members. For him our conversations were perhaps an elaborate version of a father whispering the Gayatri Mantram to his son during the son’s upanayanam, the thread ceremony initiating the son into manhood and the search for knowledge. But with this one main difference: the whole ceremony is whispered, out of sight of others, as if the entire event itself was an esoteric act meant to be hidden from the public.

15) For me this esotericism merged the ecstasy of philosophy with my father with mental torture. It is one thing for a 52 year old man to choose to keep his philosophical visions private, after decades of publicly expressing his passion for philosophy with family and friends. It is another for a 16 year old boy, just blossoming into having a public identity, and discovering philosophy and falling in love with it, and wanting to share that love in the world, to accept that when talking with family and friends he should act as if philosophy was just for his inner soul and not for public expression.

16) Soon the pernicious side of the my-Dad-as-Yajnavalkya idea was all too evident to me – though it would be years before I let myself think clearly about it, let alone talk about it publicly. If no one saw him as Yajnavalkya, would he still be a modern Yajnavalkya? My older brother was away at college, and could come in and out of the hermitage conversations. My mother was as enmeshed in the hermitage conversations as I was, as Yajnavalkya couldn’t be Yajnavalkya without his wife. But my mother, who is very spiritual but more in a bhakti manner, was not a Maithreyi, meeting Yajnavalkya as a conceptual equal, challenging him with pointed questions, forcing him to reveal his conceptual insights. Can Yajnavalkya be Yajnavalkya without a conceptual challenger, a philosophical interlocutor who can hold his own but who can also ultimately see Yajnavalkya’s greatness?

17) There is no one answer to this question. But as a 16 year old, mesmerized by my father but also afraid for his health, to me the answer seemed obvious: my father as Yajnavalkya needed an other – a student, a rival, a challenger, a skeptic, an audience. To me the hermitage conversations in our living room were flowerings of the beauty of human potential – humans reaching for a higher consciousness. If I simply walked away from them – saying, “Sorry Dad, this isn’t working for me; I am going to pursue my own path in philosophy” – what would happen to the beautiful philosophical garden in my parent’s living room, and what would happen to my father as a modern Yajnavalkya? If he stopped being Yajnavalkya, what other mode of philosophical expression would, and could, he have? Monk and academic were already out. To see him as only his mother’s son and his siblings’ brother was too painful for me to contemplate. That family Satyam was real, but what my father showed me, as he showed also to my mother and brother, was the side of him he chose back then to not show his family. And if he was going to continue to be Yajnavalkya even after I walked away, now the burden of being Yajnavalkya’s conceptual other would fall entirely on my mother, which would put her in an impossible situation.

18) As it was, my mother was already in a difficult situation. For nowhere in the Upanishads is there a discussion of how Maithreyi managed to challenge Yajnavalkya in philosophical debate while she also was the eldest daugher-in-law in an extended family presided over by her mother-in-law as a matriarch? Nowhere does the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which sheds light on the deepest truth of truths, also shed light on how a modern Maithreyi can be a philosopher while also making coffee for her husband and his friends, cooking for her family, cleaning the house, managing the emotional needs of her in laws, keeping up with her own family’s needs, raise two children in a new country, deal with her husband’s health concerns and her own hearing issues, and also have a full time job, while at times facing harassment at work for being an immigrant and while commuting for two hours a day – to do all that, and then, also, when her husband wanted to morph into a modern Yajnavalkya, manage to herself morph into a modern Maithreyi, setting aside everything else and engaging in pure philosophy, and catching all her husband’s references to philosophers and scientists, which she, as a woman in India back then, didn’t have a chance to explore in her youth as her husband did. The Upanishads don’t explain how anyone can do all that because no one can do all that.

19) My extended family was able to treat my father’s philosophical interests as just “how he is”, as if it were just a personality thing, because to them it was not that important. They didn’t have to, and for the most part didn’t want to, think more about it. But to me my father’s philosophy raised really big, fascinating, challenging questions. Not just about the nature of Brahman and whether reincarnation was true, but also questions about what it meant to be a philosopher in the modern world.

20) Could a modern Yajnavalkya, who could channel the cosmic consciousness and know the ultimate Truth “knowing which all else was know”, and who also loves his son more than life itself, yet not know his son’s pain? How can that be?

21) It was easy to resolve this tension by merely denying that he knows the ultimate Truth. By asserting that my father was yet just another bumbling man who knew much less than he claimed to. Fair enough. After all, we are all just bumbling people. But it doesn’t answer the deeper question: how would someone who was a better philosopher than my father have handled the situation? When I considered this question, it was hard to know who to look to as the better philosopher.

22) It was no use looking to Vivekananda or to Aurobindo, since they didn’t have sons. The question at issue was: How would someone who sought to detach themselves from their everyday ego identity relate to his children, who are very much a part of his everyday identity? This was just a particular way of raising the deep questions of how the infinite and finite, the ethereal and the material aspects of human beings can coexist? It also was no use looking to academic philosophers, since philosophy in academia – at least in departments like Cornell and Harvard – side stepped entirely the everyday human dimension of the professors. What mattered were the professors’ books, lectures, departmental duties – all squarely in the domain of the professor as a professional, as opposed to how they were with their family.

23) A couple of years ago I came across the film Decoding Deepak. It is by Gotham Chopra, Deepak Chopra’s son. The film is about what it is like to be Deepak Chopra’s son, as his father balanced his family and being a spiritual teacher to millions of people. Naturally, I resonated with a lot of the film, especially the close relationship between the father and the son. But with this obvious difference that Gotham Chopra was contending with his father’s fame indeed, with his father’s desire for fame – while I was contending with my father’s esotericism – indeed, with my father’s stated desire to not be a public philosopher, even to his own broader family.

24) In later years my father changed in this regard. After his retirement, he wrote Knowing One’s Own Self, a book based on informal lectures he gave to some extended family members. While it is an interesting book in many ways, for me it is hard to recognize in it the global-minded philosopher I know. The book is shorn of the references to Bertrand Russell or Shinto philosophy, to Darwin and to Einstein. Like with Vivekananda, who most see as mainly a Hindu philosopher in terms of continuing Hindu culture, my father’s lectures can seem more as an expression of what a certain kind of advaita-adhering Hindu thinks, rather than what a global philosophy reflected through Hinduism might look like.

25) It was interesting for me to see my father give lectures to the extended family and write a book. By that time I had for the most part limited my talking philosophy with him – refusing to play the conceptual other to his Yajnavalkya. While I played that role with fervor from high school till the end of college, by the time I was in grad school it was too hard to balance trying to become an academic with being a modern Yajnavalkya’s son.

26) This is one reason I didn’t speak up about academia’s eurocentrism while I was still an academic. For the difficulty I faced wasn’t only due to academia. I was torn on both sides. On the one hand, academic philosophy’s Eurocentric structures made it hard to speak as an Indian philosopher. On the other hand, my father’s Hindu-centric Yajnavalkya framework made it hard to speak as an American philosopher. Both the Eurocentric and the Hinducentric frameworks were outdated and ill fitted me. It was only by stepping away from both that I could think more deeply for myself.

27) Just as there is the question, “How and why did Eurocentric academic philosophy come to believe that philosophy was a special European achievement?”, so too there is the question, “How and why did my father come to embrace the esoteric Yajnavalkya framework for being a philosopher?” Surely many married Hindu men happily talk publicly about their philosophy, and not just in their home. In fact, my father was himself such a man in India, talking philosophy with his friends.

28) My father was in many ways an extrovert. So why did I experience his philosophy as a kind of esotericism, as something private, to be done away from the public gaze? And seeing it that way, why did I feel he couldn’t see my sense of feeling trapped in it? As with academia, what needs elucidation here are not intentions or personalities, not whether one is a racist or a non-racist professor, or a good or a bad father. Such judgments get in the way of deeper understanding of the structural realities in which we are all enmeshed. In the next post I will talk about the structural features of Indian life, immigration and modernity which influenced my father’s trajectory as a philosopher.

Vivekananda and My Father

In my post a few days ago, I wrote: “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.” What do I mean by spiritually realized? Why did I think this about my father when I was younger? Do I still think it? There is a lot here, so I am going to explore these issues in a series of posts.

1) I certainly don’t believe it the way I did when I was 16 or even in my 20s and 30s. Three events happened in my teens which created for me the feeling that my father was a larger than life figure. First, when I was eleven and we were still in India, my father had a heart attack. Second, that same year we immigrated to America, as part of a long standing plan to come here, but also with an urgency to come here so that my father could get better medical care. I think these two facts – out of fear of losing him and relying more on him in a new country – made me start to idolize him to some extent. Third, around when I was 16, I discovered philosophy through him and it made the idolization even stronger. I say all this to make clear that any statement from me about the spiritual life of my father is naturally tinged with remnants of adolescent hero worship and nostalgia. In ways that I have spent many years unpacking, at 16 he represented for me the merging together of family, India and philosophy.

2) Nonetheless, even discounting for my biases, I still believe there was something remarkable about him as a philosopher. One advantage of giving up the project as I used to have it is that I can see my father in a different light. I don’t have to see him as exemplifying Indian philosophy, or philosophy as such. I can see more as a man, with his insights and his limits.

3) My father, Satyam Vallabha, was born in pre-independence India in 1941. As with anyone, there are many ways to tell his story. One way is in terms of the possibilities of change in the 20th century. He was born in a village, moved with his family to a big city in India, and then moved to New York, with his wife and children but also with his mother and siblings’ families. His father was an English literature teacher at the high school in the village – and that combination of tradition and modernity is, like his father who he admired, central to my father.

4) From early in life he was critical of unquestioned pieties. My grandfather, though a strong-willed and reflective man, was nonetheless more accepting of the religious ways of life that were to be maintained in society. My father was less so. There are stories of him in his youth which make sound like a radical atheist. Probably in his teens, once when a Swami came to their house and his parents asked my father to take his blessings, my father refused saying, in effect, “Nowadays any crook can become a Swami.” Around that time, in an argument about God, my grandfather said to him, “If you think you know so much about God, can you kick this statute of him?” My father kicked it. The effect of this on his family was akin to trampling on a cross in a Christian home.

5) When I heard these and similar stories from my father – or from my grandmother or uncles – they were told with a sense that my father was unique in his philosophical intensity. My father, who had a flair for the melodramatic, could play this up as if he was a Luther rebelling against the Church. A singular figure in a sea of conformity. Naturally as a child I took this at face value – especially as I was hearing all this after the health concerns and the move to New York.

6) But my father’s rebelliousness wasn’t unique. I say this not to put him down, but to contextualize him. By the time of his birth in 1941, this was something many Indian youth of educated backgrounds were struggling with already for atleast 75 years. And that was: What was it to be an educated (that is, to be educated in the British way) Indian? Colonialism brought two broad traditions together in families such as mine: the Hindu way of life and its forms of education and philosophical traditions with a British and European tradition. Whereas I experienced this in one way an immigrant into the West, my father experienced it in a reverse way as someone growing up at the end of British rule in India.

7) One thinker who exemplified this confluence – of how to merge European modernity, especially in regards to science and social progress, with Indian values and philosophy – was Vivekananda. In many ways, temperamentally and in terms of philosophical worldview, my father was like many who followed Vivekananda’s way of merging the East and the West. In the 1870s Vivekananda was in India a student of Western philosophy: reading Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, and influenced by the new science of evolution. But how do you grow into this education in India?

8) To merely accept Plato and Kant would be to be cut off philosophy from one’s own cultural soil and upbringing – it would be a conformism to colonialism. But to discard Plato and Kant in favor of one’s culture would be to concede too much to the Swamis and the statues – it would be a conformism to Indian tradition. What young people like Vivekanada, and later Aurobindo, Gandhi and Nehru, faced was how to merge these traditions in a way that was meaningful. How to be a modern Indian? This was politics, family life, cultural analysis and philosophy all rolled into one. (It was also what German youth struggled with regard to British and French philosophical influences in the 18th and 19th centuries – Kant himself being a result of such a synthesis. It is also what many Jewish thinkers in Europe, as well as Russian thinkers, were balancing in the 19th and 20th centuries. As well as African-American thinkers in America. It was a global situation.)

9) There are some good books which highlight this struggle of what it is to be a modern Indian, as Indians experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries. One is Garfield and Bhushan’s Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance. Another, from a broader Asian perspective, is Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.

10) Vivekananda’s way of merging modernity and ancient Hindu philosophy was to prove extremely influential. He set the stage for the idea of the modern monk. Vivekananda’s original name was Narendranath Datta, born into a well to do Bengali family. Dissatisfied with his education in European philosophy, he became a follower of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The key move Vivekananda initiated was about where the fusion of Western and Indian philosophy was to take place. In becoming Vivekananda, he suggested the fusion doesn’t have to happen in a classroom; and that in fact the classroom setting already tilts it away from the Indian tradition in some ways. Rather, he pursued the fusion as the monk Vivekananda.

11) This is a familiar type of move. Gandhi did it later with politics, by moving the arena of law from the courthouse to the streets, and back more to a village-ish feel. MLK did it, as Cornel West does now, by connecting his education of Plato and Kant to the Black church. That is what Vivekananda did in India starting in the 1880s, and in America after that. Like Kant a century earlier, he weaved the modern sciences and modern politics with the religious framework of his society – in the process changing how to think about both science and philosophy, East and West. Whereas in the process Kant created a new model of the academic philosopher (along with the modern Eurocentric history of philosophy), Vivekananda – like Schopenhauer who he had read – created a new model of the non-academic philosopher. In the Indian context, this was a new way of being a monk, one who could move easily between the worlds of the Upanishads and Descartes. (There were also many Indian philosophers at the time who were following the academic path; see Garfield and Bushan’s Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence.)

12) Back to my father kicking the God statue to the mortification of his parents. This was not my father being a young Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – a brute assertion of atheism. It was him being a young Vivekananda – eschewing Hinduism’s ritualism for its deeper spiritual insights. As my father would put it often, since his youth he “felt an urgency to know The Truth” (“the Truth” is another way of saying Enlightenment). In Plato’s language, my father felt a push and urgency to leave the cave and to experience sun light directly.

13) His philosophical journey began in earnest one morning when he was about 16. He had recently woken up and was thinking about something when he suddenly felt a oneness with the world. He didn’t experience himself as Satyam Vallabha, an individual with the usual aims of life. He felt that he was something beyond his ordinary, social identity. That there was a vastness to the world and to his own self that he was getting a glimpse of – peering through the ordinary perception of the world into a deeper reality. He caught a glimpse of the world beyond the cave – that who he took to be his free self moving around was in fact possibly tied down in the cave, and that there was a whole world on the outside.

14) Afterwards he became focused on philosophy, trying to read as much on his own as he could and also attending lectures by swamis who didn’t seem to him charlatans but who he found inspiring. By his late teens and early twenties, he was seriously considering becoming a monk – not just to be a old fashioned Hindu philosopher, but like Vivekananda, to be a modern monk. One who would merge science and religion, East and West, all the various features of the life in the cave in the process of transcending them all and moving into freedom and into the light.

15) I can very well imagine my father leading such a life – one where he didn’t get married or have kids, an alternate world in which I wasn’t born. A life path in which he would have become a spiritual teacher. He would have been really good at it, as he could become charismatically incandescent when he started talking about Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, and how that is compatible with modern science or how it relates to modern democracy. Like great teachers do, he took ancient texts and ideas and presented them in new, fresh, contemporary ways, rooted not in degrees he got or the specializations shown on his cv, but simply in a lifetime of continual thinking and attempts of transcending past thinking.

16) This is one way my essentializing my Dad as personifying Indian philosophy was a mistake. He was no more just an Indian philosopher than Vivekananda was. He was a philosopher born in India, raised in Indian culture, working mainly through the medium of Hindu texts, but aiming to be cosmopolitan, with a global, modern, scientific perspective.

17) His discussion of philosophy was filled not just with references to the Gita and Shankara, but with an encyclopedic aim on his part to incorporate every form of life and culture into his perspective that he could read and get to know. In a two hour conversation elaborating on a chapter in the Gita, he might connect it to ideas of Socrates and Bertrand Russell, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Shinto philosophies he picked up living in Japan for six months, Einstein and Darwin, the life patterns of Chimpanzees he saw on the nature channel, the insights and limits of Gandhian politics, the joys and absurdity of Indian cinema, the latest family melodrama and much else. He was not an expert in most of these topics, and often had mistaken ideas (like about parts of Western philosophy). But the limits were mainly due to a lack of time and a chance to learn more – not based on the idea that something was off limits philosophically.

18) This was not a personal virtue merely, though there is some of that. As a teenager this all seemed magical – how one person could try to bring together so many ideas and traditions seemlessly. But as I learnt more about the effects of colonialism, I saw my dad was like many others in formerly colonized countries.

19) Usually in discussions of colonialism, the colonized are seen in one of two ways. Critics of colonialism bemoan how the colonized countries were pillaged and local forms of knowledge were discarded in a willy nilly fashion. Others say that while this was true, colonialism also helped the colonized by giving them the joys of modernity – railroads and medicine, science and democracy. Both of these ways of thinking share a common assumption: that if colonialism helped, it was by lifting the colonized to the level of the colonizer. As if the colonizers are, and always will be, at the forefront of the ways of life they spread.

20) But this is false. The colonized countries – just in virtue of colonization – have been incubators of fusion thinking in ways which are not true in the same ways of the colonizer countries. Even people in Chinese or Indian villages might know of Christianity and Marx, or the Beatles and the New York Yankees. While even many educated Americans, let alone uneducated Americans, might not know Hinduism from Taoism, let alone the music or the sports and intellectuals of other parts of the world.

21) The one way direction of influence of colonialism was oppressive in its time. But in a post-colonial, globalizing world, the formerly colonized have a conceptual upper hand. They have many centuries experience at fusing the East and the West (or the North and the South), and they only have to now shift that from an experience of pain to one of conscious fusion. But the former colonizer cultures have to make a greater shift into the very idea of fusion of equals – having to overcome the vast historical momentum of their one sided perspective and to face up to all that they don’t know.

22) My father’s eclecticism was not something he achieved against the flow of his time and culture. It was a natural extension of them. Already in his village life in India, he grew up with his father teaching Shakespeare and Milton. Just like Vivekananda wasn’t a Hindu monk living as if he was in the 10th century, neither was my father’s village life in the 1940s some bucolic , pre-literate medieval existence. While true of many villages, it was not true of many villages also. My father was born into, one might say, a modern villagea village already affected by modernity. Where people had to figure out how to deal with modernity. My family was able to move from the village to the big city in India to America because it was already struggling for a hundred years with the meaning of a modern India. Like Vivekananda and thousands of others like him, my father’s thrust into philosophy wasn’t into pre-modern India, but into the modern, global India. This was natural for them simply by having to deal with the unmovable, twin realities of British and Indian ways of life.

23) Having been introduced to philosophy through my father’s global consciousness, philosophy classes at Cornell in the 1990s felt shockingly parochial. It was exhilarating in some ways and I learnt a lot at Cornell. But the overall ethos of Eurocentrism was hard to process and understand – how out of date it was and yet how natural and enlightened it was seen to be by the professors. By the time I was 18 I was used to the global visions of the philosophy of my father and of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tagore and Gandhi – Indian thinkers who, like Descartes in 17th century France, were transcending their national origins for a more global perspective.

24) In contrast, philosophy at Cornell was like scholasticism in Descartes’ time: too sure of its own universality, and not caring to look outward or at vast changes taking place in society. Most philosophers at Cornell and Harvard – some of them world famous and all of them interesting thinkers in their own way – simply assumed that all the philosophy worth knowing was what they were taught. They couldn’t tell the difference between a modern Indian thinker like Vivekananda and an ancient Indian thinker like Patanjali from two thousand years ago – if they even knew these thinkers. That’s like not knowing whether Plato and Russell are contemporaries. For philosophers at Cornell and Harvard two decades ago Indian philosophy was by definition pre-modern ancient philosophy – something from the mists of the past which Western modernity had superseded. The possibility that Indian philosophers in the last five hundred years had grappled with alternate forms of modernity (see Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason) or that, like Vivekananda, they internalized Western modernity and were building on it – that never seemed to occur to them. In a way just like the Hindu fundamentalists, who also can’t tell, and refuse to look at, the differences in context between Patanjali and Vivekananda.

25) In this post I have been exploring the cultural and philosophical context of my father in India as a philosopher. Now, what happens when someone who sought to modernize Hindu philosophy immigrates to America and tries to teach that to his son in the new country? It’s like asking: Suppose Vivekananda had gotten married, had children and stayed in America; how would his children have engaged with his philosophy?

26) Answering this question in the case of my father requires addressing first his decision not to become a monk and to get married – and so to not be exactly like Vivekananda. This was to have an important effect on his philosophical outlook and what it means for a modern thinker. I will pick up on this next time.

“Dream, Wake, Dream Again, Wake Better”

In response to my last post, Terence Blake had a very interesting and insightful comment. It resonated with me a lot, and I want to respond – or build off what Terence wrote – here.

1) In my doomed project, there was my father’s philosophy on one side and my academic philosophy on the other side. The project was doomed from the start because, while the project was to reconcile them, by essentializing the two sides, I froze them as basically in opposition. The way I set up the problem made the very solution I was seeking impossible.

2) It’s like the mind-body problem. Often mind and matter are defined in opposition, and then the puzzle becomes how to bring them together – and we wonder about how difficult the problem is. It is difficult, but the way the problem was set up places the difficulty in the wrong place. It is difficult not because it is impossible, but because it takes a breaking down of old concepts to face up to the problem more productively.

3) Terence in his comment captures really well the struggle and pain of this breakdown, and also the hope and joy of the prospect and pleasure of the new building up. Also the insight and joy in the breakdown and the agony and the snail’s pace of the build up. They go hand in hand. A deconstruction and a construction. Both are happening together because at root it is a metamorphosis of the person.

4) Terence’s comment brings out really well why I am ultimately skeptical of some of the current progressive discourse on race – one which keeps coming back to white supremacy in America. One way to tell the conflict I experienced is to tell it as a brown man being unable to bring his tradition into what used to be white classrooms. And I did tell the story like that for several years. It is an important way of telling the story. Eurocentrism in American academic philosophy is real. And it is awful – morally and intellectually.

5) But it is another form of essentialization to make the racial aspect of the story the story. There is really no “the story” – no one story, no the deepest story, no the story which everyone needs to agree on to capture reality.

6) Terence is a white guy (I think! – Terence correct me, if I am wrong) who, as can be seen from his website, was born in Australia, lives in France and mainly studied continental philosophy. I am a brown guy who was born in India, lives in America and mainly studied analytic philosophy. And yet when I read Terence speak of his “grand project of unifying “spirituality” (philosophy as a spiritual practice) and “conceptuality” ( philosophy as discursive practice)” and how “it filled up all my life with tension and exhaustion, lostness and frustration”, I feel a tremendous identification with him – and know, from his comment, as he does with me.

7) The brown vs white way of telling my story makes this kind of identification between a brown person and a white person seem impossible. As if at root the fact of my brownness is the deepest fact which explains my pain, for the pain is caused by my brownness running up against white supremacist structures. As if were it not for white supremacist structures, my growth would have been free and unhindered. This too is an illusion.

8) One reason I was always cautious about overemphasizing the white supremacist story – even when I was writing against eurocentrism – is because what drew me to philosophy, both with my Dad and with my professors, was the prospect of deep change within myself. Conceptual and psychic transformation, a dismantling of my assumptions and perspectives to grow into a new light, a new way of seeing the world. As Plato put it, to leave the cave. And as the Buddha put it, to awaken.

9) While white supremacy in the West and Hindu supremacy in India and so forth are real, it is a mistake I think to see one’s struggle mainly as caused by external forces. Yes, the external, social, institutional structures and historical oppressions are real. Yes, in some ways I suffered because of them, and in some ways I have benefitted from them. But there is also the struggle caused by internal forces – of one’s own conceptual, emotional, psychic and person growth.

10) The idea of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, like that of the Buddha and Christ, or Socrates and Lao Tzu, is that the struggle of the internal forces is the deeper realm of social change. One reason why social structures remain often unmoved is because the people dependent on those structures are not seeking – or are unable to see how to seek – their deeper, inner change. They hold onto the external because they confuse their inner struggle with external struggle. Even more, they seek the comfort of the external struggle because the internal struggle feels so impossible that they leave it submerged, to merely act out of it unconsciously.

11) That is to act from within a dream. That is partly what I did for 25 years. Not only in terms of Eurocentrism. But more generally with seeing the conflict as that between my father and my professors – between my birth home and the outside American home. I defined myself from the outside in – as if I can find peace if only I could get the world to become peaceful.

12) Waking up from this way of structuring the issues is incredibly freeing because it is so empowering. My growth, my struggle, my transformation, my peace and my pain are more ready to hand for me, more mine to feel but also more mine to explore because I am not giving them away to others to control. Not to Donald Trump or to Joe Biden (though I support Biden). Not also to my father or to my professors. When I see the social reality around me, I don’t see now a one way direction of influence – from it to me, such that changing it is the only way I can influence anything. I see rather a two way multifacted, complex, dynamic structure, where the influences go in both directions, and where transformations within myself can be a well spring for transformation beyond myself. It opens up a kind of action at a distance.

13) There is no end to this process of change and growth – inner and outer. Waking from my dream of 25 years doesn’t take me out of the realm of concepts. It begins the growth of new conceptual structures and modes of life which frame my consciousness and day to day to living. It opens up new concepts, new habits, new perspectives, which are not free of illusion or self-deception or confusion – but are just a little more free of them. But like good medicine or compassion or love, even a little bit sometimes goes a long way. And can lift up the spirits for the next stage of the journey.

14) As Terence puts it, “Dream, wake, dream again, wake better, dream better etc.”. Amen to that.

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.

Politics and Marriage

Our political situation reminds me of my marriage. I am an Indian-American married to a Brazilian-German-Mexican-Norwegian-American. Our daughter is a mix of all of that.

When I got married 12 years ago, some in my broader extended family thought a marriage like this (“a love marriage” as opposed to an arranged marriage, but also a “mixed” marriage) was a bad idea. That Indians like me should marry other Indians, for otherwise our culture would disintegrate. What would happen to the values of my parents and grandparents’ generations if I thought just of myself and chose a mixed marriage? Wasn’t this a kind of selfishness? Don’t I owe my family, my culture, my parents the gratitude of continuing their way of life – and how can I do that if I married a non-Indian? Our family was under threat from the modern way of life and I owed it to them and to myself to resist it. This was the “Make the family great again” or the “Keep the family great” view.

I felt the force of this view. I had a nostalgic sense for the india I left behind at age 11, of the neighborhood park in which I played cricket with friends, and a life in which my friends’ parents knew my parents and we all had the same way of life and the whole street seemed like one community. For a long time in America, well into my twenties, I couldn’t imagine dating because it seemed to shatter this nostalgic vision I was holding onto. I didn’t want to date not because of my parents but really because of myself – because of my own need to hold onto that nostalgic sense of a world which seemed to be slipping away, and which felt like if I asked a girl out would disappear in a flash. I would have crossed the line and the park with the cricket playing and the Indian family life I knew and loved would all evaporate in an instant – I would have become one of “them”, the moderners who valued their personal growth over their community’s survival.

When I finally started dating the woman who would become my wife, I had huge bouts of guilt. Anxiety. The first time I went home to New York with her so she and my parents could meet, on the drive back to school I pulled over the car so I could cry. I had crossed the line into being a moderner, and I thought I lost the Bharath I used to be and that I was contributing to the dissolution of my family’s way of life.

But I was also relieved after the crying. For having the crossed the line, something unexpected had happened: I didn’t lose my Indian identity. Indian culture hadn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke the moment my girlfriend and I entered my parents’ apartment. The Indian culture that I was carrying within me was carried along with me across the line, into the new terrain. Indianness wasn’t a sealed, airtight ballon which would lose all its air if a single hole of a love marriage was made in it. Indian culture could move through the air, take in different shapes and adapt as the circumstances needed. Indeed the Indianness I saw through the prism of nostalgia had itself for hundreds of years been moving, evolving and transforming. It was not one static thing, but many fluid things which can absorb change into itself.

Thinking today that 60 million people voted for Trump, even after all that has happened in the last four years, fills me with a kind of dread. “Oh my God, how will we ever reach out to them and make common cause?” They feel way over there, away from where I am over here.

But when I remember the anxiety I felt before accepting my mixed relationship, I instantly feel a connection to them. They are no longer an incomprehensible other. They are like my old self, wary and anxious and paranoid of what lies on the other side of the line, and who feel the need to resist crossing it. Who feel that if they cross it, life as they knew it will be over – their own identity will disappear in a cloud of smoke. And so with existential anxiety, anger and passion they don’t want the mixing and the change and the perceived lose of control. Yes, racism is rooted there. But not just racism, which can be a dehumanizing way of looking at it. What is moving them to ignore their own complicity with racism is their all too human and understandable feeling of guilt and fear – of not knowing how they can relate to their parents and grandparents and where they “came from” if they cross that line. They are me when I refused in college to date or go to parties or to let down my guard at departmental events – things which I felt would pull me down into the rabbit’s hole of a mixed America which was shapeless and confused.

This is one reason I am not surprised some Indian-Americans and other non-whites are Trump supporters. The fear of the rabbit hole of modernity – that one would lose one’s identity and all that matters if one crossed the line into the murky terrain of mixedness – is an anxiety anyone, irrespective of color, can feel. It need not be, “white vs non-white”. It can be “all of us who value our distinctive and separate cultures vs those who want mixedness.” I imagine there are many who are moved by this opposition. Many immigrants even who support Trumpism because they fear mixed relationships more than a revival of the KKK. Who see themselves not so much supporting white supremacy as resisting the possibility that all their children will enter into mixed relationships. As if the moment they vote Democrat, they are accepting that their white son might bring home a brown girlfriend, or their daughter might bring home her girlfriend, or that their Hindu daughter might bring home a Muslim boyfriend.

Of course, I crossed the line. I got married. And I entered married life with a kind of liberal fantasy. I thought “I am Indian, she is white” and we will make our marriage work by bringing the “two” cultures together. When I got married in August of 2008, Obama’s Hope and Change message was in the air. I felt that as with a new America which was embracing the future of a mixed country with a half black and half white president, so too my marriage would be one of bridging my culture with her culture.

For several years I doggedly kept to this mixing approach. I would think, “I will give up this part of my Indian background if she gives up that part of her American background.” I will recognize her difficulties as a white woman if she recognizes my difficulties as a brown man. Simple, straightforward. If we just recognized our identities and their historical trappings (she was woman, but white, and I was a man but brown), then we can do the calculations of who had what advantage in which situation, talk honestly about it and resolve any argument we were having.

It took about eight years and too many fights to count before I realized this way of thinking of the marriage wasn’t working. The bottom fell out of this framework one day, in the middle of a heated argument, when in response to some point I was making about how she was taking her white privilege for granted, she suddenly said, “I am not white!” It was something she had felt for a long time, but couldn’t get herself to say, as we both had embraced the “He is brown and she is white” narrative of our marriage. The statement unnerved me. My first thought was, “If she isn’t white, then what is she? And what is this marriage?”

My wife looks “white”. Her mother is Brazilian-German (her German ancestors moved to Brazil) and her father is Mexican-Norwegian (his Mexican-American father married to his Norwegian-American mother in the 1940s). My wife in America is thought white. In Brazil she would be seen as just a whiter-skinned Brazilian. But also her Norwegian side is dominant in her looks. As important as all these are to her, so too is her Mexican background, and also the African roots she has from Brazil.

When she said she wasn’t white, she didn’t mean that she was actually black or brown. I don’t know exactly what she meant. But what I have come to think is that she was correct. For at the very least what she was resisting was my forcing her into a identity category as a way of mapping out the matrix of her possible actions, privilages and possibilities.

Over time I realized I was thinking about the marriage all wrong. I was thinking that I had a certain identity (brown) and so had she (white), and that it was the marriage that was mixed. It’s like there is water and there is oil, and the marriage is the mixture of the two. That’s how I was thinking of it. An obviously bad analogy given that oil and water don’t mix!

But in that one comment my wife disrupted this whole picture. For what “I am not white!” brought home to me was that in a deep way she is mixed. When I thought of her as white, I imagined she was more like Barbara Bush than like Michelle Obama. But she was like neither. She was a third-generation atleast mixed person. Her father’s parents went against their societal norms in getting married in mid century America: a brown man marrying a white woman. Then her father and mother were also a mixed marriage: a Mexican-Norwegian-American man with a Brazilian-German-American woman.

When I thought of my wife as white, I was treating “her culture” as analogous to “my Indian culture”. If I was going to compromise on my Indian cultural habits, I felt she had to compromise on her cultural habits – which I named “white” mainly to have something to point to. But what is “the” culture of someone whose family background isn’t one of just continuing the nostalgia of a homogeneous cultural bloc, but consists of continual crossing of the lines and blurring of the boundaries? The line I was afraid to cross, her grandparents already crossed it sixty years before we met. Then her parents went further down that line, and that was her background.

When it sunk in that she was mixed and not just white, I didn’t know how to argue with her anymore in the way I used to. She suddenly seemed amorphous, un-pin-downable. If I wanted to say, “ok, we will have Indian food on Monday, and your family food on Tuesday,” what does that mean? Which part of her family? Are we having Mexican or Brazilian or German or Norwegian food? Or just burgers and pizza since she is American? Or was it kale salad and tofu since she grew up in Berkeley? And what happens to my calculation if she likes Indian food more than I do? How do we find a “balanced” approach to meal making? To finances? To keeping the house? To raising a child?

Initially it felt like my worst fears of crossing the line were realized. Gone was the nostalgic sense of holding onto my Indianness. I was plunged into a relationship which was not just white and brown, but which spanned cultures from many parts of the world, mixed together in ways too subtle and complicated for them to be neatly delineated. I yelled back at her “I can’t argue with you!” and slunk away to gather my bearings.

Only slowly did the liberating realization dawn on me. Could it be that she isn’t the only mixed one in the marriage, but that I am also mixed? That I am not a clunky conjunction of Indian and American, but that I am my own particular form of mixedness of the two and so much more?

The model I had imposed on my marriage was actually the model I had imposed on my own self since I immigrated to America. I assumed that there was on the one hand my Indian self and then on the other hand my American self, and being at peace with myself meant constantly weighing my commitment to one side with my commitment to the other side. As if the two sides were fighting countries and I, the unifying self, is like the United Nations. It is a completely exhausting conception of the self. And it led to a completely exhausting conception of marriage.

Once I saw myself as mixed, as through and through mixed, I felt I didn’t have to constantly do the internal balance sheet of the Indian and the American sides of me; of when I could feel Western without feeling like colonizers and when I could feel Indian without worrying about my Brahmin privilages or my minority status in America. I was suddenly free to just be myself, without calculation, without anxiety and without guilt.

And from that space of accepting all of myself, including the myriad complexities and unresolved tensions within myself, I could see my wife not as white or non-white but mainly as a person I am with. Now the categories were secondary to the primacy of our interaction as two individuals, both complex, both mixed, both evolving, both unfinished and unfinishable. This approach doesn’t solve all the questions and differences about habits and home decor and finances. But it made them less central to our interaction as people. Those issues, though of continual importance and necessity, didn’t have to be resolved for us to live our lives. They might remain unresolved, as they are the background of our lives. But they are not what give meaning to our interactions, which is more about how we give each other space to be ourselves in our individual complexity and to grow and evolve as each of us is moved to.

There is a peace to be found in accepting the intrinsic mixedness of each person. A peace on the other side of crossing the line but which doesn’t seek to navigate diversity through essentializing ourselves as white, black and brown, or man and woman, or the oppressed and the oppressor.

If Trump Republicans are like myself when I refused to cross the line into a mixed relationship, some Democrats are like me in the early years of my marriage when I thought of a mixed relationship too much through the filter of identity categories. Both involve a kind of reifying of identities – one for the sake of keeping the identities pure and distinct, and the other in the name of mixing the identities in “the right way”. But as with human relationships, so too with national bonds: they cannot be forged through isolating ourselves nor through applying metrics for integration, no matter how enlightened.

Four Meanings of “Global Philosophy”

In philosophy the 21st century will be a century of global philosophy. This is a change in consciousness of how to think of philosophy, and we are seeing in academic philosophy the birth pangs of this transformation. But we are also seeing the birth pangs in our broader cultural transformations.

What does “global philosophy” mean? It’s worth distinguishing four different meanings of the term.

1) Decolonizing philosophy. Here global philosophy is contrasted with Modern-European philosophy. In the last 400 years, and especially since Kant and Hegel 200 years ago, philosophy was identified in Europe with European philosophy – with the explicit implication that no other civilization was capable of philosophy. This colonial idea permeated through the academic institution and society more broadly. One sense of global philosophy is negating the effects of this colonial vision of philosophy.

2) Comparative philosophy. Here the focus isn’t necessarily on decolonization, but on simply getting different traditions into dialogue with each other. Connecting European philosophy with Chinese philosophy, or Latin American philosophy with African or American philosophy, and so on.

3) Philosophical anthropology. This is the project of explaining the origins of philosophy in human culture. In individual traditions, such as those starting with the Greeks or the Indians or the Chinese, the origin of that tradition is seen as a magical beginning – of a first great thinker or groups of thinkers emerging from the haze of superstition. From a global perspective, this is extremely simplistic. 200,000 years separate the beginning of homo sapiens from the sages of the axial age 2,500 years ago such as Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius. And prior to that 200,000 years, there is several million years of homonid life with the advent of tools, fire, burials and so on. So there is a global explanation waiting to be discovered for how transformations of human life from hunter gatherers (100,000 years ago) to the agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) to the dawn of mass civilizations (5,000 years ago) led to the forms of life of Socrates, the Buddha and others around the world.

4) Existential globalism. While philosophical anthropology tells us how we got to the present, we are still left with the existential questions of: What now? What do we want to do? What should we do? How should an understanding of (1)-(3) guide our decisions and practices of what we want philosophy to become?

In academic philosophy right now there is a lot of focus on decolonizing philosophy because for those who are attuned to it, they can see the effects of the colonizing framework everywhere around them. This naturally makes this sense of global philosophy highly contentious and emotionally laden.

It is worth remembering that decolonizing philosophy is not an end in itself. Some of its proponents sometimes talk as if decolonizing philosophy will create or unveil a beautiful global framework of how all traditions can intersect. This is pure fantasy, akin to that of the noble savage. Counteracting white supremacy in philosophy is a step in the direction of respecting and seeing the importance of all the world’s philosophical traditions. We are then still left with the task of making sense of whether, how and how best those traditions can intersect. Decolonizing philosophy is a step, at first, towards comparative philosophy.

But comparative philosophy itself is not the end of global philosophy. The more we know about different traditions, the more the question becomes pressing: what connects these traditions? Philosophical traditions are not unitary blocs moving along separately from each other (the Greeks here, the Indians there, etc.). In Eurasia, the axial age philosophical traditions are an outgrowth of already by then thousands of years of cultural, economic and intellectual cross currents.

We don’t recognize this for a simple reason: we think of the dawn of philosophy in terms of how the axial thinkers themselves thought of what they were doing, and they didn’t consciously realize the global, cultural underpinnings of their thought. That is, we think the philosophical originators must be taken as guides to what philosophy is since, after all, they created it! But this is as strange an assumption with Socrates as it is with Christ, as simplistic to grant such self-knowledge to the Buddha as it is to grant it to Ashoka.

The power of philosophical anthropology is that it separates the origins of philosophy from the stories the axial thinkers told about themselves. Philosophical anthropology situates the origin stories themselves in a broader context – one which none of the great philosophers of the last 2,500 years themselves knew or could have known. That has the potential to radically reorient our understanding of those philosophers – and of ourselves.

But again, philosophical anthropology is not the end of global philosophy. For we are left with the existential question of what (1)-(3) mean for us now. To address the future without taking into account (1)-(3) is like walking into a hurricane without any protection. (1)-(3) are our gear for how to confront the changing times we face. But as with any gear, (1)-(3) are only the tools, the knowledge we carry. What we do with it is up to us and how we can forge a global consciousness.

Decolonizing philosophy is one point of entry into global philosophy. But I predict that in a couple of decades, after its insights are absorbed, it will run its course, and give way to the broader projects of global philosophy. Comparative philosophy will become more prevalent, and it will be partly soothing because it can be interpreted as “we each just need to appreciate the other, while retaining our own tradition.”

But the great challenge will come as philosophical anthropology gains steam. It will be to the 21st century what the new physics was to the 17th century. The new physics challenged our sense of the world around us – that the physical world was vaster than how we move in it and how we experience it. Philosophical anthropology will do the same for our sense of our narratives about ourselves – that our cultural practices are themselves vaster and more subtle and more integrated than how we experience them. People will resist this with fury, as if the new global philosophical frameworks were trying to rob them of their very identifies and histories – their own agency to tell the stories they like best about themselves. This will be a great part of the cultural fights of the 21st century, and it has already begun.

I have hope we will come through it better and more self-aware as we did in previous ages of tumult, as in the axial age and the enlightenment.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Often in daily life the hard thing isn’t to discover new truths, but to let go of old illusions.

We already know dimly what is true. It is obvious in a sense. But we don’t want to accept it. We resist it. We deny it. We ignore it. We set it out of our mind. Push it away.

Having denied the reality we know so well, we continue: “Why is this problem so hard? So insolvable? Is it too hard for us to solve?”

What is required is wisdom – the practice of not pushing away uncomfortable truths, of facing up to the facts we already know so well.

But spurring wisdom, we turn the issue into one of knowledge – of us not having yet the right kind of knowledge, and of how hard we are trying to get that knowledge.

Here are facts I already know and which are obvious: I am extremely lucky to be alive and to have the generally middle class life I have. I have it better than millions of people. Better in a material sense than people who are being abused right now, better than refugees, better than those who are homeless. Even more obviously, I am lucky to have lived 43 years and lucky to have the prospect of living many years still. Many people have died well before 43. Many died as children, many in war as teenagers, many in holocausts and slaughters which boggle the mind and next to which, my life – with its general comfort and good fortune and no matter what happens next for me – stands as one of enormous good fortune.

I know all this. They are as obvious as that the world existed before I was born and will continue after I die.

And yet everyday, almost 95% of my waking consciousness, I live as if none of this was true. I almost willfully forget them, push them to the edges of my awareness. Most of my consciousness revolves around my anxieties, my fears, the obstacles to my goals, how unfair it all is to me, how I have to put up with callous people in society and how my life could be rendered “meaningless” or lacking in prestige or purpose or achievement by the blind stupidity or carelessness of my neighbors and fellow citizens.

Though it feels real, it is all premised on a giant illusion: that if I am not vigilant and stand up for myself and protect what is mine, then my life could become “wasted”. That I could lose what I am entitled to gain. It is an illusion fostered by my willful ignoring of the fact that no matter what, my life already is luckier than that of billions of people in human history.

“How can I be happy? How can I live a meaningful life? How can I be productive?” These questions I normally ask myself in the form of seeking knowledge I currently don’t have. As if if only I had that knowledge, I can get to doing it and living more happily and more meaningfully. But alas, that knowledge is beyond me, it is hidden, it is hard to find and we have to keep seeking it – and until then I can be as I am, without too much change.

An interesting thing happens when I give up the knowledge model. Then happiness and meaningfulness are not mysterious features of a future end state I may or may not get to. They are features of my not pushing away the obvious truths of my own good fortune compared to so many others. Holding on to the obvious truths which I already know opens up realms of experience and awareness which in fact surpasses what I assume even on the knowledge model.

It requires but a pivot. A focus to stay conscious of the obvious truths which no one can deny, but which we nonetheless pretend are not true.

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.