Four Dimensions

There is a cycle of pain people fall into.

Disharmony causes confusion. Which causes mental pain. Which causes bad habits. Which causes physical pain. Which causes disharmony. The cycle of pain repeats over and over.

In this cycle, physical pain and mental pain, discomfort and confusion all get blurred together to create a general torpor. A sense that one’s life is not going as it should, that the world is not right, that something needs to be done to “fix” things, but unclear what that is.

The search for the meaning of life, or for God, or for wisdom is just this: a way out of this cycle of pain.

At the root of the cycle of pain is disharmony. Of feeling out of whack.

What is out of whack?

Four aspects or dimensions of life: the personal, the communal, the intellectual and the spiritual.

In other words: autobiography, history, science and myth.

Every person partakes of these four realities. Like pieces in a puzzle, if the four realities don’t mesh harmoniously together within oneself, there is existential anxiety and pain. And emotions that flow out of that: anger, disappointment, disorientation and frustration. When they mesh together harmoniously, there is peace and strength. And emotions that flow out of that: serenity, compassion, equanimity and joy.

The personal is what we are most in touch with. It is the realm of our personal ups and downs. It is the main stories and battles in our lives as we think of them. For me it has to do with my immigrating to America from India when I was 11, my path into and out of academia, my philosophical relation with my father, and so on. The things I think about everyday, which structure how I view my life and its triumphs and challenges.

The communal is the stories and reality told in the broader community. Be it family, city, country or the world as a whole. It is the space of the broader causes and effects within which my personal realm has its place and meaning.

The intellectual or scientific is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through analysis, discussion, debate, observation – through a focus on understanding.

The spiritual or the mythic is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through stories, rituals, habits – through a focus on transformation.

Each of these four dimensions are initially in tension with each other. Well, the dimensions themselves aren’t in tension. Our awareness of them is in tension.

The personal takes the egocentric point of view that my life is the center of my life. What happens to others happens to them, but what matters most is what happens to me. That is what I will spend most of my time thinking about. Naturally, this pulls against the communal, which takes the group point of view that an individual’s life is but a part of the broader fabric of human life – a mere drop in the ocean of billions of other people.

The intellectual views the spiritual as a fantasy, as a pre-intellectual mode of cognition. Whereas the spiritual views the intellectual as a mere tool, as a pre-spiritual mode of cognition.

All the struggles and battles we see are but variations of the tensions between these four dimensions of life. Between oneself and others. Or between this group and that group. Or cultural battles between science and religion. Or between religions. Or between nationalists and globalists. Etc.

A person is not just defined by the personal. A person is the synthesis of these four dimensions – of how those four dimensions come together withing a particular body and space of consciousness.

If each person only cared about the personal dimension, we would be worse than many animals, which are also defined by the communal. We fight and argue with each other not because we are selfish as in care only about one’s personal dimension, but because we are making a claim on each other in virtue of our communal dimension.

Most fighting is not a reflection of our selfishness. It is a reflection rather of differing modes of communalness. We fight because we know we are bound up with the other, and yet because we don’t know how to coexist with that other. Coexistence is part of our blood. And it was more simple when it meant just bands of a dozen people in a hunter gatherer group. What it means when that coexistence and sense of community involves thousands, millions, billions of people, and ultimately all people – that is the story of human history.

Religion began as a way to tell that story (or stories) of human history in a way which harmonizes the personal and the communal. But the complexities of that history meant that religions, science and atheism, agnosticism and nihilism are themselves part of the very big picture story any of them want to tell.

No matter how much one wants to tell a matter of fact story of just what happened – “God created Adam and Eve”, “It’s all evolution”, etc. – the telling of that story and that vision itself becomes part of the disagreement and disharmony of our lives and interactions. No one can enter simple and prestine and just get the facts right. We are all sinners in that sense – all struggling with the same sense that, in a certain way, entering the communal conversations means we are but one part of the conversation and don’t see the whole picture.

Live one’s personal life while having the communal in view. Take the communal perspective while remembering that at root the communal is just made of individual persons. Take an intellectual view while realizing that it requires one’s own transformation to better understand. Live the spiritual view while having the humility to express it intellectually so that others with different views can understand.

Be oneself but also be a we. Be the mind while transcending it. Be a we in the midst of a personal life. Be with God while being open to those who don’t experience God as you do.

The four dimensions are aligned only through contradiction and paradox. This and That. Neither This Nor That.

Those who want harmony without paradox remain in disharmony. Those who embrace the tensions of paradox live in harmony.

Embrace the paradox and enter the fifth dimension where the four dimensions merge without being the same.

Philosophical Mysticism

I have started reading Robert Wallace’s forthcoming Philosophy and Mysticism in Plato, Hegel and the PresentThanks to Bob for giving me an advanced copy! The book, as the title makes clear, is about the overlap between philosophy and mysticism. This connects to my interest of connecting academic philosophy with new age philosophy. Needless to say, what follows is my understanding of Bob’s view and its relation to some of my thoughts. I could be getting parts of his view wrong, in which case I am happy to be corrected.

Later on, as I get further into the book, I will post more about the book and my thoughts. For now, I want to situate the book as I see it, why I think it is important, and also why it seems to me, in Nietzsche’s phrase, an untimely work. My sense is in affirming mysticism it goes against the grain of a good deal of academic philosophy, but in being focused on arch “rationalistic” philosophers like Plato and Hegel, it goes against the grain of much new age philosophy. In addition, in being focused mainly on European philosophers (though in Chapter 1, Wallace briefly draws some links to Eastern spirituality), from a distance it can draw the ire of the woke philosophers as being more of the “same old, same old”.

Given the syllabus and other culture wars happening in academic philosophy right now, worrying about whether Plato is a mystical philosopher might seem much less important than diversifying the curriculum or figuring out new professional norms. But in this post I want to suggest two things:

1) It is actually much harder for academic philosophy to integrate a work like this with a focus on mysticism than many works with a non-mystical focus by non-European authors. Often seeing “our own” thinkers from a very different perspective can be much more difficult than seeing new thinkers from different traditions.

2) In order to develop a global perspective on philosophy, seeing the mystical dimensions internal to Western philosophy is absolutely essential. This is not to deny that much of Western philosophy is not mystical. But it is to affirm that expanding our horizons requires getting out of the stale, false dichotomy of the materialistic West and the mystical East. As Wallace’s book show, there is plenty of mysticism in the greats of Western philosophy. And as much recent work in, say, Indian philosophy shows, there is plenty of non-mystical, good old fashioned logic chopping, argumentative and a narrowly naturalistic thinking in Indian philosophy.

If we put both of these points together, developing a global awareness in philosophy is not a matter of just adding “those” thinkers to “our” thinkers. The task is much more complex and also more exciting: to rethink who is “us” and who is “them”, and also, as in Wallace’s book, to rethink what “our” thinkers have thought. We can all think together when we are committed to rethinking ourselves – all of us – together.

Heidegger claimed that Western philosophy since Plato forgot Being and became focused on beings. Like the work of Pierre Hadot, who brought out the spiritual dimensions of ancient philosophy, Wallace’s book shows the narrowness of Heidegger’s history. Heidegger’s criticism of 2,500 years of Western philosophy ended up being just another version of “Most Western philosophy is materialist or narrowly rationalistic”, and so which ended up seeking the mystical opening of Being in a realm beyond rationality (disastrously so politically in Heidegger’s case).

Heidegger’s version of history would have surprised Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas, Spinoza and Hegel – all of whom saw the rational life as inseparable from what we nowadays might call “the spiritual life”. Contra Heidegger, and also contra neo-Heideggerians such as Dreyfus and Kelly, Plato’s and Hegel’s “Reason” was not an instrumental rationality which contrasts with – in Dreyfus and Kelly’s phrase – the “whooshness” of engaged, embodied, inspired action. Rather, for Plato and Hegel, as for many other Western philosophers, rational activity was itself a heightened mode of embodied whooshing.

As Wallace says in an interesting review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book: “We do not need to replace the intellect with poietic know-how in order to make room for ‘whooshing up’.” Wallace’s book is as an elaboration of this insight. The greatest whooshing that can happen is the mystical union with God. Just as that can happen with tennis rackets and mountain climbing, so too it can happen with books and while exploring the peaks of thought.

Wallace begins the book this way:

Philosophical mysticism is the doctrine that we sometimes have direct knowledge of a higher reality or God. Although present-day reference works in philosophy seldom mention philosophical mysticism, Plato, who founded academic philosophy, was widely and uncontroversially known for millennia as (among other things) a ‘mystic.’…. Since it is philosophical, philosophical mysticism doesn’t neglect reason; nor is the direct knowledge that is its topic restricted to any small group of people.(4)

The crux of the issue is that according to philosophical mysticism one main point of philosophy is a certain kind of experience: a grasp of a “higher reality” than we are normally conscious of in our day to day life. I say “one main point” as opposed to “the” point of philosophy because philosophy, like most concepts, is a family resemblance term. If for some the aim is grasp of a higher reality, that doesn’t have to mean that is somehow also the aim of someone who wants to understand the logic of conditionals. Wallace’s point is that many of the greats of Western philosophy – even those like Plato who we nowadays tend to think of in terms of theses they defended – saw their work as part of an experiential project. The aim wasn’t just to have the right views or to represent reality accurately. Thinking clearly was the method for altering not only one’s beliefs but also, and thereby, one’s broader consciousness and mode of being. Put this way, contrary to seeing Wittgenstein’s therapeutic aims as an anomaly in Western philosophy, the similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein jumps out.

Later on Wallace writes:

Who are we, really? Most of us, I suggest, are in an ongoing identity crisis. A higher reality of inner freedom (which means making up our own minds) and truth and love and beauty is in this world and us, and we experience it directly when we remember it and try to live up to it. This higher reality of inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty inspires us, while lower goals merely attract us. But of course we also have a huge capacity for temporarily forgetting the higher reality, and pursuing lower goals without regard to inner freedom and the rest.

We usually assume that this familiar conflict of goals has nothing to do with who someone is. We suppose that someone is the same person regardless of whether the goals that she pursues are, in anyone’s opinion, “higher” or “lower.” But a contrasting view is in fact influential in the philosophical tradition beginning with Socrates and Plato. This tradition argues that pursuing inner freedom and truth makes a person more real, more herself, and more of a person, in a way that (say) simply pursuing money or fame does not.(15)

Is Wallace attributing to Plato here anything other than the normal humanities’ platitude that philosophical reflection is a way of questioning and changing oneself? After all, isn’t this what is normally taught in courses on Plato? Not quite.

Central to how Plato is currently standardly taught is that Plato is an other-wordly dualist while Aristotle is a this-wordly naturalist. This is an example of a foundational move in standard academic discourse: contrasting thinkers are presented, with the goal of figuring out which one is right. Thus one’s own philosophical growth is identified with choosing a side and defending that side against its opponents. Hence Plato vs Aristotle, or Descartes vs Locke, Russell vs Wittgenstein, etc. etc. etc.

On Wallace’s view, however, Plato is far from an other wordly dualist. Rather:

Within the framework of this higher reality, the issues of science versus religion, fact versus value, rationality versus ethics, intellect versus emotions, mind versus body, and knowers versus the “external world” all become tractable. It turns out that nature, freedom, science, ethics, the arts, and a rational religion-in-the-making constitute an intelligible whole. This is very different from the muddle in which these issues tend to be left by such familiar agnostic doctrines as empiricism, materialism, naturalism, existentialism, and postmodernism.

This is why such major figures in philosophy, religion, and literature as Aristotle, Plotinus, St Augustine, Dante Alighieri, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all been strongly attracted to Plato’s idea that we can and do know a higher reality.(4)

On Wallace’s view, Plato’s talk of the realm of Forms isn’t meant to capture a world other than the natural world. Rather, it is a way of grasping more fine-grained, subtle features of the natural world through a change – evolution and growth – in our consciousness.

Some will probably see Wallace as reading Hegel back into Plato, and then reading this Hegelized Plato into Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein – and thereby blurring the usual contrasts between these thinkers (“Wittgenstein is not on Plato’s team!” “Kant isn’t on Aristotle’s team!”, etc.) I think this misses the insight of Wallace’s way of framing the issues. When we see the history of philosophy as Plato vs Aristotle, Descartes vs Kant, etc., it limits the way one can internalize the insights and struggles of these thinkers, and thereby it distorts the point of philosophy.

Wallace’s isn’t denying that of course Plato and Aristotle have differences. Rather, what he is affirming is that they share the view of seeing philosophy as part of a practical transformation of oneself. This doesn’t deny the social nature of philosophy, nor the importance of debate and argument. But it situates that social dimension within the fundamentally personal, first-person task of philosophy. According to Wallace on Plato, through philosophical reflection I aim to change my perception of the world and also thereby my perception and understanding of myself . Not just in the abstract sense that this or that is the right view of human beings. But to know this reality of human beings and the world through the internal sense that is my particular mode of consciousness. Therefore, as Wittgenstein or Cavell claimed, the aim of philosophical is always fundamentally auto-biographical. Or as Nietzsche said, what one wants to know in a philosopher is not just what he thought but who he is.

This auto-biographical dimension of philosophy sits ill at ease in the 20th century with the mass higher education of the modern research university. In the modern research university knowledge is first and foremost defined by the sciences – mainly because that is where the most obvious and least contentious utility of the university can be found. But the modern scientific revolution consisted precisely in removing any value-laden, auto-biographical elements from inquiry. The truths of Einsteinian physics don’t depend on who Einstein is: whether he was a nice guy, or a virtuous person, or religious, etc. There is no reason intrinsic to physics why the nuclear bomb was first discovered by the Allies rather than by the Nazis. Hence when we are taught Newtonian physics or Special Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, in the classes we are not taught about the lives of Newton, Einstein or Bohr. Or for that matter in biology about Darwin, and so on. What matter are simply the ideas.

One might think that this is a Platonistic view: what are seeking in modern science are simply the Forms of Water, Atom, etc. In a way, that’s right. But if Wallace is right about Plato (and I think he is – though I am no scholar of Plato), in another way it is quite wrong. For the Platonic forms are not separable from the kind of essences we grasp in our expanded mode of consciousness and heightened sense of reality. That is, the Platonic forms are what we grasp when we go from the cave into the light. Or as Wallace states it in terms of mysticism, when we have a “direct knowledge of higher reality”. The relevant sense of “direct” here is one which is auto-biographical – where one transforms not just one’s ideas, but looks through and sees a deeper reality of who oneself is.

The fundamental challenge to philosophy in the modern university is: Can auto-biographical philosophy be taught alongside the non-auto-biographical sense of knowledge of the sciences?

The difficulty here is most obvious in the role that dialogue and person to person interaction plays in philosophy. Plato of course founded one of the first academies in the West. But in Plato’s academy there were no mass lecture classes. Plato or Aristotle didn’t have to pass on their teaching to adjuncts who can teach classes of hundreds of students. This was because Plato’s academy was, in a straight-forward sense, elitist. It was taken for granted that only a few would have the temperament, and also the time and the material ability, to challenge their own thinking and expand their consciousness.

When we now try to implement the Socratic and Platonic conception of philosophy as dialogue in the modern university, there is an obvious problem. How can a professor have a dialogue with 200 students in his class? Even the latest fancy technology of MOOCs doesn’t solve this problem on its surface. What ended up happening by the late 20th century was that small discussion sections, office hours and comments on graded papers came to be the closest approximation to a dialogue between the professor and  most students.

Thus, beyond the scientific conception of knowledge, the mass-ness of mass education pulled against the autobiographical conception of philosophy. This created a mode of “modern academic philosophical discourse” which came to be seen as natural and common place – and which was then read back into the history of philosophy. Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Nietzsche were made amenable to being taught in the modern university by interpreting them as if they were implictly and really all along not that different from contemporary philosophy professors.

We might call this the tenurization of the great philosophers. The greats could be put on the pantheon and taught as long as they too – just like the professors who had to adjust to the shifting norms of the profession and the university to be tenured – were made to fit into and accommodate to the forms of life of modern academia. Just as if the Forms had to adjust to the sense perceptions, rather than the other way around, so too the Plato that was taught had to adjust to the Plato scholar’s realities of department life. The modern academic situation thus became the prism through which the history of philosophy was seen.

Thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger in the last two centuries were just some of the recent greats in Western philosophy who resisted this straight-jacketing of philosophy by the academic structures – mainly by sticking to the fundamentally auto-biographical dimension of philosophy, and so staying open to its mystical dimension.

In this sense Wallace’s view of Plato is I think a greater challenge to contemporary philosophy than some of the current attempts at diversification. For often what diversification seems to mean is: “We should take for granted the non-mystical framework of contemporary academic philosophy, and make sure that the non-mystical philosophy of Asians and Africans, women and gays, disabled and the poor is studied alongside the non-mystical work of European men like Plato and Kant.”

If diversification in this sense becomes the norm, it would also cement in academia the contemporary, non-mystical readings of the great Western philosophers. The tenurization of the great philosophers would continue unabated, only now with a more colorful pantheon.

Connecting his mystical view of the Western tradition to the East, Wallace writes:

Much of Asian thought, likewise, speaks of something higher which we can experience in ourselves and in the world, whether it’s the “Tao that cannot be named,” or “Brahman” that’s identical to our soul, or the “Buddha nature” that’s in everything but at the same time is truer and thus higher than what it’s in. There is more overlap between Asian and western thought on these issues than we generally realize.

Both Asian teachers and the Plato/Hegel tradition tell us that the central issue is not, as we in the west often suppose, about a separate “supreme being” that a person may or may not “believe in.” Rather, the central issue is the nature of the world of which we’re a part. Is it, as we tend to assume, essentially “all on one level,” or does it have a “vertical” dimension by which some aspects of it really are “higher,” through inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty? (16-17)

This truism that a great deal of Asian philosophy – though certainly not all – is mystical in Wallace’s sense raises the fundamental question with regard to what it means to diversify the curriculum. And that is: is there a sense in which in bringing, say, Indian philosophy into contemporary academic philosophy, Indian philosophy is being misrepresented in order for it to fit into the current framework?

In their wonderful book Minds without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian RenaissanceNalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield discuss how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through their or their teachers’ education at British Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, many Indian philosophers (both academics like Radhakrishnan and K.C. Bhattacharya, and also non-academics like Vivekananda and Aurobindo) saw German and British Idealism as a natural link to Indian philosophy. This was obviously because of the idealist views in Indian philosophy such as Advaita Vedanta. But the link is more than just with idealism as such. Rather, I think Wallace’s sense of philosophical mysticism provides the key link.

Whether Buddhist or Hindu, Jain or materialist, a general assumption of a great deal of Indian philosophy (though certainly not all) is philosophical mysticism in the sense that Wallace attributes to Plato and Hegel. The general assumption was that the aim of philosophy was ultimately one of the expansion of consciousness and an awareness of a deeper reality beyond the everyday consciousness. Philosophical understanding was seen as a tool for such transformation. So, for instance, disagreement between Buddhist and Hindu philosophers on the nature of the self wasn’t only to determine the nature of our ordinary sense of self (“Who is Bharath?”). Rather, both sides often accepted that our ordinary sense of self (our normal sense of Bharath) is severely limited and the question was of the truer reality of the self, and what was the best way to access that reality.

Once we see how central mystical philosophy was to the Indian philosophical tradition, the question of how one can integrate that tradition into contemporary American academic philosophy becomes rather complicated. If Vivekananda isn’t taught, is that because he was brown, or because his philosophy is resolutely mystical?

Recent philosophers like Amartya Sen, B. K. Matilal and Jonardon Ganeri have emphasized the extent to which Indian philosophy – for example, in its Buddhist or its Nyaya traditions – is focused on argumentation, logic and the conceptual clarification of concepts of perception, memory, self and so on. The contrast here is usually drawn with earlier representations of Indian philosophy, such as in the works of Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo, where Indian philosophy was seen as fundamentally spiritual and mystical, and contrasted to, as they saw it, the materialistic and scientistic Western philosophy. The upshot of Matilal’s view is taken to be: “See, Indian philosophy can also be arcane, argumentative and analytical, not just spiritual, and so Indian philosophy is very much in keeping with the virtues of Western philosophy.”

The problem with this easy assimilation is that it gets both the East and the West wrong in important senses, and so under-appreciates the difficulty of philosophy’s place in contemporary academia. Yes, definitely much Indian philosophy is analytic and argumentative. I am not a scholar in the way Matilal is, and of course he knows much more than I do. But even Matilal’s student Ganeri grants that much of Indian philosophy was – in Wallace’s sense of the term – a form of philosophical mysticism (see, for example, Ganeri’s The Concealed Art of the Soul). In other words, the argumentation and analysis were not set against developing a mystical awareness of the deeper reality, but were seen – as in Wallace’s view of Plato and Hegel – as part of the process of developing such awareness. The project of self-transformation and the expansion of one’s consciousness towards modes of awareness that most people don’t have is foundational to much of Indian philosophy. The analysis and argumentation was in the service – like the Buddhist’s boat or Wittgenstein’s ladder – of this broader project of realizing one’s life purpose.

If the mystical dimension of even Western greats like Plato is ignored in academic philosophy, in what sense can Indian philosophy be integrated into the Western academic curriculum? How can we appreciate the similarities of Western and Indian philosophy if the mystical dimensions of both are set aside and ignored from the very outset? But on the other hand, if the mystical dimensions of both traditions are to be acknowledged and taken seriously, how can that be done in the context of mass education in universities dominated by the scientific conception of knowledge?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But they are important and exciting. Not least because addressing these questions requires rethinking many of our assumptions from the ground up. It requires not only changing the outer institutional structures, but also, and even more basically, delving deeper into our selves and transforming our modes of awareness. That is to say, it requires the perennial work of philosophy. In this way we are connected to Plato, the Buddha and all the philosophical traditions of our common humanity.

Academic and New Age Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me back to Schwartz’s book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ego

The ego is the insatiable craving within which chooses to live as if its fantasy is reality.

Right now I know there are billions of people worse off than me. Who have no food or shelter, no sight or hearing, no money or no loved ones. Who are living in war torn places or are in the grips of addiction.

I know all this. I know in comparison to them I am so lucky.

Yet a part of me chooses to ignore all that and focus instead on what I don’t have that some others have, or what I had but now don’t have. Others have better jobs. Or more money. Better looks. More recognition. Or: I myself had it so much better before and now I don’t. It was taken from me. Or I lost it myself and it made me into this much smaller person now. So the thinking goes.

The bite of the painful comparison (“He has it and I don’t”) requires that I put out of my mind that I am better off than many others. The bite gets its grip through feeling as if the world only have two kinds of people: those who have what I don’t and people like me. For this to get a grip, all who are worse off than me have to removed from my mind – or rendered into a general, vague, nameless and faceless masses who don’t need to thought about.

The ego is the part of me which fuels this forgetting. Which suggests the forgetting is entirely natural. That my sense of loss is uniquely important to me (the ego me), and to hell with people worse off than me. The ego only wants to think about those who are better off and that too to flame my resentment/sadness/anger/hurt at what I lack that they have.

The grip of the ego is intense. Right now there are people I know, who are my friends who are going through difficult times. When I think of it, I feel bad and concerned. But it fades soon enough. Until I don’t have the food I want to eat or I think about some issue at work. Then the ego dominates, subordinating all – even the concerns of my family, and even that of my wife and perhaps in the future, even my child – to what I don’t have and want and deserve.

This self importance or focus can seem natural. So much so that our ordinary notion of identity treats it as entirely fine. “Of course you care most about yourself. That is just self preservation and biology!”

Actually: it is us normally not distinguishing between ourselves and our ego. In that conflation is all the existential pain of our lives. Not the physical or material pain. But the pain of not having enough.

A deep peace arises when one disidentifies with their ego. When one doesn’t endorse the fantasy that one’s life and pains and status really matter; that somehow one’s life and situation is really unfair. That sense of unfairness only works in the ego perspective, where one can walk by (as I did today) a homeless person begging for change while lost in my thoughts that there are no good places to eat where I was walking. Seeing the homeless person didn’t make me stop my inner dialogue of “woe is me” because I can’t decide on a place to eat. Rather, the world of the homeless person and his luck compared to mine was swiftly set aside, so that instead I could focus my energy on my luck compared to those who live in fancier places. That is the ego’s work.

It is the world of illusion we normally live in. Which we choose to live in. Choosing the matrix over the reality.

This is the world of maya.

To be open to the world as it is requires giving up the lazy commitment to the maya. Not just in moments of meditation or mystical insight or when one feels inspired. But to give up the haze of the ego every moment, in every interaction and most of all, when one is alone with one’s thoughts and preoccupations. To see the preoccupations as the web which the ego weaves and as nothing more real than that.

To buy into the preoccupations – the nagging concerns, worries, even hopes and ego ideals – is to slip into the fantasy world the ego spins around us, making it seem like it is just who we are.

To be mindful of this drama and not buy into it is painful in the moment. For it means starving the ego. But beyond the ego’s narratives, there is the reality without comparisons and judgments waiting to be experienced in stillness and joy.

My maternal grandmother said to me when I was a boy and was complaining about something, “Think about the people who have less than you.” This is the kind of commonplace one says to kids. But in it is the core of wisdom.

The ego survives on comparing oneself upwards. Thinking of oneself in comparison to those who obviously have much less is the ego’s kryptonite. The ego can’t handle it. It cannot survive the reality of one’s good fortune, especially in relation to those who clearly have less. The ego requires bracketing that reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that the mental energies can be expended only on its grievances.

My grandmother’s simple words can free the mind as powerfully as chanting Rama’s name. If I keep in mind the multitudes of people, and many of them just little children, who don’t have the mere basics which I take for granted, that takes the energy away from the ego and redirects it back to the more expansive consciousness within me which doesn’t require a fantasy to survive.

The point isn’t to become sad for those less well off. My sadness doesn’t help them in this moment anyway. The point is to help myself see the world more clearly and less clouded by my ego awareness. Whether I help others or not, first I can help myself by freeing myself from my ego.

Divine Self-Awareness

We live normally in a certain kind of unconsciousness. Not only live in it, but we cling to the unconsciousness.

This is most evident with painful emotions like anger, hurt, fear.

When I am normally angry, I am not unconscious as such. I am not a zombie. There is a feeling to the anger.

I am even self-conscious of the anger. Often very much so. “Damn right, I am angry! I have every right to be!”

In fact, this is the main delusion of everyday conscious: that I am fully aware of what I am consciously feeling. That my mind is self-luminous. The only issues are whether what I am feeling is right or wrong, good or bad, constructive or not – so I tell myself. For it seems obvious that what I am feeling is only all too evident to myself. After all, I can feel it. Oh can I feel it!

What is normally lost to me is that the way I feel the anger itself clouds my awareness of it. What I am normally aware of isn’t the anger as such, but rather my affirmation of the anger. Of the anger as something that I ought to act on, that I can’t not act on, that pulls me to action, or to annoyance at my inability to act on it and so on.

My normal awareness of the anger is indistinguishable to me from my response to the anger. Indeed, even from my awareness of the cause of the anger. In the normal experience of the anger, the cause, the experience and my desired response are all intertwined as one indivisible whole. As just the anger itself. And the more I experience the indivisibility of that whole, the more I experience the anger – now in terms of “How could he do that to me?”, and at other times as “I will show him! I will set things right!” And still other times with seemingly just a self awareness of the emotion as such: “I am just so angry!” These are actually not different elements as such, but only different shades of the same indivisible whole of cause-experience-reaction which captivates me.

It’s like if I am hungry. The feeling of hunger isn’t normally experienced as something separate from the cause (“I haven’t eaten all day”) and the desired actions (“I would love a sandwich right now”). The experienced hunger is the indivisible whole of the nexus or state of being which incorporates the cause and the effect, the past and the future, the lack and the fulfillment which will fill that lack.

And there is a crucial fourth element: my identification with that indivisible whole as what I am fact feeling. An identification which affirms that not merely is there the feeling of anger or hunger, and also their causes and desired actions in response, but that the nexus of this triumvirate is essential to who I am. That this nexus defines me. It defines my mental state. It captures what is most salient about me right now. This anger or this hunger – that is happening to me, it is a modification of me. And so it affects me. If left unattended, it will lead to my downfall, to my ruination – I will die physically or in terms of social prestige, or if not die, then atleast be severely hindered. It will overwhelm me. The only way to save myself is to embrace it. Accept it. Take it at face value and to do exactly what it demands – be it find food, or set things right by putting that person in their place, and so on.

This identification with the emotion – that it in fact defines me – fosters a form of unconsciousness. About myself. About the cause. About what actions will help. About what I am feeling over all. About what in the circumstances might actually reflect my over all, more measured response. The identification circumvents further reflection about all these issues by making it seem as if the present moment is decisive and conclusive. That it holds the key and is showing the key to me in its full awareness. That all I need to do is not turn away from it. I need to accept the present moment and embrace it.

Of course none of this is true. As we find out when we embrace the present moment and identify with the emotion and act on it, only to regret it later on. When actually yelling at that person didn’t settle everything – or really anything. When having the second helping of ice cream didn’t actually make me feel good. When I feel betrayed by my mind and morose at my own weakness to be unable to resist it.

This is the basic illusion inherent in everyday consciousness. No, your mind isn’t self illuminating. No, you don’t actually see exactly what you are feeling. Not just deep unconscious buried emotions. You don’t normally see even your ordinary emotions of hunger, thirst, fear, anger, hurt properly. Or even the positive emotions of happiness, contentment, joy, satisfaction. Normally all of these are experienced through the illusion that you are defined by them. That there is nothing more to your consciousness than these fleeting but powerful emotions as they present themselves to you. That they are the sum total and the essence of you. At least of you in this moment when you are having them and are overwhelmed by them.

A funny thing happens when one disconnects the identification with the emotions as one experiences them. When one is aware of the anger not as “my anger, as what I am feeling” but rather as “the anger which is trying to trick me into identifying with it.”

Normally it feels as if the identification with the anger is what makes me best self aware of the anger. That, after all, I am aware of it because it is my anger, it is how I am. But actually the opposite is true.

Where I disidentify with the anger, when I cut off the energy source of my identifying with the anger, I became aware of the anger in a broader, more expansive and more illuminating way. I start to see more shades to the anger. More of its contours and its limits. More of its causes and its consequences. I see more than just how it presents it. I see what it hides about itself.

And the more I am able to observe the anger this way, without identification but also without judgment and without putting it down, the more it becomes open to me. More of how actually it is not a self-contained emotion at all, but incorporates in it different shades of fear, hurt, confusion, grieving. And also, as Nietzsche and Foucault emphasized, shades of pleasure, the joy of retribution, getting a pound for a pound, the ecstasy of power, of affirming the others’ submissiveness. The anger starts to seem less like the basic, simple emotion it pretended to be and more like a kaleidoscopic, shifting, hurting, sadistic opening into the complexities of the mind overall.

Encountering this opening in one’s self-awareness is like Arjuna seeing the manifold dimensions of Krishna: as awe-inspiring but also frightening in its complexity and magnitude, dwarfing the ordinary self understanding which feels like home base. When the opening starts to happen, the habit of normal consciousness tries its utmost to close it. To lock it. To mark it as dangerous and forbidden. As something that it is best for me – yes, me as it defines me – to stay away from. As something that will destroy me and my normal self rationalizations and self narratives by shedding the cold, hard reality of how I am just a part of nature like any other being. That my own anger – calling out for its justification and its due justice – is itself a vapor which is created by the winds of the mind and of my ego consciousness. Less a reflection of reality as it is, and more a narrative spun by the mind the way a spider spins its web.

The anger or the hurt or the sweet taste of the ice cream or the joy of sex or the euphoria of a political movement – they all present themselves as mine, as my experiences which carry their nature on their sleeves. And yet to foster this identification they have to hide their own complexity. And hide as well my true nature, that they do not define me and I am not simply a combination of them.

When I disidentify with the emotions and the ordinary appearances of the mind, a greater self awareness starts to unfold. One which opens onto vast realms of consciousness and awareness which are right in front of our eyes normally but which we overlook and ignore. These vistas of consciousness are as beautiful, as expansive and as awe inspiring as the starry skies or the ocean depths or the forest ecosystems. So beautiful and so amazing. The ordinary anger, hunger and pleasure are just the most surface layers of these deeper vistas, and they beckon to us to open ourselves to them and explore their rich terrains.

Doing so requires not staying content with the usual, paltry descriptions of the mind in terms of surface experiences or anger, hunger or pleasure. It requires not falling for the self-contentment and self-presentation of the experiences, but disidentifying with them to see them in a broader perspective.

It is an amazing entry into a magical, beautiful reality. And the opening is right here, right in my own awareness.

The Current Revolution

There have been three main revolutions in human history in terms of global thinking.

The first started around 500bc in various parts of the world. It consisted of the rise of a concept of human being that transcended local, cultural or historical identities. Until then people were defined mainly in terms of the myths of their culture. Others were defined as people with other myths. But in the Axial age of the first millennium BC, people from vastly different cultures could identify with each other under an identity which was seen to apply to all people.

Socratic reflection, Buddhist ideas or Taoist conceptions applied to all people – if only people would cultivate that universal part of themselves. There were religious versions of such universalism in Zorastrianism, Judaism, the Upanishads and so on – and most explicitly later on with Christianity.

People had started to see themselves primarily as people and secondarily as belonging to this race, region or language. Not completely. But it was the beginning of it.

The second revolution started about 2000 years later, around 1500AD. This was the rise of the modern understanding of the physical layout of our world. An exploration of the world as the globe.

Until then each civilization’s sense of the world was defined by their cultural mythology and socio-political boundaries. They didn’t have a sense for the physical reality of the world – for the globe as a brute reality independent of cultural dynamics.

This second revolution was enabled by two things: imperial exploration and the rise of modern science. Newtonian physics suggested it was the language of math – not English or French or Sanskrit or Chinese or Arabic – that captures the nature of the physical world. And so the cultural ways of understanding the world have to fit into the universal conception of the physical world, rather than the other way around.

The first revolution of 2,500 years ago showed that even if my neighbor speaks a different language or has a different culture, they and I are bonded through a higher bond – of rationality or spirituality, or, as with Buddhists or the ancient European skeptics, a spiritual rationality.

The second revolution of 500 years ago showed that all people are bound by a common limit and situation – the shape, size and contour of the globe, and also the natural physical laws which govern the globe and the cosmos.

We are living through the third revolution. The end of colonialism, mass migration, the rise of global problems like climate change and the rise of AI, and especially the rise of computer and the internet have totally redefined our sense of our neighbors and to whom we owe our primary alligencies and our first loyalties.

No longer is our sense of community given by physical concentric circles: those physically closest to us as the ones we are most like and who constitute our community. Conservatives in America and Russia find more in common than they do with liberals living next door to them. Liberals in India and Brazil feel more aligned with each other than with their conservative family members.

Of course this was true for a long time. A Christian in Rome felt closer to another Christian in the Middle East than to a non-Christian Roman living next to him. Or the Muslims in Spain in 1000AD felt greater kinship with other Muslims outside Europe than with their Christian neighbors in Spain.

But these premodern global identities were still beholden to the premodern sense of the physical globe. And the rise of the modern sense of the physical globe coincided for five centuries with a colonialism which made it seem as if only the colonizers are truly global and the colonized are only local and so backward.

Now in our own time and in the unfolding third global revolution, the past two global revolutions have run head long into each other. To create a sense of the world which is not only bound by a sense of our common humanity but also by our common physical global reality – thus creating the sense that the world is in fact small after all. Facebook, Twitter and social media in general reinforces this by the reality that I might share my life as easily and as quickly with a friend across the world as with the friend in the next room.

Humanity has faced a steep task since the first global revolution: to balance the dawning consciousness of our shared humanity with our past of hundreds of thousands of years of identities and life patterns based on more local forms of interaction, rooted in hunter gatherer and early agricultural societies.

The last 2,500 years have been a struggle to balance our senses of similarity and difference so as to grow and raise our collective consciousness. We are now in a new phase of that struggle and unfolding.

As happened with the rise of ancient philosophy and then of modern philosophy, so too our period calls for reconceptualizations and thinking afresh which can meet the new needs of our time.

Conservatives think the answers from 2,000 years ago can be applied now. Liberals think the answers from 200 years ago can be applied now. Both are true in a sense. But wrong in another sense. For both fail to see that our time is yet another new inflection point in human transformation, and as such calls out for its own new questions, problematics, conceptualizations and answers.

The more we think afresh, the more we can transforms our ideas and ideals to bring them to bear to our current moment. This requires the full bearing and reorientation of all of ourselves – mind, body and spirit; nature, culture and history.

Great things are afoot. It is not enough to learn and repeat the lessons of the ancients or the moderns. We need to be like both and be revolutionaries in our time. To see things anew, with a clear new light. To base such vision on the foundation of one’s personal commitment and transformation towards the light, and to transforming and overcoming the suspicions, angers and fears which hold us back.

To create a more enlightened world requires each person to grow further in their personal enlightenment.

Purpose of My Life

Each person has a great purpose in their life.

Not knowing that purpose – or dimly knowing it but not fully embracing it – leads to existential pain.

Existential pain is the deepest pain of human life. It magnifies thousand fold physical pain and the social pains which are the natural and inevitable part of life.

Existential pain is rooted in twin illusions: either that one’s life doesn’t have a purpose or that something (be it others, the world, one’s own nature) is thwarting the pursuit of one’s life purpose.

If you were convinced that your life has a purpose, that you matter, that the best self as you envision it is necessary for the world and can be a reality – how would you live? How would you then look at the obstacles you face? How would you then relate to your own doubts and anxieties?

You do matter. In the way you most want to matter. Not in the way prestige or power or your lack of confidence want you to matter. But the way that the best, freest and most confident part of you wants to matter.

The purpose of your life is to grow in consciousness. To gain an equanimity to everyday concerns that feel like the be all and end all of daily life. To be with God.

Politics is important. If I am unjustly jailed, I want the government to be just. But politics isn’t the end of life. It isn’t the main purpose of life. The main purpose is the intellectual, spiritual and psychic growth of the person. Politics is like food or shelter. Not an end in itself but a means to loving to pursue the greater purpose of life.

The purpose of life is to grow beyond existential pain.

Yes, that’s circular. Not knowing my purpose in life leads to my existential pain. Overcoming my existential pain is the purpose of my life. So: the purpose of my life is to know the purpose of my life. To know that there is a purpose and to throw myself into that purpose with all of my being.

The purpose of individual lives doesn’t require an teleology in biology or physics. Anymore than love in a marriage requires that such love must be found in other animals.

The purpose of individual lives is a social, cultural fact. It is something we bring into existence through our commitment to it.

You can’t wait passively to find your meaning in life anymore than you can find passively your commitment to your marriage or your health or to finishing a book.

The meaning of your life isn’t a spooky, metaphysical mystery. It is simply your commitment to being the best you that you can be. The sense of mystery is that normally we have a very limited sense of what our best self is – one defined more by others expectations and social norms and one’s own insecurities than by the free, happy, blissful unfolding of ourselves.

Move beyond the social expectations and your internalized sense of ego satisfaction. Open up to the deeper realms of consciousness, awareness and reflection within you.

Beyond the surface anxieties of identities, there is a vast realm of peace and stillness within us. In that stillness, the meaning of your life unfolds like a beautiful sunrise.

I Choose You

Dear God, I choose you.

I choose you over fear. Over pain. Over anxiety.

I choose you over knowledge. Over understanding with my thoughts. Over what I can prove to myself or to others.

Loving God, who walks with me every day and every night, I choose you.

I choose you over social prestige. Over thoughts of what I have and don’t have. Over how I compare to others. Over what feel I am owed and what I feel I deserve.

I choose your over my regrets. Over my thoughts of the past. Over what could have been. Over self blame of why I didn’t act differently. Over living in the past. Over feeling as if my future is closed because I messed up my past.

I choose you in the present. In the ever flowing, illuminating, caring, loving embrace of your present.

I choose you. Your love for me. Your care for me. Your nurturing of me. Your protecting me infinitely more than I feel with all my heart to protect my daughter and give her all that is good.

I choose your love and protection of my daughter, just as you do with all your creatures. All your children.

Beautiful, loving, transcendent God, I choose you. Over and over, I choose you.

I choose you over the future. Over the dreams and hopes and fantasies of my mind. Of scenarios my mind tells me have to happen for my life to have meaning. As if anything other than you can give my life meaning.

I choose you and the meaning you give my life. The beauty, the depth, the majesty of your love. I choose being mystified by the light of your love and wisdom and knowledge.

I choose you over me fighting you. I choose me choosing you. I choose the me who loves you more than anything and who you created me to become.

I choose you. Every minute. I choose the meditation, the yoga, the prayer, the reflection, the inquiry of submitting to your cosmic awareness.

I choose you, God, because you choose me without hesitation every time. Even when I feel unable to see that.

I choose you, my God, my all, my Savior.

The Possibility of Global Philosophy

What is global philosophy? How does one get a grip on it?

I am all for global philosophy. I even left academia partly in its name, feeling stultified by its eurocentrism. But what is this thing global philosophy that I am so captivated by?

It isn’t based on my knowledge of all, or even many, of the philosophical traditions of the world. I don’t know much about Islamic philosophy. Or Latin American or African philosophy. Or Chinese and Japanese philosophy. I have read some introductory books on these topics, but not much beyond that. I have a cultural sense for Indian philosophy, but have no deep knowledge of even the philosophers who meant a lot to me emotionally like Shankara or Aurobindo. The tradition I know the best is Western philosophy, since that is what I studied. But even within that, I don’t know much about Medieval Christian philosophy, or about Marxist thought or African-American philosophy or feminism, or Spanish philosophy or Jewish philosophy, or formal epistemology and on and on.

Usually the conservative who worries about diversifying the curriculum expresses his concern in terms of relativism. That if we give up the standards of western philosophy as we are used to it, anything will go about what counts as philosophy and what is good philosophy.

But relativism doesn’t capture the root anxiety, which is something even more disconcerting than relativism.

Relativism presupposes that even if you know tradition A and tradition B, you nor any one can determine which is right or better or more insightful, etc. But how do you even wrap your mind around getting to comparing traditions when they are too many to even first read, let alone understand and then evaluate?

Suppose I only read Hume and was convinced his view of causation is right. Then someone says, “But what about Kant’s response to Hume?” Once that question is raised and I know Kant might justifiably undermine my confidence in Hume’s argument, I am internally propelled to read Kant and see if my siding with Hume holds up. I might just peruse Kant and conclude it’s crap. But I atleast have to take a look at it to quell my own inner doubt.

Now what if someone says, “But what about the Buddha’s view, which is a better articulation of Hume’s idea?” Or “What about the feminist critique of Hume’s method of inquiry?” Or “What about the Mayan view of causation?” And on and on.

Global philosophy is not a threat just to eurocentism, or even western philosophy. It is a threat to the very idea that one can have any justified philosophical belief, for the set of contrasting or relevant alternate philosophical views has been expanded to include all of human history and all of the current cultures and traditions.

The anxiety then isn’t that everyone might be right. It’s that no one can know who is right, since no one will be able to go through the conceptual space required to feel, let alone to be, justified in one’s view.

Hence the conservative wants to cut off this slippery slope by declaring most of the alternatives he doesn’t know as being irrelevant to the conceptual space of his views. Lo and behold, on the conservative view, the revelant conceptual space maps on to just the space that he already knows for the most part – and so his claim to be justified remains in tact. To defend his Humean view, sure he has to read Kant and Aristotle and David Lewis, but not Nagarjuna or Charles Mills or Nishida Kitaro.

The progressive academic philosopher sees the conservative defensiveness as motivated by racism – by the sense that Kant is a superior philosopher to Nagarjuna, and so Kant is relevant while Nagarjuna isn’t.

But what is motivating the conservative isn’t a sense of superiority but a sense of insecurity. If Nagarjuna is relevant to evaluating Hume’s view of causation, then B.K. Matilal, who knows Kant and Nagarjuna, is just in virtue of that better placed to evaluate Hume’s argument than Western philosophers like Strawson or David Lewis, who only know Kant but not Nagarjuna.

What motivates the conservative’s resistance to changing the “rules” to include Nagarjuna is the feeling that if the expanded conceptual space is accepted, then he falls behind those who can play by the new rules better. This is not racism as traditionally conceived in terms of believing one’s race is better than the other races. To the contrary, it is a resistance to being told that according to the new rules one is inferior.

The conservative actually sees deeper into the anxiety concerning global philosophy than the progressive.

The progressive has a misplaced confidence that if only we gave up immoral views such as racism, all will be well and we will be bonded as a species. But the expansion of the conceptual scheme which first devours the conservative will soon devour the unsuspecting progressive as well. After all, the progressive knows a couple of traditions more than the conservative: Indian and western philosophy, or traditional philosophy and feminism, or maybe even Indian, Western, African and feminism if one is really lucky and skilled. But still, there will always be more traditions or frameworks that even such a progressive might not know: Native American views of causation, or quantum mechanics, or Japanese philosophy, and so on.

The conservative is moved by the idea of the pantheon I already know. That is, the set of positions, authors, texts which gives one a sense of knowing the history and conceptual space of philosophy – in effect, what one learned in undergrad and grad school which qualifies one to speak as an expert on the subject generally speaking. Within which one feels grounded and which makes even what one doesn’t know fall within the scope of the conceptual space one feels comfortable with.

The progressive is moved by the idea of the expanded pantheon. That is, the set of positions, authors, texts which includes western philosophy and all other global philosophical traditions and all the topics of concern to minorities and those previously underprivileged. What does this expanded pantheon look like? The progressive answer: “Just like the one with Plato, Kant and Russell, expect including all the greats from all the philosophical traditions.” The conservative rightly looks with suspicion on this idea of the expanded, complete pantheon.

The progressive is committed to three claims – which are not consistent. 1) The normative claim that in order to be justified in holding a philosophical belief, one has to justify it in the conceptual space involving all traditions (so no hand wavying away traditions one doesn’t know). 2) The psychological claim that no one know can master a conceptual space involving all traditions (so there will always be some traditions one doesn’t know). 3) The confident claim that it is only by expanding the curriculum and the conceptual space that we can have true philosophical knowledge.

Progressives famously are angry with the injustice of the traditional institutions. Sally Haslanger begins her well known paper, “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy” this way: “There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave.”

I know this rage. As one who left academic philosophy, I identified with Haslanger’s rage when I first read her essay. And was grateful for her writing it.

But over time I have come to think that the rage – Haslanger’s or mine or of those who deplatform speakers – perhaps has another cause. It’s not just because of how the institution has been. It’s also because there is no clear picture that the progressive has on offer of how philosophical knowledge can be possible. The progressive is surely right that – contra the conservative – one cannot only know one tradition and yet claim knowledge. That is as absurd as remaining confident Hume is right while refusing to read Kant. But unlike the traditional pantheon of a few dozen white men, the progressives’ pantheon consists of hundreds of thinkers from hundreds of traditions. No chance any one can ever know all of that.

In fact, it’s conceptually impossible that one can know all of the progressive’s pantheon. For on the progressive’s reasoning, anyone left out of the pantheon is thereby marginalized and so they have to be included in the pantheon, since the pantheon includes the voices and perspectives of all the marginalized peoples.

Something has gone wrong here. It can’t be that the just and inspiring aim of an inclusive philosophical pantheon renders philosophical knowledge and expertise impossible. Or can it be? The frustration of this conceptual quagmire – of noble ideals leading to a seeming dead end – can quicken the blood and fuel the rage. And when the conservative mocks the progressive’s conceptual stumble and acts as if the conservative’s more limited perspective has retained the ability to have philosophical knowledge (lending the conservative the look of the hyper rational devoid of the wooly emotions of the progressive), the progressive, feeling pushed into a corner, lashes out with rage.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive is winning here. Both are wrong. Contra the conservative, one can’t ignore other traditions and claim philosophical knowledge – for without the contrast case, belief is rendered mere belief. But contra the progressive, one can’t embrace all traditions and claim philosophical knowledge – for if the standard for justification is so vastly beyond the scope of any person, one is again left with mere belief.

This dilemma of finding a middle ground between the conservative and the progressive positions is the conceptual challenge confronting global philosophy.

The greatest obstacle to global philosophy is not that conservatives are racists. Nor that progressives are snow flakes. The greatest obstacle is knowing what philosophy knowledge means once we make the conceptual space of philosophy more global.

This means that global philosophy requires not just knowledge of other traditions. There is a prior type of knowledge that is needed, which concerns what philosophical knowledge means when it is abstracted from debates internal to, and already articulated within, western philosophy or Indian philosophy or feminism or African-American philosophy and so on.

To make progress on this prior type of knowledge doesn’t require any particular expertise within philosophy. One doesn’t need to be well versed in non-Western philosophy or feminism or analytic philosophy, etc. One can think about it just from where one is, given what one already knows.

That space of puzzlement unites all of us.

The Origins of Philosophy

Imagine physics departments didn’t pursue the inquiry, “When did the universe begin?” Or history departments didn’t ask “When were the first written records?” Or biology departments didn’t wonder, “When did life begin?” That would be odd.

This oddity is the norm in many philosophy departments in America, including and especially the most prestigious departments.

If you want to study “when did philosophy begin?”, you would be hard pressed to find a philosophy professor who specializes in that topic. What you would get instead – and what undergrads get in intro courses – are off hand, uncritical assertions that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece.

You would not get an inquiry into that question. Or even an affirmation of the openness of that question.

Imagine medical researches who act in their classes as if they know the cure for cancer. Or if literary theorists claim they have found the one right interpretation of Hamlet’s anxiety. That is what it’s like to be in philosophy classes.

The discipline which questions whether chairs exists, if we are dreaming, how many hairs make for baldness, which one of a dozen interpretations of Kant’s transcendental deduction is correct – that discipline has no sustained inquiry into its own origins.

Of course philosophy departments offer courses on Ancient Greek philosophy. So many courses on the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Over and over again. But do those courses raise the question of when philosophy began or simply assume the answer as obvious and settled?

Questions which are treated as settled before they are raised for inquiry – that is institutionalized ignorance.

What if courses are added in Ancient Chinese or Indian philosophy? Does that solve the problem? No more than simply teaching Ancient Greek philosophy. For the assumption that instead of in one place in Southern Europe, philosophy also began in a few other places in Asia doesn’t open the question for inquiry. It keeps it shut down, but now with a veneer of openness and cosmopolitanism. In introductory Indian philosophy books, it is as unquestioned an assumption that philosophy began with the Vedas as it is in European philosophy books that it began with the pre-Socratics.

Combining different unquestioned assumptions of the origins of philosophy – which are in effect different cultures’ chauvinisms – doesn’t make for a global understanding of philosophy. It makes for global institutionalized ignorance.

The way out of the ignorance isn’t to combine answers without reflection. It is to first raise for open inquiry the question and to problematize the question. It is to acknowledge that we don’t know. The mind which accepts ignorance will find the path to an answer in the future. The mind which denies ignorance remains the same in the past, present and future – and confuses that continuity with having already found universal truth.

Obviously the reason the Greek origin story goes unquestioned in Western departments in eurocentrism. Now, eurocentrism isn’t all bad. Every culture will tell more, and prioritize, it’s own history more than that of other cultures. But that is no reason to rest content with unquestioned assumptions or to choose only the facts one wants.

Did philosophy begin in Greece, or India, or China, or Egypt, or Mesopotania, or Australia? Or did it begin not in any one place, but along  porous trade routes which united Europe with India, or Europe with the Middle East or with Egypt? The only way to know is to learn and better understand the intellectual histories around the world in the ancient world – and to put those histories through the fire of philosophical reflection. Any answer accepted before such inquiry is not justified. It is embraced for the sake of institutional continuity rather than out of a search for truth – choosing ignorance and a bond with past philosophy departments over inquiry and a bond with future departments.

This is the tacit shared assumption of the conservatives and the progressives in academic philosophy.

The conservatives affirm it as an already known, unimpeachable truth that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics. The justification for this is given in terms of other supposedly known, unimpeachable truths of the primitive nature of religious thinking, the unphilosophical nature of Greek mythology and the even less reflective nature of the mythologies of ancient non-Europeans. For the conservatives this vision of the ancient world is mere common sense – what we all know and which history demonstrates as conclusive, full stop, period. On this view, the origins of philosophy, it turns out, is not a philosophical question after all. It is a simply historical question, and appreciation of the history shows how sophisticated one is philosophically. If one wonders, “But weren’t Homer or Moses philosophers?”, the conservative responds, “No, no! That isn’t philosophy at all! Don’t you see?” So to appreciate the history in the right way already presupposes the philosophical insight of knowing what philosophy is and what it isn’t – and wasn’t, even in ancient times.

The progressive responds to this eurocentric vision with cries of racism. That in fact any affirmation that philosophy began in this culture as opposed to that culture, or in this hemisphere as opposed to that, is to impose imperialistic assumptions of the superiority of one culture over an another. To discard imperialistic thinking requires seeing every culture in the ancient world as being philosophical in their own way – for every culture tells stories and attempts to understand the big picture issues of the origins of the world, or right and wrong, of the nature of human beings and so on. On the progressive view, as well then, it turns out the origins of philosophy is not a philosophical question at all. It is a simply a question of respect, of “philosophical” being a honorific which it is racist to apply to some ancient cultures and not others. The relevant response isn’t to discover when or where in fact philosophy began. It is to overcome the chauvinistic impulse to apportion philosophical respect unevenly, and so to affirm every ancient culture as philosophical.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive visions of the origins of philosophy imply an open ended inquiry into the past or into the nature of philosophy. For both the nature and origins of philosophy are already settled – and the real task is to maintain or change the current academic structures appropriately. This means for the conservative fighting back the relativism and politicization of philosophy of the progressives. And it means for the progressives overcoming the racism and imperialism of the status quo of past decades.

In this fight between the conservatives and progressives there is therefore a blurring together of (1) historical inquiries of the past, (2) metaphilosophical reflections on the nature of philosophy and its relation to religion and mythology, (3) the racist elements in the formation of modern philosophy departments, (4) who should get what jobs now, and (5) what should be taught in intro philosophy courses and how.

If philosophical thinking shows anything, it is that clarity cannot arise from blurring together issues. The very assumption that issues as diverse and varied as (1) – (5) can neatly fall into two and only two camps, which then requires inquirers to choose sides, is absurd. As absurd as assuming that tax reform, health care, racial justice, religious tolerance, gay rights, immigration, global warming and a host of other urgent, vastly different issues can only be solved together by choosing one or the other political party.

Whether we call it philosophy or wisdom or just clear thinking, what is needed is the patience and the subtlety to disentangle issues, and pursue the separate threads of inquiry where they lead.

Real progress from a eurocentric vision of the origins of philosophy isn’t achieved by conflating the issue of origins with modern racial tensions. Rather, it is achieved by recognizing the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent, open ended inquiry, which is not defined by either chauvinistic or egalitarian concerns as such. Of course any inquiry into the origins of philosophy will have to respect the special relation of Europeans to European philosophy, and also respect the need to overcome the racist and chauvinistic assumptions of past times. But both of these aims are hindered by conflating them with an inquiry into the origins of philosophy. The more we can treat the origins inquiry as a question in it’s own right, which can stand on its own due to its own complexity and interest, the more we will be able to think about its implications for a culture’s special understanding of itself or for anti-racism.

Once we think of the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent inquiry, something magical happens: people can pursue it irrespective of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and so forth. The question becomes not only intellectually important and urgent, but also a unifying question that people can pursue together no matter their other differences.

The key to developing an academic philosophy which embraces diversity and unity is to foster these kinds of new, unifying questions – questions which are sufficiently unorthodox that many of the old moves, pro and con, seem irrelevant, and which through it’s very newness and freshness provides new avenues for people across different viewpoints to work together.

Plato, Confucius, Shankara, Du Bois, Anscombe — none of these great thinkers of the past truly faced up to the question of the origins of philosophy from a global perspective. This was not a personal failing on their part. We just didn’t know enough about the diversity of ways philosophy was pursued around the world (though many ancient and medieval philosophers were aware of, and engaged with, other philosophical traditions). Indeed, for the great philosophers of the pre-modern past, their sense of “the world” didn’t even encapsulate the entire globe. And for modern philosophers who did think of the world as the globe, the sense of the globe was mixed with chauvinistic cultural assumptions about the self-importance of their own culture.

We in the 21st century are at the beginning of a possibility which would have been unimaginable to both the ancients and the moderns: understanding the origins of philosophy while keeping in view peoples from across the entire globe. To the ancients the globe would have been unfathomable. To the moderns even a starting assumption of equal respect for all the peoples of the globe would have been unimaginable.

Where was gun power invented? Who invented writing? Where was the number zero first used? These are questions of our shared human heritage. That writing might have been invented in Egypt or in Mesopotamia is no claim against Europeans or Asians. Or that gun power was invented in China is no knock against Indians or Latin Americans. That the number zero might have originated in India is no claim against Australians or Americans. Different parts of the human species, in different parts of the world contributed different things to our shared life.

The same is true for philosophy. We as a species are now in a position finally to approach the origins of philosophy from such a global perspective. This is not a race for which culture or continent gets the prize for “getting to philosophy first”. The very abstractness and complexity of philosophy suggests that “it” is not any one thing, unique and indivisible, but is rather a complex set of diverse practices. Some of it will have originated here, some there. Some of it will have progressed in this way here, and in that way there.

Instead of reducing the origins of philosophy to already stock categories of how we divide ourselves, a true open minded inquiry into the subject can provide new facts, visions and categories for understanding our shared, mutual dependence as humans.

This is the potential of philosophy departments. And of ourselves as humans more generally.