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.

If I Was in Academia Now

If I were an academic philosopher now, how would I handle it? What would I do differently now than I did twenty years ago when I started graduate school or ten years ago when I was a professor?

The main thing is I would keep conceptually distinct four things:

1) Seeking wisdom: the individual pursuit of becoming wiser. This is not subjective. But it is rooted in my personal path of self-improvement to be closer to God, nature and the cosmic perspective.

2) Conceptual clarification: a better intellectual understanding, broadly speaking, of ourselves and the world. This is philosophy as meta-science, conceptual clarification, phenomenology, feminism, etc. – whatever is one’s framework for understanding the mind, body, ethics, norms, knowledge, freedom, etc. This includes metaphilosophy: relation of philosophy to religion and science, the global origins of philosophy, and so on.

3) Institutional change of academic philosophy: the transformation of academic philosophy as it leaves behind its mid 20th century norms, practices and ideals to better reflect the diversity of people and interests which were opened up in academia post 1960s.

4) Public service: connecting philosophy, be it in terms of (1), (2) and/or (3), to the broader concerns of non-academics. There is obviously a lot happening in our society, be it politically, or climate change, or the rise of AI and the new information age, mass migrations and so on. The way most people on the planet make sense of these seismic changes isn’t in terms of academic philosophy. Rather, it’s through the prism of two broadly defined institutional practices – religions and science – and in particular, in terms of their particular religious or scientific institution being under threat by the other side. If left unchecked, this religion vs science framing, combined with the clash of identities, will lead to the end of humans. So the main public service of philosophers is to navigate this vast fight for the soul of humanity in a way which ennobles us and shows a path forward.

When I was an academic I constantly conflated (1)-(4). Which is easy to do because they cross-connect in all sorts of ways. But I conflated them in a way which left me constantly drained and confused. As a student and as a professor I didn’t know how to even conceptually separate the issues so that I can address them in a piece meal fashion. Instead I was always trying to do all of them at once – which led to being kind of mentally fried all the time.

I started grad school in 1999. The internet was still in its infancy. So my sense of the philosophy profession was limited to a few departments: Cornell and Harvard, and a marginal sense for close by departments like MIT, BU and Tufts. And my sense from the classes and public events in the departments I went to was that philosophy as (2) was supreme

There was hardly any mention of (1) at Harvard back then, other than Putnam’s interest in Jewish thought and Cavell’s perfectionism – but both seemed at odds with the professionalization which had superseded them. There was even less sense for (3) and (4) – of how the profession needs to change itself, or how it ought to engage with the broader society. Mainly the feeling – at least to me – was one of the Harvard department trying to hold on to its glory of Quine and Rawls in the face of new currents in the profession. This reenforced the focus on (2) – as if one first has to fight for the correct intellectual view of academic philosophy, and all else will follow somewhere downstream.

I did have a sense that (3) and (4) were being discussed behind the scenes – at dinner parties, between friends, in groups vying for control and self-affirmation, both at Harvard and perhaps more generally in the profession. I was not moved to join these groups in part because I wanted the conversations to be completely public, and also because I felt these under the surface discussions of “how to take control” and “change things from within” were not connected to (1).

This is still my main objection to the social justice warrior mindset: any sustainable changes in (3) have to be grounded in not only (2) but also, and even more so, in (1). The emotions are too raw in (3) for us to expect that it is obvious what “the right way forward” is, and who is and isn’t a racist. There are more obvious things like curtailing sexual harrassment, or just acknowledging that feminism or non-Western thought is philosophy. But once we get beyond that to the positive question of what a diverse philosophical community looks like, there are actually many more questions to be clarified and pursued before being certain of the right moral course of action.

The main difference between when I was in graduate school and now is that (3) and (4) are now completely out in the open. Not in terms of what to do about them, but in terms of issues and problematics which cannot be ignored. Pandora’s box has been cracked opened for both (3) and (4) in academic philosophy. As more minorities enter academic philosophy and as right wing governments cut back more on funding the humanities, the box will be opened wider and wider.

Though (3) and (4) are important, philosophy and critical reflection has to begin always in a fundamentally self oriented space – in the thinker’s own needs as a thinker. When such self-focus is selfish/complicit/immoral and when it is a reflection of independence/freedom/creativity is always going to be contentious. To someone mainly focused on (3), (1) or (2) will seem naive or complicit. And seeming complicit in older racist structures will make them seem racist. But if it isn’t for the space to catch a breath and think for oneself that is implicit in (1) and (2), it is unclear how we can make reasoned, thoughtful changes in (3) and (4).

Here was the root of my own personal anxiety in academia. I didn’t identify with either the institutionally conservative wing or the institutionally progressive wing. I felt the conservatives who identified philosophy with just (2) (that too with a Eurocentric version of (2)) were complicit in structures which are outdated and wrong. So I wanted to join forces with the more progressive wing. Yet I couldn’t accept change can come while trampling on others’ sense of intellectual freedom to determine what is important and what isn’t. This is because philosophy always appealed to me fundamentally as (1) – which is perhaps even more a self oriented a way of thinking of philosophy than (2), which claims the interlocutor’s right to challenge my ideas as foundational, and so where I have to respond to others in that sense. (1) can be, but need not be, related to others even in this sense. It is a person’s individual attempt to keep improving themselves as they are moved by their internal currents. In (1) one is responsible firstly not to other people, but to God or Nature.

What I failed to realize back then was that the main philosophical disagreements aren’t internal to any one of (1)-(4). So it isn’t between dualists and materialists in (2). Or between proponents and critics of the Gourmet report in (3). Or between Republicans and Democrats, or socialists and capitalists, or atheists and theists in (4).

Rather the main – highest order – philosophical disagreements are about how to combine (1)-(4). About which should be prioritized over the other, and which is more primary. Or if in fact any of the four ought to be prioritized over the others. And if not, how they can be held together – how they can be harmonized into a cohesive, overall vision which can respect both the importance of, and the conceptual separations between, (1) – (4).

This is ultimately an issue for all people, not just academic philosophers. Even now as a non-academic I am confronted with the question of how to balance (1) through (4). To what extent I should forget about politics and focus on my personal spiritual growth, or on my desire to just better understand the mind and human history. How much I should leave the issues of (3) and the future of academic philosophy to the academics, and how much I should care about it not only as a former academic but as a citizen. To what extent I should seek my grounding only in God and whether that will make me complicit to the injustices and pain around me.

How one combines (1)-(4) reflects a life vision: a view of oneself, society and the cosmos, where it all came from and where it is going. In grad school I hungered for the expansiveness of thought that is captured in such a life vision. Unclear how to hold onto (1) – (4) at once, I conflated each onto the other, and tried to do them all at once. It was like trying to rub my stomach while rubbing my head while hopping on one leg while reading a book. And feel frustrating and angry with others and myself when I couldn’t pull it off.

But doing all four isn’t a matter of doing them at the same time. It is rather a matter of crafting a life which involves all four in a harmonious and reinforcing way. Of cultivating one’s life to be open to all four modes of reflection and fostering social structures which can enable that for others.

It begins with oneself. Finding the balance requires in the first instance feeling good about oneself and feeling that one is not simply reacting to others, be it their injustices or their inspirations. It is to be open to all of oneself, the many dimensions within oneself: the spiritual, the intellectual, the institutional and the social. When one is open to all of oneself, it becomes easier to be open to others, which in turn makes it easier to work to change things together.

The Second Life

Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being….

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt… This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life…

Contemplation is no pain killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential alter which simply ‘is’.

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not realize that this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what’, not a ‘thing.’ That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no ‘what’ that can be called God. There is ‘no such thing’ as God because God is neither a ‘what’ nor a ‘thing’ but a pure ‘Who’. He is the ‘Thou’ before whom our inmost ‘I’ springs into awareness.”

What a brilliant characterization of the spiritual path! So phenomenologically apt. So beautifully free of the usual dead-end conceptions of theism and atheism. Merton was a Catholic monk who was able to assert, more powerfully than most atheists, that there is ‘no such thing as God’ – and far from making me give up my Christianity, Merton’s comment makes me feel closer to God.

How true, how brave is Merton’s assertion that contemplation is “a terrible breaking and burning of idols” which consumes even ordinary holy conceptions and taken-for-granted religious pieties. An assertion worthy of Nietzsche. Even more, worthy of Christ.

Human life consists of a building up and a breaking down. This is obvious with the body: we nourish, nurture and grow it, only at some point for it to start declining, which we then do our utmost to delay, minimize and overcome.

There is a building up and breaking down of the identity as well. Except unlike with the body, the breaking down of identity is not headed only towards death, but towards a renewal – towards a building up of a new identity even as the physical body declines.

Often the question is asked how humans differ from other animals. And one key difference is looked for: language, reason, culture, etc. But what is missed is how there are many steps in between, say, chimpanzees and 21st century human beings. The assumption is made that there was a key point at which primates turned into humans, into us.

Of course this is not true. Primates turned into many different forms of hominids. A neanderthal was very different from a chimpanzee in that he had a robust cultural identity: he had clothes, fire, maybe even art. Each generation of chimpanzees have to rediscover their capabilities – the discoveries of one generation aren’t passed on materially to their offspring. But with homonids this was already possible. They were born into culturally practices which were passed on from generation to generation.

This meant that a homonid wasn’t just growing physically, but also gaining a cultural identity. The two forms of growth were interlinked.

And so it went for hundreds of thousands of years. In the process, homo sapiens came on the scene with greater sophistication of cultural growth. And yet, this much remained the same: there was no growth anew a second time of one’s identity. Goodness and greatness was defined by how well you realized the identity that you were brought up in: as a warrior or a farmer, or a priest, etc.

It is tempting to think of the Axial age 3,000 years as the olden days, and to mark modern days much more recently (like 500 years ago with the European Enlightenment). But we actually mark the Axial age as a new beginning, with the birth of religions as we now think of them (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), because it is the beginning of a form of consciousness that is completely natural to us now, but which would have been unthinkable to even our homo sapien ancestors 10,000 years ago.

The key transformation of the Axial age is the development of a rebirth of one’s consciousness. That one can grow and be enculturated in one way into adulthood and even through the peak of one’s physical growth, and even then, as the physical growth starts to decline and so one’s identity rooted in physical capacities declines, one can grow yet again and so one can redefine one’s identity.

Socrates accepting death cheerfully. Lao Tzu leaving the city on the back of a buffalo. The Buddha renouncing his kingdom. Christ willingly sacrificing all on the cross. In each case the main point is the same, and it evokes something new in Earth’s history: a living creature which plumbs to the depths of its own mind and habits, and recreates itself!

This means that a human being like us is the being who is defined by two births. The first which happens to him physically, mentally and culturally and which he doesn’t, and cannot, consciously initiate. And a second which happens to him as he reflects on the first birth and the ensuing life, and seeks to craft himself anew.

The first life enables us to develop the capacities necessary for loving God. The second life is ours to fashion as we put in practice those capacities and so seek God and love Him.

In most of our life we teeter in between the hopes of the first life and the promises of the second life. Confident that the first life is enough, one wants to achieve the virtues and recognition that have been ingrained through one’s enculturation. “No, I don’t want to die to my first self! I want to perfect the first self! That is my true self! Death to the first self isn’t a prelude to a new beginning. It is just death! I will fight this death and resist it with all my might!”

And yet, a part of us also knows that the first life is incomplete. That it cannot be complete, for it is founded on the judgments of others when we were still physically and mentally immature. That there must be something more than what even I imagined for myself when I was not yet fully developed. That fulfillment and perfection can’t be just realizing the goals and ideals that were implanted in me culturally and which I internalized in a youthful energy.

No, my life begins when question everything I knew about myself and build a new life on a solid foundation. This rebirth is the transformation of Saul to Paul. It is the beauty and power of Descartes’ cogito.

Socrates said that philosophy teaches one how to die. What he meant is not just physical death, but more primarily, the death of the first self. One who has embraced the death of the first self and lives into the second birth is freed from the fear of physical death. We fear what we do not know. If I can’t accept my first death, then physical death looms as just the biggest form of death there is. But if I embrace my first death, then death becomes a friend. Not a robber of what is mine, but a gateway to a rebirth. To a chance to see the world anew, with fresh eyes. With the innocence and joy of a child.

To see the world as God sees it. To see myself as God sees me.

Emotions, Public Reasoning and Logic

Disagreements about hot button topics are not only about ideas. Even more basically they are disagreements about emotions. In particular, about the emotional stance one should adopt to changes in society.

There are many policy differences between Trump and Hilary Clinton. But at root the disagreement is about emotional comportment regarding recent decades, and especially the Obama years. Were they good or bad? Is anger about them justified, or were they a move in the right direction? Or about the older days: Is it good we are leaving them behind as Clinton suggests, or should we reclaim them as Trump suggests?

Trump is not an intellectual. He doesn’t need to be to get his points across, because those points are mainly one of mood – of how one feels about this or that aspect of our society.  The power and grip of his points don’t require he defend them theoretically – maybe someone later will come along who will do that better. But for now his grip over his supporters comes from him not budging from his emotional state. What looks petulant to his opponents, looks strong to his supporters. Same with the Clinton, or the Bernie Sanders supporters, or anyone.

Our public discourse is not effective right now. It’s because before people can talk to each other, they need to acknowledge each other’s emotional states. Need to acknowledge that they have different emotional responses, before jumping into whether those responses are good or bad. If I can’t say to the other person, “Yes, I understand how you feel“, and he can’t say that back to me, then we are not going to be reason together.

Hence a primary condition for public reason is emotional equanimity. The ability to hold conflicting emotions in one’s consciousness without letting one’s own emotional response overwhelm one.

My emotional response to global warming is anxiety and concern. Most Trump supporters’ response is lack of concern and a sense they are being hoodwinked – global warming as just a ploy to steam roll them. If a dialogue is to be possible, and before we can get to a debate about the scientific facts, this difference in emotional outlooks has to be dealt with.

It is natural to bemoan the sorry state of debates on cable news. The screaming and the preening and posturing, instead of focusing on the ideas. But the cable news debates are not meant to be intellectual debates – even if the cable stations falsely, in their confusion, pitch them as such. Rather, those “debates” are useful and productive in bringing out the emotional disagreements that underlie the intellectual disagreements.

Where the cable news debates fail isn’t in upholding the standards of intellectual debate. They fail rather in the way a counselor fails to help a couple listen to each other during a fight. Were Ross and Rachel (from the TV show Friends) really on a break when Ross cheated on Rachel? The argument about the fact of the matter goes nowhere because it doesn’t address the core emotional disagreement, and each doesn’t acknowledge the other’s feelings.

The problem with cable news debates isn’t that they are not intellectual enough. If that were the problem, then presumably if a Trump supporter and critic were more like academics, then the problem would be solved. But the problem won’t be solved! For the academics are faced with the same situation.

In academic philosophy, what should be the emotional response to the direction of the profession? For some the right response is alarm, anger and nostalgia for the past that is being lost. For others it is a measured optimism that things are getting better. For still others it is anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal that the profession is still rooted in the past status quo. Here are a couple of recent examples of these emotional battles (one at Daily Nous, and another at the Electric Agora that involved me, where I got caught up in my emotions).

In a way, the academic philosophy battles are puzzling. They involve philosophy professors, graduate students and ex academics, all of whom probably have taken introduction to logic at some point, and some even teach it. Given that logic is the study of reasoning, why are people who studied it nonetheless not able to reason effectively about their disagreements regarding the profession?

The cause lies in the difference between emotional equanimity and setting aside emotions. Most introduction to logic courses do the latter – they treat reasoning as if it doesn’t concern emotions at all. As if reasoning consists simply in making inferences correctly, and being able to spot logical fallacies, and where we don’t have to worry about emotions – those pesky “irrational” forces of the mind. I am no expert in logic, ancient or modern. But this aemotional way of conceiving reasoning does seem to have its roots in  the modern treatment of logic as basically the same kind of inquiry as mathematics.

I took intro logic at Cornell. And the next level logic course, covering Godel’s theorems, at Harvard. I could follow the second level logic class enough to begin to appreciate the strange, self-referential beauty of Godel’s theorem. But mastering it was beyond me. It was clear there are vast realms of reasoning of which I could have only the dimmest sense – like my understanding of most areas of physics or math. Godel, Tarski, Kripke: they are geniuses in a field that is important and fundamental to human life.

But that importance isn’t related to fostering better public reasoning.

In most intro logic courses it is left mysterious why humans fall for logical fallacies. But it is obvious why. Most of the time in daily life the inability to appreciate another’s argument isn’t rooted in the intrinsic difficulties of the topic being discussed (people scream at each other about global warming not because global warming science is hard, though as a science it must be). Rather, it’s because we fail to appreciate the outlook of someone with a different emotional comportment than ours.

It is part of having an emotional comportment on a topic that any other emotional response to that topic feels irrational. In this sense, emotions are more like pains than like ideas. If I just entertain the idea “my leg is hurting”, then I can entertain the opposite idea just as easily. But if I am in pain and my leg hurts, then I can’t in that moment entertain the opposite idea. That defeats the point of the pain, which is to get me to act to help my body. Pain is experienced as calling for action; not for deliberation about whether the pain is real.

Emotions are similar. Especially strong, potent emotions. If I feel threatened by the other person, the emotional state of feeling threatened is experienced as calling for the action of shutting down that person, or distancing myself from them. Just as when in pain the knife which is thrust into my leg is experienced as to be removed, so too in the midst of emotions like anxiety or feeling threatened or betrayed the ideas of the person who is threatening is experiences as to be rejected. As not meeting the standards of rationality.

Hence often in public debates which go nowhere the conversation devolves into each side marking its boundaries, and drawing the other side as occupying the irrational camp. Knowledge of logical fallacies doesn’t help avoid this self-protective mode of interaction. For that knowledge itself just gets used as a weapon: it is the other side which is making all the fallacies, and my side which is resolutely seeing the right inferences.

If there is to be progress in the midst of such distrust, then the first condition will have to be for the participants to cultivate equanimity. To be able to observe their own emotions without jumping to action as the emotion calls for it – and from the space of such stillness, to be able to see the other person’s emotions as plausible, or at any rate, as where that person just happens to be, and so where, if I want to talk to them, where I have to begin with them.

This kind of cultivation of equanimity is not taught in our introduction to logic classes. But it should be, if the aim is to help those intro students reason better with their fellow citizens. It would be logic which concerns not just the relation between propositions, but a logic which concerns the interactions of people in a complex world.

Does this reduce logic then to therapy or counseling? No. Cultivating equanimity is not just therapy. It is something else very close to the hearts of philosophers: wisdom. Like philosophy courses in general, the introduction to logic courses have become separated from the concept of wisdom.

If we want to foster better conversations, we need to bring the concepts of rationality and wisdom back together in order to deal with our emotions.

Body and Mind

I have a sweet tooth. Implicitly usually I am most looking forward to evening time after dinner when I can have dessert. Ice cream. Or cake. Some pie. Or chocolate. If I don’t have it, I feel like a soccer ball deflating. As if the telos for the day has been frustrated. When I skip having dessert for a day or two, I get antsy, easily annoyed, irritable. The usual withdrawal symptoms of any addictions.

I am going to try something for the next month. I will give up sweets. No chocolate. No donuts put out in the kitchen in the office. No after dinner ice cream.

One motivation is to improve my health. With the imminent arrival of my baby girl, I would like to take better care of myself. I even went to the doctor for the first time in many years for a physical, something I have avoided due to an anxiety I seem to have acquired from a childhood trauma of when my father had a heart attack. When I told the doctor of my impending parenthood, she nodded understandingly, indicating that it was common for parents to be to acquire new motivation to be healthier.

Another motivation is spiritual. Since I was in college, I have had, I now see, a very intellectual and abstract sense of philosophy and spirituality. As if these were mainly mental activities – something I strive for with my mind, far removed from how I take care of my body or cultivate habits of life. This was my attitude even when I was writing my PhD on embodied cognition and the essentially bodily nature of human consciousness.

This was of course reenforced by academic philosophy. Many of my colleagues took better care of themselves physically than I did. Running, biking, hiking, going to gym. But naturally all this physical activity was seen as outside the domain of philosophy. A life style choice matter but far removed from the work of thinking about the nature of consciousness or justice.

Certainly philosophy arguments don’t turn on the physical health of the people debating. But is being a reflective person improved by one’s ability to with stand addictions such as eating sweets?

I think so.

Now I am thinking that if I can control my urges and not give into my physical cravings, then it will improve not just my health, but also my ability to think more clearly. That the urges for sweets is like a covering over my eyes which makes me see the world through a kind of haze. No different in principle than if I were addicted to alcohol, drugs or sex.

This is of course an ancient idea: resisting the body, indeed even starving it a little, is a way to heighten one’s higher mental states. I think this is right.

For too long I have thought just with my mind. Now I want to think with my whole being, including my body. To enable that, I have to take better care of my body and take care of how I treat it.

What will my awareness be like if I can resist sweets for a month? I intend to find out.