I became a philosophy major in college in my sophomore year, 25 years ago. Since that time my main experience of being a philosopher has been mainly a ghostly one. I have generally felt unseen as a thinker. And even felt unsure myself what it is to be seen as a thinker.
In academia this was due to its eurocentrism. To my having to hide, or being unable to know how to express, my interests in philosophy that derive from my Indian background.
But I have come to realize something: the root of my feeling unseen even in academia is not due to just how academic philosophy is. To the contrary, how I reacted to academic philosophy was due to a deeper sense of being unseen, which often led me to not trying to express myself better in academia.
This deeper sense of being unseen is due to the fact that, other than my brother and a couple of other family members, I would say that no one in my family really had or even still has much of an idea what it meant for me to be a philosophy student or professor. They knew the names of the places I was at – Cornell, Harvard, Bryn Mawr – but beyond the prestigious names, they had no idea what I was doing there.
I don’t just mean they didn’t know what my thesis was on or what philosophy of mind was. I mean something more basic: they had no concept of philosophy as a domain of knowledge. For the most part my family is very middle class, focused on family and jobs, and enjoying days off from the job with family. And the jobs in question were clearly understood domains: doctor, lawyer, engineer, finance and so on. Of course they could envision other jobs even if we might not really pursue them: actors, musicians, athletes, journalists, etc. Beyond the realm of jobs and family was perhaps the domain of politics and beyond that religion. Philosophy as a domain that is not a doctor, lawyer type job but is also not religion – that is pretty much unheard of.
It occurred to me a few days ago, with some shock but also with a sense of peace, that this was true of my father as well. I often was angry with him back then for why, when he was such a good philosopher and also when I saw him as a mentor, he didn’t engage with my philosophy education in college. I assumed it was because he was convinced it was wrong and limited, too focused on the mind rather than transcending the mind. But it never dawned on me that it could be because he didn’t know what I am studying. Or better put: he didn’t know the kind of philosopher I was becoming through my education.
I don’t just mean that he didn’t know Plato or Descartes, etc. I mean something much more basic: he didn’t know philosophy as, I will put it, a group activity.
Philosophy for my father had two modes: as a solitary activity, where he is thinking, sitting, chanting and so on by himself, or as a one on one activity, where there is a teacher and a student, or a proponent and a challenger, etc. My interactions with him obviously fit into the one on one activity category, with me at times as a student, at other times as a challenger and so on.
But philosophy as practiced in academia is mainly neither of these modes. It is a fundamentally group activity – of many people, as intellectual peers, talking to each other in all sorts of cross cutting ways. The primary domain of philosophy in this sense is not an individual or even two people talking, but a field of questions and possible answers, which are being explored by a wide array of people, with a wide array of interests and focuses.
If philosophy as a solitary activity is like meditating by oneself, and philosophy as one on one is like having a conversation with another person, philosophy as a group activity is like talking at a party. You might be taking to four or five people at one moment, then later talking to everyone by giving a toast, and then to three people, etc – moving back and forth between different dialogues with different groups, with different focuses, but nonetheless with a certain sense of the coherence and overall moods and the unifying threads of the party. Those who are particularly good at this kind of group activity are those who are able to weave a coherence in their conversations even as they are able to engage in the diversity of modes of conversation at the party.
For a long time, since the beginning of college, I drew the contrast between my father and my professors as that of Indian philosophy vs Western philosophy. I now think this is not tracking the main difference between my father and my professors.
The main difference is that my father had no idea how to do philosophy as a group activity. That wasn’t the template of philosophy he was used to. It’s like someone who is used to playing basketball one on one feeling uneasy playing in a five-on-five game. The moves one can make, the coordination with others and what it means to dominate or assert one’s will on the game – these are all different depending on whether it is a game involving two people or ten people.
This is not an Indian vs Western philosophy issue. Philosophy as a group activity has a long history in India, just as it does in the West. Nor is it an issue of non-academic vs academic philosophy. As in the Hellenistic period or during the European Enlightenment, there has often been philosophy as a group activity which involves nonacademics as well as academics. Nor is it even an issue of spiritual vs non-spiritual philosophy. Spiritual philosophers can often engage in philosophy as a group activity – a collective debate – as much as more scientific minded philosophers.
The constant dissonance I had when going back and forth between talking to my father and my professors was that both were treating philosophy as one main kind of activity, and yet both had very different paradigms of what that the one activity consisted in.
With my father it was not philosophy as solitary activity, since obviously it was the two of us talking. But it very much was not a group activity in that the focus of the conversation was always my father, with me or my brother or mother, or all of us, being questioners or challengers of my father’s worldview. This meant that my father’s view of philosophy set the parameters of the conversation, and discussion meant exploring the domain within those parameters. As it happened, my father’s interests were very broad – from chimpanzee consciousness to the relation of the Gita to modern physics – and so there was an unending variety of things to explore in talking to him. But it fundamentally took place as an exploration of his perspective. With even a blurring of the lines between his perspective and the perspective of philosophy as such. As if when he was speaking philosophically, he was speaking as philosophy, as the Truth or as Inquiry as such.
When I was talking to my father, it was a bit like how a graduate student might relate to his dissertation advisor. But with the crucial difference that while in grad school one might see philosophy on the model of a one on one conversation with one’s advisor, pretty soon one has to grow beyond this to embrace the basically group activity form of philosophy. After grad school one has to orient not just to one on one conversations, but learn how to speak to the multitude of conversations happening in the broader group of the profession.
I see now that this was a main struggle I had when I became a professor and why I didn’t publish anything.
There is no one activity called philosophizing. Just as there is no one activity called playing a game. Sometimes the games one plays are solitary, like solitaire or sudoku, etc. Sometimes they are two person games, like single’s tennis or chess, etc. And sometimes they are group games, like baseball or cricket, etc. .
Similarly, sometimes philosophy means a deeply personal activity, with the focus on being with one’s consciousness or deep self-reflection. At other times, philosophy can mean a two person activity, as with a conversation between two friends, or two brothers, or a teacher and a student. And yet at other times, it can mean a group activity, as when one gives a lecture or is engaged in a group discussion.
Philosophy publishing as an academic is a particular combination of all these modes of philosophy. Writing a philosophy article or a book is often a solitary activity. Which can feel like it is an extended one on one dialogue, especially if one is engaging with a particular philosopher in one’s writing. And yet by the very nature of publishing, it is also a group activity – an entry into an extended, group dialogue happening in the profession, but also in society more broadly, and even through the centuries.
In my time in academia I continually struggled to find my voice as a writer, often feeling alienated from what I wrote a few months after I wrote it. As a brown man with interests in non-Western philosophy, the Eurocentrism of the profession was a ready to hand explanation for this continual struggle on my part.
But there has always been a huge limitation with this explanation of Eurocentism as the main problem: I was alienated not just from my colleagues in academic philosophy, but philosophically from my family as well, and indeed even from my father as a philosopher. The form of the alienation I had with my advisors felt very similar to the form of alienation I had with my father. How can this be if Eurocentrism is the main problem?
One way to shoe horn Eurocentrism as the problem is to say that I was alienated from my father’s philosophy because of my European philosophy education. That the white supremacist undertones of modern European philosophy made it hard for me to engage with the ancient, brown philosophy of my father. I suspect this is how my struggles between my father and my professors might be interpreted through a social justice warrior mindset, which sees white supremacy as the deep underlying problem of most every social struggle. For some years I myself was drawn to this narrative.
But there is one clear problem with this explanation: I was starting to be alienated from my father’s philosophy by the time I went to college. He and I were already disagreeing about what form my philosophical life can take. My assertion that I might want to be a monk or to work in McDonalds were my attempt to carve my identity as a philosophy outside of the one on one philosophy framework of my father which I was starting to find suffocating. I already started to sense a difference between my father as a philosopher and other brown and black philosophers who I started to admire: Shankara, Aurobindo, Malcolm X. These three had a public dimension to their identity as philosophers which my father lacked. Even more pertinent than the publicness as such, was what it meant about the mode of philosophy they were engaging in: it was a group activity, beyond two people.
Just within a year of discovering philosophy, I was already hungering for philosophy as a group activity. I was drawn, as it were, not to the one on one basketball games which was my father’s preferred mode, but was looking to the basketball stars, from the past and the present, who thrived in five on five games.
I think even to the very end of his life my father never really understood the appeal or the particular contours of philosophy as a group activity. In his last years he focused on writing a book, which grew out of philosophy conversations he was having with some family members. But even when he was talking to a room of five family members, or when he took on the voice of a writer, he was not really doing philosophy as a group activity in the sense of engaging with peers. He took the one on one format, and expanded the number of students or challengers he would take on. The model of philosophical discussion was like a guru talking to his students. But as a philosopher it was still only himself as the real peer.
I feel this gives his book, Knowing One’s Own Self, a particular solipsistic energy. It is like a master solitaire player giving his vision for how to play solitaire. There is in the book no reference to other philosophers, Indian or otherwise. It is a book written by one person (the author) seemingly addressed to one other person (the reader). Though the author uses a great many concepts which arise from Hindu philosophy, the author shows no awareness that these concepts might be foreign to his readers, or might be in need of defense as categories in relation to other frameworks the readers might be familiar with. In effect, the book is infused with Hindu supremacist undertones – taking certain categories of Hindu philosophy as universal.
It was exactly this Hindu supremacist undertones which I was starting to feel alienated from as a teenager. My father was certainly no Hindu supremacist in any political sense. He was a cosmopolitan, centrist-progressive. He had no problem disassociating himself from his Indian identity or even his Hindu identity, and to happily embrace America, modernity and a global unity of humankind. In this he was very similar to most academic philosophers I knew. He was no more a Hindu supremacist than they were white supremacists in the normal sense of those terms. Which is one reason the social justice warrior framework seems off – if we can’t mark a distinction between my father and a far right Hindu conservative, or between Bertrand Russell and David Duke, something has gone wrong.
And yet there is a sense in which my father was never able to step outside of his Hindu philosophical framework and truly engage with other frameworks. He would often claim that he could do it and that he had done it – that he was embracing the Hindu categories not because they were Hindu but simply because, after having read Russell and the Bible and the Koran and so forth, he had concluded that, as it happened, the Hindu framework was the right one after all. This was similar to how many academic philosophers say, with an earnest, straight face, that when they use the categories of Plato or Kant, they are not trying to be European, but are engaging with, what just happen to be, universal categories. Like most academic philosophers, my father never faced up to the essentially convenient feature of this way of thinking.
In this sense, my father’s book is similar to a great deal of academic philosophy. He meant to write a cosmopolitan book that anyone could read. The fact that he was using Hindu categories didn’t raise for him the question of how someone unfamiliar with those categories might engage with the text. He presumed that he could simply describe the categories so that anyone might pick them up and run with them, and see them as carving nature at its joints. I felt this was implausible, and that for the most part, for people unfamiliar with the Hindu categories, the text would be unenterable.
I was apt to think this in part because even as someone somewhat familiar with Hindu philosophical categories – after all I had been basically listening to some version of his book all my life – I still found those categories alien. Not alien as in weird or wrong. But alien as in: are these categories in fact universal?
That was the question I came to within two years of talking to my father, and as I was heading off to college. To me philosophy wasn’t simply a game with one other person. It was a game which had many players – some of whom were Indian (Shankara), some Hindu influenced but not quite Indian (the Mother), some European (Russell), some African-American (Malcom X) and so on. For my 18 year old self, philosophy was a group activity with people from around the world trying to figure out how to speak to each other in a mutually comprehensible way.
And this group activity was fundamental even to my doing philosophy as a solitary activity, because I myself was a mixed person. Defined not by separable identities of Indian, American, African-American, European, Chinese, etc – but defined by heroes and role models of philosophers from a great variety of countries, religions and various forms of humanism.
This was exactly the reality my 15 year old self was struggling with: there was no root identity I could easily fall back on. When I was at school, which aspect of myself do I present as myself: the part of me who is Indian like my father, or the part who idolized Joe Montana, or the part who was mesmerized by Malcolm X’s autobiography when I read it in class, or the part who was drawn to the global consciousness of the Mother (a child of a Turkish Jewish father and an Egyptian Jewish mother, who grew up in France, had occult experiences as a child, lived in Japan for a time and lived most of her adult life in India)?
When I discovered academic philosophy in college, I was drawn fundamentally to it as philosophy as a group activity. I assumed, uncritically, that philosophy as a group activity meant philosophy as a global activity – for that is how I experienced philosophy as group activity in my own mind when I was becoming alienated from my father’s framework. It was only gradually that I realized that in my classrooms philosophy as a group activity meant still a mainly Eurocentric activity. That who was treated as the heroes of the group was still in 2000, as it was in 1900, mainly European thinkers.
The Eurocentrism was evident very quickly in college. And yet I stayed because I was drawn to philosophy as a group activity. If I left academia or I switched out of being a philosophy major, what mode of philosophy could I have? Back to the one on one conversation with my father? Or to fantasies of group philosophy as a monk?
No matter how much I resented and was alienated from my classrooms, I was also continually learning and growing as a philosopher in those very classes – and I knew it. I could feel the growth. I could feel that through my education I was learning how to do philosophy as a group activity – of how to engage with philosophers not just as gurus or father figures, but as in principle peers. Of how to relate not just to my teachers and colleagues as peers, but how to relate to Russell, Malcolm X, Shankara and the Mother as peers. That though most of these thinkers were not taught in my classrooms, and indeed were not seen as philosophers, what I was learning was nonetheless helping me relate better philosophically with the the group I identified with.
When I finally did decide to leave academia, it was because I felt I got what I wanted out of it. That I had learnt enough of the basics of philosophy as a group activity that I didn’t have to be an academic to continue doing philosophy as a group activity. That I had internalized enough of the mode of doing philosophy as a group activity that I could try to do it in my own way, unconstrained by the fossilized Eurocentrism of my education.
Thus leaving academia was for me very much an extension of my academic education. Even as I was leaving, I was very aware that without my education I would not have been able to conceive of philosophy as a group activity outside of academia. That I was taking something which I happened to learn inside academia, albeit in a Eurocentric context, and was hoping to extend it outside of academia into the more pluralistic society we were becoming.
Just as my anger at and disappointments with my father were always colored with gratitude for my luck in having such a philosopher as my father, so too my anger at and disappointments with academic philosophy were colored with gratitude for my luck in being able to study philosophy for fifteen years in academia. For me the hurt and the gratitude were two, inseparable sides of the same coin – and so which set me apart from adopting either a conservative defense of academic philosophy or a dismissive rejection of the academic philosophy of the pre-woke years.
Ironically, leaving academia made it easier in one way to find this balance. Freed of having to deal in a day to day way with either the older, Eurocentric habits or the newer pressures of the woke transformations of the discipline, I could step back and over the years let both the hurt and the gratitude find and be with each other.
The challenge outside academia was keeping alive my sense of philosophy as a group activity. This is where blogging has been essential for me. But even with blogging the question has been to what extent people unfamiliar with academic philosophy could even see what I was doing as a group activity relevant to them.
In the past decade I have sometimes shared my blog with some family members, and was hurt when it was met with mainly blank stares. Or just silence and not responding to my emails in which I shared what I wrote. This was from people who clearly loved me. And yet they seemed strangely uninterested in what was one of the biggest events of my life – leaving academia. They wanted to continue to be close to me as family members, while completely ignoring the main event I was focused on in my life.
There was no “Hey, I don’t follow what you are writing, but it seems important to you – good luck!” There was instead only mute incomprehension, mixed with puzzlement of why I was still torturing myself thinking about academic philosophy even after I left it. Mostly my broader family didn’t seem to want to think about it. Like they had difficulty even acknowledging this side of me.
It only slowly occurred to me recently that this was because most of my family never knew what I was doing even when I was an academic. Their sense for philosophy is at most as something solitary or as something they engage in as listeners to gurus. Philosophy as a group activity is in which they are peers is for them utterly unknown. In complaining to my family members about my leaving academia I was like a person complaining about no longer being an astronaut to people who haven’t seen a plane. How would someone who doesn’t see the possibility of air travel show sympathy for someone who feels they lost out on going to the moon?
My family is very well educated, with people who are doctors, engineers, lawyers, in finance. Getting graduate degrees of one kind or another is the norm. In that sense my family members are very familiar with their particular domains as consisting of specialized group activities. That there is a way that doctors talk as doctors as a group, or engineers, etc.
But to the extent that they think of philosophy, it is at most as a solitary activity- something akin to cultivating a peaceful mind, or a devout sensibility. It is between them and their mind – or between them and God. They don’t see it so much as a matter of questions to explore, as learning a practice and implementing it. And if it goes beyond a solitary activity, then the model is mostly that of a one on one conversation of listening to a guru, or, what is just a variant of the same theme, of being in a group of people listening to a guru.
My family members who are religious often don’t see what there is for them to do philosophically as individuals other than put in practice what the Hindu tradition or their favor guru teaches. For them from the outset there is no concept of them engaging philosophically as peers with other philosophers, for a philosopher is for them by definition someone who is not their peer – someone who is enlightened, which they feel they most certainly are not.
And my family members who are not religious often see their main philosophical act as an individual as that of rejecting religion and so embracing whole heartedly a scientific perspective. Once this liberating act is achieved, or as it is continually reaffirmed, there is nothing more to do philosophically than to get on with living life in a rational way as deemed by science and modern progress.
So for my religious family members their own Hindu philosophical framework never became an object of inquiry, as something to reflect upon in order to possibly reject or amend. And for my atheist family members, reflecting on the Hindu philosophical framework amounted simply to rejecting it – so much so that once the fatal freedom from religion had been achieved, there were no more philosophical questions to explore.
I loved academic philosophy because it opened for me philosophy as a group activity beyond these two extremes. I already got from my father that one could reflect on philosophical frameworks without getting outside of philosophy altogether – that being critical of our family’s religious frameworks wasn’t the end of philosophy, but just the beginning. And in that process one might rediscover deeper, more subtle meanings of that religious framework itself, often invisible to most religious people and even to most atheists. My father thus introduced to me to the idea of continual philosophy – a mode of reflecting living which never ends, but only grows deeper and subtler the more one pursues it.
But the cost of engaging in that form of philosophy with my father was that it was ultimately at most a two person game. Academic philosophy introduced me to what such a continual philosophy can look like as a group activity. But in academic philosophy the ideal of philosophy as a group activity was falling well short of the reality of how it was practiced. In practice, due to historical conditions of the last few centuries, it was not a group activity open to all people, but which often unwittingly privileged certain groups.
So what would a more inclusive, more globally minded, diverse group activity of philosophy look like? It is a question not just for academics, but for all people.