Intellectual Spirituality

Recently I read three very good books (with very long titles!) for the general public about early-mid century European philosophy.

These books helped me appreciate why I studied philosophy in the first place. What follow are some reflections spurred by the reading.

1. I am drawn to what I will call intellectual spirituality. In Indian philosophy this is called Jnana Yoga. Sometimes in Western philosophy it is called intellectual mysticism, usually associated with thinkers like Plato, Spinoza and Hegel. On this view, liberation from ordinary ego identity and its anxieties is achieved not through setting aside the mind, but through the activity of the mind itself.

2. When I try to “quiet my mind” something in my whole being reacts against it, like an animal being pushed into a cage. Far from leading to peace, it leads to anguish. But when I let my mind “run” with the questions, challenges and puzzlements it has – when I am “thinking” with an openness of spirit and curiosity – I feel drawn into a broader perspective beyond my ego concerns.

3. There is no natural institutional home for intellectual spirituality in the contemporary world.

4. In the West, in the Middle Ages, the natural home for intellectual spirituality was the Church. Scholastic philosophers like Aquinas were not Kierkegaard or Quine – they were a combination of the two. In the ancient West, Plato’s academy, inspired by a combination of Socrates and Pythogoras, was a space of intellectual mysticism – indeed of mathematical mysticism in a way that is hard for us to appreciate now.

5. In the West, ironically, it was the very rise of deep intellectual achievements like modern science, modern conceptions of government and the reformation (focusing on the inner, personal dimensions of religion) which ruptured the until then taken-for-grantedness of intellectual spirituality. In the earl modern period, with Descartes, Locke and Hume, philosophy continued to be gloriously reflective and imaginative, but without an obvious spiritual dimension. Spinoza, inspired by Stocism, was a great exception to this.

6. One of the great things about Kant in the 1700s is that he was the first major philosopher in the West to face up to this new reality of modernity. His philosophy was a great attempt to put it all back together again, as it were, but in a post Newtonian world. Or as Kant put it, he sought to find the limits of reason to make room for faith. But it was through and through an intellectual project – of understanding seeking its own limits.

7. Not coincidentally, Kant was also the first major modern academic philosopher. For him philosophy helped show how religion and science were compatible, and it did this by illuminating the contours of reason itself. This went hand in hand with the philosophy department as the center of academia – because it was the space which demarcated the various forms of knowledge and how they are related.

8. With Kant the transition of an institutional home for philosophy from the monastery to the university was complete. But in the 1800s, it also sparked the great debate between Hegel and Kierkegaard about whether the modern university can be a space for intellectual spirituality. Hegel’s vision was a resounding “yes!” Kierkegaard gave a resounding “no!”

9. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, academia transformed from its nascent Kantian/Hegelian visions into the modern research university. Kant and Hegel thought that while religion played the central role in universities in the Middle Ages, philosophy would play that role in the modern period. They were too optimistic. By 1900 it was starting to be evident that science would play the central role in universities, and that science and technology were not domains which could be controlled by the understanding of the philosophers, but which would push through – and past – the philosophers’ conceptions of the world.

10. As comes out in Exact Thinking in Demented Times, this was why Einstein and then quantum mechanics had such a huge impact on European thought. Einstein’s views of space and time pushed through and discredited Kantian ideas of space and time – which were absolutely central to Kant’s whole framework. If science was becoming so radical and so disconnected from the common sense reality of the world that philosophers couldn’t even understand it, how could philosophy mediate between science and religion?

11. The positivists view was: it can’t. They said that it is in fact science – and especially physics and math – which are the center of knowledge and the university, and philosophy’s job is to help the rest of society catch up with science. Thus philosophy as basically meta-science was born. In the process the positivists had no use for a concept such as wisdom, let alone for outdated sounding ideas like intellectual mysticism. That, according to them, was pure gibberish.

12. Karl Sigmund’s book helped me appreciate and love the positivists in a way I didn’t before. They weren’t just reductive thinkers, but were really trying to face up to the centrality of science in our modern society. They felt we couldn’t keep a lot of our conceptual frameworks just as they were 2,000 years ago or even 200 years ago and then just add modern science to the mix at the sides. For them science and technology were exploding our conceptual frameworks from the center out, and only by appreciating that can we understand our lives. Not surprisingly, given this radical aim of rethinking society, many positivists were also leftists who were drawn to “scientific-minded” communism.

13. Many of the great thinkers of the 20th century were intellectual nomads who felt institutionally homeless. This was exemplifed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but was also true of Benjamin, Sartre and others. Some – like Cassirer and Merleau-Ponty – were successful academics who were for the most part happy with academia. But many of the others very much weren’t.

14. Wittgenstein and Heidegger were continually unhappy in academia because they were intellectual mystics. The university was turning primarily into a scientific research space. This raised the question what can philosophy be? Old fashioned scholastic metaphysics seemed passe, already outdated by Kant’s time. By 1900 it was Kant’s conception of philosophy which was itself seeming passe.

15. At root, Wittgenstein and Heidegger were Kierkegaardians who saw philosophy as a way for each person to live existentially authentic lives. But what does that have to do with philosophy as understanding the world – of how the mind relates to the body, which form of government is most just or whether numbers exist in a Platonic realm?

16. There was a basic rupture that European intellectuals were experiencing in the early 1900s between a dehumanized objective reality (a modern physics in which even tables and chairs seemed strange and illusory) and a subjectivized spirituality (a hyper individualistic sense of human meaning which cut off people from each other spiritually). And all this in the midst of two world wars, technology rapidly changing society and forms of communication, and questions about the viability of liberal democracy. Sounds familiar.

17. As comes out in Eilenberger’s and Bakewell’s books, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, de Beauvoiur, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin – all these thinkers were effectively trying to find a middle ground between a reductive scientism and a isolationist subjectivism without falling back into an outdated traditionalism. Well, what the heck does that look like?

18. Well, what that can look like is the story of 20th century European philosophy. I myself feel most drawn to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, for they bring out really well how intellectual mysticism is hard to place in modern society. They both had as much recognition as is possible for academic philosophers, and yet they both were deeply alienated from academia and felt like outsiders – and often wanting to be outsiders and to leave academia behind.

19. But more generally, I identified with all the philosophers in the books, those who were academics and those who were not. For ultimately, for an intellectual, even for an intellectual mystic, the question isn’t which one philosopher or philosophy is right. It is a matter of appreciating the field of philosophy. “Field” not as in the discipline or the profession of philosophy. But “field” as in the conceptual space of the questions, the debates, the choices and the possibilities for philosophy and for human life more generally.

20. The intellectual mystic loses himself into that field. From the ego perspective of his wants and his day to day identities, the world and its possibilities seem limited, constraining – that is the source of the pain and the anguish. But as he steps into the field of the broader space of questions and possibilities, and his mind is able to see in each thought a whole possible world, he finds distance from his limited, ego perspective.

21. Each thought becomes like a star in the heavens, and thinking becomes like gazing at the unending stars on a clear, dark night.

Philosophy as a Group Activity

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.

My 15 Year Old Self

A recent conversation with a friend about my childhood led me to think about what my teenage self prior to his interest in philosophy was like. I was drawn to philosophical reflection when I was 16. So what was my 15 year old self like?

As I sat with this question, I tried to sit with what a normal weekday was like for him.

He would get up at 7am, eat breakfast while watching morning cartoons and head off to school at 8. School felt for the most part like an alien land socially. The main themes of fellow students had no real resonance for him: dating, being on sports teams, talking about music and movies, taking about other kids, complaining about parents, etc. The social world of high school felt like a land he was transported to every week day from 8am to 3pm, and which he saw mainly with detached puzzlement. After school, he would come home to watch tv or movies, or play video games, or lie in bed to listen to sports radio shows – and do homework somewhere in that time. Around 6 his parents would come home, and for the next four to five hours is when life made sense to him. He was part of a physical and social environment which felt real and not just like a land he was transported to. With his parents he would talk about the extended family, help with chores and they would all watch American sitcoms or PBS shows or Indian movies. Around 11 he would go to sleep, for the process to begin again the next day.

As I sit with this now, there is one thing which jumps out to me: that 15 year old had little to no sense of what adult life outside of his family meant. Beyond the adults in his family, and the teachers at school, the main adults he was aware of were ones on tv or in movies or on the radio. He hardly ever saw his parents at their work. Nor see his parents talking with neighbors or friends – for the most part, his parents interactions outside of work were with other family members. He and his parents hardly ever went to restaurants or to the movies or to sporting events or to art museums. Like many immigrant families perhaps, his family treated America socially mainly as a backdrop to spending their spare time (non work time) with family members with whom they could relive and continue habits from the old country.

My 15 year old’s sense of being an adult in America, and so a sense for what kind of an adult he could become, came almost entirely from tv, movies and sports. Which is to say: none of those were remotely any adult life that he could imagine inhabiting. Would his life be like Al Bundy from Married with Children, or like Bill Cosby from The Cosby Show or Homer from The Simpsons? Where in these white or black or cartoon lives would he find some semblance of his actual possible future? Perhaps then movies like The Terminator or The Godfather or Taxi Driver or Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally? The gulf between these movies and his family life was laughably immense. So then perhaps his life might like the sports heroes he has like Joe Montana or Michael Jordan or Darryl Strawberry? But how could his adult life be like theirs when he couldn’t even play on his school teams or share in that comradarie with his classmates?

So my 15 year old self mainly immersed himself in video games and movies and sports on tv – as fantasy realities in which, being fantasies in any case, he felt he could belong.

What then of the adults in his family? Were they not potential models for his adult self? Unlikely. For just like with his parents, he only saw other adults in his family in family contexts. Of course he knew these adults had jobs in the outside American world, but that was mired in a haze. And besides it felt to him like the adults in his family were probably transported into a magical outside world for work, which had little connection to our home life, just the way in which he was transported when he went to school.

Hence my 15 year old self had an extensive blindspot about his future. When he envisioned himself as an adult, what he sensed was a kind of blankness. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t connect his home life to American life. It’s that he had little to no palpable, lived, embodied sense for being an adult in America. Or in India – which felt equally foreign to him now. So the very concept of adulthood was like a dream that he knows he will enter as he grows older, but which as a dream, he has no frim sense for any of its contours or possibilities.

His family often told him that they immigrated to America so he could have a better future, go to college and have a good life. How ironic that it was that very immigration which confused for him the sense of his future and rendered it a blindspot.

This sheds a new light for me on how and why that 15 year boy discovered philosophy. And in particular why his father played such a big role in his mind.

For that 15 year old his father as a philosopher was the main adult life outside of the family he could envision for himself. American adulthood was covered in a haze. So too was Indian adulthood. The adulthood of the adults in his family were too tied up with family roles for them to be models for adulthood out in the broader world. That is, he saw his uncles and aunts and grandparents, and his older cousins and even his parents and brother so entirely in the mode of family that he couldn’t see them as adults in their own right making their way in a common adult world which included Indians, Americans, Indian-Americans, African-Americans, British, etc.

When his father showed himself as a philosopher – as a cosmopolitan thinker attempting to illuminate a global, unifying consciousness – the 15 year old self rushed head long into this identity with all the energy of a pent up spring. Here was an adult identity which felt like a real possibility for himself. One in which he could see a growth for himself beyond his family identity and past his teen years.

But surely his father wasn’t the only such adult in the world. That is incoherent. If his father as a philosopher was a kind which he could grow into as well, it must be a kind open to adults in general, and which can be defined in a broader way than just as the identity of his father.

His father’s main self definition of himself as a philosopher was as an advaitin – a proponent of advaita vedanta. It was his own particular brand of this, but nonetheless it was a kind he clearly shared with others. On his father’s view, it went back to the Upanishads and Gita – but those texts were not associated with any particular authors, and so there was nothing in the 15 year old could hold onto. Instead his mind focused on Shankara, the eight century philosopher and monk who was seen as the main proponent of advaita vedanta. And as it happened, there was in our home a dvd of a biographical movie of Shankara which came out in the 80s, which the 15 year old saw countless times.

8th century India and late 20th century America may be poles apart, but for the 15 year old – as for many people looking to the past for a vision of themselves in the splintered present – Shankara felt like a live model for his own growth into adulthood. Unlike most of his family members, here was an identity which aimed to speak for humanity, not just for or about Indian culture. And unlike the American identities he saw on television, here was an identity which grew out of his home identity – and which his parents were introducing him to. To imagine himself as a Joe Montana or a Bill Clinton would have ruptured his link with his family, since his family related to Montana or Clinton as the other – Americans doing their American things like football or politics.

Over the years I wondered what my life would have been like if my father didn’t discuss philosophy with me. If I had the opportunity to first experience life without philosophy thrust into my consciousness even before I ever really experienced life. This imagination was usually mixed with anger or disappointment with my father. But what these reflections show is that the 15 year old wasn’t a passive respondent to his father. The 15 year old – or at any rate his mind – actively sought out an archetype of adulthood that he saw within his father’s thoughts, and probably in a way that his father didn’t even realize, focused on it with all the intention of a drowning man seizing a life raft. For without this, what would that 15 year old grow into as an 18 year old or a 30 year old? Who would he be like as an Indian-American, merging his family way of life with the American way of life?

All along there was this difference between his father and him. His father had come into adulthood in India and discovering philosophy for him meant in part what kind of an Indian he wanted to be. A traditional Indian, a modern Indian, a mix of the two, and if so what did that mean? Vivekananda found the mix of ancient and modern through his monk identity, and in a similar way that was I think the appeal of being a monk to the 15 year old’s father. Not as an entry into traditional Indian life, but into a new modernizing India. And his father had gone through that phase and embraced his family identity to become a part of the rising middle class in India – as part of that to even move to America. So when his father was talking about philosophy with him, it was like the adult he already was.

What I suspect the 15 year old’s father failed to appreciate was that adulthood was itself a confusing thing for the 15 year old. The 15 year old, like most teenagers, couldn’t distinguish his confusions about adulthood from the confusions of the world more broadly. He, again like many teenagers, identified the world’s confusions with his own confusions of identity, as if the two were reflections of each other.

Inevitably this set the stage for the tensions between him and his father. As a teenager the 15 year old was putting his father as a philosopher in the kind of adult as Shankara. That was his way of understanding how he and his father were united in the kind instantiated by Shankara. For his father this meant mainly some ideas about the Self, but decidedly not a growth into the form of adulthood which Shankara actually had. His father had already gone through that phase of monkhood aspirations 30 years earlier and he was eager to pass on his own ideas to his son. But for his son Shankara was a model not just as an advaintin but also in terms of a social identity such as a monk. His father wanted to separate these two concepts. And yet advaitin as an abstract category felt socially unmoored to the 15 year old, for whom the monk identity felt more as a social opening.

It also set the stage for the tensions between the 18 year old philosophy major and academic philosophy. The 18 year old was drawn in part to being a philosophy major because he saw being a professor as a modern version of the Shankara monk identity. But just like his father had left behind the monk identity in his life path, so too had modernity left it behind in its growth in the past few centuries. At any rate, that was true of the identity of professors. Whereas in 1800 a philosophy professor in America was already different from a monk and even a priest, there was still some resonances between priests and professors back then. But with the rise of modern universities, philosophy professors had separated out the concept of philosophy from that of wisdom seekers, let alone the social identity of monks. Just as his father found the monk identity to no longer be a live identity for a middle class adult, so too his professors found it to no longer be a live identity for college professors. And for something like the same reason. While the 18 year old saw being a philosophy professor as monk-like in being different from the middle class life of his family, being a philosophy professor had become for most professors just another way of leading a middle class life.

Ultimately that 15 year old in due course, almost two decades later, had to break with his father and with academia in part to find his own way into the middle class life. Ironically, it was through breaking with his father and his professors that he was able to understand them better. And find his own path into adulthood.

Genius Importance

In my last post I distinguished between two senses of importance: ordinary and spiritual. Ordinary importance is the kind one gets through the recognition of others. Spiritual importance is the kind one gets through one’s own recognition of oneself, and which cannot be gotten through the look of the other. A further point of the last post was that the Nietzschean superman is sometimes defined by his spiritual importance: he is a light unto himself who does not measure his importance through the other’s recognition.

It is helpful to make a further distinction: between (1) Nietzsche’s sense of his importance and (2) the Nietzschean Superman’s sense of his importance. These are distinctly separate things. But Nietzsche often conflates them, in part because of an idea deriving from romanticism: that the genius is the highest realization of human potential. Since Nietzsche considered himself a genius, it was natural for him to think of the Nietzschean supermen as future geniuses like Nietzsche.

I think however that the idea of a genius in Nietzsche’s sense is best seen as a distinct third sense of importance, which is neither the ordinary nor the spiritual sense of importance. Let’s call it genius importance.

The ordinary sense of importance, which most people seek, is what we might call, akin to the Kuhnian idea of normal science, normal importance. It is the importance of being rich, or famous, or in academia, having a chaired position at a top university. Here the categories by which importance is measured are already accepted in society. The question for those seeking this kind of importance is whether they will achieve recognition in the way their contemporaries already understand excellence. The game and the rules for importance are set – the ordinarily important person is like someone extremely proficient at normal science. This is not nothing, and in fact is a great achievement, just as the normalness of normal science doesn’t mean it’s easy or trivial.

Genius importance, in contrast, akin to Kuhn’s revolutionary science, is revolutionary importance. The genius doesn’t simply garner the recognition of others – either in his own time or in a future time. He garners recognition through transforming the very idea of excellence. He breaks through the ordinary ideas of excellence of his time, and far from being dejected and overwhelmed by the psychic blows involved in being rejected by his ordinary contemporaries, he pushes through into a new framework of excellence, and in the process brings society along with him.

In ordinary importance the categories by which recognition is conferred for the most part already exist. In genius importance those categories are mainly created by the genius himself. Without the genius’ achievement people wouldn’t know the genius’ kind of excellence as excellence. People didn’t have categories for that type of activity before, and so even if they were to think about it, they would pass over it in silence or in confused criticism. The genius not only creates a special lock, but his lock is so special that he has to create as well the special keys which will lock it. Once having used the special keys to open the special lock, the people are themselves transformed into a new kind of audience. The genius creates not only his work, but also has to create the audience to appreciate his work.

Nietzsche’s conception of the superman is an uneasy mix of genius importance and spiritual importance. The confusion is generated by the mythologizing of genius, of treating figures like Beethoven and Napoleon as demigods. From a spiritual perspective, this is laughable.

Beethoven’s greatness lies not in how he lived his life, but in the products he created. Beethoven’s music is transcendent, even as Beethoven the man was often crude, rude and boorish. Beethoven’s will to life is mesmerizing and inspiring because of how much he had to push through to create his music. But still it is mainly the music which elevates our estimation of Beethoven.

Likewise with Nietzsche. He was a genius. An absolutely brilliant, tour de force of a thinker. But what grounds this evaluation is not how he lived his life as such, but the books he wrote. If he did not produce those works, which have shaped generations, we wouldn’t think, “Wow, isn’t it amazing the kind of consciousness he developed in his life!” Without the books, our estimation of his consciousness wouldn’t be that different from that of a misanthrope who struggled to function in society.

This is the difference between genius importance and spiritual importance. In genius importance what is being evaluated ultimately is still a product – texts, music, empires created, scientific insights discovered, art works produced, and so on. As such, genius importance, like ordinary importance, requires the look of the other. However much Beethoven and Nietzsche, Picasso and Wittgenstein might have experienced themselves as simply producing their genius from within themselves, their genius only exists as a triad between them, their work and others. In this, genius importance is structurally similar to ordinary importance, which is likewise triadic. The difference consists in the nature of the triad.

Spiritual importance is not triadic, nor even dyadic, as in between people, or between a person and a product. Spiritual importance is essentially monadic – it is internal to the relation of a self to itself. Hence it does not need the look of other people (in theistic spirituality, it might require the look of God, but that is a different kind of dyad). When a person recognized their spiritual importance, it is not on the basis of a product they have created. It is indeed not on the basis of anything. It is a self-standing stillness, the relation of oneself to the cosmos.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra achieved spiritual importance. Nietzsche achieved genius importance. There is as vast a gulf between these as there is between Nietzsche’s genius importance and the ordinary importance of getting tenure.

This is the difference between Nietzsche’s conception of the superman and Aurobindo’s. Nietzsche’s superman is often seen as exemplified by the genius – the transformative figure who pulls society along into a new mode of existence. Aurobindo’s superman might be a genius, but is not a superman in virtue of that fact. On Aurobindo’s view there could be supermen of the future who are not genius. They are supermen not because of how they transform society, but because they have become a light unto themselves, and who live in blissful awareness of their spiritual importance.

When I think of the future of humanity, I find Aurobindo’s conception much more inspiring and transformative. On Aurobindo’s view, like Nietzsche, the superman is for the most part still an elite category. There is no assumption that everyone will become a superman. Many people will remain stuck at the level of seeking ordinary importance. But more and more people will, or could, seek spiritual importance. That kind of importance – and that sense of the potential for humanity – will be unlocked for more people.

Society then will be transformed. But not, as in Nietzsche’s model of the genius as the engine of the evolution of human consciousness, because a few people will lead the way and most people will continue to be lemmings as always. On Aurobindo’s model, society will be transformed as more and more people opt out of the recognition game by tapping into their spiritual importance.

I am not downplaying Nietzsche’s genius. What would that even mean, to downplay a genius? From what perspective could one presume to downplay it? Not from the perspective of an ordinary person. But just as surely not from the perspective of one who recognizes their spiritual importance. The ordinary person doesn’t have standing to make such a judgment, and the spiritual person, immersed as he is in a form of importance which isn’t based on the look of the other, has no inclination to make such a judgment.

I am clarifying for myself the conceptual space of different forms of importance. And I am doing it to get clear in what ways I think I am important.

I don’t have ordinary importance. Most people don’t know me. I didn’t make it in academia, nor have I created a name for myself outside academia. In the eyes of society, insofar as those eyes turn towards me, I am an ordinary person, with a family and a day job trying to make ends meet, and who, like millions of people on WordPress or Youtube or Instagram or Twitter, shares his thoughts with an undefined audience through a computer screen.

I have at times intimations of my spiritual importance. A part of me which guides me through the thicket of my anxieties and normal confusions, and which helps me to sense that there is a way I can relate to myself which can be a space of deep and lasting peace. But I would hardly say I have recognized, or live in awareness of, my spiritual importance. It is a dim awareness of vast regions of my consciousness which as of yet seem like distant lands seen vaguely through thick mist.

The sense of importance I have felt most vividly drawn to is genius importance. Like many people from quacks to would be geniuses who harbor a sense of their revolutionary importance for the world, I have long felt that there was a potential genius in me waiting to be actualized.

A sense of this inner potential of genius has been my mental companion for a long time, since about the time I started college. I was driven by the sense that in order for me to be understood by others and so for me to feel seen, I would have to transform the categories of evaluation themselves. That to be understood I would have to, like a Nietzsche or a Wittgenstein, produce ideas of such brilliance that I would pull my audience along with me into the new world I want to be a part of. The existing categories of evaluation in college seemed so ill suited to understand my life and therefore so ill suited to judge my thoughts and my potential that any hope of a proper evaluation seemed to live only on the other side my achievements.

Graduate school and my time as a professor was a constant battle between the norms of professionalization and my desire to nurture the potential of my genius. My sight was on genius importance, compared to which the ordinary importance of getting an article published or getting tenure seemed mundane.

I was like a gambler who had some winnings and could go home with them (a tenure track position which could be a job for life), or who could again bet those winnings in order to win really big. What became clear soon after I became a professor was that the normal hoops of academia might help me lead a comfortable and intellectually stimulating life, but without the potential for genius ever being realized. To remain in academia was to bid goodbye to the potential of genius and to treat it as just a youthful dream – the way one might give up the dream as one gets older to be a rock star or play in the NBA. Or I could leave academia and nurture the dream, even if it meant I was mistaken about my potential and it would come to naught.

Nietzsche with his The Birth of Tragedy and Wittgenstein with his Tractatus had the sense that the academic circles within which they wrote those works could not evaluate their works of genius. I obviously never had this sense, since it was all too obvious to me, as it was to my colleagues, that nothing I produced in academia was even remotely near the sphere of genius. That was exactly what bugged me. If I felt I could tap into my potential in academia and yet failed to produce transformative ideas, then I would have thought, “I guess my sense of my potential was mistaken. Oh well, I better move on.” But what I was writing in academia felt so far removed from the potential of what I could produce, that it was never clear if my sense of my potential was mistaken or if the academic structures were suffocating the potential. I had to get out to give my potential a fighting chance. Then irrespective of whether it materializes or not, I could feel content that I did my best to that inner friend – the voice of a potential genius- who was my companion for so long.

People seem embarrassed to ever admit that they thought they could be a genius. As if to even hint at such a possibility was to think so highly of oneself as to be delusional. I never understood this, and still don’t now.

There is nothing embarrassing about striving for greatness. Some do, some don’t. Those who don’t aren’t any less as people for not doing so. It just means that wasn’t one of the goals in their life; which is fine, because there are so many goals in life one could pursue. And those who do aren’t any more vainglorious than most folks. It just means that one is driven for excellence in a given area, and feels it is within one’s grasp.

What is usually socially embarrassing is if the person striving for greatness expects others to recognize him. As if sensing the potential to be a genius was itself something to be applauded and recognized by others. I have known people like this, who feel their sense of their potential for genius already put them in the category of genius. As if the felt potential for genius was already a marker that one was beyond the ordinary, indeed already extraordinary just in virtue of their feeling they could be great. Such people are a bore to be around, because usually they are narcissists who can’t distinguish the feeling of their greatness from the quality of the product they created, and who therefore feel entitled to recognition just because they think they could be a genius.

If one is not a narcissist in this way, there is nothing wrong about wondering if one’s sense of the potential for genius will be actualized. It either will or it won’t.

Sensing the potential of one’s genius is like sensing one might be pregnant before taking a pregnancy test. One wonders if there is a life within oneself which is to be birthed. As with pregnancy so too with fulfilling felt potential. It could turn out one wasn’t pregnant after all – the feeling of genius was just that, a feeling. Or it could turn out, painfully, that while one was pregnant, and so there was a fetus to be birthed, nonetheless it didn’t happen – the feeling of genius was genuine, but went unrealized. Or it could turn out that the baby is born – the feeling of genius morphs into a reality.

When I left academia, I thought the leaving would clarify for me what I was to make of the feeling of genius I had. But it only raised the questions even more, combined with a new overwhelming guilt I hadn’t anticipated.

Immediately after leaving academia, I felt happy that now I could give my feeling of the potential for genius a fighting chance. But after the initial few euphoric months, and as over the months and years no burst of genius came through, I was gripped with depression that in the process of leaving my potential had been aborted.

On the one hand, I felt rage at academia, my father and the world, feeling their negligence had caused the abortion. On the other hand, I was pulled into torrents of self-blame and self-doubt, wondering if perhaps I had miscarried due to some negligence on my part. Or worse: if in leaving and so choosing outwardly the humdrum middle-class life I had long resisted, I had myself, unwittingly, aborted the pregnancy. Or getting even worse: perhaps I had chosen the abortion, and it wasn’t unwitting after all. Even worse still: was a part of me glad I choose the abortion, and happy to be freed of the responsibility and the further pain of potentially birthing a genius? Like a kaleidoscope of emotions, I would flicker from the one extreme of exuberance for the freedom I created for my potential to unfold to the other extreme of mourning for the death of that potential and which I might have caused.

As months turned into a year, and one year into years, the rawness of these emotions subsided. I still feel the gamut of emotions, but in a more subdued form, as if I were recalling the joys and upheavals of a past life.

In due course I came to see that for me nurturing the potential for genius is not really that important after all. That potential was neither birthed nor aborted. That way of framing my life and its possibilities slowly receded into the past, like a wave which had come crashing down onto the shore, and then in time, slowly pulled back into the ocean.

In its wake, a new sense of importance opened up for me.

Earlier in my life it felt like importance must be something social (as in ordinary or genius importance) or cosmic (as in spiritual importance). But as I became older, my life became important for me as an end in itself. It no longer mattered just in relation to what kind of social or cosmic importance it would enable in my life. It mattered just because it was my life, and I could appreciate that.

This sense of importance opened for me with my daughter’s birth two years ago. Before her arrival my sense of birthing was entirely oriented around the potential of my genius. In contrast with the mysterious and possibly delusional birth of my genius which might never come, the arrival of my daughter as a real, physical, in my hands birth was a tremendous joy. I had assumed that only being a genius would fulfill my life. And yet it was perhaps not only that my feeling of the potential of genius was delusional, but the importance I gave to that feeling was itself delusional.

I could be important to myself, not just in some cosmic, spiritual sense, but in the most ordinary, everyday sense, just as I was important to my daughter in that most ordinary, everyday sense. In the normalness of first being a husband and then a father, I grew to appreciate just how much these normal identities, which had felt impossible for me when I was in college and grad school, grounded me and were important to me.

While before I would think of geniuses like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein with some envy and resentment, for how they could fulfill their potential for genius while I struggled and failed to fulfill mine, now I can appreciate their genius without making it about me. Content to be where and who I am, I don’t have to look to the stars and feel I have to be in their midst to matter or to feel important. Then I feel grateful as well for the possibility of spiritual importance, which helps me feel that beyond the stars of human genius, I have, as any person does, a link to the stars in the night sky – a cosmic importance which we all share as space dust.

Ordinary and Spiritual Importance

In his quixotic intellectual autobiography Ecce Homo: How One Becomes Who One is, Nietzsche has chapter titles such as: “Why I am so Wise”, “Why I am so Clever” and “Why I am a Destiny.” Like much of Nietzsche, this always struck me as deeply insightful and farcical at the same time. Nietzsche often hovers on the edge of genius and parody – like a teenager, in all his teenage angst, discovering that he is the redeemer of the world. No calm detachment of the Buddha. No grand sacrifice of Christ. No mathematical precision of Spinoza. Nietzsche is the great punk philosopher.

In affirming his importance as a thinker, Nietzsche is not unique. Pretty much every great thinker in their own fashion does this – part of that makes them great is that their story of why they are important resonates at a deeper level than mere self-importance. Great thinkers are explorers of human consciousness, and no explorer sets out for already discovered land.

Nietzsche’s chapter headings are I think, as he puts it in another context, just good hygiene. Can philosophical thinking be separated from the impulse of the will to create and to matter? Can a philosopher be just a follower? “Think for yourself” is a platitude. But Nietzsche expresses what is often left unsaid: to think for yourself must mean that your thinking matters. Not your thinking as an abstract human being, or as someone who is just trying to be a good person, merely to mold yourself into a form another person discovered. No, that your thinking matters in that you as a thinker, in all your personality and biographical context, matter.

A thinker is by definition important. One who thinks deeply for themselves is like a unique, beautiful flower, bursting forth from its bud with all the power of life to exist and to come into existence. To become who one is.

One of Nietzsche’s insights is that this will to power is as strong in the great renouncers (Christ, Buddha) and in the great intellectuals (Plato, Kant). The renunciation or the focus on the world of forms are not a lack of the will to life, but yet another expression of it. In Nietzsche’s view, it was duplicitous, in that the renouncers’ will to life covers over it’s own will to life, whereas in Nietzsche the will to life stands in plain sight, open for all to see and marvel in. What can look like exhibitionism was for Nietzsche merely him being himself in all his glory.

When I read Nietzsche in college, it sounded familiar. The basic gist of the view about the will to life, and the attacks on the renouncers and “mere” intellectuals were favorite themes of my father as well. I could tell when my father was switching from his everyday, extended family, “good son” mode to his philosophical spirit – the transformation in his energy was palpable. It was like Clark Kent taking off the suit to become Superman.

In his Clark Kent mode, my father, like most people, lived in a world where important people live out there, away from us mere common folk – on TV, in history books, at famous universities, in the White House, as leaders of big businesses, among the rich and the famous, or among the revolutionaries fighting the good fight. Importance as a person in this sense is a social category like being rich or good looking. To affirm one’s own importance in this sense looks needy, like a category mistake. You are either important or you are not. You are in the club or you are not. By definition only a few people can belong in the club. Not everyone can be important, just like not everyone can be rich. It can seem like mere good sense to know when one is not in that group and to accept it.

But in his Superman mode, my father exuded the sense that he is an extremely important person. Special. Unique. One who matters. That in fact the category mistake isn’t to affirm one’s own importance, but to not affirm it. To treat oneself as just an ordinary person, who can at most follow the guidelines of gurus or professors, of those in the pantheon far away from oneself – that for my father was the illusion of life. That was maya.

Tat Tvam Asi. Thou are That. That was the chant of my Superman father. When he was in that mode, his energy didn’t flow outward towards important markers in society – who is the guru, who is the genius, who is the richest person, who discovered the latest gizmo, who is on CNN, who should be in the curriculum pantheon, who is the revolutionary fighting the status quo. His energy instead flowed into himself, as if what outwardly seemed like a tiny puddle of a person in a world of much bigger rivers was inwardly and in fact the vastest ocean imaginable.

He knew when he was making the switch of which side of him he was presenting to the outside world. Sensing that a space for philosophical dialogue was opening, he would close his eyes, focus his concentration on that inner ocean – as if to say to himself that the play of Satyam Vallabha can be set aside for a moment and his formless self can come out to play – and then open his eyes with the infinite energy shining through, unmasked.

Satyam Vallabha and the Infinite Self were like the duck/rabbit. They were the same, and yet not exactly the same. The difference wasn’t in the world, as if Satyam Vallabha was in fact an unimportant, ordinary man set over and against what really matters. The difference was in the perception. In the gestalt shift. In one’s own awareness. My father, sensing the play of the duck/rabbit in his presentation, would smile mischievously, like Krishna pretending simply to be a boy and not the God who just lifted the mountain. That beguiling, unpredictable smile was my father explaining why, like Nietzsche, he was a destiny. Why he was superman.

Or is it rather: why he was a superman?

My father didn’t speak much of the future of humanity. But Aurobindo, who my maternal grandfather followed and whose texts were always around in my childhood, very much did. For Aurobindo, as for Nietzsche, current human beings are but a transition. We are not the end of human consciousness, but a stage, and an early stage at that. The way that Neanderthals were not the end of human consciousness, but an early stage. We are but a transition to a world of supermen (or super-people), of people who are not afraid of their own will to power, but can affirm it with the ease and naturalness of a child.

From this perspective, the focus on importance as an external trait – which of us is in fact important and how the rest of us should serenely and with due deference accept our cognitive station in life – is itself a sign of our immaturity as a species. What marks the superman of the future from our current selves isn’t that they will have more power. It’s that they will recognize more freely the power within themselves.

We are still as a society afraid of this power within ourselves. This was Nietzsche’s and Aurobindo’s insight. We focus on importance as an external trait as a substitute for the real importance that we sense within ourselves. I want recognition as a good person or good looking or rich or smart or kind or hard working because, unable to recognize myself in my own eyes, I seek it through the other’s eyes. I want them to give to me what I feel unable to give myself. Failing to see this, I resent them and life and myself when they withhold their recognition and I feel like a nobody.

This is the basic spiritual cause of our current reality tv culture. People feel entitled to being important. No, they won’t take it anymore. They won’t let others be the important people, while they accept being the followers. They too want to be important. And they want it now. And without condition, without having to prove oneself first as defined by “the experts” or the status quo. And like Nietzsche’s chapter titles, they won’t wait for posterity or others to render the judgment of their importance. They will affirm it themselves. They will will it, and anyone who gets in the way of the acknowledgment of their importance be damned.

Good for them. Everyone should get to affirm their importance. But this mindset, unchecked, most likely will destroy democracy, a sense of shared public space and also possibly the planet. If so, the problem isn’t that people are trying to affirm their importance. It’s that they are not affirming their importance enough.

The conspiracy theory minded conservative who affirms their right to think for themselves, or the social justice warrior who won’t put up anymore with the racism they see everywhere in society, or the twitter troll who thrives on showing how others are so dumb and irrational – all are driven by the basic sense that they matter, and that they ought to be heard. And yes: they do matter, and they ought to be heard. They are important.

But when importance is treated like a scarce commodity, which only a few can have, it renders society into a free for all with people fighting for scraps of recognition. We naturally fear a future where we all have to fight for food and water, and wonder if those of us right now lucky enough to take those for granted can continue to do. Yet, when it comes to recognition and feeling important, we are already in a time of bare knuckled fighting for pieces of feeling seen and heard. Hence the leaders, of whichever party, who resonate the most will be those who promise a landslide of recognition, as if importance is like booty which can be collected and stored, and made sure just the right people have access to it.

This is maya indeed.

Unlike food and water, health care and jobs, importance isn’t a scare resource. It only feels that way if it is identified as the importance given by others – as importance which one can’t affirm for oneself. In fact, importance is an infinite resource that one can tap into at any moment. But like any resource, one has to work to find and cultivate it. One has to know where to find it. One has to know it is there to be found.

None of this is obvious. That is the power of maya. Just as it wasn’t obvious for millions of years that sticks can be made into spears and fire can be created. Just as it wasn’t obvious for thousands of years that words can be written and rivers can be controlled. Just as it wasn’t obvious even a few centuries ago that slavery is wrong and mass education is possible.

Human history is the march of unlocking human potential. At each step humans learnt to see the world not as something unchangable, but as something malliable – a space for creative transformation. The most explicit of these transformations have been physical – in the artifacts and social structures of our lives. But along with these, there have also been mental transformations – of we can change our perceptions, thoughts and needs.

For a hunter gather a hundred thousands years ago, the idea that they can be an infinite source of importance for himself would have been as unthinkable as that he can go to moon. In fact, the idea that he can be important for himself would have probably made no sense in his life defined by the thirty members of his tribe.

As societies became bigger with thousands and millions of people living together in civilizations, a certain anonymity became the unquestioned reality of most people’s daily life. They could have local importance, in their family or village, if that. But importance in a broader sense, for the fate and future of humanity – that was only for the shamans and the priests, the warriors and the kings.

The Axial Age unlocked the possibility that whatever the kings and the priests were channeling to be important in a world-historical sense was something which every person can also tap into. Importance was not simply a resource reserved for the select few in society to access. Each person can tap into it within themselves, by reorienting their relation to others and the world. Each person can make the gestalt shift whereby they are not “just” a cobbler or a farmer, a wife or a husband, but an entry point into the essence of humanity – and from that entry point can contribute to the direction and future of humanity.

Importance is a measure of contribution. When I feel unimportant, I feel I am not contributing. When I feel I need others’ recognition to be important, I feel my contribution isn’t real until it is acknowledged by others. In this way, one’s sense of importance is held hostage to the whims of others. If I accept their judgment, I accept my fate. If I don’t accept their judgment, I fight with them, saying, as it were, “Recognize me!” Either way I am beholden to their judgment.

What if I can break out of this cycle? What if instead of grounding my self-worth in the look of the other, I become a source of recognition unto myself?

This has the form of narcissism, of a person lost in looking at himself in the mirror. But the narcissist hasn’t given up on the judgment of others – he has simply internalized their judgment as he wants it to be, and frozen it so that no external look can ever change his mind. The narcissist is addicted to ordinary importance in an unordinary way – which can give him the appearance of being extraordinary.

Nietzsche’s and Aurobindo’s superman is extraordinary in not being defined by ordinary importance. The importance he values is not the kind which can be given by others in the first place. It is an importance he can achieve by living beyond his ordinary need for recognition. The growth that matters to him isn’t the kind which needs the validation of others. It requires instead his own shift in what is important.

Most people want to be good ducks, but worry others might be right in seeing them as mediocre ducks. Narcissists are convinced they are great ducks, irrespective of what others say. Some can shift between seeing themselves as the duck and the rabbit. Not beholden to either, they see their true importance.

A Declaration of Independence

When we as a society read The Bible, many people don’t think, “I need to learn what the Catholic Church says about The Bible before I can absorb it for myself.”

When we read The Bhagavad Gita, most people don’t think, “I need to be beholden to what Indian gurus say about it.”

When we read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we aren’t constrained in our imaginative engagement with it by firs thinking, “I better read The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy to have an opinion about the book and how it matters to me.”

When we listen to a Beethoven symphony or a Beatles album, we don’t think, “That’s nice, but I better figure out what the music critics think before I make up my mind about whether I like this music!”

When we watch a Tom Cruise movie or an Akira Kurosawa movie, we don’t think, “I better confirm my opinion to what film professors say about them!”

And yet: This is exactly how academic philosophy trains our minds to relate classic philosophical texts. To Plato’s Republic. To Descartes’ Meditations. To Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

This is why philosophy is so marginalized in our society. Because academic philosophers are unwilling to let go of the texts. And because most people don’t know how to enjoy the texts for themselves. This combination is absolutely pernicious.

The cart is put before the horse. Instead of seeing The Republic as a text like Anna Karenina – complicated, subtle, can benefit from scholarly insight, but which also has to be first absorbed as a creative text we engage with imaginatively for ourselves – the classic philosophy texts are seen through the prism of what professionals need to do to remain professionals: write scholarly articles.

This creates the impression that The Republic is actually a old, literary version of a journal article. So just as people can’t understand Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” without understanding the academic disagreements between him and Carnap, so too it is assumed The Republic is really at heart a professional dispute between Plato and Aristotle, or Plato and Rawls, etc.

The current academic situation is imposed onto the past, so that even the great philosophers and their texts are seen through the lens of the academic philosopher’s daily professional hoops.

This is no different from churchs claiming authority over The Bible or pundits claiming authority over The Gita or nationalists claiming authority over The Constitution.

This is the grave sin of contemporary academic philosophy: they are starving the population of philosophy, so that they can step in as saviors and provide morsels of food, just in the way they want, and with them holding control of the supply. It is a crime to horde food when the people are starving, just for the pitiable reason of retaining power.

The sad thing is most academic philosophers don’t even know they are doing this. They are like the priests who genuinely believe that they hold the keys to God’s words and are simply helping the masses who cannot decipher God’s words by themselves.

The reason is simple and it’s not malicious intent. It’s that often academic philosophers themselves discovered the classic texts in academia. And they enjoyed it so much and it was so absorbing for them that they stayed in academia. So it is entirely natural that they would see the history of philosophy itself through the academic lens.

They just don’t know better.

That they are chaired professors, or at Ivy League departments or write a book every three years or teach classes that reach thousands of people – none of this implies they understand the nature of philosophical texts better than anyone else.

If such an implication held, it would radically alter the nature of classic philosophical texts. Rendering them more like mere textbooks. Just as Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby would be different as texts in a society where all readers assumed they can engage with novels only through the prism of literature professors.

As someone who went through the mind warping forces of academic philosophy, I feel the pull of these forces. And it is no use to keep harping about how academic philosophers need to be different. How they need to let go.

The reality is it is not primarily they who need to let go. It is I who has to let go.

They are doing what they are doing. What works for them. Or even often they are themselves trapped in what doesn’t work for them. But whatever the case, it is their battle of how to engage with philosophical texts, just as it is each person’s battle.

Some posts ago I said I might be forgetting philosophy. And that yet this feels like a good thing, even though I still love philosophy. How can all this be true?

What I am forgetting in the main is the academic manner of looking at philosophical texts. If I went into an academic arena, I can’t play that game anymore. I can’t present arguments in that way, reference books and authors in that way, stay up to date on the latest academic articles and books. A year or two after I left academia, there was still a chance I could still apply again to be a professor. Now there is little to no chance.

Not because I would be a bad teacher of philosophy – I would be a good one, better for sure than I was ten years ago. Not because I don’t still love philosophy – I still do.

But because for me now the history and importance of philosophy has been severed from the trials and tribulations of academic philosophy.

I first loved philosophical texts not through classrooms but through my own engagement with them as texts I could delve into on my own, using my own intelligence and desire to become friends with Plato or the Buddha, Russell or Aurobindo.

I first knew philosophers as family members: as father and mother, brother, grandparents, uncles and aunts. And I first knew the great, famous philosophers no differently than I knew great, famous novelists or musicians or artists: as personal intellectual friends, who often meant more to me as friends and mentors, even as other parts of myself, than my normal, in the flesh friends. Who mattered to me even more than many parts of my normal self.

It is nice to get back to that.

Compared to the personal, meaningful friendships I had and have with some of the great philosophers of the past, being an expert on them and so relating to them as my subjects of expertise was for me hollow – and an awful trade.

Why give up my friendship with Socrates and Shankara, with Lao Tzu and Marcus Aurelius, with Wittgenstein and Sartre only to treat them like unreachable figures far above and away from me, and with whom I can interact only through the norms decided by other professionals? How can that trade possibly make sense?

And why would I do that to others? Why would I tell them that instead of learning to relate to Plato and Descartes as their friends, they need to treat them as august figures who can “improve your thinking” and help you get better GRE scores and who, if you read humbly and with due deference to the professors and the latest journal articles, you might just understand a little bit of why they matter? Is that a way of empowering a person’s potential friendships with the great thinkers or a way of undercutting it?

I now know what I believe.

Two Simple Truths

I had a conversation with my mother today in which I think she articulated two simple truths about global philosophy. I don’t know if she thought what she said was significant, but they jumped out to me. It is one of the fascinations of philosophy how a “non-expert” can sometimes get to the heart of an issue, often better and with more openness than most experts.

My mother’s philosophical interests have long centered around Aurobindo Ghose (known as Sri Aurobindo) and especially his spiritual partner Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother). From the asharam they started in Pondicherry, India, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the 20th century pioneered a modern, Hinduism-infused global, spiritual consciousness. In addition, my mother has been influenced by classic Hindu texts such as The Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Vasistha. By instinct she has an ecumenical spirit which sees the world’s spiritual traditions as different paths to a common truth.

She is not very familiar with Western philosophy. She has been reading a book on Western philosophers written in Telugu by an Indian scholar (Telugu being our mother tongue). That is the context for the following conversation, which I am paraphrasing, and which even in its brevity I believe gets to some core issues.


Mom: I was amazed to read in the book about Spinoza. What he said seems to be just what we believe [advaita vedanta view in Hindu philosophy]. Could you not have written about that connection when you were in graduate school?

Me: There was a Indian philosophy scholar in the Asian Studies department at Harvard when I was there [he is still there and more integrated into the philosophy department now]. So in principle I could have written a thesis about Spinoza and Shankara. But the trouble is I don’t much about Shankara. I never studied Indian philosophy, not in the way required to write a PhD.

Mom: I guess what you know about Indian philosophy is mostly from talking to Dad, and your general reading. You couldn’t learn it in the philosophy departments you were in. If Indian philosophy was taught at Cornell and Harvard, would you have been happy?

Me: Happier. But not entirely. The question I was interested in about global philosophy wasn’t just how Shankara is related to Spinoza, or how Aurobindo is related to Hegel, and so on. The main question I was interested in was: what can a truly global philosophy perspective look like?

Mom: What is the problem if they teach both Western and Indian philosophy? Doesn’t that solve the issue?

Me: Those aren’t the only philosophical traditions. There is Chinese philosophy, African philosophy, Latin American philosophy, Native American philosophy, Islamic philosophy, and so on. I didn’t want to just know how our philosophy and European philosophy can come together. They have to come together in a global awareness, in the broader context of how all traditions are related. Someone can know two or maybe three or amazingly four or five of these traditions – they have to learn a lot, but they can do that. But there is still so much that would be left out.

Mom: Your professors were also in a difficult situation. How can they open up to all those traditions?

Me: Universities have students from so many countries. If a student from each country went to the philosophy department and said, “Why aren’t you teaching my tradition?”, how can they satisfy all those students? Who can know all these traditions?

Mom (shaking her head): No one can. That’s not possible. [BV: This is simple truth #1.]

Me: Right. This is what I wanted to think about in graduate school. What can global philosophy mean when however much the Harvard department expanded to include other traditions, it would leave out so much? What can global philosophical awareness mean then?

Mom: Maybe it means accepting there is a common truth which can’t be stated, which all the traditions are pointing to. [BV: This is simple truth #2.]

Me: I think that’s exactly right. That is the deeper issue. Are universities now set up in a way that makes it hard to find this common truth? This is why I wasn’t looking just to find the commonalities between Spinoza and Shankara. Ok, they both said things like “All is one”. But is that the essence of what they were saying, or are the words just pointers towards a deeper spiritual awareness? Finding the commonality then is a matter of actually transcending the concepts they used and not being limited by them.

Mom: The Mother says exactly this . We get attached to thinking and to books. That can hold us back just like we get attached to poojas and rituals.

Me: Right. This is the real problem for academic philosophy. The problem at Harvard isn’t just that they don’t teach Indian philosophy. They don’t even teach spiritual Western philosophy. They teach philosophy only as thinking well, but not also as an activity of getting beyond thinking. So even if they teach Asian philosophy, African philosophy and so on, that is only a start. They will get stuck at the level of what these traditions said. But really finding the commonality might mean getting beyond the words and concepts in all these traditions.

Mom: That is a very big task. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Me: I agree. We are just at the very beginning of this new global consciousness. It’s not just about bringing together traditions, like taking books written in different languages and putting them on the same bookshelf. It is about how the diversity of traditions frees us from old patterns of thought itself in some ways, and so opens up a new mode of consciousness. That is not about Harvard hiring a few people to teach other traditions. It is about whether universities as they are now are even a natural place for this kind of opening of consciousness.

Mom: This change will come. But there will be a lot of trouble along the way. The old energy has to play out so that the new energy can rise to the surface.

Me: Absolutely.

Visions of a Fulfilling Life

Much of my life has been a tension between five visions of a fulfilling life. Five visons of what one is willing and even wanting to give up.

The monk focuses on giving up physical and social needs: sex, food, money, a family. For the monk battling with sexual desire or cravings for food or social recognition are not set apart from being reflective, but are constitutive of it. For him to be reflective is to give up these ordinary animal and human drives.

The sage focuses on giving up ordinary modes of consciousness, exemplified in giving up an attachment to the ego. Whereas the monk starts with giving up the act (of sex or luxury), the sage starts with giving up attachment to the act. The sage might regularly have sex, eat fine food or be wealthy or even be a king. His focus isn’t on giving up things, as much as doing whatever he does with a certain detachment.

The intellectual focuses on giving up beliefs. Intellectuals, as exemplified by modern professors, don’t care in the first instance about your sexual habits, or your eating habits, or how much money you have, or how you cultivate your character. The focus instead is on ideas – which are true or false, justified or unjustified, which are stale, old or outdated. He aims to give up his attachment to his beliefs and to continually question them.

The revolutionary focuses on giving up institutional structures. Driven by a strong sense that humans are fundamentally social creatures defined by the roles and structures available to us, the revolutionary sees social change as the root change for growth and transformation. This is not to set social change against thinking, but rather to see social change as a form of thinking.

The householder mainly gives up the need to be, or at least to seem, extraordinary. For most people this is not so much an active giving up as it is a not striving to begin with. But the philosophical householder embraces the very seeming outward mundaneness of his life. He might be married or not, have kids or not, have a house or not, have a stable career or not. From the outside he looks no different from the masses struggling to live minimally reflective lives or have some sense of excellence. Where others see this mundaneness as a burden, he sees it as not a problem.

The thinkers and people I have been drawn to combine various aspects of these visions of life.

Wittgenstein was a monkish intellectual. An engineer by background, most of his work is highly analytic and technical, focusing on logic and philosophy of language. Yet the form of his philosophical struggles was like that of a monk: he experienced differing intellectual positions (logicism, dualism, materialism, etc) as if he were a monk trying to give up his sexual desires. For most academics this combination is absurd. And it is absurd in a way: if you are drawn to mind-body dualism, you might be wrong or confused or unjustified, but guilty or sinful is the wrong kind of category! And yet there is also something poignant and mesmerizing in the way Wittgenstein thought not just with his mind, as it were, but with his whole being.

One can do this with other thinkers too. Heidegger: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary (all too wrong as a revolutionary in his embrace of Nazism). Aurobindo: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Thomas Merton: Monk, sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Gandhi: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Martin Luther King: Sage, intellectual, revolutionary. Bertrand Russell: Intellectual, revolutionary. Eckhart Tolle: Sage, intellectual. Vivekananda: Monk, sage, intellectual.

Of course, because all these people were famous, they don’t fit into the householder category as I defined it. They were extraordinary and they were seen to be extraordinary.

For me the emblem of the householder philosopher is – as a regular reader of this blog can tell – my father.

Perhaps the greatest intellectual tension between my father and me was on this issue. By instinct, I react strongly against the householder image. Since I was a teenager, I had a great sense that I have something big to contribute to the world – that I am extraordinary. Beneath the mild-mannered, humble exterior, in my own mind I was like the heroes I admired: Shankara, Aurobindo, Malcolm X, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Socrates, Kant, etc. I experienced my householder exterior – the very ordinaryness of my life and of my achievements, of what I actually accomplished or didn’t accomplish – like a great cloak and prison from which one day I will be released, and I will burst forth out of the category of the masses and into the category of the extraordinary.

My father, in contrast, had actively embraced the householder category. He seemed – or claimed – to be unmoved by the fact that most people didn’t know of him as a thinker. Or that he couldn’t share or have his ideas challenged in the broader intellectual world. That even the people in his life, like most of his family and friends, had no idea of the volcanoes of thought and transformations of consciousness of his mental life.

For me this picture was – and still is to a great deal – extremely claustrophobic. This is one reason I blog. The feeling that the upheavels of my mind might remain just within my mind is jarring and uncomfortable to me. Embracing the householder picture felt to me like Shakespeare writing beautiful sonnets only to toss them into the river for no one to see. Or for a scientist to discover cures for illnesses but be content with his own understanding, and letting them lie undiscovered in his desk drawer. What a waste! What a tragedy! Why would anyone do that?

My father’s response to me was: “You are seeking social recognition and so bound by the ego. You need to let go and give up the pride of your own achievements. That is part of the path of philosophy.”

This has been a central question of my life. Is my felt need for a social expression of my thoughts a failing on my part? An inability to be serene in the face of my being one of the masses? Or is it a natural expression of my mind and character and fate? Surely my father was wrong to think I must be like him, that somehow his embrace of the householder form of life could be transferred to me along with his genes? And yet: if he was wrong, why has it been so hard for me to get heard, to break into the public intellectual world? Why didn’t I identify with academia, and why don’t I write and express myself in ways which seem natural to be published in magazines or as books? Could it be because my father was right: I am supposed to be a householder philosopher, and my ego needs for recognition is getting in the way and that is why I didn’t make it in academia and also why I haven’t become a non-academic author in the last ten years? What a painful thought.

And yet: I have grown as a person precisely in seeing how limited and wrong this doubt is. There is no one way to be a person or a philosopher. And no only one way. In fact, even my father was not only a householder philosopher. He was also a sage and an intellectual. It is hard to imagine anyone putting all their philosophical energies into just being a householder philosopher – into just giving up the ego attachments of recognition. What would be the point of that?

I admire my father as a thinker not because he overcame his ego needs of recognition. As a matter of fact, he didn’t manage that. He wanted to be seen as a sage and an intellectual by me and others with whom he would talk philosophy. As he would put it, he would “get a kick” out of talking philosophy – but where usually “the kick” or the thrill for him consisted in the fact that he was the one in center stage in the conversation. He was Socrates and the rest of us were Glaucon and Crito putting questions to Socrates, being amazed at his conceptual and spiritual insights.

Instead, I admire my father because his life was a particular, beautiful blend of sage, intellectual and householder. By the time I was born there was little of his youthful monk energy in him, and he was not particularly revolutionary in a social sense. But there was a way the life approaches of being a sage, an intellectual and a householder came together in him which was…fascinating. Not because everyone should be like him. Not even because I should be like him. It was fascinating in the way a rose is fascinating, or the way a rock is fascinating to a geologist – as a particular blend of forces which is evocative.

This is how I have come to think of the thinkers who have meant a great deal to me, like Wittgenstein or Aurobindo, Eckhart Tolle or Kant. Not as which of them is right, or who figured out the way to be a philosopher or a person. But as fascinating blends of different visions of life. Each person is like a melody composed of different notes. It would be silly to say, “This melody is confused: it begins on A and ends on G!” One can make a criticism like that if it meant the melody lacked coherence. But not just because it uses different notes and chords. It is meant to have different notes and chords! And not the same notes and chords as other melodies, arranged in the same way! That is the point.

My father was right in this sense: the greatness of a thinker doesn’t come from the social recognition. When we think of people in the pantheon – Socrates, Kant, the Buddha, MLK, etc. – it is hard to make this distinction because their greatness and our recognition of their greatness seem merged together. But if the recognition is deserved, it is picking up on an actual greatness, not merely creating it. They are not famous just for being famous, even if that is how it can feel sometimes. The greatness they achieved was in the particular blend of life visions they internalized in themselves. This looked one way with Marx, another with Nietzsche, yet another with Russell.

So are Marx or Nietzsche or Russell, or Socrates, or Kant or the Buddha, greater than me as thinkers? Of course, in terms of the recognition they have. Also in terms of the achievements they had. But they are not greater than me in that their blend of life visions has to apply to me. As if I have to replicate the blend which worked for them. That is impossible since they all blended the visions of life very differently. In this regard we are, and can only be, equals. Or at least have the potential to be equals. If I pursue the particular blend of my life visions with the zeal and commitment they did to theirs. If I can see myself as a rose alongside them in a field of flowers.

Wittgenstein and the Arc of Human Life

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is one of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century. I often keep coming back to his thought. Why? I want to get at this through a puzzle.

A Puzzle

I noted in my last post the main things I normally think about – ranging from the dawn of human history to our current political and institutional transformations to the near and distant future of humanity. Call this range of topics the arc of human life. It ranges from about 200,000 years ago (when modern humans arrived on the scene) to a 1,000 years from now (which is about how far into the future my mind can meaningfully project).

So 200,000BC to 3,000AD – that is the range of time that feels immediately relevant to my life and my thinking. Of course, this doesn’t mean I know much about this time. Beyond the written history of the last 4,000 years, a great deal of the past is shrouded in mystery. And I don’t know a lot that scholars know – historians, anthropologists, sociologists, religion scholars, historians of philosophy, biologists, etc. Just as I have no idea what will happen a year or 10 years from now, let alone a 1,000 years from now.

But still, 200,000BC to 3,000AD is temporally like the Earth for me. There is a lot I don’t know about the planet I live on. I don’t know 99% of the places on it. I don’t even know a lot about the city or even the neighborhood I live in. But nonetheless my lived sense as a human being is as a person on the planet Earth. The fact that I know so little about the Earth (geologically, culturally, historically, what are all the cities and villages, languages, etc.) doesn’t mean the Earth isn’t the taken-for-granted background of my life. I have a sense of Earth as a planet moving through space and I am a creature on that planet – and this sense isn’t because of all the facts I know about the Earth or the facts I could get wrong about it. It is a complicated, interesting question how the factual knowledge of the Earth and the lived-background sense of the Earth are interconnected. My lived sense of the Earth is surely different from someone 5,000 years ago who didn’t know the basics of physics and astronomy. And yet some lived sense of being on Earth is something I share with the person from 5,000 years ago.

So here is a puzzle. Even though I don’t read him anymore, I think a lot about Wittgenstein and the importance of his philosophy. And yet: Wittgenstein didn’t have much to say directly about the arc of human life I think so much about. The main thrust of his work was in assembling reminders of how we talk and think, in this and that context. He believed a greater attunement to the nuances of our linguistic practices could dissolve philosophical questions.

In his work there is little discussion of world history, the actual historical cognitive development of human beings, or of the axial age. Certainly nothing about colonialism or about Asia or Africa or other parts of the world. He thought a lot about how to live a meaningful life, but he didn’t address how to be a good family person or about the future of work (even more: as a friend and as a colleague he often could be needy, angry and petulant). And he pre-dated the internet era, so his work doesn’t address questions of our cyborg future or AI. He doesn’t talk about global warming or the future of human beings in a hundred years, let alone a thousand years.

Why do I think Wittgenstein’s thinking is important even though he didn’t talk about the things I think about viscerally on a day to day basis? That is the puzzle.

One way to respond to the puzzle is the social justice warrior way: to ditch Wittgenstein as just a colonial era white philosopher. This is a non-starter. Though Wittgenstein’s family was one of the richest in Austria and he had immense privileges in being seen as a genius in his philosophy circles, it’s not obvious he can be just put in the role of an oppressor. His was an assimilated Jewish family which struggled to find a balance in many ways (three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein was often suicidal). He was gay at a time when it was illegal in England (where he was a professor at Cambridge). He had mental health issues, including severe depression. So no use doing the checklist of privileges against him (which I don’t find helpful with people in general).

Another response to the puzzle is the timeless philosophy way: to treat Wittgenstein’s importance as obvious because he is addressing universal questions of philosophy. On this view, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t address many of the factual, contingent issues of my life because philosophy is about abstract, universal issues. This is also a non-starter because it is not Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy. In fact, at the center of his view was exactly an aim to demolish such a picture of philosophy – as concerned with abstract topics of The Mind, Morality, Political Philosophy, Language, Meaning of Life, etc. Wittgenstein believed philosophy focused just at that abstract level was a confusion – in darker moments he treated it as a disease, like a mental illness. Hence his continual conflict with academic philosophy. In contrast to the happy image of intro classes and seminars discussing grand, abstract topics of the mind and morality, Wittgenstein saw most philosophy professors as inmates running the asylum. For him philosophy questions were not grand questions to be answered, but powerful illusions to be overcome. Not the kind of vision professors can easily sell to parents and donors.

A New Conception of World History

To answer the puzzle, we need to first see just how recent an awareness of the 200,000BC – 3,000AD arc of human life actually is. Of course, every generation has its own sense for the arc of human life. But it was only in the last two centuries that the arc expanded in the way we are aware now.

World history is nothing new. People have been writing it for millennia. But modern physics, Darwin and colonialism changed it in a deep way. Prior to the 19th century, the conception of world history was really the conception of the conqueror’s history. World history was told through the perspective of the empire that saw itself as the culmination of that history. Or as the history of the downfall of a civilization. The claim to it being human history as such was buttressed by treating the conquering empire as the central point of human history.

With Newton and modern physics we got a different conception of Earth – one described purely in mechanical and mathematical terms. Earth was no longer in the first instance the realm which the Roman or the Persian or the Chinese or the Islamic empires controlled. In seeing Earth first and foremost as a planet in the solar system, we developed a sense of Earth removed from the question of civilizational power dynamics, and so developed a different sense of the people on Earth and what we have in common.

The deep impact of Darwin was that the theory of evolution brought together the new mechanical view of Earth with the human perspective. The idea of evolution as such is not new with Darwin. An evolutionary picture of humans and animals was central to many ancient worldviews, such as that of Hindus. What was new with Darwin wasn’t the idea that humans evolved from animals. Rather, it was the picture of the animals from whom humans evolved. Even more: it was the picture of the Earth which produced humans.

In pre-Newtonian physics, the world, in an Aristotelian way, was seen as filled with form. Everything had its place and its natural path based on its essence. It was an anthropomorphic view of the world. The categories of human society – of each person’s nature and their place in society – are seen to be how everything in the world is organized. This was the vision of the ancient Hindus as well, where people were seen as being reborn as cats and insects and trees, because the whole world is shot through with similar categories of form. Post Newton this became a fantasy – just a way of speaking of the world. Not the intrinsic nature of the world, which was mechanical.

People often bemoan how the Newtonian view robbed the world of meaning. In fact, to the contrary, it expanded human consciousness – by giving a palpable, clear sense of how humans are all the same as physical beings. Darwin drew the natural consequence that what unites humans is our common history of how we came to be humans on this gigantic space rock.

New fields propelled by colonialists’ exploration and domination started to fill in the blanks. In the 19th and 20th centuries, modern biology, anthropology, archeology, religious studies, sociology and so on could start in a rudimentary way to fill in the gaps of the millions of years between apes and modern humans, and the tens of thousands of years of human history. This opened up a shared human history well beyond the standard picture of the “the ancient”. It turned out that Homer, Confucius, Abraham, Hammurabi and Akhenaten were not heroes at the start of human life. They were actually relatively recent in the big picture: 2,500 to 4,000 years ago, while agriculture itself went back 10,000 years and modern humans another 200,000 years.

So colonialism lay the seeds of its own downfall. What colonialists took to be the greatness of European achievements in science was indeed great – but precisely because it contributed to a new consciousness of the arc of human life. Colonialist Europeans thought the new physical and human sciences were a reflection of some magical European essence. But this was just a remnant of the old conquering empire vision of human history – the very conception of human history which the new sciences undercut.

Modern science wasn’t the product of only European reason going back to the ancient Greeks. Just as ancient Greek and Roman achievements built on Eqyptian, Persian, Indian and other civilizations, so too modern European achievements built on Chinese, Islamic and other empires in the modern era. Moreover, the new sciences showed that categories such as European, Islamic, Chinese and so on fail to reflect our human commonalities. That though the differences between cultures are great, they pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years of history – the vast subconscious of our shared consciousness – which predates our oral and written histories.

This awareness that all humans have a shared history which goes further into the past than is captured in any origin stories within each civilization is a fundamental shift in perspective. It expanded our background sense of the arc of human life. It is an achievement akin to realizing the Earth isn’t at the center of the universe: that no civilization is at the center of human life as such.

As is so often the case in the dynamics of reason and power, it is a great irony that this new, deep, global consciousness arose during the age of colonialism and from deep within the heart (and mind) of colonialism. This doesn’t make the new awareness essentially European, anymore than writing is essentially Mesopotamian or the number zero is Indian or gunpower is Chinese or algebra is Islamic. All achievements begin in a particular place and they spread as others internalize and transform it.

Here we can see the limits of the social justice warriors. Like the colonialists, they see recent centuries mainly through the antiquated model of empire consciousness – history as just the history written by the winners. The end of slavery and colonialism, the women’s movement, etc. are seen as a way for the formerly oppressed to tell a new story. This is right in one way. But in another way, it is too old-fashioned, modeled on the picture of the oppressed civilization rewriting the history books after overthrowing the conquerors.

In the bigger picture, the liberation movements weren’t a way to replace the old stories with other stories of that old kind. The liberation movements were part of our human attempt to come to grips with the new awareness of the past few centuries of how much we are all basically the same – and of how little we still know our common past and so how little we still understand ourselves.

The same is true of the future. The political movements of freedom are one aspect of the broader shift in our picture of the arc of life. Some of the big changes happening – like global warming or AI or how the internet is changing the human mind – can’t be shoe horned into a post-colonialism narrative without minimizing how all of us as people together are confronting the transformations.

Thick and Thin Concepts

The realization that all humans are mammals and we all developed from hunter gatherer communities hundreds of thousands of years ago is a very thin awareness of our commonality. It is so abstract that by itself it doesn’t guide us through the identities of our daily lives.

Our normal identities are rooted in thick concepts such as family (the Vallabhas, the Wittgensteins, the Obamas, the Trumps, etc.), careers (doctor, lawyer, writer, athlete, etc.), religion (Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, atheist, etc.), nationality (America, India, etc.), political and economic ideologies (capitalism, communism, monarchy, democracy, etc.) and so on. And these thick concepts are rooted in different times in the past and carry with them different visions of the arc of human life.

Many of the core habits and concepts of family life trace back hundreds of thousands of years when for hunter gatherers the arc of human life was limited to the narratives among the thirty members of their tribe. The idea of careers dates back to the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the rise of villages, when work started to become compartmentalized into the farmers, the blacksmiths, the priests, etc. The idea of religions as we now think of them – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. – date from 4,000 to 1,000 years ago, as they started to develop a broader consciousness which went beyond family and cultural differences. The categories of nations, modern democracy, communism, fundamentalism, racism and so on date to the last several centuries.

People and communities therefore are like archeological sites, layered with different artifacts dating from different periods, created for different purposes, mixed together through the contingencies of time and place. Excavating a place where different communities lived over thousands of years one might come across a ceremonial bowl from a 1,000 years ago, and ten yards from there and deeper dig up a tomb from 10,000 years ago, and near the surface come across bones from a person who was killed with a bullet from a 100 years ago, and so on. And all of these remains and artifacts might have gotten mixed together because of weather changes, erosion patterns, people digging around for fun and so on.

Imagine archeologists who come across this site and want to know, “What are the eating habits of the people who lived on this land?”, or “What were the burial practices of the community here?”

They might ask, “What is this interesting society which buried a person who died from a bullet wound, and in the burial process they used this ceremonial bowl, and yet nonetheless they chose to not bury him in the tomb they made nearby?” They come up with elaborate explanations for why a single society might have chosen to act so bizarrely and what that shows about their way of life. Of course this is a confusion, driven by the false assumption that the different remains and artifacts must have been united in a single act of burial just because they are found near each other.

The archeological site has remnants of different communities which had different arcs of life. The people who made the tomb 10,000 years ago categorized the world in one way. The people who used the ceremonial bowl a 1,000 years ago categorized it a different way. The person who was killed a 100 years ago belonged to a culture which categorized the world in yet another way. The archeologist who is looking at the archeological site is trying to come up with a new conception which incorporates these older conceptions. The archeologist’s challenge is: how to do that?

To create a unified, encompassing story, the archeologist can’t just treat the whole site as reflecting the artifacts of one community. There is no one set of thick concepts that capture all the artifacts across the span of the 10,000 years. Thick concepts are thick in part because they are context and situation specific. The concept of family guides my life not because there is a generic concept which applies to all human beings in all times. The concept of family which guides my life is set to my time period and my cultural contexts, and the changes in the concept reflect changes of my time.

It is also no use for the archeologist to tell a unified story by using only thin concepts like “human beings”. That remains too much at the level of abstraction to explain the kind of thick conceptual activities involved in burials, cooking, art, jewelry and so on. It would be like trying to explain the activities of animals in a jungle using mainly the thin concept of “animals“: animals ate other animals here, animals slept here, and they gave birth to little animals here! Perfectly true, and it captures something of the basic form of what is happening, but it misses much of the nuance provided by concepts like lions, deer, elephants and so on.

As our awareness of the arc of the human life changed in the last few centuries, we are like the archeologist looking at his complex, layered site. On the one hand, we have the complexity of the diverse, thick concepts which define our lives. On the other hand, we have concepts of our basic unity as human beings, given in abstract terms, such as that we are all created by God, or beings descended from apes, who are all made up of the same earth matter and so on. How are these two conceptual structures – the thick and the thin – related?

Philosophy as a Struggle with Thick and Thin Concepts

A great philosopher is usually animated by a main deep insight. The insight is so deep that it sheds a new light on many facets of our lives. But at its core there is the deep insight radiating outward, and understanding their thought means tracking that insight.

Wittgenstein’s deep insight is that when we are engaged in philosophical reflection we are often like that confused archeologist trying to fit artifacts from different time periods into a single event. We are so driven – psychologically – by a desire for a unity of thought that we fail to see the differences that are right in front of our eyes. We try to push away the differences so as to fixate on the universal, but often it is only by facing up to the differences that we gain clarity. The archeologist makes progress when he accepts the possibility that the tomb, the ceremonial bowl and the bullet wounded bone do not belong to a single time.

Consider the question, “Does God exist?” When we think of this question, the mind races to affirm or deny, as if the world consists of just two kinds of people – theists and atheists – and we have to figure out who is right. The very generality of the question can lull us into thinking it is carving nature at its joints. A good deal of reflection – in everyday life and in philosophy classrooms – jumps head long into deciding whether the answer should be “yes” or “no”.

And yet there is an obvious truth which is in plain sight: there is no one meaning of “God”. God is understood differently by different religions. Some have a concept of “God”, but others mainly have a concept of “Gods”. Sometimes “God” refers – especially for believers – to a kind of experience or mode of living (faith), whereas “God” refers – especially for unbelievers – to a concept embedded in outdated institutional practices (the power hungry church or temple). For some “God” is tied up with the center point of their family practices, whereas for others “God” is the subject of abstract argumentation (proofs for the existence of God). Sometimes one thinks of “God” as so infinite as to be beyond human comprehension, and yet at other times one thinks of “God” as like a parent or a lover or a friend (angrily asking, God, Why have you done this to me?)

These diversity of ways of understanding “God” are out in the open, obvious for all to see. So which is meant when one asks, “Does God exist?”

The diversity of uses speaks to the wide variety of the thick concept of “God”. Where the concept of “God” is deeply contextually bound to the religion, culture, time and event at hand: whether it is Christianity or Buddhism, Egyptian or Chinese, 3,000 years ago or the present, whether used at a funeral or in a weekly sermon, in a classroom or on a battlefield. And yet when we ask, “Does God exist?”, the temptation is to treat “God” as a thin concept – one which through its abstraction applies, we think, to all people and all contexts. As if to say, “Well, you know, the real meaning of God. What we all mean. God! The infinite being who created us!”

Wittgenstein’s main idea is that a lot of philosophical reflection is a struggle with thick and thin concepts.

There is a continual temptation to be pulled in one direction or the other. On the one hand, to say that philosophy is useless because it has become unmoored from thick concepts. When one is pulled in this direction, one assumes one can simply let the thickness of a concept in a given situation guide us – as if the thick uses of the concept don’t have internal tensions.

The opposite temptation is to say that philosophy is great because it is addressing universal thin concepts like “God”, “justice”, “mind”, etc. to figure out their nature. Here one assumes one can simply bypass the murkiness of detail and focus on the abstract concept as such, in its essence – as if the thin concept carries its meaning entirely within itself.

Often philosophy is described as the ascension from thick concepts to thin concepts. That through reflection we give up the thick concepts embedded in our lived, daily lives and focus mainly on the thin concepts radiating like jewels in the book of nature. On this picture, the aim of philosophy is to give up the limited concepts of our day to day lives in order to acquire the timeless concepts which reflect the true nature of the world.

There is a good deal of truth in this view. But Wittgenstein highlighted what is left out of this rosy picture of philosophy: that often philosophy can feel alienating and confused because we become so attached to thin concepts that in reflection we lose touch with the contextual situations which provide a grounding to our lives and concepts.

Wittgenstein described philosophy as the task of bringing words back to their ordinary contexts. This can seem a mainly conservative task: as if our non-philosophical uses of words are fine on their own, and that philosophy is a confusion which we fall into when we stray away from those ordinary uses. As if Wittgenstein was like a parent telling their child to stay away from philosophers lest they get pulled into useless navel gazing! Sometimes Wittgenstein seemed drawn to this kind of pessimism about philosophy.

But there is another, more dynamic way to interpret Wittgenstein. On this view, to bring words back to their ordinary context isn’t to use them just as one would before becoming philosophical. Rather: it is to create new versions of the thick concepts so as to better meet the needs of our daily lives. Here a thinker is akin to a conceptual artist. We find ourselves in the midst of thick concepts which define us, but which also we feel stymied by. Thin concepts give us a way to step away from the thick concepts, but we can’t live our lives only with thin concepts. So when we step back into everyday life as we reflect, we transform the thick concepts to meet the changing needs and situations.

Philosophy therefore is conceptual transformation. Sometime it involves creating entirely new concepts. But often it involves transforming older thick concepts to give them a new resonance. To make them relevant to our times and to our lived situations.

This is both a personal and a social struggle. Personal: in that transforming our thick concepts means changing our understanding of who we are from deep within ourselves. It is not simply a matter of coming up with clear arguments or interpreting texts, but of oneself being the arena of the creative transformation of the thick concepts in our lives.

And social: in that it requires being open to the fact that everyone in some fashion – whether through philosophy or religion or art or music or science – is engaged in this process of reflective living. Some are more reflective than others, but no one is bereft of reflection as such. So in a society there are millions of people going through their own personal reflections, at various levels of intensity, and trying to channel that into social transformation. At any given time there is no one social transformation happening. There are dozens and hundreds of social transformations happening, often in tension with each other or only marginally in connection with each other. This is the terrain we find ourselves in and which we have to navigate through in order to create the social changes one wants.

On this view of bringing words back to their ordinary use then, philosophy is the internal engine of human conceptual transformation. 10,000 years ago the analogue of “God” and “Gods” were used in certain ways in early agricultural societies. But as some of these societies started to transform and become cities and then civilizations, the way “God” and “Gods” were used started to change, to reflect the expansion of the arc of human life involved in going from villages to cities. Then as civilizations started to become more internally complex, as in the Axial age, thinkers had to reconceptualize the core concepts yet again – and so “God”, “reason”, “self” and so on gained a more inner dimension in human psychology.

Solution of the Puzzle

When I used to read Wittgenstein, many times I would become angry and confused about why such an amazing philosopher was so silent about issues happening around him which were of deep importance: the end of colonialism, the new global consciousness, how technologies are transforming our lives and so on. Why didn’t Wittgenstein address these problems in a way that made it seem to me, as his reader, that he understood something of my lived situation?

The anger was driven by frustration that, institutionally, Wittgenstein’s silence was used by academics to perpetuate older thick concepts which felt out of date to me. It seemed as if academics less interested in changing philosophical structures could look to a great thinker like Wittgenstein and say, “Look! Thinkers as great as Wittgenstein didn’t read Indian philosophy, so why should we? Philosophy is in the business of universal thinking, not parochial thinking of Indian or Chinese thought.”

As a student I couldn’t see how this was a deep misinterpretation of Wittgenstein. This conservative use of Wittgenstein’s philosophy misses the deeply existential and spiritual dimension of Wittgenstein. The conservative academics read off the fact that Wittgenstein didn’t engage with Indian or African-American or feminist philosophies to mean that those traditions are not important, or at best can only be of secondary importance. But even if Wittgenstein in his life might have thought that (it’s hard to tell), it is not central to the Wittgensteinian framework.

On Wittgenstein’s view, philosophical reflection is first and foremost deeply personal. That is, a person begins their reflection from the thick and thin concepts they are immersed in, and which they are trying to balance, and from which they trying to create new, more meaningful ordinary uses of those concepts. Wittgenstein was averse to the kind of lazy generalizing about which traditions of philosophy are really philosophy that many people fall into. For on his view, there is no external fact of the matter about what is really philosophy and what isn’t. About who should be read on syllabi and who should be removed.

At root there is only each person trying to battle their conceptual tensions. For Wittgenstein it was one way. For Du Bois it was another. For Simone Weil it was yet another. For Aurobindo it was another way. For Aquinas it was one way. For Confucius another way. For Socrates it was yet another way. There is no one thing called philosophy all these thinkers engaged in, which can be neatly packaged in classes and transmitted from person to person so that they know the history of philosophy.

This is for me the continual attraction of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He didn’t address all the philosophical concepts and traditions I find interesting. But he helped free me from old conceptual structures of my upbringing and my education by showing that the claims to speak of the history of philosophy and who are the great philosophers and who are not and which traditions are philosophy and which are not are confused.

To be a philosopher I don’t have to begin with conservative assumptions of how philosophy is an European invention and contort my mind to fit that narrative. At the same time, I also don’t have to begin with activist assumptions of what form a new global minded philosophy has to take and contort my mind to fit that narrative.

I can begin just where I am – with the thick and thin concepts, and their tensions, that I find in myself and which are driving me. And this freedom of thought which I take for myself, I also try to be mindful to let be for others, so that they can delve into the tensions in their mind more fully.

One of Wittgenstein’s main ideas is that we are fundamentally communal beings and there can be no such thing as a private language – or entirely private thought. So the conceptual tensions I find within myself are likely similar to the conceptual tensions others find in themselves, be they conservatives or social activists.

But our communal nature doesn’t mean I can simply read off our shared situation from my own mind. Our communal bonds are not simply facts which can be stated. They are shared forms of life which we have to co-create. Just as each person has to go through their personal struggle to clarify their concepts, so too we as a society have to go through shared struggles to create concepts for the 21st century.

This is both a personal and a communal task. Each person has to delve into their psyche and find from within themselves the communal bonds we can forge together into the future.

What I Think About

It is helpful to be clear about the different things I think about. I feel a good deal of my stress in life is not knowing how the different things I think about are related to each other. It feels like ships banging into each other on the stormy seas of my mind. Topics, ideas and issues running into each other in a haphazard way. If I can first state what are the different things I think about, then I can work through their connections and what a stable overall worldview might be.

The tensions in my life can be traced to the different ways the same words are used in different contexts: words like “self”, “reason”, “mind”, “God”, “meaning of life” and so on. I have come to think trying to find “the truth” about the self or God is pointless when the different uses of those words aren’t first clearly described so that we can see how the tensions arise. The tensions arise not just between cultures or between different people, but are implicit within each person’s ways of using the words. Our linguistic and cognitive capacities are remnants of various influences, often united by surface similarities which cover over deeper differences which create the cognitive tensions. Clarifying one’s thoughts means facing up to the diversity in one’s cognitive landscape.

I will divide what I think about into three categories: the past, the present and the future. These are not meant to be exhaustive of the topics as such that anyone might be interested in. They are the topics as I have been interested in them given the contingent path of my life.

A. The Past

1. World history. Can a unified history be told about human beings as such? Is there such a thing as the human history, or only different histories that groups tell about themselves? Examples of texts I find interesting when thinking about this topic: Harari, Sapiens. Ansari, The Invention of Yesterday. Christian, Maps of Time.

2. Cognitive history of humans. How did human cognition develop such that we became a species which could use tools, have languages, create societies? What kind of transformations – biological and cultural – enabled changes from apes to hominids to humans? Interesting texts: Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind. Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind. Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

3. Axial Age history. What sociological, institutional and psychological changes took place during the axial age (roughly 2,800-2,000 years ago) such that similar philosophical/religious/spiritual changes happened in different parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia? How similar were the changes and what were the differences between the rise of Greek philosophy, monotheism in the Middle East, Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy? Did they have a common source, say in the trade routes and empires which connected Eurasia? How do these relate to worldviews in other parts of the world? Interesting texts: Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution. Armstrong, The Great Transformation. Campbell, The Masks of God. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas.

4. Modern European Enlightenment. How did the modern European Enlightenment (300-500 years ago) change human cognition and society? How did changes in modern science, philosophy and politics come about? What were its inner tensions? How was the European Enlightenment influenced by Islamic, Chinese and other civilizations? Were there other forms of modernity happening outside of Europe? Texts: Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters. Israel, Radical Enlightenment. Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason.

5. Colonialism, liberation movements and the rise of modern “mixedness”. How did colonialism influence modern European philosophy? How it did it transform other cultures? What are the ways in which Europeans subjugated others, and also the ways in which the subjugation created “mixedness” in the subjugated peoples which made them more global minded than Europeans themselves? Texts: Park, Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire. Mills, The Racial Contract. Bhushan and Garfield, Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance.

6. My family history in 20th century. The changes in my grandparents’, parents’ and my generation’s lives as we went from an extended family Hindu Brahmin culture in pre-Independence India to being, in my case, an Indian-American with a cosmopolitan, global perspective. In what ways am I similar to my parents and grandparents, and what ways different? How to view the family level changes in light of the broader historical changes? Examples of texts exploring mix of autobiography, family, immigration and world history: Ansari, Road Trips. Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory. Appiah, In my Father’s House. Morton, Moving Up without Losing Your Way.

The Present

a. Personal. What is it for me to live a meaningful life of serenity and growth? How do I foster peace within myself and bring harmony to the tensions and anxieties I experience? Texts: Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. Tolle, A New Earth.

b. Family. How to navigate being in an inter-cultural marriage? What kind of a father do I want to be? What of the past will I pass on to my daughter, and how will I prepare her for the future? I grew up in a extended family context and now I am in a more nuclear family context. What will that future look like for me and my family? Texts: Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk. Lahiri, The Namesake.

c. Work. How do I navigate the social dynamics at work? How to balance work and life? Work and my intellectual interests? How will the transformations in our society regarding work – with the pandemic, with emerging AI and so on – affect my work? Texts: West, The Future of Work.

d. Politics. America is in the midst of a transition from being a democracy rooted in white culture to being a multi-cultural democracy. How will this affect the kind of democracy we can have? Will democracy survive or will a multi-cultural democracy prove so hard to keep together that new forms of government will arise? What kind of narratives of America and its history can foster the balance of diversity and unity? What will these kind of changes look like in other countries? Texts: Lepore, This America. Lila, The Once and Future Liberal. Mishra, Age of Anger.

e. New intellectual and spiritual structures. Many of our spiritual institutions go back several thousand years to the axial age. Our current academic institutions go back several hundred years to the colonial and the industrial ages. As we enter a new global, information age, what will that mean for how we communicate ideas, create communities and enable change? What will our cyborg type fusion with technology mean for our cognitive capacities such as memory, reasoning and sense of self? Can the wisdom of the past simply be translated into the current technological reality, or will it require rethinking spirituality and philosophy in a deeper way? Will academia continue to be the center for dissemination of knowledge, or will it become “unbundled” as non-academic structures rooted in new technologies better address the new situations? Texts: Selingo, College Unbound. Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs. Carr, The Shallows. Shirky, Here Comes Everybody.

The Future

I. Global Warming. What kind of calamities will we face due to global warming? It seems merely a question of when and not if we will face such calamities. How will we react to them? Can we foster enough unity as a species to address it? If we cannot foster unity, will those with more power (in whatever forms) simply enact what they think is best and that will be central to our new social reality? Texts: Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose. Holthaus, The Future Earth.

II. AI. Similar questions about artificial intelligence. What will happen when AI becomes a pervasive feature of our lives? What will that mean for work, communities, our sense of meaning? Will society be divided between those who can retain “control” over their lives in the face of AI, and those who experience AI as a tsunami wiping out their lives as they knew them? Will AI free people from monotonous work and so unleash great intellectual and creative energies within people? Or will AI rob people of the meaningfulness of work, and so undercut their sense of agency? Texts: Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Lee, AI Superpowers.

III. Shifts in Power? Will the balance of cultural and economic power shift to the East in this century? Will Europe and America be hampered by the weight of their older institutions, while the East and the Global South are able to harness new changes in new ways? Will Asia build off of European and American advances the way Europe during its Enlightenment built off of Chinese and Islamic advances? Or will the very contrasts between East and West, North and South dissolve in new ways as new modes of “mixedness” emerge? Texts: Khanna, The Future is Asian. Frankopan, The New Silk Roads.

IV. In two hundred years. What will human life look like in two hundred years? Will the next two centuries be similar to the axial age or the Enlightenment, a time of deep change which will create new modes of society, knowledge and modes of consciousness? If ecological and technological changes happen at a rapid rate, will it change basic concepts like that of “family” – rendering family too slow a mechanism for dealing with the changes? Like colleges, family might also become “unbundled”, where family might retain some of the core features but many of its current elements might be taken over by other social structures – maybe even by robots or AI. How will changes likes these in our families, societies and our very cognitive structures affect who we are and what our ideals will be? Will society be more egalitarian then, or less egalitarian with classes marked by cognitive enhancements based on technology? Texts: Harari, Homo Deus.

V. In a thousand years. Will we survive another thousand years? If not, what can that mean for us now? If we survive, will the changes between now and a thousand years from now be like the changes between now and a thousand years ago (vast changes with basic similarities), or like the changes between hunter gatherer societies and agricultural societies (deep changes in cognition, ways of life and worldviews), or like the changes between neanderthals and humans (changes at a genetic level which alter our mode of being human), or like the changes between apes and humans (changes which alter our basic ways of being animals and conscious beings)? How much of our spiritual and philosophical frameworks will still matter in a thousand years (or later)? Will most people then be like Socrates and the Buddha – where that level of self-awareness has become natural – or will they be so advanced that even Socrates and the Buddha will seem primitive to them? Or will society have stalled or even regressed after nuclear wars and global warming so that Socrates and the Buddha will still feel like distant ideals? Texts: Kaku, The Future of Humanity. Rees, On the Future.