America and the Enlightenment Philosophers
by Bharath Vallabha
Context is a funny thing.
In an academic context – of philosophy courses and institutional structures – for a long time, my gut reaction to the great Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Kant used to be: “Oh, not just more of this again. Their views, marred by racism, exhibit a false sense of universalism, and we need to study them alongside non-European traditions to have a more complete view of philosophy.” Call this the critical reaction.
In a political context – of democracy and the rights I have as an American citizen – my gut reaction to the same great Enlightenment thinkers used to be: “Their intellectual courage and genius were amazing and ahead of their time, laying the foundations for a liberal, pluralistic society.” Call this the admiring reaction.
Talk about cognitive dissonance.
When I thought about Kant in relation not just to the slave trade or colonialism, but even in relation to the philosophies of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Kant’s philosophy seemed to me too abstract and rationalistic; disconnected from the broader embodied and social aspects of human life. But when I thought of Kant in relation to autocratic governments around the world or events like the march in Charlottesville, his philosophy seemed not abstract and rationalistic, but idealistic, humane and profound; foundational to myself as a thinker and as a citizen.
I have lived with this cognitive dissonance for a long time, mostly without it rising to the level of consciousness. But now that I am aware of it, what is the right response?
One option – call it the anti-Enlightenment option — is to adopt a critical reaction in both the academic and the political contexts. On this view, Locke, Hume and Kant were racists, and so their philosophical views are racist. The Founding Fathers, like Washington, Adams and Jefferson, were influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers and so the founding principles of America are racist. The Enlightenment and the vision of a free America were a sham; a prop to justify power.
But this option is hopeless and confused.
As an American citizen, I cannot endorse this view without immediately giving up on the idea of my rights as a citizen. Whatever the origin of rights in general (be it God or nature or reason, etc.), the political expression of Americans’ rights is grounded in the American Constitution and in the continued respect of Americans for that constitution. If one rejects the Constitution as something created by racist white men in America, who were influenced by the ideas of racist white men in Europe, there is nothing to support citizens’ rights in America.
The anti-Enlightenment option tries to avoid one cognitive dissonance only to fall into another: to affirm the Constitution as a profound document laying the foundation for equal rights while denouncing the creators of the Constitution as nothing but racists. This is absurd. It is psychologically infeasible. Beyond that, it is abstractionism of an extreme kind. One cannot say the Enlightenment thinkers were too abstract and rationalistic, disconnected from the lived practices and history of the majority of the world, only to then reify the Constitution by removing it entirely from its historical context and the men who created it.
In an important sense, in America the Founding Fathers are primary. An idea of America which does not give them respect and right of place as the Founders is a conceptual confusion. This is not to propagate white hegemony or to affirm white supremacy. It is just a fact. All Americans live within the political framework they created. True, the Founding Fathers were wrong to institutionalize slavery. But the possibility to right that wrong politically (as opposed to through brute force) exists only because of the democratic infrastructure they developed. That is worth remembering and admiring.
A second option to deal with the cognitive dissonance – call it the respect for Western philosophy option – is to adopt an admiring reaction in both the academic and the political contexts. On this view, having only a critical reaction to traditional Western philosophy (the story of the great white, male philosophers from the Socrates to Rawls) undermines having respect for their ideas in a political context. If philosophy departments in America open up to non-Western traditions at the cost of admiration for traditional Western philosophy, this would foster only critical reactions to the Western Enlightenment in the political context, and so would only strengthen anti-Enlightenment forces in politics.
I think this is exactly right.
Disciplines like literature and history in the last forty years opened up to non-Western traditions under the general framework of post-modernism and anti-colonialism: doubting there are truths or norms that transcend cultures and seeing any claim to such transcendence as colonialist. These disciplines conflated opening up to non-Western traditions with a largely critical reaction to Western modernity. As if one can make space for other traditions only through self-immolation.
It would be a mistake if philosophy followed this path. Philosophy doesn’t have to open up to other traditions in the same way other humanities departments did. It can learn from their trials and errors, and forge its own path; one that recognizes the insights of other traditions while admiring the Western tradition.
This option, though, raises a psychological question. Given that in a political context I naturally respected the genius of Enlightenment philosophers, why did I have mainly a critical reaction to them in an academic context? Why was I prone to that mistake?
Partly it was because of the conflation in the humanities departments I just mentioned. In a traditional syllabus of the great, white males, it can feel like the space taken up by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant, etc. doesn’t allow for much remaining space for other traditions. As if these thinkers have taken up most of the space and non-Western thinkers have to a claw and dig to find some room. This creates an adversarial feeling: that the traditional side has to lose – be declared bad and racist – in order for the other side to survive. Like many, I fell for this mode of thinking.
There is another reason as well. One internal to how Enlightenment philosophers are generally taught in undergraduate courses.
I took my first Early Modern philosophy course at Cornell when I was a sophomore at age 19. I had moved to America eight years earlier, and was an American citizen for a year. Though aware of the deep race issues in America, I was grateful to be here as America had been good for me and my family. Like my father, I took my new citizenship seriously and saw myself as a patriot – devoted to America as my home, not to India.
If that Early Modern course had discussed how Enlightenment philosophers had struggled to create the idea of a modern, democratic republic – of which America, my new country, was the first experiment – my admiration for these thinkers in an academic context would have become immovable. Instead, the course focused only on the usual format of Descartes through Hume as Rationalists vs Empiricists and Kant as the synthesis. Whatever the merits of this format (and there are many), if at least some philosophy courses are meant to foster a sense of critical thinking for American citizens and help appreciate the philosophical struggles of the Founding Fathers, this course wasn’t one of them.
The course seemed strangely displaced in space, as if it hovered in an in-between realm between nationalism and globalism. It acknowledged no patriotic, civic educational purpose: it was as if the exact same course could have been taught anywhere, in any country. And yet it didn’t really take a global perspective to philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, limited as it was to only European philosophy. And so I became focused on this tension between the course’s global posture and its parochial, European focus.
Later in a political philosophy course which covered the work of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and Kant, I experienced the same tension. Here were texts that were essential to the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy, and so which were central to me as an American citizen. And yet, the texts seemed disconnected from my life. Why? Because the posture of the course treated the authors and texts as if they lived mainly in a transnational, pure realm of ideas.
It was easier for me to admire Enlightenment philosophers in a political context because I felt connected to them through the Founding Fathers. America itself – a land where in principle people could live together irrespective of religious, racial or cultural differences – was my link with the Enlightenment philosophers. In an academic context, however, America seemed to be seen as just one more local identity to be transcended, as if my link to Enlightenment philosophers must be at the level of disembodied, pure reason. But far from making me feel connected to them, this view from nowhere perspective only raised the question whether the Enlightenment philosophers, or indeed anyone, could occupy such a perspective.
Nowadays, treating a philosophy classroom as a political space seems synonymous with syllabus wars. But there is a different sense in which a classroom in America is a political space: a space of civic education, of Americans debating what they have in common as Americans. And in that space Enlightenment philosophers have a special role. Not because they are white or because philosophy exists only in the West. But because of the unique causal and conceptual relation between America and the Western Enlightenment.
Bharath Vallabha studied philosophy at Cornell and Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr. Currently he has an administrative job at an accounting firm. His reasons for leaving academia can be found in an interview at Free Range Philosophers. He blogs at cosmic-awareness.com.