by Bharath Vallabha
Our society is becoming more polarized. Nuance and subtlety are marginalized as things are reduced to all-encompassing binaries such as red vs. blue. This is as absurd as sorting items in a house in terms of their color instead of their function. Who in their right mind would give up categories such as silverware and furniture and instead put all red items in the house together and all the blue items together? Yet polarization encourages – and demands – just such bizarre bundling.
The main productive response to polarization is conceptual clarification. Polarization is like a tornado which forces our concepts into two gigantic piles. Yelling that we should stop polarizing is as helpful as yelling at a tornado. Saying we should love the other side is to concede the two piles aren’t haphazard and are in fact well-structured. The main response to a tornado is the unsexy one of cleaning up: the meticulous, patient, laborious task of going into the rubble, dealing with the loss of how things used to be and rebuilding for a new day.
Conceptual clarification begins where one is. After a tornado, I don’t go to a random building on the other side of town and determine which pieces in that building go together. I have to begin where I have a sense for what coherence means. I don’t know much about ballet, anthropology or the history of Eastern Europe. When I think about how polarization is affecting these things, I have little to hold onto because I don’t have a pre-tornado sense for how things were or what needed improving. The sense that I need to have an opinion on everything is itself a form of polarization, as if the only alternatives to having an opinion are stupidity or complicity. Not having an opinion can be a sign of intelligence.
An area I know something about is modern European philosophy, from Descartes to Kant to Wittgenstein to Rorty. I am not an expert on these thinkers, and it’s been a decade since I left academia. But when I think, “Where can I dig in my heels to break through polarization to some extent?” I think about these philosophers.
In twentieth century analytic philosophy, it was taken for granted that modern European philosophy is the pinnacle of philosophy. It was assumed philosophy was essentially European, having begun in Ancient Greece. And that within European philosophy, the tradition from Descartes and Locke on is the cutting edge since it is modern, engaging with the rise of modern science, and with social transformations such as the Protestant Reformation and the rise of liberal democracy.
In the colonial context of the first half of the twentieth century, it went without needing defense that the cutting edge of European philosophy is the cutting edge of philosophy as such. An education in philosophy required Plato and Locke, but not Mencius and Shankara. Any non-Western philosophical tradition, if it was acknowledged, was seen to be catching up to the Western tradition and so didn’t need to be studied.
The end of colonialism and the civil rights movement broke the assumption of the inherent superiority of Western civilization. Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in “top” analytic departments, philosophy continued as if in a social vacuum. Even as the other humanities were grappling with the post-colonial world and the changing student demographics, the philosophy departments of Harvard and Princeton, Berkeley and Michigan continued apace as if the modern European tradition was the essence of philosophy.
In this century, especially in the last decade, the social vacuum of analytic philosophy punctured. The broader fights in the humanities and in the culture at large have broken into the lecture halls and faculty meetings of the old and new centers of analytic philosophy: Oxford and NYU, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. It is exactly at such moments of the disruption of old structures that the tornado of polarization gathers force. As an era ends, the conversation space becomes dominated by the loudest voices battling for position, as if a range of possibilities has dwindled down to just one existential choice of the old or the new.
Extreme critics of modern European philosophy focus on the racism of Hume and Kant, or the fact that most analytic philosophers spent more time debating the meaning of “good” or “the King of France” than opposing colonialism, as showing it’s all “just” an extension of white supremacy. That by not questioning white supremacy in philosophy, modern European philosophers were complicit in white supremacy, and so were an implicit version of the KKK and Nazis.
Stated bluntly like this, this view is absurd. Like a lot of students, I spent many stimulating hours trying to determine the validity of Descartes’ ontological argument or Kant’s transcendental deduction. If these thinkers were proto-Nazis, how do I make sense of the joy and intellectual excitement I felt when reading them? Besides, what do these arguments about the existence of God or the structure of self-consciousness have to do with white supremacy?
Then again, I spent many productive hours reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and in that text there is no mention of white supremacy. Yet, it’s not absurd to wonder about the relation of Being and Time, published in 1927, to Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism in 1933. Some great interpreters of Heidegger, such as Hubert Dreyfus, treat Heidegger’s Nazism as entirely disconnected from his philosophy. This was not at all obvious to positivists such as Carnap, who believed the meaninglessness of Heideggerian metaphysics encourages fascist group think. If as analytic a thinker as Carnap believed that Heidegger’s cultural context can’t be separated from his philosophy, is it strange to wonder if the context of colonialism can be separated from Kant’s philosophy?
An easy way to separate Kant’s texts from worries of white supremacy is to treat the texts as just texts – a string of sentences articulating abstract arguments, to which any biographical facts about Kant are entirely irrelevant. But even for the most logic chopping, analytic philosophers, this is impossible. After all, some cultural context is crucial for understanding why these strings of sentences and these arguments are worth thinking about. The context of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution is crucial for understanding Kant. Given that colonialism and racism were also a part of Kant’s cultural context, why should those specifically and obviously be irrelevant to his philosophy?
In fact, the Enlightenment and colonialism aren’t different contexts, but the same context seen from different angles. In 1500, Europe was a backwater compared to the Islamic and Chinese empires. European colonization of the Americas and the access to its resources made possible by slavery turned Europe into an economic powerhouse and supercharged its intellectual and social innovations.
The worry about modern European philosophers and racism isn’t primarily one of morality, as if complicity in colonialism makes them irredeemably bad. Kant and Hegel were racist, but only someone itching to dismiss them makes that the bottom line of the conversation. If the issue is framed in terms of moral judgments, we are already well into polarization.
The deeper issue is actually one of self-knowledge. When Kant and Hegel, and their followers, treated their ideas as pertaining to the Enlightenment and not to colonialism, how much was insight and how much was lack of self-awareness? This is a familiar form of criticism within modern European philosophy itself. Marx argued philosophers who claim their ideas belong to the realm of reason beyond economic forces were in the grips of bourgeois ideology. Nietzsche ridiculed Kant’s transcendental claims as the philosopher’s sin of ignoring actual historical processes. Similarly, when one wonders about the relation of colonialism to modern European philosophers, it needn’t be to determine whether their statues should be removed. We can keep the statues and the admiration, but seek greater contextual understanding than was achieved in their time.
The importance of context cuts both ways. On the one hand, it helps to place familiar debates of knowledge, consciousness and morality within the social and material conditions of their time, and so blurs the line between philosophy and politics. But on the other hand, sensitivity to context means being open to the actual conditions of the thinkers in their time, and not reading back with smug certitude current moral ideas. In one way context brings us closer to thinkers of the past, helping us see them struggling with similar issues to us. In another way context places them further away, helping us see how they lived in a different age. This kind of dual vision is the price of understanding.
A nonpolitical example can bring this out. Descartes was a dualist who believed the mind was distinct from the body. Sometimes people associate this dualism with an even broader idea called “Cartesianism” in which reason is privileged over our material nature. In thinkers as different as Heidegger and Ryle, Rorty and Dreyfus, Cartesianism is the great bugaboo, the original sin of modernity which created a fundamental schism in our self-understanding. And because Descartes combined dualism with arguments for the existence of God, it has been natural for some to think Descartes’ concept of the mind is the same as a religious idea of the soul.
Some early modern scholars have argued in recent decades that these interpretations have little to do with the historical Descartes. A historically contextual reading suggests that far from focusing on the mind over the body, Descartes’ dualism was driven by his new mechanistic conception of matter. Descartes, a mathematician and scientist, was seeking to overturn Scholastic science without running afoul of the Church, and in the process had to rethink the sources of knowledge, the nature of the mind and the existence of God. In fact, according to scholars such as Alison Simmons, Descartes’ views of body and perception are much closer to the embodied cognition views of Ryle and Heidegger than the Cartesianism they inveighed against. If this is right, Descartes becomes both more and less familiar to us. More familiar because seeing Descartes firstly as someone who couldn’t just write openly about his scientific views makes him come alive more as a person. The Meditations isn’t just a bunch of arguments, but Descartes’ attempt at a complex negotiation of his social conditions, many of which aren’t, and couldn’t have been, made explicit in the text. This makes Descartes also less familiar because the modern science he was defending is now so in the air for us that we have to work to appreciate his break from the social and intellectual framework of his time.
Polarization requires taking for granted familiar images of past thinkers. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979, became a lightning rod in philosophy and the broader humanities because it was about Cartesianism and its influence on philosophy departments in modern academia. Rorty treated individual thinkers and the conceptual bug bears of modernity – Descartes and Cartesianism, Kant and Representationalism – as if they are the same. While I greatly admire Rorty’ book, this conflation of history and conceptual narratives has reenforced divides rather help find common ground. Speaking only at the abstract level of Representationalism versus Pragmatism, and fitting historical figures into those categories, forces a binary choice at every turn, in the present and in the reading of the past. There is then no way to rethink the terms of the debate. However, if one sees historical figures with new eyes and with greater openness to historical context, new, more productive conversations are possible.
Similarly, debates about modern European philosophy and colonialism run into the ground when the past is seen only through familiar categories of the present. Locke, Hume and Kant are neither just paragons of Reason nor perpetuators of Racism. As human beings and thinkers they are not reducible to either their famous arguments or to the sentences in which they expressed racist views. When purely lionized or demonized, the thinkers as people are made secondary to abstractions of Western Philosophy or White Supremacy, and the illusion is fostered that the hardened concepts of our time reflect historical truth. The past becomes just another area into which our current fights spill over. Avoiding polarization requires a genuine openness to the past so that its complexity can shed light on the complexity of our time and shake up current pieties.
Sometimes people try to avoid polarization by simply suggesting that each side makes good points and hoping good will can stop the nastiness. But such both side-ism usually ends up being passive because it doesn’t go to heart of polarization. What forces people into extreme positions isn’t primarily ill will or cantankerousness; those traits develop and harden as a result of becoming habituated to fighting. The driving force is conceptual. Wittgenstein said of most philosophy: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Polarization is driven by concepts we take so much for granted that we see them reflected everywhere and hardly realize they are optional and that we can get outside them. Moving beyond polarization then isn’t a special task set apart from the normal task of reflection. It is the perennial work of thinking and seeing the world afresh.
Bharath Vallabha was born in India and moved to New York when he was eleven. He has a BA in philosophy from Cornell, a PhD from Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr for a few years before leaving academia. He blogs at https://bvphilosophy.wordpress.com/