by Bharath Vallabha
For sixteen years I studied and taught philosophy. As a professor I taught Plato, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. I thought I knew Western philosophy. Boy, was I wrong.
Though I taught the great texts, in an important sense I didn’t understand them or the thinkers who wrote them. For — and here I have to admit to a basic embarrassing fact — during my time as an academic, I had little to no knowledge of a great deal of European and American history.
I had many views about modern European philosophy, similar to thinkers I admired such as Anscombe, Rorty and Taylor. I felt modern philosophy was a deep mistake, caught in false dichotomies such as mind and body, and fact and value. I scoffed at Descartes’ dualism, Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s transcendentalism. I wanted to say, with Ryle and Putnam, and MacIntyre and Dreyfus, that modern philosophy was rife with confusions which need to be overcome.
Yet, somehow it felt to myself like my criticisms of modern European philosophy rang hollow; as if I was tilting at windmills rather than speaking to deep errors. Why did criticisms which seemed profound in the hands of Anscombe feel faded and desperate in my hands?
In high school, I took American history and European history. I did well in the classes and enjoyed them. But I didn’t identify with the history as my own, as an individual and as an American. I didn’t know how to identify with those histories. I regarded it as “their history” and dutifully studied it as part of being a good student. Once I finished high school, I promptly forgot most of it.
When I started taking philosophy classes in my freshman year — Intro to Early Modern Philosophy and so on — I was drawn to the texts and the arguments. It was exhilarating to read Descartes’ Meditations and Hume’s Enquiries. And the text which seemed most interesting — Kant’s First Critique — was also the most baffling. The texts seemed to hang in the air freed of any cultural or historical context. The professors introduced the thinkers with a brief biography and that was the end of any grounding of the texts to the earth. We were off analyzing the structures in the air, the pure arguments. This naturally fostered a sense on my part that I was understanding the arguments and therefore I was understanding the thinkers and what they tried to do.
Given what little I knew of 17th century France or 18th century Prussia, these thinkers who I thought I was understanding might as well have been Martians. Even when, over time, I moved to the front of the class and was teaching a basic Early Modern Philosophy class, I had no idea there was such a thing as the Glorious Revolution in England that Locke was responding to, or what Romanticism was and how it related to the lives of Rousseau and Kant, or what the French Revolution meant for the post-Kantians. The examples are easily multiplied. I was critical of Mill’s utilitarianism but had little sense for his liberalism. I read Nietzsche without thinking twice about the fact that I didn’t know why Wagner mattered. I poured over Wittgenstein’s texts without wondering about the massive changes in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, or about the cultural differences between Vienna and Cambridge which Wittgenstein acutely felt.
The lack of knowledge I speak of was of course my own. Many academics knew the relevant history and cultural context and so could read the texts not simply as structures floating in air but as understandable outgrowths of their time and place. This was the obvious difference between Anscombe and me, even as I tried to understand and agree with her criticisms of modern philosophy. Her criticism was rooted in an awareness of the historical shifts within modern philosophy. My criticism was rooted in nothing other than the words on a page, freed of any context. When Anscombe argued that Kantian moral philosophy dislodged concepts from their historical, cultural grounding, she was thinking very much of Europe’s actual history, in the pre-modern and modern eras. When I attempted to say the same about Kantian moral philosophy, my criticism, free of an awareness of the historical context, was an even thinner and more abstract apparition than Kantian universalism; my purported diagnosis worse than the illness.
Even if my experience isn’t indicative of many academic philosophers, still it’s not entirely idiosyncratic either. In fact, it is interesting as a snapshot of academic philosophy at the turn of the 21st century how far one can go in the profession without knowing or even caring about the cultural context of the great European philosophers. The turning point was the 60’s and the great opening of academia to people of all backgrounds.
Prior to the 1960’s there was a shared cultural and historical knowledge among academic philosophers, and more generally among people who went to college. They had a sense of the historical contours of modern Europe because that was the bread and butter of their overall education. Russell and Carnap might not have mentioned the French Revolution in their texts, but it was like mother’s milk to them to know how Kantianism and post-Kantian German Idealism were affected by, and in turn influenced, the main events of late 18th and 19th century Europe. They didn’t have to explicitly mention it because it was largely implicit and taken for granted.
The famous Davos debate in 1929 between Cassirer and Heidegger, which was also attended by Carnap, is a great example. The topic of the encounter was the status of neo-Kantianism. At first sight this might seem far removed from being a cultural event, any more than a contemporary debate in Kant scholarship might speak to our cultural fault lines. And yet, the debate about Kant at Davos spoke deeply to the fate of Europe in the 1920’s. Kantianism for them wasn’t a mere abstruse view about the noumenal realm or whether it’s permissible to lie. It was in the 1920’s still tied to the resonances of Kantianism in 1800, and how it aligned with the cultural revolutions of that time. In debating Kant’s philosophy, Cassirer and Heidegger (and Carnap) were debating not merely arguments on a page but the possible meanings and trajectories of Europe between Cassirer’s optimistic cosmopolitanism and Heidegger’s defensive nationalism. The analysis of Kant was a way for them to debate their shared knowledge of European history.
The 1960’s and the expansion of the student body radically disrupted this situation. There was no longer any obvious shared knowledge, European or otherwise. The relevant shared knowledge isn’t merely what one can teach in a classroom, but what students and professors share in their lives. Cassirer and Heidegger didn’t just have the same courses on Kant or European history. Their shared knowledge was wider and more amorphous; something like moving in similar cultural circles, even if quite opposed.
After the 60’s, this broader sense of shared knowledge disappeared from academic philosophy. There was still, as before the 60’s, a focus on argument. But whereas before the arguments were the tip of an iceberg of a large shared background, now the arguments — freed of any deep shared backgrounds — became free standing ice caps, adrift on the oceans of debate. The arguments were abstract as before, but now were only abstract. As academic philosophy, in line with the general pressures in academia, became more specialized, professionalization itself became the new shared background.
It was in this context that I encountered Descartes and Hume, Kant and Russell in philosophy courses in the 90’s. My limited knowledge of European history didn’t seem to be a problem. It was like I could right away study Einstein’s theories without knowing basic physics. The sense that I could think right away with Descartes and Kant was enthralling, as if freed of worrying about my historical and cultural differences from them, I could talk to them in a rarefied Platonic realm of pure ideas. All that mattered were the primary texts, and some secondary texts clarifying the arguments. History seemed as remote and as irrelevant as it did in a math class. Wasn’t this wonderful, a great opening of European philosophy to anybody, irrespective of their background cultural knowledge?
It was wonderful in many ways. Those heady years of first encountering classic texts, and developing intellectual friendships with great thinkers, were some of my best times. But there was a downside as well to this sense of an easy encounter with thinkers across the ages. Without any grounding in the actual historical issues Descartes and Kant were responding to, I developed a false sense of familiarity with them. Modern philosophers didn’t mean to me flesh and blood people, dealing with messy realities in tumultuous times. They meant to me simply texts. Descartes was mainly The Meditations and Kant mainly the three Critiques. The intellectual friendships I was forming weren’t with thinkers but with paragraphs and arguments. It was an early version of how social media gives the illusion of friendship through an attachment to texts and images.
And as with social media, the illusion of familiarity can easily breed disappointment. A false sense of familiarity can turn on a dime into a false sense of righteous indignation. It can viscerally feel like the person on the other end of Facebook or Twitter is deeply mistaken and needs to be immediately corrected, when in fact the lack of mutual understanding is mainly exacerbated by the medium.
The trouble with forming friendships with paragraphs and arguments is that it is necessarily one sided. You can spend years trying to understand paragraphs (Kant’s transcendental deduction, Wittgenstein’s private language argument and so on), but the paragraphs can’t try to understand you back. If you mistakenly think you are forming a relationship not just with paragraphs but with the thinker who wrote those paragraphs, then the silence from the paragraphs can feel like an affront. As if the thinker you are reading doesn’t — and can’t — care about you or your situation.
Like those now who see in modern European philosophers only faces of colonialism or patriarchy, slowly I grew alienated from the thinkers who initially seemed would be life long friends. I started to resent the fact that while I was spending years trying to understand them, they weren’t speaking to my life. I mistook the silence of the paragraphs for the racism of the thinkers.
This was an easy conflation to make because many of those thinkers were racist, given the situation of their times. But what triggered the disappointment and the anger at “their racism” wasn’t really how Locke and Hume, and Kant and Hegel, acted in their lives. That presupposes I knew something about their lives beyond the most perfunctory facts. But I didn’t. What I knew, what I had studied, were the texts freed of any historical context. I knew paragraphs Locke wrote on personal identity and Kant wrote on a priori knowledge, and I uncritically assumed that wasLocke and Kant.
If this seems like a silly mistake to make — to conflate paragraphs with thinkers, and to get angry at the thinkers because they seem uncaring and distant — I entirely agree. To me now my past indignant reactions to the racism of modern philosophy seem farcical. Not because modern philosophers were saints, but because the trigger for my tumultuous emotions wasn’t really what they did or didn’t do in a time and place I didn’t know much about. The trigger was my interaction with some paragraphs, which I mistook to be like a personal confrontation with racists.
The silliness of my former self’s confusions, however, wasn’t a personal failing, as if he was personally too immature to realize what he was doing. The silliness, and the resulting very real emotional confusions, were fostered by academia giving the impression that one could think with Locke and Kant just by reading their texts and without knowing in depth the historical context of their lives.
Just as social media promises easy friendships, which then prompts equally easy feelings of betrayal, post 60’s academic philosophy promised easy and immediate intellectual friendships with the great philosophers of the European tradition. It was promised that anyone could get the same philosophy education that Russell and Anscombe had, so that we could think, like them, with the great thinkers of the past. But just as social media ignores the subtle but pervasive background practices needed for sustained friendship, the new professionalizing discipline ignored the background practices and shared cultural knowledge needed for intellectual exchanges. It was assumed classical philosophical education could be packaged into syllabi and produced for mass consumption. The culture wars in academic philosophy, indistinguishable from the culture wars on social media, are the inevitable result.
Still, an introduction to the philosophy texts themselves, even if independent of their historical context, is better than nothing. It can be a first step towards getting to know the great philosophers. As I realized how little I knew European and American history, I started to learn that history and become open to it. And an amazing thing happened. The frustration and the anger about the racism of modern European philosophers started to fade. The philosophers started to appear as people struggling in their times the way we struggle in our times. Just as I am not what I write, even if I like what I write, neither are the great philosophers just their texts, even though those texts are great. The greatness of the texts is inseparable from their authors’ attempts to live deeply meaningful lives in a time of great cultural change. As I opened up to the philosophers as people, across the centuries and even given their limitations, I could hear them speak back to me.
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/