The Philosophers Behind the Texts

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

24 thoughts on “The Philosophers Behind the Texts

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  1. I too was struck by the ahistorical orientation of late-20th century analytic philosophy, the way texts were read for their “arguments” and without any real engagement with the linguistic or broader culture of these other times and places or interest in thinkers contemporary with the writer in question (influences and so on). There were always exceptions to this of course: specialists in classical or medieval philosophy, for example.

  2. Thank you for that great article! It reflects my own different but similar intellectual journey. To put it in maybe too grandiose a term: that to me is the difference between knowledge and wisdom; it requires the often humbling and sometimes disturbing experiences of ones own lifetime. And that’s why it is so stupid to discard older thinkers/academics as obsolete and backward.

  3. Good story. That the writer gained historical perspective, over time, is familiar. That he did not really know what he was teaching, early on, is not surprising. My own interest in;appreciation of philosophy is work-in-progress. This expands as some ideations and theses are assuming better form—taking on ‘concrete operational’ * characters (*see: Jean Piaget). I have been advised to create a blog. Am considering that.

  4. Hello Bharath,

    I’m not a philosopher nor did I major in philosophy. The one philosophy course I took at the university, about 55 years ago, was completely ahistorical. That was probably one of several reasons why I decided not to major in the subject.

    I’ve always read a lot of history, especially European history, from the Greeks on and so when I’ve read philosophers, I’ve always seen them as historical figures. I read biographies of philosophers: those by Safranski on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger are especially good, because Safranski combines biographical detail,
    historical background and a knowledge of philosophy.

    After reading a decent biography such as those by Safranski, the reader gets a sense of meeting a person when one reads a philosopher, not just as you say, a text.

    1. Hi s.wallerstein, I really liked Safranski’s biography of Heidegger when I read it a while back. Have been meaning to read his other books. I always enjoyed reading biographies of philosophers, like Ray Monk’s on Wittgenstein. But the funny thing is, which I realize in retrospect, how much I missed in the biographies not knowing the broader history of the times of these thinkers. The biographies got me to the person behind the texts, but as I read them back then, the person was himself a kind of free floating entity not rooted in history. This probably has something to do with how I saw myself as not really feeling rooted in history. A historical perspective seems to come more easily to some than others, and for me it was something that came only later on.

        1. I read Eilenberger’s book and really liked it. Also Sigmund’s Exact Thinking in Demented Times, about the positivists. The latter is a good example of how historical context can illuminate things. I used to generally find positivism limited, and still do. But the book helped me to admire the positivists as people and not see them just in a reductive way, limited to ideas like the verification principle.

          1. Bharath,

            Safranski has just come out with a new book, which apparently is not yet available in English translation, but has come out in Spanish with the title “Ser Unico”, that is,
            “Being Unique” or “To Be Unique” or “Unique Being”.

            It details the development of the idea of self-identity starting with Luther and Montaigne, covering Diderot, Rousseau, Thoreau, Stirner and Kierkegaard up to Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Hannah Arendt and Ernst Junger.

            I just ordered it. It’s the kind of book I look forward to reading and I’d guess that you’d enjoy it too. I’m fairly sure that the English version will appear soon.

  5. Hi Bharat: I was trained as much in history as in philosophy. My hope was to become an historian of ideas. I wrote a PhD on Joseph Priestley, a perfect example of a polymathic thinker who was important both in philosophy and in the history of his times. But my hope did not work out. History faculties did not value the history of ideas, and philosophy programs had no room for the history of philosophy. To make a career I had to become a philosopher, teaching arguments detached from their historical contexts. With a certain amount of luck I was able to find a career of that sort. I never once taught the sort of subject I thought I had trained for. I regret that, but I can’t complain, having enjoyed the journey I had to take.

    One of my early heroes was John Passmore, author of “The Perfectibility of Man” and much else. Another was Isaiah Berlin. Arthur Lovejoy’s “The Great Chain of Being” was a revelation to me. I have read a great deal J.G.A. Pocock’s work, including lately his “The Discovery of Islands”. For me Alasdair Macintyre modelled the art of combining history and philosophy. Those were the exemplars I hoped to imitate at my own much lower level.

    I recently discovered Peter Adamson’s work, which he calls “History of Philosophy without any Gaps”. He has done about 600 podcast episodes. Amazing. Luckily, he has found institutions that support this endeavour.

    In general, as you have found, it is hard to combine history and philosophy, but I’m glad that some remarkable people have been able to do it, for the benefit of the rest of us.

    Best wishes. Alan

    1. Hard? It’s one of the more common combinations. I was a double major in philosophy and history myself.

      Some philosophical positions and arguments ate only scrutable from within a particular historical frame of reference, but certainly not all of them or likely even most. Indeed, in some cases, as David points out, that’s the whole point.

      1. Dan: I was referring to the career prospects of someone who tries to work in both history and philosophy. No doubt I was being too parochial. I think few Australian universities would employ academics to work in such a cross-disciplinary way. It may well be different in the US.

    2. Alan, That’s very interesting to hear, that someone who studied both history and philosophy could have a hard time connecting them – though I can see how that might be. I recently started reading some of Isaiah Berlin and it’s great. I always liked Macintyre and similarly, Charles Taylor, and now am appreciating them more. To do that kind of history of ideas where the history and the philosophy come together is, I imagine, very hard, and requires institutional support in the kind of thinkers and departments one is in.

      Both my undergrad and grad depatment had strong historians of philosophy. But if I wanted to write like Berlin or Taylor, not sure that would have been easy, since the scholars of history I took classes from, like Terence Irwin or Christine Korsgaard, though wonderful, don’t quite connect the arguments to the social context as much as brilliantly open new ways of thinking of the arguments. They were good at making historical figures come alive as contemporary thinkers, and so suggest that the differences in history and context are less important than one might imagine. I don’t deny the importance of this kind of bringing history and philosophy together. But it seems to me different from what Berlin and Macintyre do, which is more to highlight in deep ways how the historical context is inseparable from the argument and to appreciate thinkers even if they are not, and cannot be, treated as contemporaries. Of course, I was not that good at either kind of historical philosophy, though by temperament I might have resonated more easily with the Berlin style if I appreciated it more earlier.

  6. I feel obliged to be contrarian 😉 I thought one point of philosophy is the attempt to be timeless and perennial. If you see analytic philosophy as physics-envy, the fact that one can gain understanding the concepts of Special Relativity without knowing the detailed history of the ether hypothesis is a feature rather than a bug. Similarly, from my very limited understanding, one feature of Kant and Descartes (and Aquinas, I guess) that their admirers prized is that one gets reasonably close to standard Christian ethics etc based on timeless rational arguments based on relatively few premises. When I read Plato’s Dialogues, it is interesting to think about how he was a wrestler and a war veteran and embedded in a quite alien culture, and that he tried to write documents so that the numbers of lines were divisible by 12 or 360, for Pythagorean mystical reasons, but the best things are how we recognize all these dudes arguing with him and how their and his ways of thinking are still relevant.

    1. Good point, and I don’t deny it. After all, when I didn’t know much about ancient Greece or modern Europe, that didn’t get in the way of my being absorbed when reading Plato’s Dialogues or Berkeley’s Dialogues. But there was a certain point at which I felt the arguments themselves, treated ahistorically, just led to more and more debate but not to much clarification. My point isn’t that there is one right way of thinking of philosophy, or even the history of philosophy. As I note in response to Alan above, there are different ways of bringing history and philosophy together, and it is an interesting disagreement what it means to think of philosophy as timeless. It can mean there are arguments that transcend time and place, or that in appreciating the boundedness to time and place of each philosophy, we can start to sense some similarities in the human condition, even if stating what those similarities are isn’t straightforward.

  7. For philosophy students with a lot to read Basil Wiley’s background books of the 17th. 18th and 19th. centuries give a succinct account of the intellectual milieu of those eras. The 17th.Century Background is available on
    notes on Locke and Poetry, Joseph Glanvill, Poetry and the Cartesian Spirit etc.
    Very readable. But you probably know of his work already.

  8. I very much doubt that “culture wars in academic philosophy” are the “inevitable result” of the pedagogical practices you describe. The culture wars to which you refer are a broad phenomenon whose roots are almost certainly exogenous to academic philosophy. Simply put, academic philosophy is just another little boat getting swept up in a giant wave. You would have gotten swept up even if you all had been reading more history. And reading more history now isn’t going to save you. One of the reasons that the bogus race and gender ideologies are so popular is that they are vague enough to enable lots of people to present their own pet projects as if they were tailor made to advance the cause of anti racism or whatever else the cause may be. And it looks like what you’re doing here is pretty much the same thing: taking your own pet project (changing academic philosophy’s relation to history) and marketing it as some sort of antidote to the pernicious influence of the bogus ideologies. If you really want to save your discipline, what truly matters is standing up to the bogus ideologues in a public way that shows your students and colleagues that those of them who disagree with the ideologues are not alone. Dan does this frequently and effectively. Diminished understanding of history has no part played a role in the rise of these ideologies, but there are plenty of people who suffer from the very same diminished historical understanding and who nevertheless see through the nonsense.

    1. Certainly didn’t mean to deny there are broader forces for the culture wars. Nor am I interested in “saving your discipline”. I haven’t been a professor for a while and think the discipline is beyond saving at this point. It will survive but in a vastly different form than when I was in it.

      My main point is how appreciating the history and context of philosophers helped me personally in being less caught in race ideologies. I wasn’t making any claim about how to respond to such ideologies in general. If someone thinks European philosophy is racist and should be ditched, he is not going to be open to learning more European history! So yes, other ways of responding will be needed. But, at the same time, personally I feel “standing up” in a confrontational way only fuels the flames.

      Perhaps worth highlighting that it isn’t just the race and gender ideologues who might not care about European history. Many on the far right don’t care either because they have a fantasy vision of the history. A challenge about the cultural wars is how to get either side to care about actual history and not to see it only through a lens of original purity or just racism. It’s a matter of creating hope for dialogue. Being open to the history helped me not fight with my philosophy education and to actually admire western philosophers more deeply, and that fills me with hope.

      1. You may not have explicitly proposed specific remedies for the current state of affairs, but I did interpret part of your post (specifically, the part I quoted) as making a historical claim about what caused the current state of affairs. That was the part of the post that I found most interesting. To be clear, I think that studying the factors you identify (the repackaging of philosopical education for “mass consumption,” the lack of relevant historical knowledge among students and professors) could be quite illuminating. I just think it is way too reductive to say that the culture wars, and the race and gender ideologies that are such a prominent feature of the culture wars, are an “inevitable result” of those factors. Repackaging a set of philosophical texts for a population that had lesser knowledge of the historical context in which those texts were written was bound to result in a philosophical discourse that was different from a prior discourse in which the participants had greater awareness of that historical context. That doesn’t mean the new discourse would ineviatbly have been dominated by culture wars or bogus ideologies. If that’s not what you were trying to say, then we don’t disagree. My attitude is shaped in partt by my view that mass education is a good thing, and that diminished historical awareness (though regrettable) was probably inevitable (we do live in the “United States of Amnesia,” as Gore Vidal put it), so I am very hesitant to accept the notion that these things were bound to lead to the madness that currently plagues us. I agree that the right-wing ideologues are just as ignorant of history as the left-wing ones. And I agree that, as a general matter, history is a good antidote to any kind of ideology.

        1. I think I see better what you mean.

          I felt strongly, and still feel, that academic philosophy is too Eurocentric. This made me prone to think, like social justice warriors, that academic philosophy is racist – and there is interesting stuff about how Kant and Hegel in particular influenced a Eurocentric philosophy curriculum. So I don’t think sjws are wrong as such, but its more what Wittgenstein said about philosophy: a picture holds one captive. I couldn’t get out of picture of racism – I kept being too focused on just a couple of facts and not see the broader reality.

          To me this is the heart of culture wars – each side focuses on certain facts as the central ones, and says others have to prioritize those facts in just that way to have a conversation. I find history helpful because it shows facts are messy things which resist single perspectives.

          Analytic philosophy was from its get go pretty ahistorical. But still, Russell and Wittgenstein, Ayer and Austin, etc could have fruitful conversations because they had a broadly similar background of European history. Russell had a British outlook and didn’t share Wittgenstein’s Viennese outlook, but each was aware of the other’s cultural grounding. This kind of mutual awareness is essential for fruitful dialogue. Russell and Wittgenstein were engaging as people, not just as bodies with different ideas.

          Mass education couldn’t replicate this for everyone. I too think mass education was a good thing; not saying it shouldn’t have happened. But in order to have people from different backgrounds talk to each other, it reduced philosophy to a common denominator of the abstract text and argument. This seemed ok from the 60s to the 90s because the culture of top analytic depts was still pretty Eurocentric. Once the diversity of backgrounds started to became explicit, it was clear the abstract arguments weren’t grounded in a shared background. Hence the culture wars exploded in the last two decades.

          It’s an open question whether this can be rectified completely from within academia. To find common ground in being open to history requires big picture thinking and prioritizing the philosopher as person over the argument. But hyper-professionalization is pulling in opposite direction, which is another cause of culture wars (am sure there are other causes as well).

  9. The big problem in philosophy came in the 1960’s because too many people started attending university. Paragraphs 10 and 12 above. That is a curious line of argument. Would you explain what you had in mind? Some change in primary and secondary school curricula? CHange in social demographics alone?

    1. Prior to the 60s there was a broad similarity between teachers and students. They shared for the most part race, gender, class, etc. – all the things now criticized. But it’s not like people back then all agreed about everything. They clearly didn’t, and they had deep philosophical disagreements. A certain amount of shared background is essential for disagreements to get traction.

      After the 60s this similarity between teachers and students couldn’t be assumed. Now they differed along race, gender, class, etc – and that is a good thing. But how do people talk across those differences? To my knowledge, the extent of this problem wasn’t addressed. It was covered over either by an abstract focus on arguments (which, disconnected from history, could be open to anyone), or – as done now by sjws – by some imaginary claim of morality which is supposed to bind everyone about how good diversity is (I say imaginary because this is a very abstract sense of morality not rooted in shared practices).

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