Bharath Vallabha has posted an interesting text at Hippo Reads recounting and reflecting on the evolution of his relation to philosophy, entitled « An Immigrant’s Letter to Western Philosophy« . I am cross-posting my comment here, but I highly recommend reading the original article.

Dear Bharath, I think this « Letter » gives a good example of how one can relate to philosophy both from within and outside the academy, and how over the years this relation can change to the point of transforming one’s vision of what philosophy is.

It is an important discovery to realise concretely in one’s intellectual development that philosophy cannot be reduced to an academic discipline with a canonical list of books and thinkers, or of problems, concepts and arguments. Knowing this abstractly is one thing, experiencing it as a resolution of an existential tension is something else.

Philosophy is something more than wisdom of life, and the best way to get access to at least part of that « something more » is to go through a university education in philosophy. However, there are not all that many jobs available in philosophy compared to the number of people who study it, and many of those jobs are not all that satisfying.

I too have gone through a multitude of phases in my relation to philosophy, ranging from passionate (albeit naive or unconscious) belonging to equally passionate alienation, to a sort of cold and numb indifference.

I have considered myself, and called myself, at various times an anti-philosopher, a poly-philosopher, a non-philosopher, and an a-philosopher. I went through a period of several years when I thought I was totally finished with philosophy, and called myself an « ex-philosopher » (at least mentally, as noone else I knew understood or cared about such an idea).

I think I came back to thinking myself a philosopher slowly and imperceptibly over a number of years. These questions of conversion, of de-conversion and of re-conversion seem to be an integral part of relating to philosophy as a whole, and not just to believing in one particular philosophy.

What set me on the route back to philosophy was listening to someone talk about life and politics in Kantian terms, with reference to a few more contemporary thinkers. I realised that although I didn’t much agree with Kant, this was very much « my » language.

A couple of years later I listened to a couple of podcasts of philosophy courses by Hubert Dreyfus, one on Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME and the other on « From gods to God and back ». The ideas and references contained therein were closer to my own ideas than Kant, but still rather unsatisfactory for me.

So I began reading a lot more philosophy, especially contemporary French philosophy (like you I am an immigrant, only I migrated to France to study philosophy, only to become disenchanted or « dis-enamoured » after a few years). I began to read living philosophers with big ideas and a complicated relation to philosophy composed of being both inside and outside the traditional canon (the most important are Bernard Stiegler, Bruno Latour, Alain Badiou, and François Laruelle).

These thinkers, despite having widely divergent views on many subjects, have given me at least the rudiments of a philosophical language for talking about my life and the world I live in. Thanks to them, and to the preceding generation of French philosophers, I realised not only is France a « lived, philosophical project » (as you say America is) but that my life is a lived philosophical project, and so is the life of others (as you do not say explicitly, but imply and exemplify, in your « Letter »).

So your « Letter » has good company in raising in lived terms the old questions of what is philosophy? and what use is it?

The answer is suggestive, but inconclusive, because recognising that something in life (philosophy, ourself, the other person) « contains multitudes » sounds a little vague if we are accustomed to searching for a single unified answer. Perhaps having been « outside » philosophy for some length of time can help one to have a more friendly relation to the multitudes within and around us, and also to accept the moments when things don’t feel very multitudinous.

In conclusion, I don’t think you are at the end of your changing attitudes to philosophy nor are you as alone as you may sometimes think, but I am glad that you keep us posted.

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  1. landzek dit :

    Thank you so much for who you are and what you do.

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  2. Bharath Vallabha dit :

    Hi Terence,

    I posted a reply to your comment on my blog. Also putting it here. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Thanks for your friendly and understanding note. It resonates with me very much. I also think this isn’t the end of my changing attitudes to philosophy, as I imagine that will continue to happen through out my life.

    “I realised that although I didn’t much agree with Kant, this was very much « my » language.” — Yes, this is very much my experience as well. You have put it very well. Part of what I have come to is the inescapability – in a good way – of Western philosophy for those living in Western countries. America, England, France and so on are, as democratic countries, living expressions of philosophy. But then, actually, so too is every country in its own way.

    I think this is one way academic philosophy, at least in the West, has both been great and also deeply wrong since WWII. Academic philosophy, I think, has attempted a universal voice bypassing national boundaries – very much like the sciences. This universal voice took on either a positivist or a post-positivist outlook, or a broadly Marxist human science perspective. Either way, the link between philosophy and national boundaries were ignored. As if to focus on one’s own country is to affirm a kind of national supremacy.

    The analogy to philosophy as a lived life in one’s own case shows the limits of this way of thinking. If I try to live a philosophical life by focusing on my own life – that does not make me an egoist! Or that somehow I think I am better than others. It is in the nature of an individual that he take care of his being. Same with families. And with communities. And with nations. To try to short cut this and come up with a universal solution right from the start is actually a kind of intellectual laziness.

    As an American (immigrant or not), I see that I cannot understand America without understanding Western philosophy. And for giving me some grounding in that, I am extremely grateful to my education. And to the good work academic philosophy continues to do. And this is compatible with the idea that academic philosophy is nonetheless also failing to live up to its ideals – not just in being Eurocentric, but also, ironically, in not being, in America, American enough. These are two sides of the same problem, since America, like France, is in some ways not defined by blood and soil, but by ideas and ideals, and had the deep insight and courage more than 200 years ago to try embrace the multitudes within itself.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  3. landzek dit :

    Your insights of experience reflected in this response is, as usual, and actually, quite comforting. Revealing. And, if I may, therapeutic.

    Aimé par 1 personne

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