Dear Western Philosophy,

It’s been a while since I wrote to you. Last time we talked I said some pretty harsh things to you. I said you were racist because you looked down on your cousins – Asian philosophy, African philosophy and others. I said you were elitist because you looked down on people from your ivory tower. I said you were out of touch because you stopped caring.

So I left. I studied you in college and grad school and was a professor. But I quit academia and turned away. I didn’t want to think about you again. That was seven years ago.

But recently I have been thinking about you a lot. An unexpected thing happened: I realized again how amazing you are. The anger turned to love. And appreciation. Thank you. I am grateful for all that you do and all that you have given me.

The change started during the 2016 election.

As an immigrant, I felt nervous about Trump. He was saying the reason many Americans are suffering is because the elites let in too many immigrants. That Bush and Obama cared more about people like me than families that have been here for generations. Was I a parasite? That seemed to be the implication. When I became an American citizen 20 years ago, I felt welcomed by America. Now America didn’t seem so sure.

I was upset. I wanted to yell I am as American as any American, and how dare anyone claim otherwise. But then, the years of reading and listening to you kicked in, and I thought: let me step back from my emotions and take a breath. Let me gain distance from my feelings, the way Socrates, Marcus Aurelius and Kant said was crucial to being rational. The stepping back didn’t make the anxiety disappear. But it created a barrier between me and the anxiety. It helped me think from a space of reflection, instead of a space of fear.

I thought of you then with a smile. Like you had my back. I remembered why I loved you in the first place.

When I stepped back from my emotions, I wasn’t interested in yelling. I wanted to understand what I was feeling and what was happening in the country. Where could I turn to for that? Not to Trump rallies. Or to Trump critics’ saying it is all racism.

I turned to thoughtful journalism. To nuanced new media. To sociology. To history.

And to you.

To Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke and Kant, and debates about where political authority comes from, and what a just government looks like. To Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, and debates about what form a democratic government should take. To Rawls and Nozick, and debates about the scope of government. To Oakeshott, Arendt and Strauss, and debates about the relations between philosophy, politics and culture.

And further, to debates about modernity and its limits, truth and power, individuality and community, nationalism and globalism. To debates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and Burke, Mill and Marx, Malcolm X and William Buckley, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler.

With these debates in mind, I started to hear the ideas behind the vitriol in public discourse. Through you I could hold conflicting ideas at once without feeling overwhelmed.

My coming to America was good for me and for America. I believe that. Still, the policies that enabled me to become an American might have adversely affected some Americans; considering that thought without taking it personally, I could see it was possible. Holding only to the first idea made me feel indignant at “Make America Great Again”. Holding only to the second idea made me feel guilty. Holding onto both ideas at once, I felt called to deeper reflection. To think more. To listen better. To engage in more nuanced reasoning.

You didn’t solve the issues for me. No clear answers tied with a bow. But you helped me feel empowered to face up to my own blinds spots. To stand up for myself without putting others down.

In the process I realized better what it means to be American. It is not simply about an economic dream. It is about a lived, philosophical project begun by the Founding fathers and mothers. They were inspired by you – the tradition of Plato, Aquinas and Descartes, a tradition founded on the power of ideas and the mutual respect implicit in debate. They founded this nation as an heir of Western philosophy and as its extension.

When I became an American citizen, I became a part of this project. A part of you.

This is why I couldn’t forget you when I left academia. I thought I could leave you behind in the classroom. But in thinking about what it means to be an American, I discovered you again in the very air and fabric of America. And you were there for me. Welcoming me when I felt unwelcome. Helping me understand my fellow Americans through the ideas and debates that are a part of you. Encouraging me to respond to others’ fears not with my own fears, but through the strength and hope of reflection.

I used to think you were defined by academia. By the gatekeeping, the who’s in and out of the pantheon, the marginalizing of other traditions in your name. I couldn’t look past it and identified you with it.

But I see now you are not limited that way. You contain multitudes within you. Academic and non-academic philosophers. Religious and atheist. Liberal and conservative. Men and women. Distinctly Western, and yet also influenced by, and open to, other traditions, wherever the search for truth leads.

You spoke through Socrates at his trial. Through Jefferson at the declaration of Independence. Through Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You speak through me and through the person I disagree with. When I remember that, no matter how deep the disagreement or how personal the argument, I see the other person as another me. Because we are bound through you. For that, I am grateful.

Sincerely yours,

Bharath Vallabha

Image: “The Death of Socrates,” Jacques-Louis David

About The Author

Profile photo of Bharath Vallabha

I studied philosophy at Cornell and Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr. Currently I am a production supervisor at an accounting firm. I blog at cosmic-awareness.com.

  • Terence Blake

    I think this “Letter” gives a good example of how one can relate to philosophy both 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 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. 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 been through many phases in my relation to philosophy, from passionate (albeit unconscious, for the most part) belonging to equally passionate alienation to a sort of cold and numb indifference. I have considered, and called, myself at various times an anti-philosopher, poly-philosopher, a-philosopher. I went through a period of several years when I thought I was 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 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.

    I think 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 by Hubert Dreyfus, one on Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME and the other on “From gods to God and back”. The ideas and references 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 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 helps one to have a more friendly relation to the multitudes within and around us, and also to accept 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.

  • Terence Blake

    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-philosopher. I went through a period of several years when I thought I was 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.

    Friendly regards,
    Terence.