Three Models of Philosophy: Bureaucracy, Catalysis and Poetry
Much philosophy today is the bureaucracy of the mind; checking to see if scholars and laypeople are following the rules of reason, punishing them when they trespass the boundaries, cleaning up academic disciplines and making sure their concepts are well defined and deployed with the rigor appropriate to the discipline. Philosophy performs a policing function, regulating how concepts should be 'correctly' deployed in the sciences and the humanities.
Nothing wrong with being a babu, but kind of boring.
Then there's philosophy as catalysis, a model that goes all the way back to Socrates, who said he was the midwife of wisdom, i.e., not wise himself but capable of evoking wisdom in others through the process of Socratic inquiry. Collective catalysis is a particularly urgent need today to rid ourselves of mass superstitions and worse. I have much to say about philosophy as a catalyst for change but that's for another time and place.
Finally, let's come to philosophy as poetry.
Poetry is the crucible of language, drizzling new sensibilities into the river of words. Shakespeare alone is responsible for a substantial percentage of the English language, or what's more likely, he 'borrowed' those phrases from his forgotten contemporaries.
What poetry is to language, philosophy is to thought, a craft that brings new concepts and ways of thinking into the scholarly disciplines. That's the optimistic version; too many poets on the streets often attract the attention of the police, as we are finding in India today.
Don't get me wrong, there's reason to maintain law and order on the streets and in the classroom, but when the conditions of the world change, the regime's idea of order is felt by everyone else as oppression. That's when poets and philosophers should be ready to introduce new forms into the world.
I have been thinking these thoughts because conditions in India are changing faster than what anyone might have thought even a few months ago.
There's a widely told story about the shift: that the RSS and its right wing family never bought into the idea of India as a constitutional democracy for all people. Instead they want a Hindu nation in which all other communities live at the sufferance of their majoritarian masters.
The street has other ideas. Muslim women and men, students, activists and liberal Hindus are marching on the streets with the Indian flag in one hand and a copy of the constitution in the other. That solidarity gives us all hope.
Nevertheless, there's reason to believe that conditions have changed for good, that constitutional democracy may be in a state of crisis. We know that authoritarians aren't interested in securing everyone's flourishing, but is it possible that constitutional democracy is also in terminal decline? Last week, I wrote about three keystone crises: authoritarianism, climate change and extinction. Can constitutional democracy combined with neoliberal capitalism tackle any of these crises?
I am skeptical.
We need new political thoughts. We need new ecological thoughts. We need new planetary thoughts. For example:
- We need to rethink the concepts of identity that inform political life, citizenship being a prime example.
- Even more radically, we might have to rethink the concept of society itself.
Citizenship and Identity
Let's start with the first claim. A famous question in political philosophy asks: what's a just society?
Liberal democracies used to feel they've figured out a reasonably good answer to that question; after the Soviet Union fell, everyone agreed that liberal capitalism offers a universal framework for a just society with some quirks differentiating the Indian version from the Australian version. We are still stuck being human and have to go through the cycle of birth and death, but while we are alive, it sure seems like a life in Sweden or New Zealand is a good life.
Once liberal democracy is entrenched, it's a self-correcting mechanism. Today's injustices are corrected by expanding the circle of justice, which is how - the story goes - slavery ended, women were given the franchise, gay marriage was legalized and perhaps one day, animals will also have rights. The claim is that a liberal society will constantly try to erase inequalities between its citizens, or at least keep them within acceptable boundaries. In its self-correcting and self-healing capacity, liberal democracy resembles nothing more than the practice of science, which too (slowly) rejects faulty hypotheses and embraces a larger, more general view of the universe.
Clean air, clean streets, two cars and a nice house: the material basis for this assertion are clear enough, but what's the theoretical basis for this confidence?
The philosopher John Rawls suggested an answer by conducting a famous thought experiment that he called the veil of ignorance. He said imagine a society in which everyone wears a veil preventing them from knowing their own conditions: they could be rich or poor, female or male, Dalit or Brahmin but they have no way of knowing their fate.
Suppose you're wearing the veil and are asked to distribute 100 rupees amongst the population where you have the choice of distributing some subset to Dalits and the rest to Brahmins.
How will you do it?
The obvious answer is: equal division amongst everyone, for while wearing the veil you don't know whether you're Dalit or Brahmin.
Rawls suggests that while we don't wear veils in the real world, we formulate laws and policies as if we are doing so. Such idealization is common in the sciences too - we imagine planets and atoms as perfectly round balls even though they aren’t in practice. Veiled thinking is a form of political cognition. It doesn't work all the time, but it's a useful posture while designing a political system. Just as Galileo invites us to imagine dropping a heavy iron ball and a feather in the vacuum and asks us: "do they fall at the same rate?", Rawls asks us to wear a veil while thinking political thoughts.
In the Rawlsian system, the society is in equilibrium, e.g., a nation with fixed boundaries, a well established political and legal system whose edicts are enforceable by the state. Equilibrium doesn't mean the society is static - it could be a highly dynamic society with new technologies coming into being all the time. Nevertheless, the assumption is that the political and social rules of the game are well established and accepted by everyone. The veil of ignorance helps model the just society in equilibrium as a closed system with perfect symmetry between its citizens.
The 'society in equilibrium' is one style of political thought. Are there others?
No real world system realizes the Rawlsian ideal, but the western liberal democracies have come closest to doing so. Increasingly, even in those societies, there's a widespread worry that the 'equilibrium society' is a poor assumption.
The first problem with equilibrium is that we can get stuck in a sub-optimal equilibrium before we arrive at the just equilibrium. Some entrenched divisions have proven harder to remove than the self-correcting character of liberal democracy might imply. The treatment of minorities and oppressed populations is a good example. The United States started with genocide and slavery and continues to treat its minority populations atrociously, suggesting that social institutions aren't able to implement principled changes (such as the veil of ignorance) as they might desire. Assuming they desire so.
It's all well and good when technology helps you replace your current computer with one twice as good every two years, but what happens when after ten years, the 32 times better computer can perform your job better than you? What happens when all the toxins from billions of thrown away computers start poisoning your water? What happens when the owners of computer companies use surveillance based on the data they collect to prevent you from agitating for equal treatment? Instead of constantly progressing towards a just equilibrium, the dynamics of the liberal system might lead to entrenched power structures that prevent further progress.
In fact, as the ongoing protests in India show, these entrenched power structures might try to redefine the idea of citizenship itself. In a liberal society, citizenship is an attribute of individuals, i.e., a direct relationship between the individual and the state, but illiberal societies might say that citizenship is defined by membership in a community, so that Muslims are lesser citizens than Hindus in India ( and the opposite in Pakistan). In other words, social changes can lead to disputes over features that were considered fixed i.e., in equilibrium.
Second, externalities to the system - i.e., processes that aren't accounted for in our imagination of the political system (or of society as a whole) - might become too large and disrupt the system as a whole. Carbon molecules weren't part of anyone's idea of justice, but here we are, climate change induced bushfires threatening the existence of one of the wealthiest societies on the planet.
Which brings me to the second point: even society might be too restricted a political category for the future. Once carbon molecules and flu viruses become constant presences in our political sphere, we need to account for them somewhere in our calculus. The idea of society doesn't have the resources to deal with these agencies knocking on our door.
What comes after society?