Philosopher: Bharath Vallabha


Bharath Vallabha received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University, and he held a tenure-track position in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College before leaving academic employment. In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about the experience and challenge of integrating his familial introduction to Indian philosophy with his academic training in Western philosophy, the philosophical necessity of pluralism, his reasons for leaving a tenure-track position, and his take on the challenge and promise of being a philosopher outside of the academy.

DEREK: How did you become interested in philosophy?

BHARATH: My first philosophical memories are from early in high school. Early in the morning, my parents would talk in the kitchen about the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and I could hear them from my room. It was soothing and inspiring: waking up to the serene higher consciousness which seemed to pervade the house.

Soon I started talking philosophy with my parents, especially my father. The intellectual influences in the household were Indian philosophers such as the 8th century thinker Adi Shankara and the 20th century thinker Sri Aurobindo. But mainly we talked about my father’s own ideas about the Gita, and he encouraged me to question the Gita and him. Our dialogues had the form of exchanges between a teacher and a student in the Upanishads. A question would be raised, such as “What is Reality?” or “What is the Self?”, my father would offer an answer, I would raise questions and concerns about his answer, he would elaborate on his view, I would press further, and so it would go. The conversations were free flowing and holistic: at any point any ideas could be brought to bear, whether from science, religion, politics or family, and could be subjected to scrutiny.

My father read widely, but he was not a scholar in an academic sense. He had a day job as an engineer in India and had a non-engineering county job in America; most of his time was taken up by work and his family. He didn’t equate philosophy with how one earned a living. It was for him a mode of being one cultivated within oneself, and which helped one to meet life with equanimity and without fear.

By the end of high school, I was inspired by philosophy in this sense. I wanted to do it all the time. But unlike my father, I also wanted to do it publically: I wanted it to be a part of my social identity. My father admired Shankara, but there was this clear difference between them: Shankara was a public philosopher, and my father was content for philosophy to be something he did within himself, and at most with his family. When I was starting college, the most pressing question I felt was: What form do I want my philosophical life to take? Do I want to be more like Shankara or my father? I wasn’t sure.


DEREK: How did you decide to study philosophy in college?

BHARATH: Prior to college I didn’t know about academic philosophy. I thought about skipping college and becoming a monk, as that seemed to me the only available path to the kind of life Shankara had.

Discovering philosophy courses at Cornell was a great thrill and relief. I couldn’t believe that here were people doing philosophy publically: in classrooms, cafes, bars. And I didn’t have to become a monk! I threw myself into the philosophy classes, and I couldn’t get enough. But soon the excitement became merged with deep tensions.

Initially my father was opposed to me being a philosophy major. He voiced parental concerns about my job prospects. But that wasn’t the main issue; he felt I could make my own life decisions. The real issue was philosophical. He argued that making philosophy my job would make me beholden to institutional momentum and interfere with the independence required for questioning everything. It is the kind of point Sextus Empiricus might have made to Plato, or Kierkegaard to Hegel. Debating with my father about what it means to be a professional philosopher was one of the most intense and stimulating intellectual experiences of my life.

Soon an asymmetry between my father and my professors became evident. Even though my father was critical of academic philosophy, he had to acknowledge it and engage with its influence on me. In contrast, my professors were completely in the dark about the rich philosophical influence on me from outside academia, and they acted as if any such influence from outside their purview was impossible.

The professors as people were nice, but they were generally complicit in the deeply ingrained institutional arrogance of academia. It was as if my father as both a non-academic and an Indian philosopher had to bow to them without debate, as if debate itself – a rational dialogue – was only possible from within the Western texts I was being taught in classes.

Often in philosophy classes I would sit in the back rows, or in the corner in seminar rooms. During classes or talks I hesitated to speak out, unsure of how to participate. When I did participate, there was often a kind of frantic, desperate energy to talk about many things at once. All this my professors seemed to chalk up to my “personality”: that I could be withdrawn, combative, not fully at ease. But it was not a matter of personality, but of institutional structures. I was always trying to connect the philosophy I was doing at home with the philosophy in the classrooms, and in this the professors were no help at all. They were giving an ultimatum at every turn: our way or the highway. Most of the time in my classes I was trying to figure out how to respond to that ultimatum.


DEREK: Would it have been helpful for you as a student if there were classes in Indian philosophy, or generally non-western philosophy, alongside classes on Aristotle and Kant?

BHARATH: Yes, absolutely. In fact, more than helpful: it was a necessity for me as a student which my education failed to provide.

Pluralism is sometimes criticized as “identity politics”. The idea is that if someone like me wants classes in Indian philosophy, it must be because I care more about affirming the Indian part of my identity than pursuing truth. This is nonsense. My desire to have classes in Indian philosophy wasn’t so that I can mindlessly affirm Indian culture, but so that I could think critically about my background.

I grew up with concepts key to Indian culture and philosophy such as dharma, moksha, atman, reincarnation and so on. As a student at Cornell and Harvard I wanted to think critically about these concepts, so as to make up my mind about what I think about them, and to reject them if necessary. I was happy to learn Plato and Kant. But when I tried to apply the western philosophy I learnt to the concepts I grew up with, I hit upon questions such as: Is the concept of reincarnation the same in Plato and the Gita? How does dharma relate to the categorical imperative? Is atman the same as a Cartesian soul? The questions didn’t seem like only translation issues, but philosophical questions in their own right. And yet there was no one to turn to for help. It was impossible to tell how to connect western philosophy to Indian philosophy when the latter was not even taught.

Sometimes it is said, “But Indian philosophy is taught in Indian studies departments, or the Divinity school, etc. Stop complaining about philosophy departments: go study it where it can be found.” Of course there are wonderful philosophers in these departments. But the issue is not where experts in Indian philosophy are located. It is how to foster systematic dialogue between traditions such that it is evident to students what it means to connect Indian philosophy with western philosophy, and vice versa. It is not a matter of taking some classes “over there”, but of seeing that a cosmopolitan education requires a dialogue between the world’s traditions.

As long as it is treated as normal that Indian philosophy is taught only in Indian studies departments and not in philosophy departments, it will be natural to think that Indian philosophy is local and not universal. People who equate pluralism with identity politics naively assume that the current institutional set up is tracking some essence of Indian philosophy; that while western philosophy can be separated from its culture (“it has its own department!”), Indian philosophy cannot be (“it is part of Indian studies!”). It is really time to get past this simple minded adherence to the status quo, and think critically about fostering greater dialogue.


DEREK: Do you think things are improving regarding pluralism in academic philosophy?

BHARATH: Definitely. My sense is there is more public discussion now on these issues than even five years ago when I left academia. I realize now there was even a lot happening when I was in academia, but I wasn’t aware of it because it wasn’t as public as it is now.

Still, we are only at the beginning. Many academic philosophers still feel threatened by the issue of pluralism. They feel if the door to diverse philosophical traditions is opened, philosophy as they know it will be over, and they don’t know what the future will be like. This fear is masked by claims of how European philosophy is better, or by claims of what “we” in the West get to teach in “our” schools. This is the philosophy version of the anxiety many Americans feel in light of the impending reality of a minority majority.

There is a major sea-change happening in America. Obviously Trump is appealing to many because he is promising a magical halt to this change, and affirming the mythical, mainly white image of America. It is both sad and hilarious that many academic philosophers bemoan Trump’s xenophobia but, in the same breath, affirm a similar xenophobia regarding philosophy. This hypocrisy plays right into the hands of someone like Trump. It is easy for such a person to say, “The liberal academics want us the public to change while they refuse to change.”

Academics tend to think academic philosophy is set apart from the masses, and so its problems can’t be of a piece with the issues in society. This is a fantasy. The issues of pluralism in the general society and in academic philosophy are the same, and academic philosophers now face a choice. They can embrace pluralism, in which case they can be a beacon for society. Or they can ignore pluralism and be fine with their status quo, in which case they will lose the ability to challenge the status quo in the broader society. It is a sign of just how much America is changing that philosophers like Rawls, Lewis and Rorty didn’t face this choice so starkly thirty years ago. But the choice is front and center for philosophers now.


DEREK: Let’s talk a little more about that choice. How much opportunity do you think academic philosophers still have to become “a beacon for society,” as you put it? How much does the broader culture still care about what academics have to say?

BHARATH: There is no denying that academic philosophy is marginalized in our society. One might not always feel it from within academia, surrounded by philosophers and philosophy books, but one feels it palpably outside academia. Even well-known academic philosophers rarely show up in mainstream media, politics, arts and so on. New internet venues like 3AM magazine, Aeon and the Stone blog are great, but they still target a specific, highly educated readership and not the majority of the population.

One might blame this situation on America’s anti-intellectualism. But that misses the real issue, which is how philosophical expertise is communicated in a democracy. In classrooms it is obvious the professor teaches and the student learns; no matter how cool the teacher is, even if he wears a T-shirt and sandals when teaching, this power differential is always assumed. But when professors step out of the classroom, in what mode can they address the public?

Most academic philosophers don’t know how to do philosophy outside of the power structures in the classroom. So they either don’t engage with the public, or if they do, they act as if they are in a larger, more informal classroom. But from the perspective of the public, this makes no sense. Most people interested in philosophy want to get out of similar power differentials in their churches and temples, and want to think for themselves. If they are simply treated as students, they will tune out, and that is what is happening.

This is not to deny philosophical expertise. But passing on that expertise requires leading the public by inspiring them. Instead of lecturing the public, academic philosophers need to transform their own habits and institutions to show how to live with diversity, and what that practically looks like. For example, as academic philosophy becomes more pluralistic, there is going to be major push back, especially at public universities. Some people will balk at the idea that Asian or African philosophical traditions are being taught using their tax dollars, and there will be a push for more budget cuts. If academic philosophers respond by feeling threatened or entitled, and try to reaffirm their power as teachers, they will only lose ground. But if academic philosophers respond with courage and wisdom, and if they show how living a life of reason gives them the strength to face difficulties for the ideals they believe in, then the public will listen. People are eager for such inspiration.


DEREK: What can be done to foster pluralism in academic philosophy?

BHARATH: The main thing is to change how we think about pluralism. Currently, Indian philosophy, African-American philosophy and so on are treated as subfields alongside metaphysics, ethics, etc., as if the latter could be independent of the former. This vastly underappreciates pluralism.

For early modern philosophers like Descartes and Hume, philosophy of science was not one sub field among others. The Scientific Revolution was the prism through which they saw everything, and it produced new concepts and theories of the mind, ethics, political philosophy, and so on. These thinkers struggled with the main social transformations of their time, and created philosophical worldviews to make sense of those transformations.

In our time pluralism is such a prism. Call philosophical traditions “pre-pluralistic” if they make no reference to traditions beyond their physical locality. In this sense, much of western philosophy is pre-pluralistic because it makes no reference to Indian or Chinese philosophy, etc. If you are only familiar with the traditions of Plato and Kant and you are talking to someone who identifies with Indian philosophy, you will be at a loss to fully understand that person. In the same sense, much Indian or Chinese philosophy, etc. is also pre-pluralistic, since often they make no reference to western philosophy.

But there is a great irony here. Because of colonialism, the former colonialized parts of the word have had to become pluralistic. In the last few centuries those philosophical traditions have had to engage with western philosophy, and so develop intricate and complex visions for what a philosophy which integrates western and non-western traditions can look like. This is the asymmetry between my professors and my father writ large: while western philosophy ignored non-western philosophy, the latter could not ignore the former and so evolved to become more inclusive.

To take pluralism seriously is to engage with this reality that some of the cutting edge philosophy has been happening for the last several centuries outside of Europe and America. Or that even within America, African-American philosophy has been pluralistic in a way that the philosophy of James, Quine and Sellars has not been. The institutionalized arrogance of western academic philosophy is to relate to pluralism through an air of magnanimity, as if to say, “sure, we will allow non-western traditions to count as philosophy.” But the relevant attitude ought to be admiration, or at least curiosity, for how parts of non-western philosophy could be pluralistically further ahead.


DEREK: Your point about philosophers in formerly colonized parts of the world raises an important issue. Until now you and I have used “academic philosophy” to refer to philosophy as practiced in Western universities, which is where we both received our academic training. Do you have a sense for philosophers in, say, Indian universities who are engaged in the kind of pluralistic inquiry you’re advocating?

BHARATH: It is definitely important to be mindful that academic philosophy is not a monolithic bloc, and this is significant when thinking about pluralism. American academic philosophy needs to be more pluralistic in terms of feminism, Indian philosophy and so on. But of course Indian academic philosophy has its own issues of pluralism in terms of feminism, caste, whether it is too focused on Hindu philosophy, and so on. Pluralism goes all the way down, and doesn’t bottom out in any pristine, homogenous minority traditions. Academic philosophy in each country has to confront its issues of pluralism, and that is how we as a global society can develop a rich, varied philosophical discourse.

Though I was born in India and have a cultural connection to it, I didn’t study there past the sixth grade. I don’t know much about Indian academic philosophy. I would love to know more, but haven’t had the chance so far. What I know of it, of thinkers like Radhakrishnan, K.C. Bhattacharya and Daya Krishna, I have gotten through reading scholars of Indian philosophy in Western universities such as Bimal Matilal, J.N. Mohanty, Bina Gupta and Jonardon Ganeri. I have also been influenced by my aunt Lakshmi Bandlamudi, who teaches psychology and philosophy in New York integrating Indian, Russian and European traditions.

In Western universities it is natural to think that someone like Matilal is half Western philosopher and half Indian philosopher, and that any insights he has must be due to the influence of the Western, cosmopolitan part on the Indian, local part. In contrast, we think of someone like Quine, who was one of Matilal’s teachers, as being a fully Western philosopher, and so fully cosmopolitan. But this is absurd: Quine’s philosophy is treated as more universal than Matilal’s even though Quine engaged less with other traditions than Matilal. It’s actually the other way around. Matilal is the more cosmopolitan thinker because he actually took on the task of fostering dialogue between traditions.

There is a vast issue here: What should we make of the fact that thinkers like Quine and Wittgenstein didn’t engage with other global traditions? It is a puzzling situation. These thinkers’ ideas are still alive for us. And yet they can also seem dated in that they wrote as if no other traditions existed; I don’t know if they had even introductory knowledge of Indian philosophy. This is why philosophers like Matilal are essential. Matilal wasn’t just trying to get Indian philosophy up to the level of Quine. He was also trying to elevate Quine by connecting his ideas to other traditions in a way that Quine himself could not do. Matilal brought together live ideas in Quine with live ideas in the Indian tradition, and so helped transform both into a larger whole which can generate more live ideas. Mohanty did the same with Husserl and the phenomenological tradition.

Matilal and Mohanty were trailblazers in many ways. But they didn’t invent this kind of integrative work. Already by the 1920s Indian academic philosophers like Bhattacharya and Radhakrishnan were drawn equally to Western and Indian philosophy, to Kant and to Shankara, and were trying to make sense of that combination. These were philosophers who were Indian, but it is just false that they were Indian philosophers in the sense of focusing only on Indian philosophy. They were pluralistic philosophers ahead of their time, and we are only now starting to catch up to the kind of work they did. In this they are similar to other early twentieth century thinkers like Du Bois in America and Nishida Kitaro in Japan.


DEREK: Why did you leave academic philosophy? Do you regret it?

BHARATH: When I left academia I was an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr. At the time I struggled to find my voice while developing a professional identity. Now I think it would be exciting to be a part of academia as it is changing. Still, I have no regrets. There is a pressing need for philosophy outside academia, and I recommend it whole heartedly. The path is not easy, but it can be very fulfilling.

There is a crisis of public philosophy is our society. Imagine you are a college graduate who goes on to become a doctor. Where in your post-college life do you get to do philosophy? What structures outside academia exist so that you can talk philosophy with others, and improve your skills? You can comment on blogs, or blog yourself. You can do meet-ups and hope the people who show up are sensible. But in general there are very limited non-academic structures which reinforce the idea that living philosophically is a lifetime’s work which has to be cultivated continually.

The transition from a Church dominated society to a secular society is one of great achievements since the Enlightenment. But this transition is incomplete. To complete it we have to create mechanisms in everyday life for people to make philosophy a continual part of their lives. We need the philosophy equivalent of churches and temples. Not the dogma and the hierarchy, but public structures through which people can find fellowship with others, get feedback on their ideas, and integrate philosophy into their daily lives. Teaching philosophy in classes will not by itself achieve this; it is necessary, but not sufficient.

It is often said that philosophy professors need to engage more with the public. I agree. But this is not enough. Public philosophy is not philosophy professors talking to the public. It is the public itself doing philosophy. And the public needs help. Philosophy professors are like coaches in the dugout telling the batter how to hit the curveball. But people need to not just be told, but shown. They need people who will come to where they are, pick up a bat, and show how to hit the curveball; or at least be committed to learn together how to do it.

As is well known, there aren’t enough jobs in academia for all the people with PhDs in philosophy. This creates a lot of anxiety, which I also experienced when on the job market. But in a way the anxiety is misplaced. If even people who studied philosophy feel that they cannot do philosophy outside academia, what hope can there be for people without such education to be more philosophical in their lives? The world needs more people to step out beyond academia and help create new modes of philosophical dialogue.


DEREK: What was it like leaving academia? How did you transition to a different career?

BHARATH: When I left academia, for six months I lived off of savings and also my wife was working. Then I temped at a non-profit for a year, and then another temp job led to a permanent job at an accounting firm editing and binding documents, which is what I have been doing for the past three years.

The main thing I have been focused on since leaving academia is, “Why did I leave? What does it mean?” People seemed to assume I left either because I didn’t like philosophy or I wasn’t good at it. When I said, “No, I love philosophy, and I am good at it” they were confused. Beyond having a job to pay the bills, I couldn’t think about the future or having a career congruent with my qualifications. I was too focused on the past and making sense of it all.

I soon realized that in many ways I felt voiceless in academia, and it was partly my own doing. Back then I didn’t speak from the depths of who I was, often feeling that I had to hide this or that side of me. Once I realized this, I had a great desire to speak up, to exercise my voice. So I started commenting on blogs, and writing my own blog. It was cathartic to speak to academics and to feel that I was standing in dialogue with them fully as myself. In the process my ideas started to develop. I could finally articulate what I had only felt vaguely all along: that I left not because I was lacking, but because there is much philosophy to do outside academia.

In terms of a long-term career, I feel I still have not transitioned to that. The crux of any job interview is telling a narrative that is coherent and understandable. I have struggled with this, as I have resisted any implication in such a narrative that philosophy is in the past for me. But the distinction between academic philosophy and philosophy is crucial. Making a living by teaching philosophy is in the past for me, but philosophy itself is not. This distinction doesn’t have to be made explicit at job interviews, but keeping it firmly in mind is helpful.

DEREK: How do you want to pursue philosophy outside academia?

BHARATH: An academic position is an academic philosopher’s platform for engaging with the public. There is no such existing platform for a non-academic philosopher. I experienced this vividly when I left academia.

I partly left with a Tolstoyian fantasy of what living with the masses will be like, and I almost expected that non-academics would cheer me on for coming to their side. I was instead met with blank stares, and understandably so. People are too busy with their lives and for them I was just another person who made a career change. Then I realized how much infrastructure has to be in place for sustained philosophical conversation to take place: which guide when one will speak and others will listen, what counts as a shared background, and so on. In academia most of this is implicit and taken for granted. Outside academia one becomes glaringly aware of it as lacking, especially after being used to it in academia.

This also highlights a difference between non-academic philosophers now and in the past. Socrates was a non-academic philosopher; so was Descartes. But they were mainly talking to the aristocratic classes, which had an in-built infrastructure for what counts as being cultured. Even Nietzsche was talking to the educated upper-class, and he took for granted that his audience read Seneca and Kant. But after the mass movements of the last century, and in our current pluralistic society, that is just not possible.

Given this lack of infrastructure for public philosophy, one way to be a non-academic philosopher is to not think about engaging with the broader public and to focus on one’s own life. I respect this approach greatly, and it can have a significant impact on people in one’s local circles: family, friends, colleagues and so on. This was my father’s approach, and I am sure of thousands of others like him.

But if as a non-academic one wants to engage with the public, then one has to find a platform for doing so. One option is to use existing infrastructure connected to the arts, media, medicine, politics and so on. Become a writer or a community organizer, etc., and use that to raise philosophical dialogue in the culture. Another option is to have an entrepreneurial spirit and create new infrastructure for public philosophy. We are in the midst of a technological boom with the internet, virtual reality and so on. This can be used to create new modes of social interaction and expand our ways of doing philosophy together. I find this approach particularly appealing.

Thanks to Bharath for taking the time to share his thoughts and experiences. You can read more of his reflections on academic philosophy at his former blog The Rough Ground, and some of his more recent philosophical work can be found at In Search of an Ideal. For more on promoting pluralism in philosophy, Bharath recommends the essay collections Reframing the Practice of Philosophy edited by George Yancy and Indian Philosophy in English edited by Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield, and the lecture “Why Philosophy Must Go Global” by Jonardon Ganeri.