Principles to Guide Philosophical Community (2021) By Eli Kramer (draft review)

The preprint book review below is forthcoming in World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research

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ELI KRAMER, Intercultural Modes of Philosophy, Volume One: Principles to Guide Philosophical Community. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021: 382 pages. [Reviewed by MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Contemporary civilization finds itself beset by a multitude of crises. Though humanity’s present-day challenges are arguably unprecedented in scope and consequence, history stands as a reminder that, whether stemming from cultural vices or the vicissitudes of nature, there has never been a society unfamiliar with tragedy. Amidst the noise and confusion of civilized earthly existence, special communities in want of wisdom have arisen in every corner of the world in an attempt to realize ideals beyond the reach of the common lot. In the first volume of his planned trilogy, Intercultural Modes of Philosophy: Principles to Guide Philosophical Community, Eli Kramer has provided not only a deep interpretation of these community ideals and their lived expressions both historically and in the present day, he has also shown the breadth of their exemplification in traditions arising in Africa, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, North America, and Europe.  

Kramer’s orientation to the study of the meta-ethical principles guiding successful philosophical communities is pragmatic and radically empirical. His book is not just an attempt to understand the role of philosophy in cultural life, but to actively cultivate the love of wisdom so as to participate in the renewal and educative enhancement of culture. While pre-modern philosophy typically involved mutually reinforced praxis as part of a commitment to values-oriented communal existence, times have changed. His inquiry thus constitutes a response to a problematic situation: namely, the professionalization of philosophy in the context of the modern research university. Thinking with historians of philosophy including Pierre Hadot and Thomas Davidson, Kramer asks: “Whatever happened to this hope of a shared philosophic life?” (5). While the transformation of higher education (particularly in the context of the United States after WW2) has undoubtedly contributed to the advancement of techno-science, questions of the ultimate ends of such advances tend to fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Rather than producing a “more ethical and personal world” (113), modern universities have tended to value the growth of information toward the end of increasing power over nature and society. Academic philosophy, far from serving as a cultural shepherd to build increasing determinacy of meaning in the universe, has become another specialized field of rarefied knowledge set apart from the general culture (101). Hyper-individualized professors of philosophy no longer pursue wisdom enhoused within contemplative communities. Instead, with precious few exceptions (e.g., the philosophic wanderers and speculators to be featured in Kramer’s subsequent volumes), as part of an effort to legitimize the middle-class identity of the knowledge worker they have been reduced to the roles of logical technician or “philepistemon” (105), lovers of knowledge abstracted from life and living. 

Seeking a balm for this tragic diminishment, Kramer offers his text as a “philo-dynamic image,” that is, as an aesthetic lure with a psychagogic function aiming to incite in the reader a mode of inspired reflection upon the illuminated order of the cosmos and our proper place within it (26-27). Before unpacking the “systema” (or purposefully organized phases of generality) constituting his dialectically concretized general, axiological, and cultural principles for philosophical community, Kramer sketches the history of their exemplification across several continents. 

He begins his historical sketch in 399 BCE with the death of Socrates, which marked a crucial moment in Western and Near-Eastern philosophical history. A philosophical wanderer guided only by dialogue and his daemon, skilled in the art of asking obnoxious questions and laying bare the pretense of those claiming to be wise, the Athenian gadfly was accused of atheism and corruption of young minds by a court of his fellow citizens. As dramatized in Plato’s Apology, rather than appeasing his accusers with a concession, Socrates defended himself against the false charges. Even in the face of what his accusers believed to be a capital offense, Socrates remained loyal to the Good: “The god orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men” (28e; transl. Jowett). Their plea bargain rejected, the jury sentenced Socrates to be executed. In the Phaedo (67e), Plato has Socrates explain why it is unwise to fear death, since philosophy itself is nothing else than preparation for dying. In the wake of this most profound teacher’s execution, his students founded philosophical schools on the edge of the polis, distant enough to avoid further direct confrontation with the existing social order while still close enough to contribute meaningfully to civic life (34, 308-309). 

Not all philosophic schools agree about the postmortem destiny of human souls, nor even that souls are substantial realities (e.g., the Buddhist traditions taught at Nālandā University). But such metaphysical speculations are not the focus of Kramer’s study. Despite their metaphysical diversity, the philosophical communities investigated in this text are shown to share a sense of human ethical possibilities and the emergent practices that predict success in their attainment (7). Among the practical principles enumerated by Kramer are a symbiotic relation between reflection and action, a cultivated maladaptation to injustice, the humility to recognize the distance between particular experience and the broader possibilities of existence, a tragicomic sensibility that invites laughter and play into otherwise overly serious asceticism, the recollection of the unthought background of all understanding, a commitment to frank criticism of fellow community members in service to the collective cultivation of freedom, and holding the tension between fidelity to the unique personality of a place while also remaining hospitable to cosmopolitan guests. 

Kramer’s interviews with adherents of present-day philosophical communities serve not only to establish the continuity of these practices, but to emphasize the importance of attending to the very different ethical situation in which we find ourselves, relative, say, to ancient Athens or dynastic China. The proliferation of digital technologies, the worsening ecological crisis (including more frequent pandemics), the breakdown of liberal democracy, and the all-pervasiveness of neoliberal capitalism contribute to placing increased pressure upon contemporary philosophical communities. These pressures have pushed such “eutopian” (302) communities to the edge of extinction at just the time that their experimental and reconstructive posture toward human experience is most needed to ameliorate cultural decay (283). With humanity entering a dangerous period of transition, Kramer’s book offers an essential provocation to those even mildly infected by the philosophic itch. While philosophy has not the sort of power that could prevent civilizational collapse, its communal experiments have survived many prior upheavals, and they stand as “bright spots during the storms of time” (311), lighthouses luring us toward the highest potentials of cultural life.