American Pragmatism

Last week, I read news that Center for John Dewey Studies was being inaugurated at the Savithribai Phule Pune University in collaboration with University of Texas, Austin. Yesterday, on the Art of Manliness podcast, I heard about two American philosophies – American Transcendentalism and American Pragmatism, with philosopher John Kaag.

Of importance to me and the link between these two events is that these are philosophies which John Dewey believed in. He passed on this influence further to the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is believed that this influenced him while working on the Indian constitution. Below are my notes from the podcast:

Kaag believes that American Transcendentalism is situated around three philosophers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists believed in freedom from societal constraints and the idea of self-reliance and breaking away from traditions set by European philosophy. However, Emerson believed that this needs to be tempered with compassion. He wrote about this in an essay called Compensation in which he says that the freedom is always in tension with or operates within a cosmos of give and take. It is believed that this idea was inspired from his study of the Bhagavad Gita and broadly with his reading of Indian metaphysics and with the idea of karma.

This is broadly expressed in Transcendentalism as an individual existing within a cosmic whole, that an individual does not lead a solitary existence and that an individual continuously negotiates his freedom within the Society or cosmos he exists in.

The challenge to American Transcendentalism came from Charles Darwin and his work, On the Origin of Species. This posited that humans are just evolved animals. The question then arose that if we were just animals, then will we not be dictated by natural laws and hence, does free will exist?

The American Pragmatists provide the answer to this by trying to reconcile free will and morals with Science. They also appear after the American Civil War (1861-1865), where they see how a strict adherence to ideology and dogma leads to violence and conflict. American Pragmatism is built by philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism believed in securing human freedom and human dignity in response to changes seen in Industrial Revolution. They believed Philosophy should be world ready and that philosophical truth should be based on practical consequences.

Kaag believes that William James read a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who believed that there is no empirical proof for the existence of free will. However, if one believed that there was such a thing as free will then it would create a world where there was free will. James expands on this concept and says that there are certain concepts in the world like God, Love, Free Will etc. for which there is no empirical evidence possible. Here, the standard method of Science fails because they miss things that happens below a certain level of consciousness, small nuances and an unseen order.

So, the Pragmatists answer the question of whether life is worth living without free will with Maybe. They push the onus on the live-r. They believe that the experience of the important life events are not based on certainty but on maybes. James believes that exercising our freedoms while living life with others and negotiating our freedoms while living our life, is what makes our life worth living. They believed that there is a connection between freedom and love based on this maybe.They believed more in the experience of the real world.

Kaag believes that Pragmatism as an idea went out of vogue in the 1950s when Philosophy became more logical and followed the footsteps of Mathematics rather than staying with the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I have not read any of the original thinkers mentioned on this podcast or the news item, Dewey and Ambedkar. Hearing the podcast, I think it would be worth reading them in the original. Naval Ravikant has tweeted and mentioned in other podcasts that reading “On The Origin of Species” in the original is possible. Hence, it may be worth reading the American philosophers, Emerson, James, Fuller and Thoreau, in the original as well. Of these, I have only tried reading and listening to Thoreau so far. However, I have ended up sleeping during both of my efforts. Perhaps, I should start with someone else?

What could be their contribution to our world today? It could perhaps ween us away from the strict adherence to ideology and dogma that we experience daily in the news and on social media. It could also help us understand that we are all rational beings capable of making decisions. Hence, we must respect others and the decisions they make that they have this rational capacity. There are some things that Science can explain and some that Science is yet to explain. We need to understand thing in the scientific way where evidence exists and be open to the possibility of the role of Spirituality where Science is not able to provide compelling answers yet. We need to spend more time experiencing life offline where experiences are shared and real and not try to argue in abstract terms. I would love to read the book that this podcast is based on, American Philosophy: A Love Story.

Ronnie Screwvala's book

Dream with Your Eyes Open: An Entrepreneurial Journey by Ronnie Screwvala
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to an interview with Ronnie Screwvala on the podcast episode of The Filter Koffee podcast. Screwvala is the founder of UTV which he sold to Walt Disney. Among movies, he’s the producer of Rang De Basanti.
In the book, he shares stories about his entrepreneurial journey. He shares why he believes the next generation of entrepreneurs are the answer to most of the problems that plague India. He shares that dreaming big, not believing in luck and working hard is the key to entrepreneurs to achieve success.

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I would suggest listening to the episode on the Filter Koffee podcast and if you enjoy it to get the book.

Ashok K Banker answers my question

Ashok K Banker is one of my favorite authors. His Ramayana series is one of my favorites and my introduction to the genre of historical re-imagination. I was reading his books when I was interviewed for a job with the State Bank of India. Most of my interview was spent debating why I prefer Banker’s version of Ramayana to the one by Rajagopalachari.

I asked him a question on Goodreads:

Is the Epic India Library done?

Epic India Library is his attempt of retelling all epics, myths and legends from India. His answer:

No. It is not yet complete as per my original plan. At the time I formulated the plan, the category or genre of imaginative retellings of ancient Indian epics, myths and legends was almost non-existent. In the last decade or so, apparently inspired by success (according to well over 50 authors of the genre who have written to me directly or acknowledged me in interviews), a plethora of other Indian authors have risen, mining the same fertile fields. As a result, I felt that it was best left to a more diverse variety of authors to explore the same territory. The purpose I had when I began retelling the epics has been fulfilled. I have since moved on to other genres and barring a few books in continuing series, most of which are with publishers already, I am no longer writing in the genre. My current focus is on my ongoing epic fantasy series (which is inspired by but not a retelling of the Mahabharata) the Burnt Empire Saga, and on new crime thrillers and literary fiction.

It’s a great joy when one of your favorite authors answers your question.

Postcards from Nowhere

Postcards from Nowhere is a travel podcast from the IVM Podcasts network. Unlike the other podcasts, it is hosted by 1 person – Utsav Mamoria.

He talks about slow travel while exploring culture, history, people and food. The episodes I have loved so far are on Kerala’s kalaripayattu, couch surfing and happiness.

The other personal takeaway is realising a good time length for for my under-production space podcast. I think that a 7-10 minute episode might be a good time length for a single person talking about space stuff. I have found no long-form single-person talking podcast entertaining so far.

The Guardians by John Grisham

The Guardians

The Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book is about a lawyer who helps people in jail who have been wrongly convicted by the judicial process. The story is based on two partly true stories and I realised the possibilities are so many in India which has an overburdened judicial system and made me ask if we have something similar to Guardian Ministries.

I recollect watching similarly themed Malayalam movie which did not trigger similar questions in me.

The book also gave some very rare health advice: “Years ago he told me that the secret to a long healthy life is to consume as little food as possible. Exercise is important but cannot reverse the damaging effects of too many calories. I have tried to follow his advice.”

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The Elon Musk book

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book came out in 2015. I heard it a full 4 years late in 2019. I waited both for price of the book to go down and waited to hear for feedback from others before embarking on reading the book myself.

Musk himself says that the biography is rife with errors.

There are many things that I learnt from the book. How it took Musk’s maniacal obsessions with the topic (electric cars and space exploration) to get things to a point where the companies (Tesla and SpaceX) turn profitable. Musk synthesized a lot of information, however others delivered on his vision. And that his vision changed as the situation changed.

Musk also goes back on the outsourcing model for both SpaceX and Tesla. His gigafactories are experiments in manufacturing under a single roof. It is worth following and for India, perhaps worth emulating?

I think you should read this book to learn about significant shifts in thinking that this book covers like the one on manufacturing that I captured here.



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A decade of self-control

Om calls for a decade of self-control. I think this may be the culmination of my reading of Brett McKay at Art of Manliness, Mr. Money Mustache and Cal Newport, whom he quotes in his blog post.

However, there are things we as people can do to take control of our own habits, our own time, and the tools we use. And yes, we should take our time, attention, and dollars and give it to little companies, not technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook.