Interview with Dr. Lara Mitias, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
By Matt Walker ’04.
Dr. Lara Marie Mitias currently serves as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Antioch College where she teaches Asian and comparative philosophies, along with various courses in Western Philosophy. She completed her doctorate at the University of Hawaii specializing in Asian and Comparative philosophy Her doctoral work what is on the nature of time in the study of memory in a comparative context.
She has taught over 30 different courses in Western and non-Western philosophy, including Logic, Metaphysics, Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy for Children (P4C) and courses on Death, along with many independent study courses, including On Happiness, and Indian Philosophy of Language. She has published in a range of areas from Indian philosophy of Mind to Japanese and Continental Philosophy to Philosophy for Children.
MW: “Are you interested in bringing back the Philosopher’s Roundtable to Antioch?”
LM: “Yes. It’s one of the things that really attracted me to Antioch initially. Lew had started it, my colleague Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, who I miss dearly. The Roundtable was one of the factors leading me to take the position. It was a group of about 15 to 20 people from the community and surrounding areas. They were of all ages, including retirees in the community who had backgrounds in philosophy, psychology, working psychologists, and professors from other fields. They had pretty high-level philosophical discussions every third Friday of the month. It was great, and it showed me that there was an actual interest in the community at large in philosophy. I was also happy to learn about the Dharma Center and the general culture of Yellow Springs, both of which seemed very open to philosophy, especially comparative and non-western philosophies. I also found out about the history of philosophy at Antioch, which has been extraordinarily strong. At its height there were 12 philosophy professors at Antioch. Antioch had two of John Dewey’s students teaching here. It’s varied a lot but it’s always been important and it’s always been very unique.”
“But yes, I have restarted The Philosopher’s Roundtable. It is now ‘The Virtual Philosopher’s Roundtable’ and takes place on the first Friday of each month. We met for the first time in February of this year. A recently graduated philosophy student, Vespere Oaks, presented the work he is currently developing on the epistemology of mythology. And, in March, Antioch Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Ramesh Patel presented work from his most recent book on Indian Philosophy, Self and World. We had very excellent discussions at both sessions, and I’m looking forward to working with the group, as well as students and faculty–from Antioch and other regional Colleges and Universities.”
MW: “What’s the typical format of the philosopher’s roundtable? Is it a spectator sport? Do people come and watch? What is it like?”
LM: “Everyone participates usually. It’s a really fun, thought-provoking, and educational event. The featured speaker, or lead discussant, sends out their document or their notes a week or two beforehand. Then everyone reads it and thinks about it. It’s a two-hour long period and the speaker may take questions during the presentation or afterward, but I think it’s more engaging to have discussion throughout. But these presenters might have to come back because we may not get through their whole presentation!”
MW: “Another topic that’s come up in my conversations related to Philosophy is Daoism. I feel like most of the students that mentioned Philosophy mentioned an interest in Daoism. I also feel like it’s very popular with folks here in Yellow Springs.”
LM: “I am glad to hear there’s such strong student interest in Daoism. I currently teach a course in Chinese and Japanese Philosophies, but will probably teach a Special Topics course on Daoist Philosophy soon. When I interviewed at Antioch, my teaching demonstration was on some work I’ve done on the logical structure of implication in the Dao De Jing. I thought it would be interesting to the students and Antioch community, and it was. Lew had designed his Epistemology course to include Daoism and that’s highly non-traditional and demonstrated to me that Antioch would be a great place to teach non-Western and Comparative philosophy.”
“On YouTube, on podcasts and things like that, it seems that there is an increasing amount of Asian and non-Western philosophy available and that people today are very interested in non-Western philosophies. There are summaries, commentaries, fan pages and thousands of whole primary texts, many of which are only just now being translated, and multiple people interpreting all kinds of information. And I think that’s indicative of what the coming generations are finding most valuable in philosophy. It takes real devotion to read through Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill. I call it devotion, but I don’t know what it is, perseverance, or intended learning or whatever it is, but it takes a lot of concentration. Many students don’t have the interest to wade through it. It’s almost unreadable for many people today. One sentence is often a paragraph long, and it is difficult for most people to read that. Asian philosophy is often written in a much more immediate way and is easy to get something from even one verse or chapter of the Dao De Jing, for example. It seems to be much more applicable and practical compared to understanding this complex theory, intricately woven, that you then have to apply to something practical on your own. It’s usually very beautiful linguistically in the original language as well. There is also a lot of practical wisdom in Asian and other non-Western philosophies that is right on the surface. And then what you have to struggle to understand is what is underneath—their long traditions and alternate conceptual structures and technical terms. The metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of these philosophies are quite different, and truly grasping the significance of this difference and the conceptual reasons for it, is much more complicated. For example, in the traditional philosophy of Yoga from Patanjali, asana or postures, which is taken in the west as Hatha Yoga, is only one limb of the eight limbs of Yoga. And asana in the tradition actually includes all postures and general body awareness. But more importantly, the entire ethical code and all of the psychospiritual aspects are left out. It’s exactly the same with mindfulness for most people today. Right mindfulness is only one of the eight steps on the Eightfold Path of the Buddha. It’s only one of eight, similarly, and so we take that out, and we leave behind the ethical code and the psychospiritual components. And as with asana, sati or mindfulness, is also taken very superficially and without contextual relations, and I don’t want Antioch students to lose the very significant benefits of studying these phenomenal philosophical traditions.”
MW: “Thank you.”
MW: “As a follow up question, I’m wondering two things. First, are Daoism and Eastern Philosophies gaining interest because of the increasing strength and prominence of China? And secondly, is there any part of Daoist philosophy that acts like an antidote to our contemporary “modern American” context? Do you feel either of those questions ring true or am I completely off base?”
LM: “No, I think you’re right, this is one of the reasons. It’s a very interesting and complicated dynamic of Confucianism and Daoism in China because of the entrance of Buddhism, and the state support for Buddhism throughout. As well as the cultural code that Confucianism is, as opposed to this sort of religious or spiritual alchemy that Daoism can take in certain forms. Whereas Buddhism is, in some respects, a very practical sort of philosophy. And then, of course, you have the development of Communism on top of that. We’re in a great age of global confluence, and most of non-Western philosophy has a lot to offer modern society in my view. Especially if we put it in genuine conversation with Western philosophies. In our modern society we seem to be uncritically taking the very worst parts of Western traditions, and maybe not the best parts of non-Western traditions, and adopting them uncritically together. It is my hope that students will become aware of these different conceptual schemes and ways to structure their experience and their knowledge, so that they might consciously reflect and choose to take the best parts of Western traditions and societies along with the best parts of Asian and non-Western traditions and societies and join them consciously. Given our current global crises this seems to me to be one way we could go forward without too much more catastrophe into our new global society. Almost all of non-western philosophy would help balance our contemporary American context, as well as the dominance and suggested dominance of Western philosophies and ways of thinking globally.”
“Daoism offers us ways to rethink all of our institutions and relations. Governance of any kind should be as unobtrusive and non-coercive as possible. It should simply nourish or aid in the natural development of whatever is governed, including the environment. Also, people are considered as fundamentally good in their natural state. This sort of faith in others would help us communicate, I think. We could give charitable interpretations and I think this kind of understanding could help us a lot today.”
“Daoist thinking promotes a fundamental respect of others and the environment which is simply lacking in our modern context. Daoist philosophy is based on the dynamic structure of the constant change we experience. This cyclicity and reversal is symbolized in the Yin Yang, which people are very familiar with today. Within every complete whole, indicated by the symbol’s circle, there is a dualism, and that is a dualism that is not an entirely split dualism as we understand dualism in a Western context. Meaning that you cannot have anything completely good or completely bad in the very transitory world we experience. Within something good, there is some bad that may grow to make the larger good become bad. But in that new bad there will be the seed of good. It’s very much a thing in motion. The balance of Yin and Yang as a particular thing, situation, or event is always shifting and rebalancing, but the primary virtue in Daoism is to embrace Yin, which doesn’t mean to be passive in any negative way but to be like water, fluid, adaptable, and embracing, as well as life-promoting. But if you hit water hard enough, it’ll be like a solid object. Water is vitally important to all things but it is understood as common. It is also one of the most powerful elements and can bore through stone. There is so much from Daoist thought that could help us today. It shows us not only how to be resilient or to be like bamboo rather than oak, but also shows us that real power is virtue, which is what the ‘de’ in Dao De Jing indicates, both virtue and power. Not many people think power and virtue are actually the same today, but just as the virtue of a hammer is to pound nails into wood, this is its power. Understanding and accepting Daoist principles and adopting a Daoist worldview would most certainly help our relations with one another and our environment.”
“But even in Western philosophical traditions there is a lot of wisdom to be found that could help us. This past fall term many students were taken with Kant’s imperative that we treat all people as ends in themselves and not merely means. And this can be applied to our environment and all beings. The sickness of our world and our societies and institutions especially, is that this is not the case.”
“So, I think the time is right for philosophy, especially non-Western philosophies. And this new generation seems to have an increasing interest in philosophy. It’s very critical time we’re living in, as we all know, but with this it’s also a time of opportunity. In fact, it’s often noted that ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ are the same character in Chinese languages. There’s a lot that the study of philosophies can contribute both to modern society, and to our personal lives with ourselves and others. Interestingly, it seems less and less important because economic interests have become the sole consideration. But I think this could be a golden age. This could be a resurgent renaissance although we don’t often hear that but I think, or at least hope, that it’s true. This is the first time worldviews, histories, and texts from all over the world have been available in a widespread and instantaneous way. We have access to the wisdom of 3000 years right now, at our fingertips. It’s never happened before that we know, and it may not last. This generation has the greatest chance to live wonderful lives I think, and live in a new age and a new way. There are certainly a lot of obstacles! And we certainly need to change so much. It is my hope that we can take the good aspects of Western thought and the good aspects of Eastern thought and other non-dominant philosophical views and go forward together in a better, more harmonious, and just way. Unfortunately, this runs counter to our dominant ideologies of a necessary scarcity and competitive survival and success.”
MW: “Absolutely. Thank you for that. This all kind of speaks to one of my main questions: what’s the philosophy behind our time and or our current moment in history? I think you touched a lot on that but is there anything you would like to add?”
LM: “Well, when I was working on my Master’s degree it was what seemed to be the beginning—but maybe it was the middle—of the height of the talk of narratives. And it was the time of the most severe effects of deconstruction and postmodernism. And so, I studied psychoanalysis, feminism, critical theory and that type of thing. And I understood it and thought it was pretty revolutionary. And, these analyses can be understood on a very deep, semiotic level and not only as a sociopolitical or historical critique. These semiotic analyses can open up the radical difference offered by non-Western languages and worldviews. In my view, it seems that our contemporary use and understanding of these particular interventions in academia doesn’t quite lead us to their valuable essence and most significant implications. And we’re kind of at the point where, again, taking it too shallowly in a particular “pop-up” academic way, where postmodernism leads to relativism about truth. And not a sensible relativism like “I’m touching the tail of the elephant and you’re touching the ear and so there is still one elephant we just don’t have access to all of it”. I mean, not in a smart way to be relativist about language, or nominalist about language, or a perspectivist, but in a very shallow way that there is no truth–which, if true, wouldn’t be something we could know–and that my “truth” is as good as your “truth”. But then people don’t even seem to live out their “truth”. They live a totally different kind of life. They just say that kind of thing when what they really mean is ‘my experience isn’t the same as yours’, or ‘I don’t believe what you do, and I don’t want to talk about it’. It’s the same thing with promoting social justice while still being completely unjust to the people around you.”
“Philosophers from all traditions and all times have understood, for example, that social justice begins with personal justness. You can’t get a socially just system unless you get individual people being just; it’s composed of that. I think you discussed in your interview with Dr. Suzelis, whether we improve our relations with our environment to improve our society, or our relations in society to improve our environment. In my view, it is more complicated in that have to improve our relations with ourselves, which will improve both our social and environmental relationships naturally, as the Daoist would say.”
“Part of my task as a philosopher is not only to open people to new ways of thinking and new ideas and concepts, but to show the value of asking questions in an unafraid and honest way that allows us to reflect on ourselves, and to be open to correction and to new knowledge. If one already knows a particular thing or thinks that one knows, there is nothing to learn. So, we are starting out with ourselves, realizing and reflecting on our own action so that we can live harmonious lives, and good lives because bad things happen. And we need resources to deal with that.”
“There’s also a spiritual resurgence going on, I think. So, although it seems we’re kind of left in an age of nothingness, where nothing has any value or any meaning after existentialism and the death of God, and all of that, we could also enter a new renaissance with this upcoming generation of students. It seems like spirituality is increasingly being permitted as a public option. This form of awareness opens us up to our environment and to all sentient beings as intrinsically and essentially valuable. We are in a horribly disposable age where everything and everyone is seen as disposable and nothing is inherently valuable. But the apparently increasing interest in religion and spiritual awareness seems to be a backlash to this type of thinking. Understanding religions and philosophies of all traditions is vitally important for understanding cultures since they all started out as ways of life and not particular philosophies. The major religions as we have grouped and divided them today didn’t begin with dogma or doctrine or power structures, but with experiences we can call ‘religious’ and as ways of life. And we all have ways of life, as well as religious or spiritual experiences, I hope. But if we don’t examine our own way of life and our own philosophy on life, we might get misled and convinced of someone else’s philosophy. Or we might uncritically believe everything we hear, or the most dominant narratives, which I think is a big problem today.”
LM: “So I think we’re in a good age philosophically. It’s unfortunate that over the last 25 years, some schools have gotten rid of philosophy departments even though ethics and logic are vital areas of study for any field and for human relations. But philosophy has so much more to offer for people personally. But there aren’t as many students wanting to make philosophy the focus of their study for economic reasons mostly. But we also seem to be in an age where discussion has stalled and debate is not encouraged and philosophy is about dialogue and inquiry most fundamentally. Unfortunately, our economic and institutional structures are easily threatened by philosophical inquiry and some ways of thinking and philosophy can be dangerous to those in authority. It always has been. It’s a naturally subversive endeavor since we try to read below-the-verse, or ‘beneath what is written’ so to speak, and to question the knowledge and challenge paradigms that may be accepted by others. Students often say that philosophy is really hard. I’m sure that also has something to do with it. Our attention spans, concentration, and our memories are quickly diminishing. But philosophical thinking is extraordinarily valuable in my view, for any discipline or any person. And here at Antioch especially, I try to help students develop themselves personally and to learn things that might help them live more sustainable and resilient lives. This doesn’t immediately give them an increasing number of quantifiable skills or make them appear more employable or better workers. And although they do get these things from studying philosophy and training in philosophy, it helps students be successful in all areas. Studying philosophy doesn’t have much of an objectively demonstrable product at the end except for the person themselves which, to me, is ultimately what’s important.”
MW: “Absolutely. And it shows. I think the interest in Philosophy among the students that I’ve encountered really speaks to that approach. If you don’t mind, I’d like to move on to the next question, which is: what similarities/differences do you see between Hinduism/Buddhism/Sikhism & Judaism/Christianity/Islam?”
LM: “I’ll try to answer this question as best I can. Since we don’t have a religion department at Antioch, philosophy is probably the closest discipline. And, of course, the Asian traditions weren’t classified as “religions” before colonial imposition, so the likeness is closer there. When I teach Buddhist philosophy, I often draw an analogy between Hinduism and Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity because of the social change implied in the religious movement. Also, the fact that both traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, emerged out of Judaism and Hinduism in a similar way. Both emerging movements integrated women, and were inclusive of outcasts and the poor. Both suggested that the best way to live, in fact, the enlightened way to live is with compassion for all people. The conditions within these original traditions that led to this similar reformation in both parts of the world were very similar, and are common to entrenched and entrenching paradigms and institutions. There was a stagnation in the community because of financial corruption and the hoarding of knowledge and desire to keep the masses of people ignorant. This cultural power was being used against common people and the marginalized. Similar in some ways to the dominant cultural powers throughout history using scriptures and other dominant ways of knowing to get people to do things. But that has lasted all throughout history and it’s still going on today.”
“But as far as religions go, there does seem to be somewhat of a parallel between these two strains. And Gotama Buddha is very Christ-like in a lot of ways. The Buddha is known to have been a man and Christ is not known to be a man, or not only, depending on your faith. And so, there’s a difference. People don’t worship the Buddha, exactly. Though it does appear like this sometimes. One pays homage to the Buddha and takes refuge in the Buddha and their hope is to become like the Buddha, awakened. Whereas, one worships and is devoted to Christ as God incarnate usually. But similarly, we are to become Christ-like if we are Christians and act as He acted. In both cases we are told to care for those around us and that there is something more significant for a human to become. This is really a form of a natural transhumanism. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are even more similarities between Christianity and Buddhism in some ways. And in some forms of Buddhism, like pure land Buddhism, there seems to be a lot of likeness with some Christian interpretations, and one can call on the name of Amitabha Buddha to be saved. Also, in Mahayana Buddhism more generally, there is Buddha-Nature in all sentient beings, if not in all things, and this is somewhat like God or Christ or the divine in all of us, if one thinks of this in a liberal way. A form of this idea is present in the Quran as well, as also in Christianity and Judaism, at least in the Kabbalistic tradition. So, there are a lot of connections we can make between religions and philosophies generally, especially when it comes to the mystical forms of all of these religious traditions. I think that there are more differences between Sikhism and the Indian traditions than Islam and the Abrahamic traditions. I am not as familiar with Sikh texts, but as I understand it, the Sikh tradition was influenced by both the Hindu and Muslim traditions.”
“You originally had a question about time, so I’ll just add something interesting. Abrahamic religions function on linear time, whereas Asian religions function on circular time. So, in the East Asian and South Asian traditions, there is no beginning in time. That’s a ridiculous sort of idea in their analysis. And now we know from modern physics, only our time began. There can be no beginning of time overall. There are just beginnings of time locally. But we didn’t know that then. A wonderful Japanese philosopher, I think it was Nishitani, made the point in a book called “Climate and Culture” that our cultures and our religions develop out of the climates that we find ourselves in. And so, in a desert climate in which people were largely nomadic, time is understood in a linear way. Whereas in a seasonal climate, time is understood in a cyclical way. It’s really interesting how deeply these things are rooted. Understanding time as linear has completely different implications for all of our other conceptualizations than understanding time as cyclical. This reverberates completely into our modern, I think mistaken, ideas of progress as well as growth and our relations with our environment and one another, and even how we understand our own lives.”