Today’s New APPS Interview is with Lee Braver, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hiram College.
Thank you, Lee, for doing this interview with us. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. Do you work alone for the most part?
Doing philosophy is a primarily solitary activity for me—except in the sense that reading is like having conversations with the greatest minds, as Descartes says. My mind is sharpest in the morning so I try to do as much as possible then, after I’ve gotten my kids off. Writing is especially important for me to do in the morning, when my mind is still limber and open, while I can read and do work for classes in the afternoons. I like listening to music while I work. Piano music generally goes best with writing for me—Bach, Keith Jarrett, James Booker all work well.
Pleasure in reading is quite close to a necessary condition for success in philosophy, wouldn’t you say? I suppose there are exceptions, but it would be hard to think how it would be worth it if reading weren’t a thrill for someone. Anyway, has your writing changed over the years?
Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s first books were masterpieces of this fascinating process. In early Wittgenstein’s nimble fingers, Frege’s dry logic and Schopenhauer’s angst-soaked metaphysical ethics dovetail as if they were made for each other, just as Being and Time makes the union of Kant, Husserl, Dilthey, and Kierkegaard feel utterly natural rather than a crime against nature.
One thing that has changed for me in the last couple of years is the way I approach writing. I’ve always been committed to writing clearly, especially since the authors I concentrate on generally aren’t. But with my latest book—Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger [due out in January with MIT: JP; just in time to make a wonderful Valentine’s Day present: LB]—I’ve begun viewing writing as a craft rather than just as a means to communication. This makes finding le mot justeintensely satisfying.
Indeed! It’s a definite species of the genus Eureka!
This more relaxed style may rub more conservative readers the wrong way (the copyeditor tried to eliminate about 90% of them from the manuscript!), but I think scholars of my generation accept and even enjoy a level of informality that might have previously been considered unprofessional. Why not leaven philosophical writing with jokes? You can see a sample of this in my NDPR review of Iain Thomson’s (very good) book, Heidegger, Art and Postmodernity, where I compare Kierkegaard to Batman and Jesus to the Hulk.
OK, you’ve convinced me to have a look at the review! What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
Mornings are by far the best time for me, though my schedule is complicated by the fact that I am the primary caretaker of 3 kids. I used to get up a couple of hours early to have some quiet solitary time before getting them ready, and then work after putting them to bed until my eyes blurred, then getting up the next morning to repeat. I no longer hold to that rigorous a schedule—age and children have taken their toll—but I still try to put in several hours of work every day. Steve Martin (a philosophy major, as my mother always reminds me—“Alex Trebek too! See—it really is legitimate!”) told an interesting story about writing material for a daily comedy show, the Smothers Brothers Show I think (a weird mix, don’t you think?). Every Monday was a cold start, with ideas appearing sluggishly and with great labor, but by Friday jokes were coming easily. The moral of the story was that keeping the mind warmed up is important, and even small breaks can interrupt it.
How then do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I initially had a rather low opinion of publishing—scoffing at it as merely narrow skirmishing among a small group of people over even smaller stakes—until I realized that research is not entirely about its readers. At least as important is the impact on the author.
That’s certainly what Foucault said: “writing a book is the attempt to think differently,” or something along those lines.
When I write something, I am first and foremost explaining an idea to myself, one that I don’t fully understand until I have spelled it out. To the degree that teaching involves the same skill, the two are mutually beneficial. This also means that getting hired into high prestige schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: not only do those faculty members get more time to research, they also get to teach advanced classes on what they’re working on to advanced students. Seeing the vast gap between the academic have’s and have-not’s, between the kind of school one trains in and the kind of school one is likely to work at (if one finds work at all), seeing all the ways academia is not a meritocracy has been most disillusioning. I had a rather naïve view of the profession before joining it.
How did you come to study philosophy?
I had heard distant, cryptic rumors of this esoteric compendium of lore known as Philosophy, and was always very curious about it. When I played Dungeons and Dragons I consistently chose the magic-user—the image of a wizened wizard poring over dusty parchment was tremendously romantic, and philosophers seemed like the closest contemporary analogue.
Perhaps future philosophers will recall the day they saw Dumbledore on screen. Or Professor McGonagall…
One day in high school, one of my best friends, Will Kiblinger, researched a paper on existentialism, which in those days meant consulting pretty superficial descriptions in the library’s encyclopedia, a kind of offline Wikipedia.
Ha! I like “offline Wikipedia.”
He read aloud that the basic idea of existentialism was that existence preceded essence, and we nodded sagely to each other, neither of us having the faintest idea of what it meant. The joke is that we both ended up philosophy professors who teach existentialism!
That is a good story! I don’t think any of my high school classmates ended up in philosophy. OK, so that was high school. How about your undergraduate days?
A third member of our group of 4 friends started down the continental philosophy path too! Maybe there was something in that muddy Mississippi water….
Anyway, I took Intro my first semester in college, and was completely blown away by Fear and Trembling.
There’s a sort of Truth or Dare quality to what I’m about to say, but I could never get into Kierkegaard. Not that there’s anything wrong with it…
I can match that, and raise you—I’ve never really liked Plato. The early dialogues are great—Socrates’ “court sense” for the shape and direction of arguments is amazing—but the middle dialogues, when all pretense of actual dialogue has been dropped, do little for me. I won’t even mention those late things, whatever the hell they are. I’m perfectly willing to take responsibility for this onto myself—I just haven’t educated myself to get to the point that I can grasp his great insights, just as all scotch tastes like turpentine to my uneducated palate. In particular, I’ve never spent the time acquiring a more sophisticated understanding of the Forms as anything beyond perfect versions of things down here, which just seems silly. I have an inkling of how to translate that into the issue of universals and how we group the objects we experience, but no matter how I twist and turn it, it just can’t hold a candle to the towering genius of Aristotle, tied with Kant for greatest philosopher ever in my opinion. This is unfortunate, since Plato is fun to read (though decreasingly so throughout his periods) while Aristotle is dry and tedious. I’ve always felt that if aliens land and ask what it is like to be a human, I would give them the Nicomachean Ethics and Being and Time. Of course, they would probably destroy the human race just out of annoyance at being forced to read these books. [BTW, wouldn’t this make a great thread on New APPS—“Come out of the closet—Admit your guilty displeasures—Which lauded figure do you like less than you feel that you should?” Anonymous comments understandable).
Anyway, that’s how I find myself disposed towards Plato.
But not liking Kierkegaard just means that something’s wrong with you. I’ve always loved him, and he’s such a great writer even if he desperately needed a tough editor (and a few friends to hold an intervention on his rather sad, if entertaining, sock puppet theatre). My next book will actually take off from what I think is a somewhat novel interpretation that locates his work as the source of an important metaphysical and epistemological tradition rather than “just” ethics.
Anyway, deciding to major and then to go to grad school were less results of conscious planning or detached weighing of options than the natural consequences of a need, even a compulsion just to get more of this stuff. It becomes a peculiar kind of hunger that only gets hungrier the more you sate it, a tapeworm of the mind if you will.
Now that I can relate to! Tell us about your dissertation if you would.
It was a very modest version of what became my first book, A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (available now for Christmas and Hanukah presents!). Perhaps the most important thing about dissertations in my opinion is to finish the damn things. Mine was alright, but completing it got me out the door and (after some time) into a job. Even if my committee had demanded more of me, I simply wasn’t able to write something of quality at that point. I needed time—time thinking, time teaching, reading, discussing, digesting, a period of general conceptual seasoning—before I was capable of writing something worthy of reading. This is one of the tragic features of publish or perish for our profession—it encourages, almost forces the publishing of pieces that really shouldn’t be, drowning us in paper and clogging up journals. I have a paper at a journal now that has just passed 13 months without even an initial report.
There are some truly depressing stats about the average number of citations the vast majority of journal articles get. And the number is even lower if you exclude self-citations! But let’s move on to more pleasant things. One of the things I most appreciate about your work is the way you work at the analytic / continental frontier.
This is very important to me since most of my work concentrates in one way or another on this topic. It was the only AOS I could find that would make myself even less marketable than specializing in continental.
Ha, he exclaimed mordantly.
There’s no question that we’re dealing with different traditions—each has its own intellectual landmarks, overlapping but distinguishable styles, favored topics, and so on—so I don’t think the separation is illusory or artificial.
Yeah, I sometimes push the “it’s just sociological” line too far. I should admit more content to the distinction.
What is wrong is the idea that these differences present insurmountable obstacles to dialogue or, even better, cross-fertilization.
Okay, now we’re definitely in agreement.
It’s just that this kind of conversation requires a good bit of ground-laying, which is what I have been trying to do for several years now. The good news is that, as Gadamer argues, while this divergence presents an obstacle to conversation, it also indicates the possibility of a bountiful hermeneutic yield if we can bring these traditions into dialogue with each other. I see this as a real growth area in the near future. There is just so much interesting work to be done here, lots of low-hanging fruit.
What do you see happening here?
Certainly there are localized instances of rapprochement—the collaboration between Dreyfus-inspired Heideggerians and phenomenologists, and cognitive scientists in particular is proving very fruitful, as is the Pittsburgh school of Sellarsian Hegelians. And plenty of younger scholars are “growing up” with no sense of the division, or at least not bound to it as part of their identity as scholars. But it seems obvious to me that there are still very significant barriers in place, and that it still has very significant sociological or professional ramifications. I’ve considered creating an APA Committee on or Society for Analytic-Continental Dialogue or something of the sort, but I’m not sure the effort required would pay off.
Hmm. That’s a pretty interesting idea I think. But not something easily done. Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
The issue of realism and anti-realism has played a large role in all of my books. I still see this issue the way Heidegger and Wittgenstein do, as a question of accepting our finitude.
Tell us a little more here.
Well, it’s a matter of what I’ve sometimes called a “just-us-chickens” epistemology. When we want to answer a question about the world, when we want to settle an argument, all we have to go on is what we can come up with. Appealing to an absolutely independent and authoritative reality to rule on our disagreements doesn’t work because, as Sartre argued, it’s still us making the appeal and figuring out how to understand whatever answer we get back. Invoking an absolutely separate reality that “knows” the answer regardless of what we come up with is, as Wittgenstein says, just a picture. It doesn’t, and ex hypothesi can’t, affect our practices of settling disputes or discovering knowledge. It’s just us down here, without a Great Umpire in the Sky, endlessly squabbling.
Okay, that helps. What else has been a focus for you?
The other constant has been the question of the analytic-continental split. It just seems unnecessary and harmful to our profession.
You won’t get any disagreement from me on that point! Let’s wrap up. What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I’m presently working on a new kind of realism that charts a middle path between full-blown anti-realism and the realism that’s presently making a comeback under the name of Speculative Realism. My tale traces the idea back to Kierkegaard, someone rarely included in discussions of these metaphysical and epistemological issues. I also want to work some more on anti-humanism, which offers a kind of soft determinism or compatibilism that I find far more satisfying than the standard options of determinism and liberalism.
All very important and interesting topics! Thanks, Lee, for doing this interview with us.