So, I don’t understand. What makes university professors any different than people who work any other job? If you don’t like the pay, or don’t like the working conditions, simply go somewhere else. An employeer prohibiting someone from coming into their workplace who doesn’t agree to the terms of their employment is immenently fair. I’m sure the employeer (whatever, whoever, and for whatever industry) has made a calculated position to turn away their employees because they weren’t worth the compensation they demanded. The employees may not feel that way, and maybe they can come to an agreement, but maybe not and both sides go their own merry way.
Because students are people, not products; because education is not a commodity. That’s the short answer, and it should be enough. But let’s look a little closer.
Some university administrators manage to put up a pretty good front when it comes to maintaining the charade that they care about the education of their students–they dip into their accessible store of mealy mouthed platitudes and dish them out every turn, holding their hands over their hearts as paeans to the virtues of edification are sung by their choirs of lackeys. Some fail miserably at even this act of misrepresentation and are only too glad to make all too clear their bottom line is orthogonal to academics. Consider, for instance, the folks at Long Island University who have kicked off the new academic semester in fine style:
Starting September 7,the first day of the fall semester at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, classes will be taught entirely by non-faculty members—not because the faculty are on strike, but because on the Friday before Labor Day, the administration officially locked out all 400 members of the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF), which represents full-time and adjunct faculty.
Yessir, what a fine Labor Day gift to the nation this makes. When contract negotiations with your workers fail, well, you don’t continue trying to find an agreement in good faith; you just lock them out¹ and replace them with grossly under-qualified folks instead:
Provost Gale Haynes, LIU’s chief legal counsel, will be teaching Hatha yoga….Rumor has it that Dean David Cohen, a man in his 70s, will be taking over ballet classes scheduled to be taught by Dana Hash-Campbell, a longtime teacher who was previously a principal dancer and company teacher with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
My warriors, after Paris, much work remains to be done. But we have many new recruits. They are infidels, but they have to come to our aid, they will do our work with us. They will ensure that the Caliphate will find new capitals, that it will spread from sea to shining sea. They will turn upon the Muslims in their midst, the devout, and the apostates, those Muslims who--for whatever reason--do not grow their beards, whose women do not cover their heads, whose children do not memorize the Koran, who do not pray five times a day, who study in schools where the Koran is not taught, who do not fast in the holy month, who pledge allegiance to infidel flags. They will turn back refugees from their shores; they will prosecute their own citizens. They will drive them back into our fold. We shall welcome those who show contrition for their desertion; for the rest, apostasy means death.
Between the anvil of the New Crusaders and the hammer of our armies, the apostates, those who left Muslim lands and vainly sought a better life elsewhere--believing foolishly in the propaganda and lies of secular written constitutions with their pathetic Bill of Rights, and in mock-revolutionary declarations of liberty, equality, and fraternity--will be crushed. They will find no new homes; they will be turned back from the shores that were to welcome them. Those Muslims who imagined they could live in peaceful co-existence with infidels will find that there will be no such peace for them. They will be blamed for our work; they will be punished for it. Among them, we will find yet more soldiers.
Truly it is by Allah's Grace that those who imagine themselves the New Crusaders are instead our Jihadi brothers. Such is Allah's Infinite Wisdom that our enemies become our soldiers. They speak of waging war against us but first they will wage war against themselves. They are termites who nibble at their own foundations; we need only direct them from afar.
Allah is Great. Victory will be ours. Welcome the New Crusaders.
Many years ago, I taught the inaugural edition of my Philosophy of Welding seminar. I began the semester by introducing some of the problems that would hold our attention during the semester: What is welding? How is it distinguished from other activities that claim to be welding? Is there a distinctive being-in-the-world characteristic of the welder and his tools? What makes a welded work beautiful? How should such works be shared? In the political economy of welding how is value created and sustained? Do we have a moral obligation to weld? And so on.
My reading list for the class was not excessively ambitious: I stuck to some of the usual suspects--Heidegger and some of the works of the Shipyard Collective, for instance--and concentrated on a few key passages in each, hoping close attention to them would repay dividends in the form of rich class discussion. Early in the semester, I began to notice that one young student did the readings diligently, came to class prepared, and engaged vigorously in all ensuing discussions.
This was no idle interest; no lofty, disengaged, from-on-high tackling of philosophical problems. This young man was in the trenches, on a mission. And it was quite clear what it was: defending--nay, aggressively speaking up for--welding and welders. He had air-tight definitions for welding: necessary and sufficient conditions for it neatly marked its domain off from the impostors clamoring to be let in; he offered an at-times-almost-mystical description of the relationship of the welder to the welded (and the tools that mediated that relationship); he spoke movingly of the affective responses that welded works provoked in him, deftly bringing in Kantian notions of the sublime; he offered a creative theory for how welded works could be copyrighted and welders granted patents for their work; he described the outlines of a political economy for welding that would allow welding to continue to generate surplus value in a world increasingly dominated by the intangible and the immaterial; and most movingly of all, he offered a passionate, stirring, argument whose fascinating conclusion was that we have a duty to weld, a moral inclination that must be obeyed.
It was on this last point that we passionately disagreed. Even though I recognized the importance of welding, I could not bring myself to accept this argument. Surely, one could assign a respectable position to welding in our hierarchy of valued activities without taking the final move to make our engagement something that acquired normative weight. But this young man would not budge. Welding, as an activity, had normative implications; it gave our lives meaning and value; it was the tide that would raise all boats. It was not the cement of the universe, but it was the tool that brought the fabric of space-time together.
By semester's close, our disagreements had grown sharper. When it ended, it was clear I had lost my student. My failure--and the rest of the class'--to accept and internalize his arguments seemed to have turned him off philosophy altogether. I do not know what had so animated his passion for welding, but it was clear and distinct, an important motivational force in his psychological dispositions.
Reason is...the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all...can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man...the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction...But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole...the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man...
Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.
The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?
In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women--via a theological claim--goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere 'preparation' for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason--as part of a process of gradually 'perfecting' their souls. Education is not prelude to the 'real business'; it is the real business itself.
In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization--implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The 'common sense of life' is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.
(My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.)
Note: This post was originally published--under the same title--at samirchopra.com. After posting a link to it on Facebook, I asked whether Mary Wollstonecraft features on philosophy of education reading lists. I would be very interested in responses. Thanks!
Two weeks ago, on 8 September, after finishing my morning stint my gym, I headed to the Brooklyn College campus. I arrived at 12:20, five minutes after the 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM classes had ended. The campus was overflowing with students: streaming out from classrooms and lecture halls, clogging the corridors, the walkways, the quadrangle, the benches outside the library and the library cafe. I walked among them, marveling once again at the splendid diversity--in the linguistic, cultural, ethnic, political dimensions--of our student body. I've been on this campus for just over thirteen years now, and these glimpses never lose their freshness.
I could hear, around me, Russian, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Caribbean Patois, Hebrew; I could see headscarves and hijabs and chadors, yarmulkes, turbans, colored hair, ponytails, topknots, shaven heads. They walked in groups; they walked singly. They talked among themselves; they zoned out on their headphones. They sat; they stood; they sprawled out on the grass. Some rushed to the local Starbucks to refuel on caffeine; others began their lunch, outside, in the still gloriously warm weather, before the next round of classes began at 12:50. I walked on, through this riotous medley, feeling a curious melange of emotions surge through me; I felt protective, proud, and hopeful.
Like any teacher, I'm used to moaning and griping about my students: they don't do the readings; they're late for class; their writing sucks; they ask me questions whose answers are on the syllabus; they disappear for weeks on end and then show up, at the end of the semester, to ask whether they can still find redemption; they check their smartphones in class; they stare blankly at me when I ask them to show me they have understood the points made in last week's class; the list goes on and on. There is truth in all these complaints but there is much more to my students.
As I have noted on this blog, my students' interactions with me in the classroom are a constant source of intellectual enrichment for me; my understanding and appreciation of many philosophical works has been enhanced by my discussing it with my students; I might have a PhD in philosophy and the title of 'professor' but I'm still a student, and my teaching is how I continue to learn. It wouldn't work without my students; it takes two to tango and all that.
But the point I actually set out to make is that the diversity on display that day on campus reminded me that the sheer range of lives and experiences I encounter in my students is another education altogether. My students raise points in the classroom that are inextricably linked with their backgrounds: the Puerto Rican nationalist; the lesbian Orthodox Jew; the working single mother; the trans men and women; the young man struggling to break free of a family afflicted by alcoholism; the immigrants; the native New Yorkers; the senior citizens who audit; the first-generation students; the religious; the skeptical; the conservative; the politically radical; they all bring missives from worlds I only partially experience and understand. They are walking encyclopedias all on their own; they edify and enlighten. They make me realize that my life, varied and rich as it has been, is only the tiniest sliver of all in the giant mosaic of human experience. They point me to much more that lies beyond the narrow confines of my life. Every classroom holds a veritable United Nations, a pleasurable Babel of language, class, ethnicity and political orientation.
I remain ever grateful that I'm a teacher--especially when my students write me appreciative notes!--and that moreover, I'm a teacher here in Brooklyn, in New York City.
Charlie Hebdo has offended again. A recently published cartoon titled “So Close to His Goal”, shows Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic drowning death sharply focused the world's attention on the desperation of the migrant crisis in Europe, lying face down on the sand near a billboard featuring Ronald McDonald and advertising a 2-for-1 McDonald's Happy Meal with the legend: 'Two children's' meals for the price of one." The caption reads, 'So close to his goal.' And above it all, "Welcome to migrants.' A second cartoon titled “The Proof that Europe is Christian” shows a toddler drowning in the ocean. waters. Next to him a Christ-like figure walks on water. The caption reads, "Christians walk on waters… Muslims kids sink.”
Here is how I 'read' the cartoon, roughly: The West and Europe imagines itself the haven of liberal, secular ideals; it imagines itself the bastion of democracy, republicanism, and the social welfare state. In point of fact, it is as much in thrall to old-fashioned notions of Christian triumphalism and the blurring of the church and state as those regimes that it disdains. The West and Europe still fight holy wars; they still imagine themselves under attack from the 'Huns' and the 'Goths' and the 'barbarians' and the 'Moors.' The migrants might have thought they were escaping to this promised land where they would be welcomed with open arms and invited to make a new life. Little do they know that they were only heading for a vapid, shallow, xenophobic, insular, Islamophobic, consumerist culture, one whose patron saint is Ronald McDonald, and whose guiding slogans are not the call to arms of the great revolutions, but rather, sales pitches for cheap goods.
That's how I read it. I did not take these cartoons to be 'mocking' a dead child. I do not claim to know the 'intent' of the cartoonist, but given Charlie Hebdo's history, and the current context, my interpretation strikes me as at least halfway plausible.
I am not going to offer a systematic defense here of Charlie Hebdo, but want to make note of a couple of what I think are relevant points:
The famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama exchanging fist-bumps in the Oval Office, while wearing 'Arab dresses' and carrying guns, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. Had it appeared on the cover of the National Review Online, complete with a comments section of gibbering right-wingers rubbing their hands in glee, reactions to it would have been considerably sharper.
Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are bound to offend many and their choice of vehicle for making their political points might be questioned. But they have ample material to choose from and ample opportunity to offend; this world and its dominant species' arrogance and continuing self-destructive behavior will ensure that. Satirists exist and find work because we are worthy targets of satire.
Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada's Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family--most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia--seated on benches. (The women wore wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)
I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the 'no-fly' list.
CS Lewis' Mere Christianityis rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics; it is entertaining, witty, well-written, clearly composed by a man of immense learning and erudition (who, as befitting the author of the masterful Studies in Words, cannot restrain his delightful habit of providing impromptu lessons in etymology.) Lewis is said to have induced conversions in "Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer and the philosopherC. E. M. Joad" as a result of their reading Mere Christianity, and it is not hard to see why. The encounter of a certain kind of of receptive mind with the explication of Christian doctrine that Lewis provides--laden with provocative analogies and metaphors--is quite likely to lead to the kind of experience conversion provides: an appeal to an emotional core harboring deeply experienced and felt needs and desires, which engenders a radical shift in perspective and self-conception. Christianity offers a means for conceptualizing one's existential and pyschological crises--seeing them as manifestation of a kind of possession, by sin, by the Devil--and holds out the promise of radical self-improvement: the movement toward man--all men--becoming Christ, assuming a moral and spiritual perfection as they do so. All the sludge will fall away; man will rise and be welcomed into the bosom of God; if only he takes on faith in Christ and his teachings. This is powerful, heady stuff and its intoxicating powers are underestimated only by those overly arrogant about the power and capacities of reason and ratiocination to address emotional longings and wants.
It is clear too, from reading Lewis, why Christianity provoked the ire of a philosopher like Nietzsche. For they are all here: the infantilization of man in the face of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-good God, the terrible Godly wrath visible in notions such as damnation, the disdain for this life, this earth, this abode, its affairs and matters, in favor of another one; the notion of a 'fallen man' and a 'fall from grace' implying this world is corrupt, indeed, under 'occupation' by an 'enemy force.' There is considerable self-abnegation here; considerable opportunity for self-flagellation and diminishment. No wonder the Existential Stylist was driven to apoplectic fury.
Lewis takes Biblical doctrine seriously and literally; but like any good evangelical he is not above relying on metaphorical interpretation when it suits him. (This is evident throughout Mere Christianity but becomes especially prominent in the closing, more avowedly theological chapters.) Unsurprisingly for a man of his times (who supports the death penalty and thinks homosexuals are perverts), the seemingly retrograde demand that wives unquestioningly obey their husbands, which might have sparked alarms in a more suspicious mind about the sociological origins of such a hierarchy-preserving notion, is stubbornly, if ever so slightly apologetically, defended.
Lewis' arguments are, despite the apparent effort he takes to refute views contrary to Christian doctrine, just a little too quick. His infamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and his dismissal of the notion that his supposed Natural or Universal Law of Morality cannot be traced to a social instinct are notoriously weak (the former's weaknesses are amply referenced in the link above while the latter simply pays no attention to history, class, and culture.)
But Mere Christianity, even if deeply flawed, is still worth a read: you witness an agile mind at work; you encounter a masterful writer; you find yourself challenged to provide refutations and counter-arguments; you even feel an emotional tug or two, letting you empathize with those who do think like you do. That's a pretty good catch for one book.
Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the 'Twentieth Century Philosophy' class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:
I appreciated the professor's enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.
In Shame and Necessity(Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks' conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:
This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department's annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was 'How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy'. Here is the abstract:
The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]
At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, "Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis...". During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.
In this country it is chiefly to the judiciary that is entrusted the task of preventing a discrepancy between the law as declared and as actually administered. This allocation of function has the advantage of placing the responsibility in practiced hands, subjecting its discharge to public scrutiny, and dramatizing the integrity of the law. There are, however, serious disadvantages in any system that looks to the courts as a bulwark against the lawless administration of the law. It makes the correction of abuses dependent upon the willingness and financial ability of the affected party to take his case to legislation. It has proved relatively ineffective in controlling lawless conduct by the police, this evil being in fact compounded by the tendency of lower courts to identify their mission with that of maintaining the morale of the police force. [pp. 81-82]
There is little need to emphasize the topicality or relevance of these words, originally uttered in 1964 by Fuller, during the delivery of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Still, one is almost unavoidably drawn to the last sentence of the excerpt above. The considerations raised there are especially worth revisiting. (Fuller's larger project, of course, is to argue that law-abiding behavior is better ensured by a consideration of the moral weight attached to any injunction of the law.)
In the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of which resulted in acquittals and failures to indict the police officers, it was transparent to most dispassionate observers that the judiciary did not see its work as upholding the law, as much as it saw it as supporting the police force, a 'partner' in the work it was engaged in elsewhere. Prosecutors and district attorneys work with police forces to enforce the law; they were not interested in bringing any of their 'co-workers' to justice, to subjecting them to the same standards employed on other legal subjects.
My guess is, the new strategy is go ahead and indict, and avoid the fuss that will be made if you don't. You can always acquit later with the right kind of jury.
Hours have passed since I wrote the comment and I see no reason to reconsider. Video evidence--the kind that led to the formulation and pressing of the initial murder charges--has never been considered probative when it comes to assaults on black men by police. And as always, the enduring and transient members of the judiciary--like the jury--will, in all likelihood, worry more about the hit the morale of the good police officers of South Carolina, and perhaps nationwide will take. Such dangerous work, such little reward; surely these men in the line of duty, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the administration of the law, should be forgiven their minor transgressions?
I'm teaching Wittgenstein this semester--for the first time ever--to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicusand Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.
Some six years ago, shortly after I had been appointed to its faculty, the philosophy department at the CUNY Graduate Center began revising its long-standing curriculum; part of its expressed motivation for doing so was to bring its curriculum into line with those of "leading" and "top-ranked" programs. As part of this process, it invited feedback from its faculty members. As a former graduate of the Graduate Center's Ph.D program, I thought I was well-placed to offer some hopefully useful feedback on its curriculum, and so, I wrote to the faculty mailing list, doing just that. Some of the issues raised in my email are, I think, still relevant to academic philosophy. Not everybody agreed with its contents; some of my cohort didn't, but in any case, perhaps this might provoke some discussion.
As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here (http://philpapers.org/rec/BLOGCA) and here (http://philpapers.org/rec/TURKAL).
A few months ago, I noticed an interesting and telling interaction between a group of academic philosophers. A Facebook friend posted a little note about how one of her students had written to her about having encountered a so-called "Gettier case" i.e., she had acquired a true belief for invalid reasons. In the email, the student described how he/she had been told the 'right time' by a broken clock. The brief discussion that broke out in response to my friend's note featured a comment from someone noting that the broken clock example is originally due to Bertrand Russell. A little later, a participant in the discussion offered the following comment:
Even though the clock case is due to Russell, it's worth noting that "Gettier" cases were present in Nyāya philosophy in India well before Russell, for instance in the work of Gaṅgeśa, circa 1325 CE. The example is of someone inferring that there is fire on a faraway mountain based on the presence of smoke (a standard case of inference in Indian philosophy), but the smoke is actually dust. As it turns out, though, there is a fire on the mountain. See the Tattva-cintā-maṇi or "Jewel of Reflection on the Truth of Epistemology." [links added]
I cringe, I wince, when I hear someone refer to me as a 'philosopher.' I never use that description for myself. Instead, I prefer locutions like, "I teach philosophy at the City University of New York", or "I am a professor of philosophy." This is especially the case if someone asks me, "Are you a philosopher?". In that case, my reply begins, "Well, I am a professor of philosophy...". Once, one of my undergraduate students asked me, "Professor, what made you become a philosopher?" And I replied, "Well, I don't know if I would go so far as to call myself a philosopher, though I did get a Ph.D in it, and...". You get the picture.
Yesterday, in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class, we worked our way through Bertrand Russell's essay on "Appearance and Reality" (excerpted, along with "The Value of Philosophy" and "Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description" from Russell's 'popular' work The Problems of Philosophy.) I introduced the class to Russell's notion of physical objects being inferences from sense-data, and then went on to his discussions of idealism, materialism, and realism as metaphysical responses to the epistemological problems created by such an understanding of objects. This discussion led to the epistemological stances--rationalism and empiricism--that these metaphysical positions might generate. (There was also a digression into the distinction between necessary and contingent truths.)
At one point, shortly after I had made a statement to the effect that science could be seen as informed by materialist, realist, and empiricist conceptions of its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, I blurted out, "Really, scientists who think philosophy is useless and irrelevant to their work are stupid and ungrateful." This was an embarrassingly intemperate remark to have made in a classroom, and sure enough, it provoked some amused twittering from my students, waking up many who were only paying partial attention at that time to my ramblings.
Sometimes, when I talk to friends, I hear them say things that to my ears sound like diminishments of themselves: "I don't have the--intellectual or emotional or moral--quality X" or "I am not as good as Y when it comes to X." They sound resigned to this self-description, this self-understanding. I think I see things differently; I think I see ample evidence of the very quality they seem to find lacking in themselves. Sometimes, I act on this differing assessment of mine, and rush to inform them they are mistaken. They are my friends; their lowered opinion of themselves must hurt them, in their relationships with others, in their ability to do the best they can for themselves. I should 'help.' It seems like the right thing to do. (This goes the other way too; sometimes my friends offer me instant correctives to putatively disparaging remarks I make about myself.)
Many philosophers refer to the game of cricket in their writings. Reading one of these references never fails to give me—a lifelong cricket fan—a little start of pleasure. Many years ago, as I began my graduate studies in philosophy in New York City, I stumbled upon JL Austin while reading on speech acts for my philosophy of language class. I was delighted to note that Austin, in his discussion of performative utterances, provided the now-classic example of a cricket umpire saying "Out". I was a lonely graduate student then, and reading about cricket, even if only in the context of an academic discussion, was a small reprieve from that loneliness. I was happy to think that perhaps some of my fellow graduate students would want clarification about the example, which, of course, I would be only too happy to provide. (They didn't. They understood the example well enough from baseball: "steeerrrikkke! You're out!").
After viewing the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love a couple of years ago, I was struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers' lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made--or rather, that I am aware of--haven't exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.
In 'Five Parables' (from Historical Ontology, Harvard University Press, 2002), Ian Hacking writes,
I had been giving a course introducing undergraduates to the philosophers who were contemporaries of the green family and August der Stark. My hero had been Leibniz, and as usual my audience gave me pained looks. But after the last meeting, some students gathered around and began with the conventional, 'Gee, what a great course.' The subsequent remarks were more instructive: 'But you could not help it...what with all those great books, I mean like Descartes...' They loved Descartes and his Meditations.
I happen to give terrible lectures on Descartes, for I mumble along saying that I do not understand him much. It does not matter. Descartes speaks directly to these young people, who know as little about Descartes and his times as I know about the green family and its time. But just as the green family showed itself to me, so Descartes shows himself to them....The value of Descartes to these students is completely anachronistic, out of time. Half will have begun with the idea that Descartes and Sartre were contemporaries, both being French. Descartes, even more than Sartre, can speak directly to them....I do find it very hard to make sense of Descartes, even after reading commentaries, predecessors, and more arcane texts of the same period. The more I make consistent sense of him, the more he seems to me to inhabit an alien universe.
A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, "We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is." Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: "You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work."
You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?