A Rarely Realized Classroom Ideal

Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)

It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.

The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good  discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.

Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.

 

 

T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.

Philosophy As ‘Ways Of Seeing Things’

In Confessions of a Philosopher (Random House, 1997, pp. 399-400) Bryan Magee writes:

[T]he most important things great philosophers have to give us are to be got at not by analysing the logic of their arguments or their use of concepts but by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying….”Is reality illuminated for me if I look at it in the light of X’s explanation of it?”….For the most part philosophy is about different ways of looking at things: its purpose is not so much of knowledge as of understanding. An original philosopher is saying to us in effect: “You will find you will understand things better if you look at them this way.”….in this respect philosophy can be like art….the result is an enhanced perception and understanding of my own world, my own experience, an enrichment of my vision….What one gets from a philosophy consists largely not of true propositions but, more important than that, ways of looking at things, ways of seeing things.

I’ve made note here and elsewhere–in an interview with 3AM Magazine–of my original motivations for studying philosophy. The latter spoke to philosophy’s therapeutic function. The former, more explicitly in line with Magee’s claim above, spoke to the ‘special elevated vision’ the philosophical attitude seemed to promise: I would see the world in a whole new light once I had become a philosopher. But of course, that is what philosophy’s therapeutic function amounted to as well–at least as I understood it. For what I hoped for and desired more than anything else via the study of philosophy was that it would convince me that the world I lived in, a world then tainted by my grief and anxiety and sorrowful remembrance, could be viewed anew, and thus transformed, made into one that I could go on living in with purpose and desire and striving. My state of mind then did not permit such a perspective: all was shadow and murk. For philosophy did not just promise to elevate me above the fray, to look down from an Olympian height (in the way that the two paragraphs I quoted from John David Mabbott in the post linked above had seemed to.) That promise still contained within it a hint of remoteness: perhaps I would have to separate myself from the mundane world to enjoy such a ‘superior’ perspective. But the promise to see things anew, to see ‘reality in the light of what it is saying’ was a trifle more ambitious and humble and human all at once: I would walk these same streets, among the same people, see the same sun rise every day on this world with all its ugliness and beauty, and yet, none of it would be the ‘same,’ because I would be a philosopher.

These original conceptions of philosophy carried a hint of the poetic, the artistic, the religious, and the scientific to me; and despite my immersion in technical analytic philosophy in graduate school, they never quite left me. Every attempt to straitjacket it into only one of those categories was, at some important level in my  mind, a failure to understand philosophy’s promise, a betrayal I could never sign up for.