Every now and then I write little ditties for my classes. This is from very late in an Early Analytic Philosophy class.
He was spherical, armed cap-a-pie, sleepless, and ready for all comers…He was very extraordinary and knew everything and was a bumble-bee–a benevolent monster of pure intelligence, zigzagging, ranging, and uncatchable. I always had this feeling about Royce–that he was a celestial insect…Time was nothing to him. He was just as fresh at the start of a two hours’ disquisition as at the start. Thinking refreshed him. The truth was that Royce had a phenomenal memory; his mind was a card-indexed cyclopedia of all philosophy…His extreme accessibility made him a sort of automat restaurant for Cambridge. He had fixed hours when anyone could resort to him and draw inspiration from him.
I happened across this while doing a little cleaning up. I wrote it to honor my teacher, Lewis White Beck, at a memorial conference held for him at the University of Rochester (September, 1998). He was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man.
Here’s a thing about Heidegger. For all that is forbidding and foreboding in his writing, he can produce passages of a peculiar beauty. Often, the passages seem to come from next-to-nothing, like a mouse spontaneously generated from grey rags and dust. Or they suddenly loom up, unforeseeably jutting out of an apparently flat landscape.
Consider the abrupt apotheosizing of the inner form of philosophy in this passage:
Only if we go along with this work [Hegel’s Phenomenology] with patience–understood in the sense of really working with it–will it show its actuality and its inner form. However, the form of this work–here as everywhere else in genuine philosophy–is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur. Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent. Rather, its inner form is the inner necessity of the issue itself. For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance. Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.
(It is fascinating how this passage resonates with the Preface of PI. Wittgenstein there relates how he pictured the essence of the book he wanted to write, and how he then came to repent of the picture. He realized that the actual inner form of his book was the inner necessity of the book’s issue itself–and that the book’s inner form was not one that proceeded from one remark to another naturally and without breaks. So when he ends the Preface by conceding that he has not written a good book–or not as good a book as he would have liked to write–he is not measuring his lack of success against the pictured essence of the book. And he is not measuring the book’s literary decoration or his stylistic talent, where each of those is understood as ‘additive’. No. He is measuring the book, measuring himself as its writer, against a full realization of the book’s own actual inner form, a full realization of its own inner necessity. Every force evolves a form, yes; but not every force fully evolves its form.)
My Intro to Phil class is reading Russell’s Problems with me. This is my first time to teach out of Problems in an extended way; although I have taught the first few pages a number of times when working on arguments for sense-data in other classes.
We read the first part of Plato’s Theaetetus (through the ‘knowledge’ =df perception sections) and then we read Descartes’ Meditations (all of it). In previous versions of the class, I moved from Descartes to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book or into Kant’s Prolegomena. I eventually gave up on the Wittgenstein, mainly because the dialectic (its crisscrossing of the landscape, to borrow a PI image) is so complicated that I found the students really couldn’t keep up. Of course, the Plato is dialectically complicated too, but it is better signposted, and falls into clearer large sections, even if the intra-sectional arguments are sometimes formidable. (Does Socrates acccept or reject the Heraclitean Fluxiness that he introduces when he discusses knowledge-as-perception or not? etc.)
I eventually gave up on the Kant because there is too much distance, as it were, between Descartes and Kant for the students to really understand what Kant is doing. I also found that it is hard to motivate the students to sympathize with Kant if they have not felt the milking-the-he-goat-into-a-sieve pointlessness that often attends philosophical argumentation. (Let me be clear: I have in mind feeling that in a way that earns the feeling, by having been burned by philosophical argumentation in the past, burned while–and because–you were inwardly, actively and sympathetically trusting in philosophical argumentation. Students sometimes–too often–feel that philosophical argumentation is pointless; but they haven’t earned that feeling. That kind of cheap felt pointlessness does not serve to motivate sympathy with Kant.) So the students lack the background both of understanding and of earned affective response needed for the Prolegomena to do its simultaneous ending-and-beginning work. Giving up on Wittgenstein and Kant has led me to Russell. So far, so ok. Moving from the Meditation to the Problems, while not seamless, is reasonably straightforward: “Is there any knowledge so certain that no reasonable person could doubt it?”–the beginning of Problems strikes the students as quite familiar. We will see how it goes the final couple of weeks. I will report back.
Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:
In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
I have been lucky to have been able to stay put. Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put. Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility. But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious. So, here I am. So, here I stay. Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.
When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased. He grew up not far from here. His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga. (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.) Beck counseled me about Auburn: “Don’t go and leave. Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.” The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit. But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be. I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course. Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor: I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders. I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it. “Live hidden” is good advice. (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit. He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”. –Is that a line from Gibbon?) I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.
As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before. Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation. Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me. Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person. Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her. Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person. I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.
As Robert Frost once recommended: “Don’t get converted. Stay.”
I begin Kant’s Prolegomena in my Intro to Phil class today. Having students read the book is a stretch, but I rather like the way I excerpt it, and I think it provides a fitting capstone for the course (we also read Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes Meditations) As you might guess, the Ariadne’s thread through this maze is the notion of knowledge. Today, we start Kant by talking about rationalism, empiricism and the antinomies, with emphasis on the antinomies.
I can’t read the Prolegomena without thinkng about a quip from my colleague, Roderick Long. “‘Prolegomena’ is Greek for ‘gateway drug'”.