Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Heidegger on an Education in Thinking

The following words of Heidegger’s have been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.

We all still need an education in thinking, and before that first a knowledge of what being educated and uneducated in thinking means.  In this respect, Aristotle gives us a hint in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1006a ff.).  It reads…”For it is uneducated not to have an eye for when it is necessary to look for a proof, and when this is not necessary.”

This sentence demands careful reflection.  For it is not yet decided in what way that which needs no proof in order to become accessible to thinking is to be experienced.  Is it dialectical mediation or originary intuition or neither of the two? Only the peculiar quality of that which demands of us above all else to be admitted can decide about that.  But how is this to make the decision possible for us before we have admitted it? In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?

Aristotle’s passage–and its non-kissing cousin in EN–have become more and more deeply embedded in my thinking and teaching.  My Seven Deadly Sins course this summer (now just ended) in many ways pivots on the EN passage.  I take that passage to insist on differences in kind among objectivities, differences in kind among, say, geometry and history and philosophy and rhetoric.  I have grown increasingly resistant to attempts to solder philosophy to science or to mathematics–or to whatever.  (Not that I was ever very receptive to such attempts.)  Philosophy is its own thing and not another thing.  Perhaps Heidegger gets a little too invested here and there in soldering philosophy (or thinking) to poetry (that is a topic for another time), but generally he is acrobatically adept at sundering philosophy from other things.  (Heidegger inherits the form of his Idealist predecessors’ metaphilosophy even if he rejects its specific content. –Compare him here to Bradley or to Oakeshott.)

Anyway, I do not like thematizing philosophy as argument, as argumentative.  Why should philosophy be beholden to proof?  I do not mean that philosophy should jettison proof or that proof does not matter.  But why should it be essential?  I am happy to say that argument has its place, an honored place, in philosophy.  But there is no reason to believe that gaining admittance to philosophy requires an inference ticket (apologies to Ryle).   –That does not mean that we just throw open the doors–free admission!  –No, but some things may get in without an inference ticket.  –Ok.  But what, and why, and when, and how?  –We need a sense of what is relevant in philosophy, to philosophy, and a sense that relevance itself is not a matter (always) for proof.  (In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?)  We need to understand what it looks like to be educated and uneducated in philosophy, so that we can embark on our philosophical education.

We glimpse here why the vocabulary of late Heidegger runs through the all the inflections of ‘receptive spontaneity’, why hearkening and following a path become leitmotifs of the work.  The claim of relevance is not always to be established by argument; sometimes the claim of relevance is simply the peculiar quality of certain things, a claim that demands acknowledgment from us.  We hearken to such things.  We follow in their paths.  Their relevance is their solemn power, calling us to free response. We make ourselves available to thought.



Affluence of Words: Coming of Age with Elvis Costello

Cover art

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin
(“Accidents Will Happen”)

Well, the door swings back and forward from the past into the present
(“Little Palaces”)

He’s the only singer fully to have mastered the come-hither snarl.

I was riding in my friend Tim’s compact car.  We were hurtling from Gallipolis to Cincinnati, Ohio.  We were going to see Elvis Costello.  Tim was a fan, but from a distance.  I’m not sure he ever entirely understood my devotion to Costello’s songs.

He listened to me indulgently through the din of This Year’s Model.  I was trying to explain.  “Other than the words of a few dead philosophers, his words mean more to me than anyone else’s.”

Why did they mean so much to me? Why do they?

I walked into a dorm room during my freshman year of college to find a new friend of mine, Jim, sitting on the far side of his bed with a guitar.  He had a cassette player sitting against the wall and was playing and singing along to a song I had never heard.  He seemed to be singing to the wall.  When he noticed me, I asked about the song.  He looked at me strangely when he told me that it was Elvis Costello.  He could see the name was news to me. I left his room that evening with a bootleg cassette of Imperial Bedroom.  I had no idea quite what to make of it at first.  The music was so different from what I knew.  But then the words began to hit me, like a spray of buckshot.

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
(“Beyond Belief”)

I knew nothing about fashionable hovels, having grown up in a double-wide trailer in rural Appalachia, but I knew something about old conceits and glib replies, and about the intestine turnings of authenticity and inauthenticity.  I could imagine myself an oily slick.  This often feckless, rueful self-monitoring–its dry heave of self-disgust–was mine.  I knew it from the inside.  But it was not just what Costello expressed.  It was also his expression of it.  A complex irony needled through the words. Formal properties of the words themselves (other than rhyme) were being attended to, responded to, marshaled to purpose. Some game I knew and did not know was afoot among the words

I went to college with three disparate musics in my head.  My father’s bluegrass, my church’s acapella hymns and my own small collection of Devo and Gary Numan albums.  The latter was my attempt to find a music of my own, one that distanced itself from the living  human all-too-human qualities of the other two–the murder and regret of bluegrass, the sin and salvation of the hymns.  I wanted to hole up in Gary Numan’s embalmed “Cars”, in a place where I could be stable for days.

I listened to the cassette of Imperial Bedroom over and over, playing one side from beginning to end as I waited for sleep to fall each night.  “Beyond Belief” became the anthem of my freshman year.  It captured my dislocated fears and my feeling that my days were just a passing show, a phenomenalist’s play of welded-together sensations.

I’ve got a feeling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

The last line exactly captured my own ambiguity, my sense that I was both the subject and the object of a frigid incredulity.

The other songs on the album mapped the failures of domesticity.  The bluegrass of my youth had often enough done the same, but typically the persona presented in those songs sang self-righteously or regretfully, with a cumbersome Cumberland’s sincerity.  Bluegrass can do high and lonesome, but it cannot do irony or alienation.  During that freshman year I was often lonely enough, I guess; but mainly I was struggling with self-alienation.  I didn’t care for my company.  I could do without me.

Tim and I arrived in Cincinnati as the August sunlight stretched and turned golden.  Costello was touring behind Goodbye Cruel World.  My luck was good that night.  Nick Lowe opened for Costello, and Lowe had Paul Carrack with him.  I more or less got to see Nick Lowe and Squeeze (Lowe and Carrack performed “Tempted”) before Costello came on.  Lowe mentioned at one point in his show that it was Costello’s birthday, and he played “The Rose of England” in honor of the occasion.

Other than the words of Costello, the words of my freshman year were the words of dead philosophers, particularly Plato and Plotinus and Schopenhauer and a couple of British Idealists–Bosanquet and Bradley.  Bosanquet and Bradley’s Victorian prose entranced me more perhaps than  their idealism, but I styled myself in those days an expatriated latter-day British absolute idealist.  I read Plato and Plotinus in a divinatory spirit, and read all of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in one unblinking twenty-four hours.  Costello played on as I read on. I was 17–and the world was my will and my representation.

I walked the campus with my head down, lost, genuinely lost, in my thoughts.  The fallen leaves of a Wooster autumn scattered as I walked along.  I nearly ran into a woman.  She scolded me for walking with my head down.  I muttered a line from Proverbs in response:  “Ponder the path of thy feet.”  But the truth is that the words in my head were simply more real to me than my feet or the leaves or the autumn landscape.  Meaning plagued me more than being.  Being was taking care of itself.  Meaning I needed to tend.

Pretty words don’t mean much anymore
I don’t mean to be mean much anymore
All I see are snapshots, big shots, tender spots
mug shots, machine slots
Till you don’t know what’s what
You don’t know what you got
(“Pretty Words”)

Costello’s songs were often slightly deranged lists, efforts to anatomize experience or to bind together its loose ends.  Sometimes the lists were quite mad–sequential but otherwise disunited.  It all fit my moods, sense-making and sense-unmaking in turn, witness to the daily rise and fall of my life.

My love of words drew me to Costello and deepened because of him.  He has left his fingerprints on my verbal imagination.  He is capable, like Lewis Carroll or James Thurber, of making nonsense so delightful that the paucity or mere parody of sense do not matter.  He can write nonsense or semi-sense so moving that it slits you from your guggle to your zatch, from here to here.

You’re sending me tulips mistaken for lilies
You give me your lip after punching me silly
You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain
II had any sense now I wouldn’t want it back again

New Amsterdam it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess

Down on the mainspring, listen to the tick tock
Clock all the faces that move in on your block
Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten
Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written
(“New Amsterdam”)

There’s a girl in this dress
There’s always a girl in distress
(“Shabby Doll”)

I fell in love and then got flushed by love during my freshman year.  Costello’s wary love songs–with their obligatory escape hatches or hidden tunnels–matched my skittish paranoia that love stories were cautionary tales.

I won’t walk with my head bowed
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Your love walks where three’s a crowd
Beyond caution where lovers walk

Lovers walk, lovers scramble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Lovers step, shuffle and gamble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
(“Lovers Walk”)

My father played bluegrass.  Back in the 50’s, he cut classes for most of a term at Marshall University and practiced the mandolin.  He had heard that Eck Gibson and the Mountaineer Ramblers, a local group of some acclaim, planned to head to the studio but without a mandolin player. My father, never ordinarily one for rash acts, showed up at the studio the day that the group was scheduled to begin recording.  Dad talked his way into an audition and got the gig.

My father did not talk much.  At home, when it was too dark to work, he picked up his guitar or his mandolin and played.  I can hardly remember him in doors without an instrument in his hands.  As a small boy, I spent many weekends at the homes of other bluegrass players, usually the lone child in the house, nursing a warming Pepsi and listening.  I listened a lot.  I still have a head full of bluegrass songs, songs of loneliness and homesickness and failed farms and love gone wrong, songs of dying  little girls and dreadful snakes.  I don’t know how much of it I understood at first but I began to understand it, and to understand something of the darker corners of the adult world.

I can no longer remember the list of songs Costello played that August night.  Many of the songs on Goodbye but others too; I was especially eager for songs off Get Happy! and Trust.  I had spent long hours listening to both and wondering about the cover photo on the latter.  That above-his-sunglasses glance away came to seem essential to the music to me.  I coveted the indirection of the music.  I wanted to be told things in ways somehow consistent with my finding them out for myself. Costello’s lyrics obliged.

The sun set before the show reached its finale.  Costello came out and played a few songs by himself.  The band rejoined him, played another few songs and then they finished.  The stage lights went down and we drove home in the dark.

The hymns that stuck with me most were hymns whose lyrics were by Isaac Watts. I especially loved his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.  I had no way of knowing it as a child, when the song first took up lodging in my memory, but the song is a full-on spiritual exercise.  So too are many of Costello’s songs.  (Perhaps this is a vestige of his Catholic upbringing?)  They require that we adopt, in a way resembling Costello’s own adoption of it, the persona of the song.  We are then shown the persona, often shown its tragedy, and shown it as caused by various of the character flaws of the persona.

Consider this a negative spiritual exercise; it works through a bad, not a good example.  (“No man is good for nothing; he can always serve as a bad example.”   –Someone should explore the similarities between Costello and Nestroy.)  The songs alert you to your own flaws or beginnings of flaws to the extent that you find the persona a good fit.  Costello’s goal, I take it, is to implicate us in the world of such a persona, and to ask us if that is where, who we want to be.

The irony–sometimes transmuting into satire–in Costello’s songs is his way of flinging himself against the world without posturing.  It is a function of his desire for the world to be good and his conviction that it is bad, and that he, too, would be good but is often bad.  His unwillingness to acquiesce to that badness, even if it takes the relatively innocuous form of conformity or of spiritless drudging, drives the music.  But his awareness of himself and of his own flaws and conformity and drudging forbid self-righteousness.

I wouldn’t see Costello live  again for another 15 years or so.  The next time I saw him with my wife in Atlanta, Georgia.  I had grown up (some).  He had grown older.  But the words were still there, his and mine. When talking to my grad school teacher, Lewis White Beck, I once attributed (rightly) a distinction to the philosopher, C. I. Lewis.  I called it “Lewis’ distinction”.  Beck chided me.  “Kelly, we are friends, but you should not refer to me by my first name in a paper.”  I explained that I hadn’t; I had referred to C. I. Lewis and not Lewis White Beck.  Beck looked down, embarrassed.  Then, brightening, he looked up and said:  “I have been using that distinction for so long I thought it was mine.”  By the time I saw Costello for a second time, I had been using his words for so long I thought they were mine.

There’s a hand on a wire that leads to my mouth
I can hear you knocking but I’m not coming out
Don’t want to be a puppet or a ventriloquist
‘Cause there’s no ventilation on a critical list
Fingers creeping up my spine are not mine to resist
Strict time

Toughen up, toughen up
Keep your lip buttoned up
Strict time
(“Strict Time”)

Puzzled and perplexed by a failed love and by my failure at philosophy, I dropped out of school at the end of my freshman year.  I packed my philosophy books in boxes and took them home, putting them in an empty corner of Dad’s tool shed.  Months would pass before I reopened those boxes, tearing away scabs.  But Get Happy! was in my tape deck all the while.

But he’s not the man you’d think that he can be
I don’t know why you can’t see
That he is only the imposter
That he is only the imposter

When I said that I was lying
I might have been lying
Never let me hear you say
You’re not trying, no, no
(“The Imposter”)

PI’s Opening Remark

The final paragraph of a paper I am now finishing:

Wittgenstein puts away the common notions that a book, particularly a book of philosophy, should open either by presenting its undeniable first premise or by defining its terms or by telling you what is coming. He does nothing of the sort. He begins instead with a quotation from St. Augustine. That quotation serves as a blessing from St. Augustine, who Wittgenstein venerated; as an example of authority or the lack of it in philosophy, or at least of its nature and its acknowledgment or denial; as a reminder of the way in which philosophy can shape even what seem relatively unremarkable remarks, as if philosophy were always stealing a march on us, out ahead of and so determining what we have it in us to think or to say; as a critical target, carrying with it a germ, a contagion, a communicable if not wholly communicated picture of communication; as a lexicon-in-use, a first glimpse of a use (or attempt at a use) of the words whose use (and non-use) will preoccupy the pages of PI; as invoking connections between philosophy and childhood and education, of the ways in which philosophy is now accessible, now inaccessible to childhood, and of the ways in which childhood is now accessible, now inaccessible to philosophy (what makes more merry or kills more joy than childhood, than philosophy?), and of the ways in which philosophy requires us to learn how to learn and how not to learn and how to unlearn what there is to learn or what we have learnt. But of course not all of that can be clear on a first reading of the first remark. Which means, I take it, that the remark has not been read until it has been double-read, until it can be read in relation to the rest of the book and the rest of the book in relation to it. As I said, PI begins but has no beginning, ends but has no ending. When we open it at the first page and we confront its first remark, we are confronting the whole of PI, not just one remark. We may make PI’s acquaintance one remark at a time, but we do not come to understand it that way. In for a dime, in for a dollar–the book makes no small change.

Education–George MacDonald

There are in whose notion education would seem to consist in the production of a certain repose through the development  of this and that faculty, and the depression, if not eradication, of this and that other faculty.  But if mere repose were the end in view, an unsparing depression of all the faculties would be the surest means of approaching it, provided always the animal instincts  could be depressed likewise, or, better still, kept in a state of constant repletion. Happily, however, for the human race, it possesses in the passion of hunger even, a more immediate saviour than in the wisest selection and treatment of its faculties.  For repose is not the end of education; its end is a noble unrest, an ever renewed awakening from the dead, a ceaseless questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future, an urging of the motions of life, which had better far be accelerated into fever, than retarded into lethargy.

We have here, I think, something like the contrast between the way students see (have been taught to see) their education and what they should see.  What they want is unsparing depression of their faculties and constant repletion of their animal instincts, a kind of upside-down ascesis.  What they should want is noble unrest, hunger, wakefulness–a fever that urges them from their beds rather than keeping them abed.

Opening My New Talk

Here’s a draft of the opening paragraph of my new talk on Merleau-Ponty’s lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”.  The paragraph is meant to be a compendium of the topics the talk addresses, as well as a hat tip to Stanley Cavell.

I find that I am always educating myself in front of others. There is, I suppose, an effrontery in this: I admit I feel ashamed somewhat in so doing. And I realize you may wonder what I take myself to be doing, since, “Surely,” you might mutter, “he ought to tell us something he knows or takes himself to know, something he has learnt, not something he is learning”. But I confess I understand philosophy to be a matter of educating oneself, of coming into knowledge, and not a matter of having knowledge that is then simply or complicatedly imparted. At least since Socrates, philosophy has countenanced a distinction between loving wisdom and being wise, and has chosen the first as the better part, or at least as its, as philosophy’s, part. A philosopher is someone who is crucially concerned with his own becoming—and in particular with his own becoming-a-knower. Thus is ignorance always internal to philosophy, and the recognition of his own inner disorder internal to any philosopher’s sense of himself as a philosopher. I write this out of my own inner disorder, my own ignorance of what to say about philosophy. —Can I speak for philosophy?

The Sphinx (A Lecture from April, 2002)

At the gate of the school lies the sphinx who puts this question to every emerging scholar …: “How are you going to make your living?” And every [scholar] must answer or die: so the poor things believe.

We call this the system. It isn’t, really. The trouble lies in us who are so afraid of this particular sphinx. “My dear sphinx, my wants are very small, my needs still smaller. I wonder you trouble yourself about so trivial a matter. I am going to get a job in a bottle-factory, where I shall have to spend a certain number of hours a day. But that is the least of my concerns. My dear sphinx, you are a kitten at riddles. If you’d asked me, now, what am I going to do with my life, apart from the bottle-factory, you might have frightened me. As it is, really, every smoky tall chimney is an answer to you.”

Curious that when the toothless old sphinx croaks “How are you going to get your living?” our knees give way beneath us. … Do we really think we might not be able to earn our bread and butter? The odds against earning your living are one in five thousand. There are not so many odds against dying of typhoid or of being killed in a street-accident. Yet you don’t really care a snap about street-accidents or typhoid. Then why are you so afraid of dying of starvation? You’ll never die of starvation, anyhow. …

There is no cure for this craven terror of poverty save in human courage and insouciance. A sphinx has you by your cravenness. … Oedipus and all those before him might just as easily have answered the sphinx by saying … “My dear sphinx, go to school, go to school …. [H]ere you are, heaven knows how old, propounding silly riddles….” Exit the sphinx with its tail between its legs.

And so with the sphinx of our material existence. She’ll never go off with her tail between her legs till we simply jeer at her.

D. H. Lawrence.  –We have our sphinx at Auburn: she lives in and feeds on our University culture, and she speaks, all-too-often, with the voice of Bobby Lowder. [An Auburn trustee]  “How are you going to earn your living?” the Bobby-voice croaks – and our knees give way beneath us. The sphinx has us by our cravenness. We are cowards all. What we should say when she croaks is what Lawrence would have us say. “Earn my living, you crazy old bitch? Why, I’m going Jimmy-Shepherding. No, not sheep at all. Jimmishepherding ….”

One point of this answer is to ridicule the question and the questioner. Both are rather silly, really. Each of you is, with very few exceptions, going to earn a living. Each of you will probably do reasonably well. The penury that the sphinx terrifies you with is an extremely distant possibility.

As Lawrence suggests (this is the other point of the Jimmishepherding answer), the question that should frighten you is the question of what you will do when you are not earning your living. “How will you live, not from 9 to 5, but during the rest of the day’s hours? What will you do with yourself on the weekends? Will your leisure be dignified? And what kind of person will you be, what kind of worker will you be, as you work from 9 to 5?” These questions should put you in a swither. And the Bobby-voice has nothing responsive to say to them, nothing. The sphinx is stony silent.

The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living, about earning your daily bread and butter. But the sphinx does not want to talk about whether you eat as a glutton, or about what you do after mealtime. The sphinx does not want to talk about kingdoms that are to come or not; the sphinx does not want to talk about forgiving trespasses or not forgiving trespasses. No. The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living – but not about living well. The sphinx wants to talk about the difference between the rich and the poor man – but not about the difference between the good and the bad man.

William James asked himself the question “Of what use is a college training?” After some meditation, the pithiest answer he could give was “It should help you to know a good man when you see him.” Pithy, true, that answer; and wise, too. James expands on his answer:

Studying in [the proper] way, we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time; we acquire standards of the excellent and durable. All our arts and sciences and institutions are but so many quests of perfection on the part of men; and when we see how diverse the types of excellence may be, how various the tests, how flexible the adaptations, we gain a richer sense of what the terms “better” and “worse” may signify in general. Our critical sensibilities grow more accurate and less fanatical. … What the colleges … should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various guises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable, the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent, – this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal value. … The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs around us.

James said more here than I can comment on. (I recommend his essay to you for your study; it is titled “The Social Value of the College Bred.”) I will confine myself to comments on three things: First, notice that the sense for human superiority does not clash with recognizing diversity. Instead, it aids that recognition. For too long, our University culture has treated these two as if they clash. An important feature of James’ thinking here is that recognizing diversity falls out of, and is, so to speak, controlled by, the sense for human superiority. That is, diversity is recognized because the sense for human superiority reveals that superiority in a variety of times, peoples and cultures. Good human jobs occur in various settings: our sense for human superiority reveals to us that high human types can occur here and there, now and then. Diversity matters because human superiority matters.

Second, the teaching of a sense for human superiority can make a place for both the humanities and the sciences. Each can play a role in subtilizing the sense. James’ discussion of this point is one of the more complicated ones in his essay; I’ll abstract from the complications. Abstracted, James’ point is that both the humanities and the sciences can be taught in a way that educates the feeling for a good human job anywhere. James thinks that the short description of this way of teaching is teaching the biographical history of the subject. When the sciences, and even when the humanities, are not taught in this way, “literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.” Obviously, James is not condemning the teaching of grammar, of catalogues, of listed dates or of a sheet of formulas. What he is condemning is teaching that cannot or does not reach beyond these things, and in failing to reach beyond them, is teaching that leaves the student without a developed or developing sense of human superiority.

Third, the teaching of a sense for human superiority is the last things the sphinx wants to happen here or anywhere. Students taught such a sense would be able to smell the sphinx coming; they would know her for the cheapjack that she is, and be disgusted by her.

A student who has been taught the feeling for a good human job anywhere is a student who will know to reject the sphinx’s question for the silliness it is. Even more, that student will be able to answer wisely, at least in practice, the questions that students should find frightening: questions about how to live and about what sort of person or worker to be. An education that leaves these questions unanswerable, or that leaves a student to answer them only unwisely is, to borrow James’ phrase, “the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.”

You may, of course, still fear the sphinx. You may think what I’ve said is hopelessly otherworldly. You may. But if you do that’s just another side of your fear of the sphinx. She has browbeaten you into being lowbrow. Don’t let her do that. Fight her. Jeer at her. And listen once more to Lawrence:

To follow a high aim you must be fearless of the consequences. To promulgate a high aim and to be fearful of the consequences … is much worse than leaving high aims alone altogether. … Later, when we’ve plucked a bit of our courage up, we’ll embark on a new course of education. … Those of us that are going to starve, why, we’ll take our chance. Who has wits, and guts, doesn’t starve: neither does he care about starving. Courage, mes amis.

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