John Jay Chapman on Josiah Royce

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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.

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.





Lewis White Beck Memorial Remarks

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.

Beck Panel Memorial Remarks

Getting Them Hooked

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'”.

Hort on Questions and Questioners

Another fine bit from Hort’s The Way, The Truth, The Life.  It captures something I wish I could bear more presently in mind when I teach.

For every questioner who is not the merest sophist, if indeed we dare make that exception, is concentrically manifold, self within self; and the question which alone he is able to present in words is but a rude symbol of the question in his mind, as this again is but a rude symbol of the whole search within.

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.

The Vocational Teacher

From josh’s blog:

7 Sep ’12 11:01:58 AM

A teacher who feels called to a vocation will feel all the more unhappy at inviting any student freely to leave what education is to be had rather than take it; like a priest who says, sorry, my child, if you can be saved, it’s not by me.

Indeed.  Inviting someone to leave is not always the same as wanting them to go.

Teaching Philosophy, Honestly

As best I can recall, Wittgensten wrote a short letter to Norman Malcolm when Malcolm earned his Ph. D.  It went something like this:

Congratulations to your PhD.  And now may you cheat neither yourself nor your students.  Because, unless I am very much mistaken, that is what will be expected of you.

There may have been a bit more.  My memory fails me.  But just this touches the problem.  How can you teach without cheating yourself or your students?  Exasperated a little by my students, I wrote to them today and said:

You have to decide:  do you want an education–a real education, or do you just want a diploma?  And if you just want a diploma, go and get it in someone else’s class, please:  I don’t care a whit about your diploma.  But I do care about your education.

The problem here is a kind of knot.  Our students all too often want us to cheat them, or are willing to let us; and we all too often want them to want us to cheat them, or are willing to let them want us to cheat them, or be willing to let us cheat them.  And so it goes.

Plato on The What and the How (but Especially the How)

…[I]t is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see.  In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he may be quick at learning and remembering this and that and other things, nor any man who though akin to justice, is slow at learning and forgetful, will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue.  Nor about vice, either, for these must be learned together, just as the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, through long and earnest labor…Only when all of these [instruments]–names, definitions, and visual and other perception–have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy–only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can the illuminate the nature of any object.  (Seventh Letter, 334a-b)

Mark Hopkins, Teacher

Of this philosophical wonder it should be observed, because it bears on our ground of belief, that its tendency is not, like that of ordinary wonder, to diminish through familiarity, but rather the reverse.  Awakened by the fact of being, necessarily involving the idea of being uncreated; also by the discovery of the immensity, and order, and movements, and adaptations of that around us which we call the cosmos, it increases as its object is dwelt upon till it becomes utter bewilderment. Whoever, therefore, recognizes all this, and accepts it as a reality, ought to have no difficulty on account of its strangeness merely, in accepting any form of the manifestation of being that may claim his acceptance.  That there should be a future life under a different form cannot be more strange than that there should be a present life under its present form.  That there should be a heaven hereafter cannot be more strange than that there should be a happy family here. That there should be a spiritual existence cannot be stranger than that there is a material existence.  That there should be a personal God, infinite and holy, cannot be more strange than that we should be personal beings, as we are, and that there should be this multiform universe in which we find ourselves. Indeed I think we may say, that live as long as we may during the eternal ages, go where we may into the depths of infinite space, we shall never find a scene of things more strange and wonderful than we are in now.

From Mark Hopkins’ The Scriptural Idea of Man.  Hopkins was a legendary teacher (he taught at Williams in the middle of the 19th century).  Bliss Perry, in his winsome book, And Gladly Teach, talks of Hopkins’ power as a teacher.

No one can furnish an adequate definition of greatness, but Mark Hopkins, like Gladstone and Bismark, gave the beholder the instant impression of being in the presence of a great man.  He had already become in his lifetime a legend, a symbol of teaching power:  ‘Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other.’  [This line originated in a comment of James Garfield’s (one of Hopkins’ students):  ‘A pine bench with Mark Hopkins at one end of it and me at the other is a good enough college for me.’–KDJ]

[His students] all agree that he was not, in the strict academic sense, a ‘scholar’; the source of his power was not in his knowledge of books.  But that is an old story in the history of the world:  ‘He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’  Any teacher can study books, but books do not necessarily bring wisdom, nor that human insight essential to consummate teaching skill…

To some men in class, no doubt, he seemed a philosopher without a system, a moralist indifferent to definitions. He was in truth a builder of character who could lay a stone wall without ever looking at a blue-print.

All of us recognized his immense latent power.  ‘Half his strength he put not forth.’ Yet this apparently indolent wrestler with ideas–never dogmatic, never over-earnest, never seeming to desire converts to any creed or platform–was ceaselessly active in studying the members of each class and in directing, however subtly, the questions by which he sought to develop and test their individual capacity…

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