Examined

[Miranda Lehman]

Well I planned on avoiding Kant today -- I have to finish the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals sometime tomorrow, but I was feeling too airy and cheerful today to think about the categorical imperative.

However, as I was leafing through an edition of the St. John's Review that I found tucked between some stacks of paper, I began reading something by Eva Brann. It was a transcription of a talk she gave to the Graduate students in Yale's Classics department in 2006. And it includes Kant. As I've written before, Ms. Brann's thoughts on education and the role of philosophy resonate very strongly with me and inform my own core of beliefs about the role of the educator and the educational institution.

I wanted to copy out some of her advice to the students, advice which I take to heart.

Try not to think, in fact never think, of the writing you do as 'my work.' Those of you who are researchers at heart must believe -- though there is something problematic about it -- that they are part of a common progressive work, the advancement of learning. As I say, it's problematic whether there is any actual progress in the humanities, or whether as the cutting edge digs into the future, the past silts up and sinks into sedimented oblivion. Yet whoever is nonetheless committed to scholarship must surely believe that they can own no real estate on the orbis intellectualis where all is common ground tilled for the increase of knowledge. So much sadder is it to hear teachers speak of 'my work.' Is teaching not their work?

To put it another way: The scholarly world is more and more a virtual world, spatially expansive but often topically constricted. For my part, I think the humanly full life is concretely local and intellectually wide, to be lived in a face-to-face community whose members can talk to each other about anything, where nothing of human interest is interdicted; where you don't have to mount a colloquium to have a colloquy, where there are no taboos except indifference and incivility; where discourse does not divide into either shop talk or chat but observes the truly interesting human mean; and above all, where no one owns a specialty so that others have to venture opinions with the disclaimer, 'Of course, that's not my subject.'

How does one explain St. John's to people who have not experienced it? I know I can't. I'm often asked how my classes are going, how I'm liking teaching -- and I have trouble responding. Those two hours every Monday, and now the added time working in a small trio during oral exams -- those hours are very good. Now that I'm in the position of 'tutor' I pay much more attention to the weave of the conversation during seminar -- the way ideas are ventured, dropped, picked up, reinterpreted, discarded, transformed. It's fascinating to see the fruit of minds working in concert -- and it can be thrilling. There are, of course, awkward pauses in conversation -- there are minutes spent on some niggling point or commandeered by someone for selfish purposes. But it always rights itself. There are those shining moments when someone speaks and people turn to them, hearing what they say, thinking about it, finding some understanding click for them -- communal, shared knowledge.

And when we break up after class the conversations continue -- more casual, still pointed, interested.

Ms. Brann continues her advice to the Yale students -- it's long, but if you have a few moments to set aside and really read it, I think it's valuable, at least as something to make one step back and re-examine.

Let me make sure here that I'm rightly understood: These instructions aren't meant as categorical imperatives, unconditional commandments. They are rather what Kant calls 'hypothetical imperatives,' of the 'if-then' type. The protasis of each is: 'If you want to live happily' -- as Aristotle thinks of happiness: the soul activated in accordance with human excellence. The apodosis is: 'then try doing it this way.'

Socrates is said to have told the Athenians in his last public appearance that 'the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being;' 'ho...anaxetastos bios ou biotos anthropoi.' I think he is being more absolute than 'worth living' conveys. I would translate: 'the uninspected life is not a lived life.' Socrates is uttering both a claim and an injunction. The injunction is to ask yourself what you're doing, and the claim is that if you don't, you aren't all there, not quite alive. To me what Socrates says seems utterly true, and on that hypothesis I'll proceed. What are we doing, we who are at home in the world of learning? That's plain: mostly we use words. To be human means to have logos -- and indeed we do hardly anything but employ logos -- rational speech in general and special words in particular. It is then, part of our particular business to know what we are saying.

So don't use words you don't understand or don't mean to come to understand at least partly. Graduate school is rightly more training than education, more preparation for a profession than learning for the sake of being all there. Hence the possession of a professional vocabulary, often well-invented and always serviceable for expressing yourself within the guild -- and, I can't help adding, for marking greenhorns and amateurs -- is not only an accomplishment but also a professional deformation. So talk human whenever possible to know something, at least a little, of the explicit or implicit theory behind the language of the humanities.

You might construe what I've just said as an incitement to theorize, to engage in theory. Not so, just the opposite. It is an incitement to philosophy, which is the same name for the questions Socrates thinks will make you come to, be all there, all aware. Moreover, here's a claim some of you will resist and some of you will recognize as the articulation of your own suspicions: Theory is the enemy -- were I given to hyperbole I would say, the deadly enemy -- of philosophy, more accurately, of Socratic philosophizing [...] I understand philosophy to be everyone's business, certainly a classicist's. It is the desire to look as straight, deep, and directly into yourself and out into the world as you can. (It has, of course, only a tenuous occasional connection to the academic subject by that name.) That effort I'm speaking of, introspective and contemplative, looking within and gazing at the heavens, used indeed to be called theory. Theoria has a long and fascinating passage of diminution into 'theory.' Theory is a rational screen, a mental jig under which things are re-formed into pre-assigned shapes. It is a form of rationalization but not always of thinking. It is logos, however not plus receptive love but plus willful manipulation. A theory is fun to devise but the devil to inherit, because duty demands that we grasp it and wisdom asks that we resist it. Here's another way to put it: when you spot trendiness or recognize ideology -- the marks will be a jigged and unnatural terminology -- become a porcupine, all quills up.

This post has run on, but I wonder about all of this all the time. I remember a comment made by the director of my study abroad program in London -- Jack Manning -- he liked me and we would often talk about my plans for school -- for what I wanted to do with my degree in words and art -- I remember how negatively he spoke of humaities departments carved up into niches, creating words like conflate -- a word he hated. I took his words to heart, and his advice to look again at St. John's, to go there first, before anything else.

I read Barrett's Middle Kingdom today and her title phrase kept returning to my mind -- I keep thinking of my attempt to stand firmly in the middle of so many rushing currents around me. Or maybe not firmly, not yet -- for now I am perhaps on the banks, sometimes gliding my fingers along the surface of first this one deep pool of thought, then this other -- tasting sometimes cool, sweet waters, sometimes bitter or stagnant. I feel excited by the options, but they're overwhelming. Couldn't I re-read Aristotle's Metaphysics or King Lear or even Magic Mountain over and over and be satisfied? This world, our humanity, even the individual life in its multitudinous complexity -- how can I find some anchor, some stability? It is necessary to bolster thought with fact and inspection, and its also necessary to infuse reason with wonder. How can I stand firmly, feet planted in two kingdoms?