Delight Springs

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Substance and focus

One of my old mentors is supportive but skeptical of our prospective British summer sojourn, which we fully intend will be merely the first in a series of  perennial pilgrimages across the pond. There are so many pragmatic roots and branches to ponder, beneath and amongst the English ivy, we can't possibly plumb them all at once.

Yet he writes:  "just came back from 5 weeks in England—visited Oxford and Cambridge as well as Wales, Lake District etc.  Loved it but about all I got philosophically was to visit a castle where Hobbes was the tutor."

Challenge accepted. The substance and focus of our course, so evident to us in the early stages of planning and development, may need a little framing and "selling" if we're to win over the skeptics. 

Our pedagogic challenge as I see it is to walk ourselves and our charges along the path from empiricism to its "radical" American successor, in the process laying bare the spirit and mutual influence of each on the other. We also intend to resuscitate a peripatetic style of teaching and learning usually only associated nowadays, to our hurried so-called civilization's detriment, with long-dead ancients in togas.

My colleague adds,
 as we work out the themes, and tie them to both readings and locations, i think we'll have plenty of "substance" on offer.  Among the possibilities we've discussed already, I'm thinking maybe we could work up either: (a) something that fits under an overarching question, like: How did Darwin's theories of evolution (common descent, evolution per se, gradualism, etc.) transform the problems of American philosophy (giving rise to James' radical empiricism, pragmatism per se, theory consciousness, and speculations about the varieties of religious experience)?  or (b) something that lines up the likes of, say, Hobbes (materialism) Hume (empiricism), Darwin (evolution), Schiller (pragmatism), as James' intellectual progenitors.  

That said, I do think your point about the value of "resuscitating a peripatetic style of teaching and learning we usually only associate with long-dead ancients in togas" is good enough to stand on its own--that is to say, another way we might structure the class could be around the question: How to philosophize in our times.  See, that would fit the idea of each student beginning the day with a question of their own, based on their readings of texts we select, then walking, ruminating, and conversing through the day, and then writing up the fruits of those labors at day's end.

I gather X's reservations over "substance" amount to the same sort of concern one has to address when seeking a Fulbright: why is it vital actually to visit foreign countries to carry out the project?  My first thought in response is something like: actually to walk the earth where Hume thought, or Hobbes tutored is more likely to stimulate thinking about roots and branches than sitting in a library in Nashville.  One's sense of history is enormously enriched when one is actually on the ground where the events and lives in view occurred and were lived.
Yes, that's it exactly. My colleague has spoken of his Roman epiphany.
 There's something special about just being in place where big ideas were hatched (I recall with minute precision looking out of Dante's windows in Florence and seeing the same sky, the same rooftops, and hearing the same din of pedestrian traffic that filled his senses, what, seven-hundred years ago ... not soon to be forgotten!).  
And I've had my Jamesian mystical moments in New Hampshire and MA.
 That's the frisson I got at James's places in Chocorua & Cambridge. Standing in the very space where he lived and died, sitting on the stone wall where he wagged his finger in Royce's face and damned the Absolute, climbing his little mountain... I have no problem pitching such moments as pedagogically valuable.
That's what we'll tell the skeptics. And as I told my old friend, in the spirit of full disclosure:  

"And then of course there's the unique British "focus" one finds only with a pint in a pub (or two)... let's be frank, that's no small part of the draw (pun unintended) for my colleague and me. I'll bet you sampled that form of focus yourself a bit, on your recent trip. Hope you did, anyway!"

Knowing him, I knew that last expression of hope was purely gratuitous. I had him at pint.

"I think it is great, and that it provides a focus of interest for students who are phil majors or thinking about become majors etc.  It is something fun to do if you are in philosophy and we need plenty of that and if it focuses students on some ideas that is great too."

Not sure if "it" means our course, or English pub culture, or both. But we're taking it as a provisional endorsement. Cheers!

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