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Sunday, August 31, 2014


Let me try once more to make myself clear.  I think Michael Sandel is a bright, lively, interesting person and, I suspect, a terrific lecturer.  In the context of the Harvard community, he is one of the good guys.  What I was trying to explain, with my references to McLuhan and [facetiously] to Woody Allen, is that even someone like that can be defeated by the form of his presentation, so that what would in another setting be effective teaching becomes a form of performance, of entertainment, and hence undercuts whatever he is trying to accomplish as a teacher.  I did not think I needed to spell that out so flat-footedly.  I thought I could communicate it wittily, by indirection.  But it would appear that I was wrong.

It would not surprise me to learn that Jonathan Swift had a similar problem.  [Sigh.  There I go again.]


Tony Couture said...

It is one of the laws of reason that when you make a joke (say something unexpected), you cannot know what your audience is going to do in reaction to the unexpected (you HOPE for a smile or laughter). It is especially dangerous, given our history including the medieval (1275 A.D.) Scandalum Magnatum in English law forbidding the criticism/insult of social leaders. Sandel is America's Dr. Justice, maybe the most popular philosopher online today. Compare Sandel's popularity to the most notorious in the public eye, Peter Singer (or maybe Chomsky)--philosophers who need bodyguards at times. Scandal is plaguing our profession as Colin McGinn, Thomas Pogge and Peter Ludlow are currently being squeezed out of stardom through social media pressure. Sandel has been used by Harvard to promote their brand online, and the inequality embedded in his being raised to stardom nay indeed interfere with his critique of inequality. Sandel appears to be playing variations of Michael Walzer's Sphere of Justice meta-arguments, so none of this is original to other philosophers. Any ways philosophy as a TV show may be very limited in shelf life. Maybe what Thrasymachus says to Socrates in the Republic ("Enjoy your banquet of words!" 352B) is what needs to be said to Sandel, as he is philosophizing about freedom in a bondage costume that any authentic philosopher can see through.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is clear that you have given this a great deal of thought -- much more than have I, for example. I see Noam Chomsky as speaking truth to power, while Sandel seems to be speaking a simulacrum of truth to the powerful. Sandel is not a fool. I wonder whether he understands what has happened to him. My experience going back to Harvard for the 50th anniversary of Social Studies suggests to me that even otherwise intelligent people at Harvard have a great deal of difficulty achieving any degree of genuine self-knowledge.

Unknown said...

The issue you raise may have a bearing on a matter that has been debated, even if occasionally, for some years now: televising judicial proceedings. Some years ago, I recall being persuaded that televising the murder trial of O. J. Simpson distorted the proceedings, encouraging even the judge to become a TV performer.
The Supreme Court is much criticized (e.g. by newspapers) for not allowing televising of any of its proceedings, in particular oral arguments. I suspect that the leaders of the opposition might be justices whose other views I deplore. But I think they are right.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I agree completely, Charles. It is astonishing how powerful the effect of televising such proceedings would be even on extremely intelligent and self-aware people with long experience in the judiciary.

I am sure that if I thought I was being televised, it would affect what I did in a thousand unanticipated ways. Indeed, I can easily believe that even audio recording my lectures may have that effect. If I think that is happening, I will summarily stop the recording.

Chris said...

It's ironic that Chomsky actually says speaking truth to power isn't a good use of one's time. Because those power probably already know the truth, or couldn't careless. It's speaking truth ABOUT power which is Chomsky's forte.

David Auerbach said...

I think it helps if the stakes are pretty low. I'm on my third (at roughly 5 year intervals) at recording my intro logic class. It then gets shown in context of a distance ed. version of the course. Compared to the multi-camera, edited and sound-checked Harvard production, NCSU's is cans and strings. BUT, pretty good technologically. (The camera follows me, the smart board is projected all over the room and there are bells and whistles that I don't even use.) But the main point is, that about 5 minutes or fewer in I have essentially forgotten that I'm "on". It may also help that semantic tableaux are inherently less fraught than social justice.

Tony Couture said...

Sandel is under a microscope, and the show appears heavily edited, with assistants to pass around the mobile microphones for the students to ask questions. The poor philosopher armed only with a digital voice recorder that can be attached to a computer (David) is going to fight for the public's attention with this leviathan, super-philosopher bankrolled by Harvard public relations gurus (Goliath). The audio recording is very imperfect (you catch only 75-90% of the voices), you learn not to wear squeaky boots or make unnecessary noise near the device, and it does not dominate the situation. You can edit it if you pick up the wrong things. It is easy to do (maybe easy to forget the device on the table too, or to forget to turn it on at the start). If you have bad digestion like me, you learn to avoid the mike during a gas explosion moment. The audio recording is empowering to those whose memories are weakening or tired, etc. or BLIND!! It means blind students can take your courses.-- I have now watched Harvard Justice/Sandel's episode 8 on Rawls and of course it is competent and well done, etc. I even ordered Sandel's Justice textbook to see what is behind the TV show better. To compensate for my sins, I also ordered a book entitled Autobiography of an Ex-White Man. This may prove that TV sells many books.