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Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Ludwig Richter [himself a teacher] writes:  "Professor Wolff, I would love it if, in a future post, you would talk about what kind of teaching you do in the protected space of your classroom. You lecture, of course, but I take it that you lead discussions and encourage students to offer their interpretations of texts, and so on. Maybe you could write about that some time?"

As you will have noticed, it takes very little to get me started, so herewith an extended meditation on my teaching -- not on teaching, mind, but on my teaching.  I imagine that what I say will bear very little resemblance to what others might say about their teaching. 

 Standing in front of a group of people and talking at them is a rather inadequate technique for communicating information.  In the twelfth century, when European universities got their start, books were scarce and very expensive, so probably a professor willing to lecture was as close as most students came to a library.  Indeed, I have read that even in the nineteenth century, in rural areas of Italy where the peasants were too poor to buy books and the communities to poor to build schoolhouses and supply them with blackboards, priests would stand in a field facing a group of little boys and write in the air.  The boys had to learn to read what the priest "wrote" inverted [which calls to mind the great old line about Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in heels -- but I digress.]  Today, however, even students from poor families have far better ways of accessing information.  So there is really not much point in using a classroom to pass along facts that the students could get at faster on their phones.  Fortunately, in Philosophy there is actually very little information to transmit, and what there is [Descartes' birth date, how old Kant was when he wrote The First Critique] doesn't matter very much.

So if I am not telling the students stuff, what am I doing when I stand in front of them [or sit, as I shall be doing next semester ]?  Well, my answer is rather odd, and utterly idiosyncratic.  What is more, it took me three decades of teaching before I came to understand it.

Let me start by saying that I am not trying to persuade my students of anything.  Although I frequently teach politically and ideologically charged texts [as I shall be doing next semester], it is never my aim to get my students to believe either what it says in the books I assign or what I say in my lectures.  As Kierkegaard says in the inexpressibly poignant Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, "If anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I am doing in my teaching, to put it as simply as I can, is showing beautiful objects to my students in the hope that they will give to the students the same pleasure that they give me.  I conceive this effort on my part as an act of love, not of propaganda, or inculcation, or persuasion.

The beautiful objects I show to my students are ideas -- complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas.  Quite often, it costs me enormous effort and much time to clarify these ideas in my own mind, to extract them from the surroundings in which I come upon them, and then to find a way to show them forth in their simplicity and beauty.  Only then am I ready to present them to my students for contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation.  The central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason is such an idea.  So is Marx's critique of the ironic structure of capitalism.  The proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory is such an idea, as is Hume's account of our belief in the existence of the continued and independent existence of objects in space and time.

When I am successful, my students have been offered what I might call, somewhat altering Spinoza's meaning, an intellectual intuition, which is to say an immediate apprehension of an intellectual object.  I rather suspect it is what Plato had in mind when he wrote obscurely of a knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Is my interpretation of A Treatise of Human Nature or Critique of Pure Reason of Das Kapital correct?  If I am successful, the interpretation is beautiful, and like all truly beautiful objects, powerful.  Are my interpretations the only correct, or beautiful, or powerful readings of those texts?  Of course not.  Indeed, it is a distinctive mark of truly great philosophical texts, like truly great novels, that they can sustain several different and conflicting readings, just as different artists [or even the same artist at different times] can paint different pictures of the same scene, model, or subject.

How can one know whether a reading of a text is powerful or beautiful?  The fruitlessness of the question is manifest.  But I can say this:  if the reading is obscure, convoluted, not immediately graspable by an intelligent and committed reader or listener [in short, if it is by Hegel] then it is neither powerful nor beautiful and is probably not worth spending time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what I do when I teach.  I show beautiful ideas to me students in the [desperate] hope that they will find them beautiful also.  Everything else I do is filler.

Have I been successful?  It is not for me to say.  Is this, Callicles might ask, an honorable way for an old man to spend his time?  I believe so.


Tony Couture said...

Did you teach very differently at an Ivy League school, versus UMASS, or your last adventure in Afro-American Studies? I like your description of The New Africa House, essentially an ugly house which you turn into an object of beauty as you tell your stories.--You are very modest, but also I think the second best story teller in philosophy that I have ever see (sorry, William Godwin is #1, and I have even named my son, Caleb Williams Couture!). Story telling, like the ability to speak ironically at will, are gifts. But probably difficult to relate to philosophically. Beauty overpowers, dazzles, and deceives. Beauty is appearance driven but philosophers must track reality, so beauty distracts us, enthralls us, and bewitches. But "philosophy is the struggle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (Wittgenstein) Besides if you get too beautiful, all your students fall in love with you. This all sounds like Sartre's "Game of perfect moments" in Nausea, moments of fullness that he cannot live up too, that make ex-girlfriend Annie call him a loser. It is a very high standard to set for teaching.

Tony Couture said...

Pardonnez moi, but Sartre wishes to make an appearance on your wonderful blog. From Nausea, p 62-3: (Annie speaking to Antoine) "Listen, do you want to make an effort or don't you? You were so stupid the last time. Don't you see how beautiful this moment could be? Look at the sky, look at the colour of the sun on the carpet.... Come on! How stupid you are! Speak to me!" --I felt that the success of the enterprise was in my hands: the moment had an obscure meaning which had to be trimmed and perfected; certain motions had to be made, certain words spoken: I staggered under the weight of my responsibility. I stared and saw nothing, I struggled in the midst of rites which Anny invented on the spot and tore them to shreds with my strong arms. At those times she hated me. ...I hope that someone else has had better luck and skill in the game of perfect moments." So this pressure to create a beautiful moment in philosophy class might also be nauseating to those that fail at this near impossible task. Making Marx's ideas beautiful should also not involve falsifying those ideas when sexist, or denying any blood spilled in connection with those words. That would be like breast implants, or cosmetic philosophy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tony, what on earth are you going on about? Ludwig Richter asked me a question and I answered it. Nothing in my answer suggested that what I do should be a model or a template for anyone else! Indeed, I thought I made it quite clear that I considered my conception of what I do when I teach rather odd and deviant. But it is the truth that that is what I do. Of course I also do other things, like assigning papers and telling students what I would like them to read for the next class and so forth. As I think I also indicated, it took me almost thirty yhears to come to a self-understanding of what I do when I teach.

Ludwig Richter said...

Thank you, Professor Wolff. I'm glad I asked my question. You've given me much to chew on. What springs to mind (half-formed) is that your teaching is a kind of gift-giving. What you offer, as you say, are beautiful objects in the form of "complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas."

By the way, from 1981-984 I attended UMass, where I earned my MFA in Creative Writing. My most important teacher, if I may call him that, was James Baldwin, who was Five College Professor at the time. But I'll save that for another day . . .

Jerry Fresia said...

Would you say that your aesthetic judgments with regard to complex ideas, then, are “disinterested?”- in the Kantian sense in that you may not have interest in a particular “beautiful object;” rather “What matters is what [you] do with this presentation within [yourself].” Or does your interest in presenting beautiful objects to students insure that you, in fact, do have interest in “beautiful objects” because you care very much about their affective impact?

It is interesting, too, how theoretical physicists judge equations aesthetically and claim that if they aren’t “beautiful,” (which apparently means short and rather simple) they are probably not fully correct.

Unknown said...

I love your commitment to teaching intellectual values. If I were ever to teach again, your comments here would be required reading.