Thirty-six hours from now, the shape of the 2018 election will be clear: a Blue Wave, a nail-biter, or a disaster. I will spend several hours tomorrow as a poll greeter, handing out sample blue ballots to voters as they enter the polls to vote, but aside from that, there is nothing for me to do but wait. This seems like a good time, therefore, to talk about something rather personal that has nothing at all to do with politics, viz, why when I lecture I tell so many stories and make so many references to novels, television shows, and other seemingly unserious matters. Some students like this about me, some don’t, but they all notice it and comment about it either in class or on end of semester student evaluations. Why do I do it?
There is a simple answer, of course: because I like to. I am a natural story teller, a sort of wannabe philosophical Garrison Keillor. But there is also a very much deeper and more important reason [wouldn’t you know?], one that goes to the heart of everything I have done for my entire life. This strikes me as a good time to explain.
As I have often remarked, I have a visceral negative reaction to writers who seem to me to strive to make simple ideas as obscure and complicated as possible. Hegel strikes me that way. So does Judith Butler, to mention a more recent example. I have spent my career struggling to grapple with complicated ideas and make them as simple as I can without losing any of their power or complexity. That is what I did in my very first book on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, and it is what I strove to do with the famously difficult first chapter of Capital in my little book of lectures, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky. The urge I feel to do this is aesthetic as well as intellectual. I am always trying to take a difficult idea and puzzle over it until it is perfectly transparent to me, at which point I experience it as beautiful. Then, in my teaching or writing, I hold it up to students or readers and show them how beautiful it is. That is what I was doing when, for my students at UMass, I went through John von Neumann’s elegant proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, even offering a proof of L. E. J. Brouwer’s Fixed Point Theorem, on which von Neumann’s proof rests.
Now, I experience arguments as stories, each having a natural beginning, development section, and end. And since what interests me is the logical structure of the story, it does not matter to me whether the story is high art of the sort that Literary Critics concern themselves with, or a soap opera, which would be beneath their notice. It is the structure that interests me. So it is that only half facetiously, I sometimes compare Tolstoy’s great novel, War and Peace, to the soap opera The Young and the Restless, which Susie and I watched faithfully for the first twenty years of our marriage. That is also why, when I am explaining to a doctoral student how to write a doctoral dissertation, I compare it to Jack and the Beanstalk.
The besetting intellectual sin of students of high social theory, and of their professors as well, is to wrap themselves in the jargon of the trade and deploy it as though it were fashionable clothing or body piercing, marking them as serious thinkers. I hate that, I am phobic about it, and my response is to tell stories about simple events and personal experiences. Though they often do not realize it, these simple stories have the same logical structure as the high-toned jargon-laden theories they are mouthing. By telling my stories, I am trying to get them to see the structure of the arguments stripped of its jargon.
That is why I tell stories. Also, of course, I like to.