Recently a fine student called asking if I’d be willing to be interviewed. Who can say no! Here’s one question he asks under the name “Vitalist” [his blog on literature and culture and philosophy is fine, and named “The Vitalist.”]
VITALIST Do you see then, a larger role for philosophy in the every (presumably American) day than it currently has? In other words, could you see there being a “common-reader” of meditative, lyrical philosophy in the way that Woolf imagined there was a common reader of English literature? Or as may have briefly existed among a people, among friends, in Concord?
EM I think there are at least two temperaments at war here. One is the ideal of a community sharing common bread, reading from a common stock of literature and poetry and philosophy that inspires and binds souls together, the sort of wedding-scene of comedy, with wine and dance and circling communions of flesh and spirit, a wedding scene built around celebration of words, words of rhythm and color, of anchoring and affecting in the world. Of course such a dream no doubt hovered over Concord for a spell, where utopian communities and joint writing, philosophical, and literary projects sought (and momentarily found) a convergence and transcendence of the dull and deadening.
Many – and I include myself when I don’t judge myself too deluded — hope for such a community hovering at the edge of humanities departments in colleges and universities, or at least at the edge of faculty and student watering holes. But of course the reality is that faculty are pushing their mortgages ahead of them, heads down, making payments through the labor of specialized publications, etc., and have very little time (or interest) in chatting to neighbors or enjoying or constructing “A Common Reader.”
If a wedding were in progress in the meadow to the left, they’d trudge on by. If they happened by Walden, they’d not notice, and fall right in. So that’s one ideal of community, known mostly by its sad shadow, a desperate inattention to its fragile buds of existence and deep ignorance of even its possibility.
The other temperament — and of course to say “two temperaments” is immediately to provoke us to think of three or four or five — is not marked by community-yearning but by battle-seeking. Non-lyrical philosophy loves a fight, loves to defeat the competition in getting the ‘right theory’ of this and that, and thinks of intellectual inquiry and exploration as a Darwinian survival struggle or as justified colonial imperialism. The barbarians must be made to listen. If there’s a moment of lyricism, it’s in celebration of victory over benighted, now defeated or mortally crippled, opponents, or over those so benighted and superfluous that they never even saw there was an issue there to fight over, settle, or to be correct about.
I try to repress my attraction to philosophy-as-warfare. I once half-jokingly planned a journal, with a colleague, conceived on long runs in the Berkeley Hills. It would be called “The Journal of Refutations.” In whatever field an argument might be advanced, we’d just deliver the refutation by return mail. But I wished my gravestone to have other than “EM, A Beloved Refutation Machine”. Hence my essays often have titles like “Love, that lenient interpreter” (as a counter to “How to Become a Master of Suspicion”).
[A nice discussion of pedagogy in the university as the issue arises in teaching in religious studies departments, including interviews with Mark Taylor and Jack Caputo, among others, can be found at: