Monday, February 15, 2010

Hilary Putnam on the war over what it means to be a scholar

 

    “`and give up poetry, my boy

       there’s nothing in it’” – a yachtsman counselling

       Ezra Pound, Personae

      The oldest question of eudaimonism in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is that of living a life good for its own sake, becoming more and more fully the person one is.  It is an idea of individuality, as we might call it, which sees what is genuine in relationships or activities, which follows them to their ends, which lives naturally out of a sort of integrity.   “What I do is me, for that I came” as Gerard Manley Hopkins once said of Henry Purcell, composer of “Come, ye sons of art” and other distinctive and dazzling works.

      Eudaimonia [living well, the state of having a good guiding spirit] is in the Greeks a mysterious question.  Socrates has a daimon [a guiding spirit] which warns him, as he says in the Apology, if a conversation or a speech goes against who he is.  Aristotle rightly speaks of one’s eudaimonia as linked to the wellbeing of one’s children after one’s death (and perhaps one might say one’s people, or more aptly, today, humanity).  This is a journey, always whatever it is and whole, in a way, in oneself as a traveler, and, in the end, unique, experiencing the ebb of mortality, never reaching completeness.  See poem on Cezanne here.   There are many obstacles and turnings; like fairy tales, surprising paths open, but some, who do well for a time, turn away.  Nonetheless for each of us, there is the experience of journeying and of encountering others who are en voyage.

       Now some lose track of themselves, go astray, exist, at least for a time, only “for the money’s sake” as the students of Socrates say to Thrasymachus, showering money on him so he will speak, in book 1 of the Republic.  Thrasymachus’s view is that “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger”: he seeks status too (“mine is the best argument”) and in his small way, power.  Argument is a wrestling match, full of warnings and epithets, even though he is, in Socrates’s questioning, a wrestler who consumes unnourishing things. 

        In the Republic, Plato’s brother, Glaucon, an Athenian military leader, is much more challenged by his own potential to become a tyrant.  He says of the austere city of Socrates that it is a city of sows and asks: where’s the relish? In book 7, there is a dreamlike image from the temple of Zeus Lykaios, Zeus in the persona of a wolf: consuming sacrificial entrails, a king who eats a morsel of human flesh, becomes a wolf.

        When Socrates first confronts Thrasymachus, he says he is lucky to see him first (for Thrasymachus is a wolf in the forest, or more exactly, a beast poised to jump on Socrates and rend him if he sees Socrates first).

        The glory of the humanities as of the sciences is to study the materials for their own sake, to figure out, given where and perhaps in a beginning sense who one is, important problems, and to arrive at that moment where what had been questions, lived with, as Rilke says, suddenly assume new and startling answers (to find the unexpected, in the idiom of Karl Popper). It is contemplating such things, which makes scholars or philosophers or scientists absent-minded or sometimes not very well able to function here – the albatross of Baudelaire’s image.**  It is the lure of exploration, of discovering a path windingly up some foothill, and at some switchback or opening in the forest, seeing great mountains, unfolding peak after peak until they disappear in the clouds, that makes working in these fields what it is.

       My friend Hilary Putnam recently gave a talk about the importance of the humanities at Juan Carlos University in Madrid where he received an honorary doctorate.  He mentions a former Ivy League University President who said: “the humanities are a lost cause.”  Perhaps that President was speaking of himself.  Hilary has stood up for philosophy and the humanities which are under threat even at great universities like Oxford.  What he says of the threat I know well.  I am a democratic theorist or philosopher who flourishes in a school of international studies, but except as a visiting professor, has never taught directly in political science or philosophy programs (I have taught in both, but never as my regular employment).  Once a Ph.D. program for 25 students, created by Josef Korbel – see Josef Korbel, Stalin, and the defense of Czech democracy at Munich here - now mainly a large professional master’s program, our program is one in which political and social theory – studied seriously, not just in the light of burning practical problems - still has its own place in a broad curriculum.  The program trains many people to go into the world and work with and for the poor, to make a difference on health care or the environment or human rights.  It thus contributes to the commitment, idealism and decency of many students, and is shaped by them, and to an international common good.  At its best, such education contributes to democracy or as Hilary says, to justice  (such education is currently little available to the poor, the dishonored, the dispossessed – the meaning of democratic education or I might even say, international democratic education is yet to be explored).  

       At its best, my school has been a unique place, conducive to scholarship and practice, and to a common good.  Now my school also trains some to go into the US government, sadly often a different thing, and sometimes purports to admire our graduate Condi Rice who has set a model for taking a wrong turn, what not to choose to do. 

      Still, one can also see some erosion in care about learning from the time I came here when the School was still led by Josef Korbel, an international lawyer and diplomatic historian who had intense practical interests but valued the discipline of history and knew that Universities protect diverse, often dissident learning from Nazis and their emulators.  The School is sometimes tempted by a dangerous trajectory - one of losing scholarly purposes and dissidence - and becoming but a “professional school” in which there will also be, as long as there are humans, some scholarship and dissidence around the edges and whose graduates will often do commendable things but not so much. The idea that one merely stops in a university to become “credentialed,” to have one’s gas tank filled up, as Hans Morganthau once eloquently put it, by the “teacher”-service attendant – “one can practically do it oneself” - is increasingly the case.  As I wrote in ch. 2 of Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?,  Hans Morganthau spoke about why Charles van Doren who won $256,000 on “the $64, 000 Dollar Question” on television, but was given the answers (it was but a show for the money) should no longer teach at Columbia.

      There are differences, by and large, between the sciences and the humanities, although perhaps the main one is between those who are broad and engage in some conversation – having started as a mathematician and in philosophy of mathematics and science, Hilary is perhaps a model conversationalist – and those who devote themselves to a comparatively narrow disciplinary track, digging deeply but not so often in conversation with others.  Administrators sometimes forget or partly give up what brought them into these pursuits. The compulsion to get enough money to keep the University afloat is a challenge.  If one loses one’s way entirely, one gets to the statement of the Ivy League President which Hilary reports. And perhaps the measure of a visionary administrator is to fight to defend what is important but hard to fund. The best part of Hilary’s talk is what he says about the living interplay of science and the humanities.

       “A friend and former student of mine in Israel remarked recently that what those administrators who value the sciences at the expense of the humanities fail to see is that ‘first-rate scientists don’t want to be at a university with second-rate humanities.’ This remark may startle some hearers, but it is absolutely true. With your permission, I wish to enlarge on it for a few moments.”

“My own academic life has been spent in two professions. When I received tenure for the first time, in 1959 from Princeton University, it was in two departments simultaneously, philosophy and mathematics. For many years after that I continued to teach graduate courses in both subjects, and I have trained students who received doctorates in mathematics as well as students who received doctorates in philosophy. In addition, I have had considerable interaction with scientists and philosophers who work on the foundations of physics, especially the foundations of quantum mechanics. So I know the ways of thinking of scientists as well as philosophers, and I can confirm my friend’s remark from my own experience; the very same qualities of boundless curiosity and intellectual dedication, the same, intellectual passion, that characterize first rate scientists also characterize first-rate humanists. Moreover, I have found that the curiosity of scientists leads them to think about the most general philosophical and intellectual questions, and to want to have colleagues who know the best that has been written and thought about them. Conversation between disciplines, and across the porous boundary between “science” and “humanities” has always been a tradition at the world’s great universities; it is part of the very notion of a ‘university.’”

“Putting together Lindsay Waters’ worries [an editor at Harvard press] and my friend’s remark, we can say that what all of us—administrators, professors, students, and members of the educated public—need to defend is the idea of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. for the sake of the human spirit, for the sake of what Aristotle called ‘eudaimonia,’ and defined as ‘the activity of the psyche according to excellence in a complete life (en bio teleio).’ When the pursuit of eudaimonia is replaced by the pursuit of money or the blind pursuit of ‘productivity’ for the sake of productivity, the very idea of culture and the very idea of the university is lost. The humanities must never be thought of as optional, and the sciences must never be thought of as merely instrumental or utilitarian.”

        Studying good books or serious theories for their own sake, following some path that others have not trodden, making discoveries, large and small, is what illuminates writing and teaching.  For instance, in living with the American Revolution for what has become a book called Emancipation and Independence (forthcoming, Chicago, 2010), when I learned that some 100,000 blacks, a quarter of all slaves in America at the time, had escaped and fought for the British against the American Revolution and were freed, that the Americans then overcame the interests of the slave-owners and recruited and freed many black soldiers, that the dead at Yorktown on both sides were mainly black, that in the Hemisphere, every other independence movement resulted in at least gradual freedom for the slaves (an uprising of slaves made Haiti, for example) and that why gradual emancipation did not occur in the South in the United States as it did in the North is a question – every one of these questions or horizons and the answers I eventually came to was revelatory, as is the further question: how can these issues have been buried on both sides of the Atlantic for roughly 225 years?

        If I speak or teach about these issues, I do so with some passion.  Personalities differ.  And yet, there are many famous stories (and we all have the experience) of learning deeply from those who are not so much into teaching, who are ambivalent or curmudgeonly or shy, and yet the learning sometimes shines through.

       As Hilary’s talk underlines, universities are in a fight for their lives about the humanities, and with them the sciences, since what is for the money’s sake will not just go on flourishing.  One can produce death – the American war complex with its 5 wars even under Obama; America has fallen to 26th in the world in training Americans to become mathematicians and scientists – almost as easily as defend life. With global warming and unending war, one can even see a pretty near term for the life of most of humanity on this planet (at least for some billions of people, and for the rest, wars, nomadism, locked gates, suffering…). The thrills of discovery with regard to napalm or nuclear weapons are perhaps terminally darkened by the consequences of what is discovered.  Who hears the name Edward Teller or Louis Fieser (the inventor of napalm at Harvard) or Richard Herrnstein (on the pseudoscience of IQ and an alleged genetically determined “lack of intelligence” among blacks or workers) without a certain disgust? The broader fight is not entirely distinct from the fight for scholarship.

        Particularly the classical languages are now discarded in American universities, though perhaps Arabic and even Hebrew may now make more of an appearance.  I have been in correspondance with Josiah Hatch, who will teach at my school and serves on its board, who’s initial love was Latin and Greek and who pursues them along the way of a career in international law.  He has been an advisor on classical education at Princeton, and wrote to me: 

       “One thing that an extended practicum in the law has done for me is to make me passionate about things that matter in terms other than monetary ones, the humanities being chief among them.  This sort of ‘she cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss’ attitude has sustained me through some arid periods, but can unfortunately, in the legal world, leave one ranting like Lear [even in Universities, I do a bit of that]. It is wonderful to contemplate getting involved in the work of the Social Science Foundation. I spent a number of years on the visiting committee of the Classics Department at Princeton, and richly enjoyed the experience, though it was sad service in a way -- the end of the last century saw the drying up of the philological component of classical studies, and even the most important texts tend to be taught only in translation.  I mentored a Yale graduate this summer who was the ONLY major in Ancient Greek in that university, and he had taken largely graduate school courses for lack of an undergraduate curriculum. Saddest of all, I had him here in Denver by virtue of a program that was intended to help him get started in the financial world. Ach! He was an excellent linguist.”

     Who, as a child, is unacquainted with Greek myths?  Who has not heard – or seen on television, with Brad Pitt as Achilles some - of the Iliad and Odyssey?  Greek and Latin are among the foundations of Western civilization.  If one can not know the stories and live with the words, if none among us any longer reads them in the original, something vital is lost.  Yet these languages are not taught even to interested undergraduates at Princeton (which is a large liberal arts college without professional schools, one which emphasizes that every scholar teach her own precepts or sections) and Yale.  That Josiah worked with the one undergraduate classics major at Yale, a fine linguist, who had to take graduate courses so he could get some Greek, as an advisor in “the financial world”…

      Josiah is studying Hebrew itinerantly and the shift to war in the Middle East has meant that Arabic will no longer be solely a realm for two, in this case, brilliant students of Leo Strauss (Muhsin Mahdi and my friend, Charles Butterworth), but others as well.  On sabbatical in Spain, I came upon the wonders of toleration of other “peoples of the book” during the 12th and 13th century califate in Cordoba and Granada, and hope myself to learn some Arabic. This too is an important and buried part of the European and Arab and Jewish heritage.   Here the humanities perversely gain from Empire (money and power-hunger occasionally have some unintended good effects, despite themselves).  The US cannot quite do with invading countries here and there with only General Abizaid and Ali Soufan (the FBI interrogator who got Abu Zubaydah to give up Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) speaking the language.  It is a little like the long war in Vietnam, during which, at the time of LBJ’s escalation, no one in the State Department, knew Vietnamese.  

        Christopher Hedges is a great, daring and formerly self-destructive war reporter (many war reporters die) as he relates in his short and vivid book War is a force that gives us meaning.  The book reveals for the Reagan-Clinton era and even before the madness of W., the propaganda about war.  War is as false to human or humane existence as anything can be, sweeping all before it, spreading its devastations, its adrenaline, its great aliveness in the moments just before death or maiming, its crazed slaughters, its unending sadness – until somehow again, the paleness of peace breaks forth.  Yet as Hedges also says, what appears in war is not real, is transformed by a frenzied and shattered light, and the human possibilities, even in oneself (he speaks with stark honesty about how he got in a fight with an airport clerk in Salvador who stabbed him in a cheek with a pen, and he took his flight, letting the blood run down, to confront the darkness in himself), are the bleakest.  To flourish in peace is hardly to exist in a state of banal contentment and has, in mortality and especially the mortality of the young, great sadness.  We can no longer as a species sustain war; the arts, including combating war and lengthening the term of humanity’s stay on earth, can achieve real things.

        Already knowing Greek, Hedges went back to Harvard as a journalist on a Neiman fellowship to study Latin.  The words of the Latin poets, particularly Catullus, and  the imagery of the Greeks occasionally shade his account of the fascinations/addictions of war.  Including in courses on nonviolence, students find this a gripping book, and if one can fully take in what Hedges writes (it is, for those who feel it, an ordeal in which mortality and madness are close), one can also feel the aliveness of the classics.

          Over the past 8 months, I have gotten to know William Altman.  He has now published some 10 articles on Strauss as well as on Plato which display a care about words, a nuance and a mastery of Greek and Latin, rare even among the students of Leo Strauss.  At one time, he had been working on a Ph.D. in Canada, but had a thesis advisor who demanded he work in a way which conflicted with what he wanted and needed to do. That teacher, too, incarnates the opposite of what a serious scholar, happy in her own work, might do. Will chose instead to go into high school teaching of classics and politics (wanting to fight Reagan and the darkness falling upon America).  He has been a high school teacher, but went back to get a PhD. in philosophy in Brazil.  Given what is happening in Universities in the humanities, it is perhaps not surprising that Altman, a distinguished scholar whose essays have blazed a major path in Strauss studies (along with Michael Zank and Eugene Shepphard), one relevant to understanding the rise of fascism/authoritarianism in America and to thinking about what it means to be a Platonist, is not currently employed teaching university students. But he has kept the words of the classics alive in a Virginia high school in a way that Yale and Princeton apparently no longer encourage.

       Here is Hilary’s talk: 

Acceptance Speech at Carlos III University of Madrid, January 28, 2010 


Mr. Chancellor Daniel Peña

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When I looked up “Carlos III University” recently in Wikipedia (the user-contributed online encyclopedia that I regard as one of the greatest achievements of the internet users community), I found the following:  “It is a small institution well-known for the quality of its teaching and academic research, its international orientation and its higher than average study workload.” This is indeed impressive, and it is a great honor to have my work recognized by such a demanding and prestigious institution of higher learning. It also delights me to have my work recognized by a Spanish institution, because Spain and things Spanish have mattered to my family since my earliest childhood. Let me explain. 

My father, Samuel Putnam, was a famous translator. Quoting again from Wikipedia, “His most famous work is his 1949 English translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. It is the first version of the work in what we would consider contemporary English; although there is still use of archaic language in the translation, it is more restricted than in earlier English versions of the work. The language is formal when spoken by educated characters, but seldom old-fashioned, while the peasant characters speak in colloquial modern English. Putnam worked on the translation for twelve years before he published it. He also published a companion volume, The Portable Cervantes, which included an abridged version of his translation, in addition to English versions of two of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes. Putnam's complete translation, originally published by Viking Press, was reprinted in the Modern Library, and has seldom been out of print since its publication nearly sixty years ago.”

Let me add that my father’s love of things Spanish has been passed on to me, and has been reinforced by many visits to this beautiful country over the years.  Thus, to be honored by a Spanish institution of higher learning, and one of the highest quality, is an experience I shall treasure.

One last quote from Wikipedia, and again from the article about your university: “The philosophy that has guided the university since its origins is one of creating responsible free-thinking people with a sensitivity to social problems and an involvement in the concept of progress based on freedom, justice and tolerance.” This idea of “creating responsible free-thinking people” is my excuse for talking about the role of the Humanities in the University.

Today that role is under challenge. Lindsay Waters, the Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press recently devoted a book called Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship  to the seriousness of the challenge. In that essay he reports,

“A colleague asked the former president of an Ivy League university if he saw humanists playing a key role in the university at the present critical moment, and the former chief executive indicated that he expected nothing from the humanities: ‘They are a lost cause.’ This attitude is not uncommon among senior administrators who see the need to rededicate the university to the pursuit of scientific research and money.”

Against this way of thinking—which, I am sure—is not that of your distinguished university—Waters writes that, “The humanities must now take steps to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, such as the writing of books and articles, before the market becomes our prison and the value of the book becomes undermined. It was not always so. John Milton once wrote that good books are ‘the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.’ Today the humanist should look back to such expressions of illuminated belief. The task is to engage in constant re-examination. If humanists do not keep firmly in mind what they are about, no one else will.”

A friend and former student of mine in Israel remarked recently that what those administrators who value the sciences at the expense of the humanities fail to see is that “first-rate scientists don’t want to be at a university with second-rate humanities.” This remark may startle some hearers, but it is absolutely true. With your permission, I wish to enlarge on it for a few moments.

My own academic life has been spent in two professions. When I received tenure for the first time, in 1959 from Princeton University, it was in two departments simultaneously, philosophy and mathematics. For many years after that I continued to teach graduate courses in both subjects, and I have trained students who received doctorates in mathematics as well as students who received doctorates in philosophy. In addition, I have had considerable interaction with scientists and philosophers who work on the foundations of physics, especially the foundations of quantum mechanics. So I know the ways of thinking of scientists as well as philosophers, and I can confirm my friend’s remark from my own experience; the very same qualities of boundless curiosity and intellectual dedication, the same, intellectual passion,  that characterize first rate scientists also characterize first-rate humanists. Moreover, I have found that the curiosity of scientists leads them to think about the most general philosophical and intellectual questions, and to want to have colleagues who know the best that has been written and though about them. Conversation between disciplines, and across the porous boundary between “science” and “humanities” has always been a tradition at the world’s great universities; it is part of the very notion of a “university”.

Putting together Lindsay Waters’ worries and my friend’s remark, we can say that what all of us—administrators, professors, students, and members of the educated public—need to defend is the idea of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. for the sake of the human spirit, for the sake of what Aristotle called “eudaimonia”, and defined as “the activity of the psyche according to excellence in a complete life (en bio teleio)”. When the pursuit of eudaimonia is replaced by the pursuit of money or the blind pursuit of “productivity” for the sake of productivity,  the very idea of culture and the very idea of the university is lost. The humanities must never be thought of as optional, and the sciences must never be thought of as merely instrumental or utilitarian.

       I segued into my this discussion of the importance of the humanities from a statement about Universidad Carlos III de Madrid I found in Wikipedia: ‘“The philosophy that has guided the university since its origins is one of creating responsible free-thinking people with a sensitivity to social problems and an involvement in the concept of progress based on freedom, justice and tolerance.”  In itself this is virtually synonymous with the modern idea of culture. What I would add (something I am sure is not neglected in your institution) is that “responsible free-thinking people” also need a knowledge of their historical roots, both the historical roots of Western (and increasingly of world-) culture, and the particular historical roots of one’s own national culture. Part of the richness of world culture lies in the different “trajectories” of the different national cultures that make it up, as well as in their interactions. It is obvious that Spanish culture, for example, has enriched and been enriched by its interactions with other cultures. But each culture has its own distinctive “trajectory”, and valuing that distinctiveness and wanting to make one’s own individual contributions to ensuring that it continues is not incompatible with tolerance, or with the defense of universal human rights. The sciences are vital for the understanding of today’s world, and of the amazing new knowledge that continues to flood in from physics, from genetics, from evolutionary theory, etc., etc., etc. But the humanities are vital for understanding the historical dimension of culture; without them, culture ceases to be culture. 

But the responsibility of the humanities, and of the particular humanistic discipline that I represent, the one called philosophy, goes beyond cultivating an appreciation of history and of books, essential as that is. "The aim of philosophy," the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars once wrote, "is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”  The task of achieving that understanding of “how things hang together” is at once impossible to complete and, for any thinker worthy of the name, impossible not to take up. It is the task of Universidad Carlos IIII, and of every true university. By awarding me the degree of Doctor honoris causa, you make me a member of your community. Let us resolve to further that task in our several ways, to the utmost of our abilities.

                Thank you,

                Hilary Putnam

For the difficulties of these matters in subaltern universities, see here.

*“It is the rehearsal, of own, of abrupt self, so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.” 

** “Ses ailes du geant l’empechent de marcher” [his giant wings prevent him from walking]

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