There Is No Theory of Everything


Simon Critchley in the NYT's The Stone:

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to teach a lot of graduate students, mostly in philosophy, and have noticed a recurring fact. Behind every new graduate student stands an undergraduate teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of higher education.

Some lucky people have several such teachers. This was the case with me. But there is usually one teacher who sticks out and stays in one’s mind, and whose words resound down through the years. These are teachers who become repositories for all sorts of anecdotes, who are fondly recalled through multiple bon mots and jokes told by their former students. It is also very often the case that the really good teachers don’t write or don’t write that much. They are not engaged in “research,” whatever that benighted term means with respect to the humanities. They teach. They talk. Sometimes they even listen and ask questions.

In relation to philosophy, this phenomenon is hardly new. The activity of philosophy begins with Socrates, who didn’t write and about whom many stories were told. Plato and others, like Xenophon, wrote them down and we still read them. It is very often the case that the center of a vivid philosophical culture is held by figures who don’t write but who exist only through the stories that are told about them. One thinks of Sidney Morgenbesser, long-time philosophy professor at Columbia, whom I once heard described as a “mind on the loose.” The philosopher Robert Nozick said of his undergraduate education that he “majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.” On his deathbed, Morgenbesser is said to have asked: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?”

These anecdotes seem incidental, but they are very important. They become a way of both revering the teacher and humanizing them, both building them up and belittling them, giving us a feeling of intimacy with them, keeping them within human reach. Often the litmus test of an interesting philosopher is how many stories circulate about them.

More here.