Recently I was interviewed by Figure/Ground; below is a copy of that interview.
- What attracted you to the academy and how did philosophy shape your view of the world?
I was raised in a Christian family. We attended an Episcopal church when I was a small boy; after my mother remarried we attended a Lutheran church where I was confirmed at a young age. Shortly after that we started to attend a Methodist church, but none of these changes was, to my knowledge, based on any matters of doctrine, but rather on social reasons. I remember getting in trouble with the Lutheran pastor as a child because in Bible class I would ask real questions. “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” it said in the catechism. Why? The canned answer was: “The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.” “Why is he jealous?” I would ask, “what would God have to be jealous of?” “Don’t ask questions,” the pastor would say, “just memorize the material.” That was the lesson of the church: do not ask questions; just memorize the stuff. There really was no life in the church. People came in, sat down, listened quietly, put some money in the collection plate, and then left to carry on with their lives as before. After hearing a sermon on the evils of “drink” and card playing, in which the punishments for disobedience were extremely uncomfortable, we would all get in our car and go to one of my step-uncle’s for an afternoon of drinking beer and playing pinochle. I learned to hate Jews (for they were somehow responsible for killing Jesus), Catholics (for they had all the riches), and Methodists (I cannot remember why). I learned hypocrisy, racism, and sexism (now called the “traditional” values by nostalgic writers who find the word “traditional” all fuzzy and warm). I read the Bible frequently because the stories were full of violence, sex, and mystery. I remember asking my mother what `womb’ means and she was very nervous and asked me where I had heard that word. When I told her I found it in the Bible she did not seem to know what to say. I had her! She arranged for my step-father to teach me about the “birds and the bees.” He in turn sub-contracted to a teen-aged farm hand who gave me a brief but descriptive lecture about things that I already knew. (The lecture, I remember, started like this: “So, you want to know about f…ing…,” my teacher at least exhibiting a sense of the dramatic.)
After a few years in public schools and four years in the United States Marine Corps (1953-1957), I learned about sex and violence in more direct ways, and stopped reading the Bible until I was in university. When I was discharged from the USMC my new wife, new son, and I moved to Texas where I was going to become an electrical engineer. I studied engineering at the University of Texas until one day my first year English professor told the class that T. S. Eliot was coming to Dallas to give a reading. We were studying his poetry and I decided to go to the reading. It was amazing! Eliot read “The Hallow Men” in a Quonset hut – with rain falling on the tin roof – and I had a conversion experience. It hit me that engineers were building war machines and I did not want to do that. I went home, finished the year of engineering study, and moved to California where I changed majors first to math and then to English. I spent a year at Santa Barbara City College where my love for the humanities grew under the direction of a most impressive professor, Bart Sorensen. After a year at SBCC I received an entrance scholarship to UCSB. I was awarded the BA with Honors in 1961 and, partly because we were in need of money, I took a job as a personnel supervisor with the Boeing Company at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
This was an exciting time – a time of the Cold War, of bomb shelters and missile launches – a time to think about the nature of truth and the nature of good and bad. Boeing moved me to home office in Seattle and I moved engineers around to different projects in Minot, ND and Huntsville, AL. The money was good; the nature of the work began to challenge my sense of right and wrong. I was offered a transfer to Huntsville to work on the Dinosaur project. I turned it down on moral grounds and went back to graduate school.
- Who were some of your mentors in university and what did you learn from them?
At the University of California in Santa Barbara I was assigned as a teaching assistant to Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught a course on the Bible. His classes were always full of interesting people. In the front row were the nuns, who, he said, were there to spy on him. Then came the middle-aged students looking for therapy, the literature and philosophy students, and the atheists who sat in the back. I tried to sit in a different part of the room each time. Stuurman had a Freudian, Eastern, Calvinist, Proustian, Existentialist background and the ability to mesmerize an audience. Above all he opened up the text for me. I read it with fresh eyes. These stories were marvelous works of art! Stuurman’s lectures were inspiring (I used to call them “Stuurman on the mount”) and unlike my Lutheran pastor, he asked questions all the time. When not at the university I spent my time cleaning the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, which meant that I had the opportunity to talk with Lex Crane, who was ministering there then. His background in literature and philosophy was extensive and we used to have long talks about “meaning” while I should have been cleaning the toilets. I flirted with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister, but never got the “call.”
I did a directed studies course with Dr. Stuurman on Albert Camus. I had another conversion! The Absurd. Made sense to me. I read everything Camus wrote and wrote about his ideas. I studied Shakespeare with Dr. Homer Swander, and poetry with Dr. Donald Pearce and Dr. Hugh Kenner.
Dr. Stuurman had one foot in the English Department and the other in the Philosophy Department. He taught a popular course called “Bible as Literature” as well as “Continental Literature”. Looking back now it is easy to see that I would try to follow in his footsteps. After completing studies for the MA I began my teaching career at Southwestern Oregon Community College, where I taught introductory English courses and Shakespeare. From Stuurman I learned about continental literature and existentialism. He argued effectively for moral relativism. From Swander I learned the value of close reading of a text. And from others I learned the excitement of poetry. I returned to UCSB in the summer sessions as I worked on my next degree in philosophy.
I became a lover of literature: The three writers who have most influenced my own take on fiction are Joseph Conrad in his foreword to The Nigger of the Narcissus; E. M. Forster in his little book Aspects of the Novel; and Kenneth Burke. I took an honors seminar with Burke at UCSB in 1965. He was another scholar who was multi-disciplinary in his work. He was also a great teacher. T. S. Eliot died during that year and Burke, who had written critically about Eliot, teared up when talking about his friend.
I have also learned a great deal from my kids. When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel and stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, “What are you going to paint?”
“God,” he said.
“And do you know what God looks like?”
“I will when I finish the painting,” he said as he began to paint.
The second lesson came from our second son. As I was sitting in the living room after classes one day reading the newspaper, I heard an argument on the front porch and after some harsh words a scream from our daughter. I went outside and she reported that her brother had pushed her off the porch. She was not hurt; just angry.
I looked at her tormenter with my harshest look and said to him, “If I were you I would NOT do that!” He apologized to his sister and they went on playing. I went back in to finish reading the paper.
After a few minutes he came in and looked at me, and when he had my attention he said, “But Daddy, you are wrong; if you were me you would have done what I did.”
The law of identity! I had to explain that we humans are not always to be taken literally and that what I had uttered was a threat.
Third, I learned about the importance of point of view, not from my graduate classes, but from our little daughter in a stroller. As I grow older I find my mind circling back on a few vivid memories from the past. One of my favorites is of a time when our family went to the zoo in Seattle for a Sunday visit. Our daughter, Margaret, was a little girl, still riding in a stroller. We went to see the apes and the lions, the monkeys and the polar bears.
“What do the monkeys say, Margaret?” “Monkeys say, uhhn, uhhn uhn!”
“What does the bear say?” “Bear says, rrroaar, rroaarr.”
We then were walking along one of the many paths, pushing the stroller and trying to keep Margaret’s older brothers from climbing into the fields with the ruminants. At one point we saw a water buffalo grazing in the field just on the other side of the fence that the boys kept looking at as a challenge to be overcome. As we stopped by the fence we watched as the water buffalo walked towards us, curious, I suppose, about this group of non-water buffalo. As it came closer Margaret was equally curious perched there in her stroller at the height of the first strand of barbed wire. It came right up to the fence. Its broad nose was almost touching Margaret as it smelled her to determine, I guess, if she were friend or foe, or food. The five of us stood there looking at the beast for several minutes. If finally made whatever determination it needed to make and continued its grazing in the field.
“What does the water buffalo say?” “Says, woof, woof, woof.”
“Oh, no,” I laughed, “that’s what a dog says.” “No,” she insisted, “ bufflo say woof, woof.”
I thought about that for a moment and then I came to realize an important lesson about reading the world. So much depends upon point of view. From Margaret’s point of view, down there close to the bufflo’s nose, it did indeed say “woof, woof” – the sound of its breathing through those big silky nostrils. To my ears, four or so feet above hers, there was no such sound, and I also had some preconceived idea of what a bufflo should say! But Margaret simply reported what she experienced. She didn’t know what bufflo were supposed to say, only what that one on that day did say.
Later when I went on to graduate school to study literature I came to realize the importance of that lesson. Literature taught me again, what Margaret taught me that day in Seattle, point of view is important.
I have always told my students that from math I learned order, from English I learned point of view, and from philosophy I learned humility.
3) What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
First: there is no better job in the world! To get paid to read books and talk about them is quite amazing.
Second: do not look down on community or junior colleges. They are great institutions for teaching and for influencing students. Some of my best teaching experiences come from teaching in the two-year college.
Third: always respect your students. Be honest and open with them. Camus wrote in his Notebooks: “For a generous psychology.
We help a person more by giving him a favorable image of himself than by constantly reminding him of his shortcomings. Each individual normally strives to resemble his best image. Can be applied to teaching, to history, to philosophy, to politics. We are for instance the result of twenty centuries of Christian imagery. For two thousand years man has been offered a humiliating image of himself. The result is obvious. Anyway, who can say what we should be if those twenty centuries had clung to the ancient ideal with its beautiful human face.”
Fourth: a biblical suggestion: Find what it is that you can do and do it with the best of your ability.
4) How did philosophy shape your view of the world?
After I began teaching at the college level I started writing a newspaper column called “The World of Art”. Trying to write about art, film, story, sculpture every week soon taught me that I often had no idea what I was writing. So, my first steps into the world of academic philosophy were to learn about aesthetics. What is going on when we respond to a work of art? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Do standards for evaluation exist? I read widely in the field.
And then, from out of the blue, came an opportunity to teach in Canada at a brand new community college. We moved to Vancouver Island. It was and exciting time. SFU had a unique three semester academic year which made it possible for me to teach for two and take a full semester of study in philosophy at SFU. I set out to get a second MA.
I studied logic with Norman Swartz and Steven Davis. I studied aesthetics and philosophy of language. I wondered about the nature of things. I became excited about philosophy of language and logic (my math background helped me immensely), and found myself for the second time in my life a TA. This time in philosophy. I met Dale Beyerstein and John Black and talked about ideas endlessly. And it was good. I studied moral philosophy and epistemology. I came to realize how little I knew.
I became, I believe, a clearer thinker and writer, but the Absurd never left me. And most importantly, I came to realize that philosophy needed to be a part of the general community and not just an ivory tower exercise.
5) Some regard existentialism as a post-war French fashion. Do you think it has something to teach us in this day and age?
If the existentialist set in France was wild and if existentialism is merely a post-war French fashion, this is hardly a charge that can be levelled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere. And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road in 1960 lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; “Time and chance happeneth to all men,” as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future.
Camus believed that life is neither a pilgrimage nor a program, but an attitude. Translated into dramatic terms, life is not a plot but a scene. What is important is the living moment, the present.
I was a student at the University of California when the news of Camus’s death arrived on the west coast. We had been studying his works in a Continental Literature class and I had found in him a powerful voice that resonated deeply in me. His clarity, his depth of vision, penetrated through the fog of the cold war revealing human truths that might provide our salvation in world where gods and religion seemed the problem and not the solution. His notion of the Absurd made perfect sense to me. The absurd, he taught us, came about as a result of a clash between what we long for and what is. When we cry out to the heavens in despair there is no answer. Only silence. And that is the absurd.
If the absurd sounds dark and foreboding then we must face it and accept it as a given, brute fact. When we concentrate on here and now we can, Camus argues, find joy in this life. He writes:
The thing that lights up the world and makes it bearable is the customary feeling we have of our connection with it — and more particularly of what links us to human beings. Relations with other people always help us to carry on because they always suppose developments, a future — and also because we live as if our only purpose were to have relations with human beings. … The whole problem of the absurd ought to be able to be centered on a critique of the value judgment and the factual judgment. –Notebook IV, 57
So, yes, I believe existentialism and Camus’s Absurdism still speak to us today in a fundamental and important way. He writes, for example, of death, “Revolting death. The history of mankind is the history of the myths with which it covers up reality. … And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope.” The acceptance of death is a prerequisite for a joyful life. Camus’s insistence that we concentrate our efforts on this world and this life is predicated on the awareness that life is surrounded by non-existence just as a picture is surrounded by a frame. [More]
6) I wonder how you reconciled your Christian beliefs with the philosophical teachings of movement such as existentialism, whose members were by and large atheists?
As you know it is impossible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. So, I gave up on Christianity. I now describe myself as an ignostic. I still have a great deal of admiration for the biblical writers and their stories; I just read them from a different point of view than when I was a frightened Sunday School kid. I wrote the following for the book cover of my Reading the Bible: This book argues that the best way to understand the stories of the Old and New Testaments is to consider them as human stories with sophisticated narrative techniques at play. God is a character in these stories from the beginning, and considering god as a character in a narrative proves fruitful in responding to the human voices of these stories.
Although many readers go to the Bible to find the revealed word of Yahweh or of the Christian God, what they find there is always an interpretation of the text through the filters of a religious dogma which exists prior to the reading of the text. Reading the Bible suggests another way of reading the texts, a way of reading which concentrates not on “what does it mean?” but on “what does it say?” and “what do I see there?” The result is a fresh approach to the reading of these biblical texts, an approach which celebrates human storytelling while investigating myth, language, and the act of reading a text.
– from the book cover
7) Apart from having to commute back and forth, it must have been a great to live on the Island while pursuing your studies at SFU – a good balance, I mean. I’d like to know more about your experience as a graduate student. What was happening in Canada at the time? Do you feel, in retrospect, that your post-secondary education helped you better understand your country and its place in the world?
Actually the mid-1970s were indeed a great time to be at SFU. It was fairly new then and the description of universities in BC at that time went like this: SFU was an instant American University; UVic was British, and UBC was the Canadian university. The campus was alive and lively; the professors accessible and interested in students; the campus pub the centre of activity. I lived in the dorm during the week and travelled back to the Island on weekends. There was a high level of intellectual activity and some keen students. I studied philosophy on the ferry rides.
In the USA the Apple Computer Company was established by Steve Jobs. The CN tower in Toronto was completed in 1976 and became the tallest free standing structure in the world. In philosophy classes we were trying to decide if Bertrand Russell had solved all the problems around proper names.
James Callaghan became Britain’s Prime Minister and I became a Canadian citizen. Beer in the pub was cheap. Canada issued the 2$ bill. The Montreal Olympics were an opportunity for the country to celebrate.
8) There is, as you know, a Canadian School of Communication which is commonly associated with such varied thinkers as Grant, Frye, Innis and McLuhan. These thinkers, however, differ greatly from one another. I’m sure you read them and have an opinion about their work. Do these names have any relevance in the XXI century?
We moved to Canada in 1969 when Malaspina College first opened its doors to students. One of my first engagements with Canadian intellectuals was the 1969 Massey Lectures. George Grant delivered those talks that year. I was impressed. Not only by the content of those talks, but by the CBC. I think of the CBC now as a close friend and when we travel I cannot wait to get home to listen to the CBC news. I found the idea of an annual national lecture series exciting and defining of my new country.
Professor Grant’s talk about what we are and what we are becoming, and the modern belief that man is an historical being, was an eye opening introduction to Canada. His insistence on the importance of language resonated with me. His fear that Canada would be devoured by the USA did not take root in me for a few more years.
Grant’s Lament for a Nation was popular at the time across the continent and provided a critique of modernity that was powerful and suggested that we cannot split humans off from nature in general – that “history” is time – that we must look carefully at the conception of time. His attacks on relativism were muscular and challenging.
I had, of course, studied Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry and his Anatomy of Criticism in graduate school at UCSB. Frye’s efforts to make literary criticism into a science was present in most of those graduate classes: “The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with (Anatomy).”
“Lit crit” has evolved in many ways since, but Frye’s ideas must be confronted, considered and critiqued.
McLuhan also was on the reading list in most graduate classes in the 1960s at the University of California. His Understanding Media served to add to Frye’s notion of scientific respectability to the study of media; his “hot” and “cool” media distinction was influential across the academy.
My intellectual life has been enriched by these thinkers, their works are still alive and valuable, and my primary disagreement with them is around religion. As a humanist I can understand and experience the yearning for ultimate meaning but believe that there is no such item in the inventory of things and concepts in the universe.
9) Do you think philosophy can contribute to the resolution of concrete problems – social, environmental, etc. – in our complex geo-political world?
I do. And I believe that solutions to our world problems begin in the community. As soon as we had established a small philosophy department at Malaspina College (now VIU) I tried to reach out in as many ways as I could think of to make philosophy a part of the community. I wrote for the local paper on topics that were controversial, abortion, capital punishment, and other social problems. I gave guest lectures at the local high schools, met with service clubs, sat on advisory committees with the mayor, and participated at the local hospital in discussing issues in medical ethics. For a time, I continued to write about the arts for the local paper. We offered lectures in philosophy at the local prison.
Throughout all of those activities I tried to emphasize that thinking clearly is the key to making wise decisions in the public arena.
Finally, I established The Institute of Practical Philosophy at the college to offer yearly symposia for the public to discuss social issues. We connected those public events with our moral philosophy classes and public and students participated in the discussions. The Institute published a number of chapbooks on various topics; they are available here.
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Frozen Embryos, Ice-Age Ethics and Cold Comfort: A Case Study in the Ethics of Reproductive Technologies
Euthanasia: The Debate Continues
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Whose Decision Is It Anyway? Proceedings of the Conference on B.C.’s New Guardianship Legislation