Clarity and classic pedagogy should come as no surprise from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Even so, Jonathan Lear—who hails from Chicago’s renowned lyceum and is also a professor of philosophy at the university—arrives like manna to those of us who thought rigorous yet lucid intellectual method had been buried by the empty prestidigitations of Judith Butler and her “hegemonic” ilk.
But as soon as you criticize JB for being a windbag, you always get the reply—”Oh, you’re just anti-intellectual. You pooh-pooh what you don’t understand.” Well, folks, Lear’s new book, Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life (Harvard University Press), is the answer to that. Here’s an intricate, heavyweight treatment of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Freud’s Thanatos, and the role of the unconscious in ethical life that demands a lot of intellectual effort. Yet there’s no jargon or obfuscation in it. Lear is doing real philosophical work—engaging both with ideas and with us.
Lear’s Happiness isn’t just a prime example of what academic writing can be. It’s also the road map of a method that academia can teach. In the book’s acknowledgments, Lear writes: “If I had not gone to Cambridge about thirty years ago, I would have gone through life under the misapprehension that philosophy was the study of what certain other people had thought. Philosophy as an activity of the soul was brought to life for me. . . . ” Lear thanks, among others, Bernard Williams (now a don at Oxford), whom he calls “the philosopher in our midst.”
“Philosophy as an activity of the soul” struck me as a refreshingly antiquated idea. I was curious what Williams himself would make of it, especially in this age of lockstep, tenure-track careerism, where there’s often a dearth of soul and precious little real philosophical activity going on. “Philosophy as an act of the soul means that you do it yourself,” explains Williams. “You engage yourself. It’s a constructive and creative, imaginative activity and not simply a historical activity. It’s frightfully important that the soul does it to itself, that it is an activity which is self-directed and that changes the soul itself in the course of doing it.”
This is the mission of higher education. It’s why we study the classics. Engagement with oneself and ultimately the public is exactly what Lear tells me he wants “philosophy as an activity of the soul” to entail. That, after all, is what we pay professors for—to guide us through difficult ideas and teach us how to wrestle with them and with each other—not simply to browbeat us with blanket theories and retreat from public life in a cloud of invented Latinate gibberish.
Williams agrees: “There is a tendency of a lot of academic training to make philosophers excessively academic in a narrow, technical, and professionalized sense. That can be a pity. It can discourage them from trying to express themselves in plain English to a broader public.”
When I spoke to him last week, Lear speculated that the English have probably remained better at nurturing both clarity and active participation with ideas. According to Peter Lipton, an American who was educated at Oxford, taught philosophy at Williams, and now heads the department of history and philosophy of science at Kings’ College, Cambridge: “At both Oxford and Cambridge, philosophy is definitely not the history of ideas. It is heavy grappling with the issues and the arguments. It does encourage a deep engagement with big questions.”
This is never easy, says Williams, nor should it be: “Philosophy is difficult, awkward, often technical, and pretty impenetrable really, and that’s in the nature of the case. But I do agree with you. It is true that there are ideals in philosophy that one should write in a relatively perspicuous manner. My friend Nietzsche has some good remarks about that: People who want to look profound write obscurely because if it’s obscure you can’t see how shallow it is.” Yes. Russell Jacoby called this fetishizing their profundity.
I mentioned Judith Butler as a prime example, and Williams laughed: “Yes, I believe she got the award two years running for the higher bogusness or something.” But then, maybe Williams—like Martha Nussbaum, who took Butler apart in the February 22, 1999, issue of The New Republic—is just too dim to understand her.