Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Interview of Thomas Leddy by Shawn Chong

What is the most memorable event in your life?

It is hard to categorize events as “most memorable” or not.  One of the reasons for this is that you remember different things at different times.  If by “most memorable” is meant the thing that one ought most to remember, that’s one thing.  If it means the one thing you remember the most, that is another matter.  Besides, when people ask this question they usually just want an amusing anecdote.

One thing I remember distinctly and think about from time to time is the day Prof. Brock informed me that I had been awarded a tenure-track position as San Jose state.   I had been teaching here as a temporary full-time lecturer and there was pretty tough competition for this tenure-track position.  Just yesterday I ran into one of the leading contenders for that position at an aesthetics conference.  I was so glad that the department chose me over him.   

What is the most noteworthy event you experienced while working at SJSU?

One wants to ask “noteworthy for whom, and under what circumstances?”  Sometimes we think of noteworthiness as equivalent to newsworthy.  I was in the news quite dramatically twice in my life.

There was the time that a tree fell on me while walking to my office.  It broke my right leg in two.  I was evacuated to the Valley Medical Center.  Thankfully no one else was under the tree at the time.  There is an article about the event in the campus paper archives. 

Another time I appeared in the news was when I was interviewed by the New York Times about our department’s famous stand against problematic use of MOOCS (massive online classes) in higher education.  This was a very important event in the history of the department.  We all contributed to a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the use of such courses.  It was a great moment for the department.  A number of the other faculty were also interviewed in the national media.  Recently we co-wrote an article incorporating our further thoughts on the issue.  This is the only time I have collaboratively written a paper with anyone. 

Who was your idol in philosophy when you grew up, and how have you tried to be like them?

In our society we have no really clear idea of what is meant by “when you grew up.”  I assume you mean something like the period leading up to my 21st birthday, with greater emphasis placed on the later part of that period.   I had many heroes then.  I wouldn’t say they were “idols” since I never worshiped them as gods or god-like beings, but I certainly admired them.  You can look at my web page for a short autobiography in which I list the philosophers who influenced me at certain times in my life.   Under the age of 21?  Well Thoreau and Nietzsche were two philosophers who particularly affected me.  But I also read and was influenced by Descartes, Pascal, Bertrand Russell, Plato, Hume, Kant and towards the end of that period, Wittgenstein.  I was also much taken by some eastern philosophers including Krishnamurti and Lin Yutang.   
“Growing up” implies the process of coming to maturity and one can say that there is no clear cutoff point here.    Am I still “growing”?  Do I still have maturing to do?  I am not sure I know the answers to those questions.

I have been totally immersed in Plato, Kant, Hume, Ricoeur, Dewey and a number of others at different times in my life.   But when it comes to philosophy of life I think I probably draw more from the Stoics. 

During the period before I was 21 (I became 21 in 1970) it was not popular to pay much attention to women philosophers.  However, later in my life a number of women were added to my pantheon of heroes, both living and dead.  My advisor for my M.A. in Humanities was Sandra Luft, who I greatly admired and still do.  On my blog Aesthetics Today I have a list of the women aestheticians who have influenced me in my life.  

What belief or doctrine of philosophy had the most influence on you?

I am not much for accepting doctrines or even “beliefs” if, by that, is meant something someone accepts without questioning.   I have always been taken by skepticism and see doubt as central to philosophy. “Influence” is also a funny word since the relationship between writings one reads, classes, teachers, thoughts, and writings one writes is much more dynamic than can be described by the relatively passive concept of “influence.”  My initial response to this question was “Probably the American Pragmatist tradition had the strongest influence.  However I have also been much affected by both the phenomenological and the analytic traditions.”  But now I think that the strongest influence (assuming, for the moment, that I set aside my reservations about the word) was the dialectic of Christianity of Philosophy.   Christianity, which was an important part of my youth, really did present a doctrine and a set of beliefs that one was required to accept:  but I reacted against all of that.  I first began to think of myself as an atheist around the age of 15 and that was largely because of philosophy.  By the way, an important influence in this was a book I read by John Fowler called Aristos, which was based on the sayings of Heraclitus.   

How have the books you have favored changed throughout your life?

It may seem too obvious to say this but the books that I favored under the age of ten were children’s books often involving adventure.  In my teens I was eager to read the great classics.  My grandfather gave me a list of such books and I was happy to work my way through that.  I was a big reader of novels and history books in my teens, but later in my life I focused more on philosophy.  I still read about twelve novels a year, mostly in connection with a literary fiction reading group that I have belonged to for over thirty years, although sometimes I read mystery and science fiction.

As for individual books, Brother's Karamazov was one of the reasons I became an atheist.  I loved reading the great classics including such works as The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and of course the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek plays.   However during my professional life I have pretty much focused on whatever books I have been teaching.  This semester it has mainly been books on the aesthetics of film, but also, just this week, Suzanne Langer's Feeling and Form.

What time and place would you like to live in?

It seems like a silly pastime to imagine living in another time and place.  But perhaps an indicator of the choice I would make would be what sorts of novels I like to read, including historical fiction, as well as the history books I like to read and the historical sites I like to visit.  Perhaps my choice of novels and history books and sites reflects whatever time I would like to live in (if I had a choice) since to read a novel or to visit a historical museum is to vicariously live in another time.  In this regard I have always favored the 19th century.  It was a time of great possibility and we had not yet discovered that we were about to destroy the planet.  I prefer Sherlock Holmes stories when they are placed in the 19th century, and I love Jane Austin.  Growing up in California, history was mainly the 19th century.  My second choice would be the 18th century.  In both cases life would only be acceptable if in a major city and if one were comfortably well off.  My third choice would be Athens during the time of Plato. 

If you have a chance to meet someone, who might that be?

If dead people are included I would certainly like to meet Socrates.  But I probably would not do very well in the debate.  I don’t really have a list of living people I would like to meet.  It is not so much meeting people that would be interesting but talking with them at length.  But it is hard to know who you would really enjoy talking to at length.  Most great men and women I have known are egocentric and to talk with them you have to be pretty tolerant of that. 

What is your most proud achievement in philosophy?

Pride involves positive feelings of accomplishment.  I have that mainly towards my career as a philosophy teacher at SJSU.  A great source of pride is the accomplishments of my past students.   Another source of pride is my publications…the academic part of my professional career.   I was one of the founders of a new sub-discipline of philosophical aesthetics called Everyday Aesthetics.  My book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life was published in 2012 and I am proud of that book.  Yesterday I attended a talk in which my work in this field was referred to positively, and that made me feel proud. 

Do you consider your work unique?

Uniqueness is a pretty common property.  Everything is different in some respect.  On the other hand, usually when people use the word “unique” they mean particularly unusual.  So, let’s assume that we are talking about this sense of “unique.”  People often associate the word with something positive:  it is considered a complement to say that someone’s work is unique.  But it can be used as a put-down, i.e. uniquely stupid or uniquely incompetent.  My philosophical writings (“my work”) reflect a distinctive voice that is my own.  Whether or not it is unique, in the sense of particularly unusual in a positive way, I might not be the best to say.  If someone other than me decided to read all of my writings and then compared them with the writings of someone considered to be more typical perhaps it could be determined how unique my work is.   But I suspect that the conclusion would be that we were both unique. 

There are some philosophers who simply accept a doctrine and apply a standard method without trying to think very deeply about assumptions.  Such people, and people who are followers of one philosopher, might be less deserving of the accolade “unique.”  I am not that sort of philosopher.  I have tried in my career to derive inspiration from every philosopher I read and I would never say that X is true because philosopher Y believes it is true.  However, that, in itself, does not make me particularly unique. 

What would you change about yourself?

In a way this is a very strange question.  What is the point of talking about changing oneself?  I am not sure I can answer this.  If the question is something like “If you could retroactively modify your DNA or your history what would you change?” how could I possibly answer that?   If I changed myself in this sort of way then I would not be myself.  There is a paradox here. 
Nietzsche argues for saying “yes” to your life including your entire past, and presumably your genetic makeup too.  He sees this as the basis of the only worthwhile optimism.  You should strive to say “I will it thus.”  I agree with this.  So, in a way, I wouldn’t change anything.   There is a paradox here too:  if I try to follow Nietzsche’s advice more often, then perhaps I am not saying yes to a part of myself that says no to myself.   But that paradox does not bother me.

Change is about the future.   One always makes plans and all plans are about change.  Usually this question is directed, however, to what personal habits one wants to modify, for example “do you want to eat more vegetables and fewer saturated fats?”  I do not want to talk about those kinds of projects since that kind of thing is not appropriate for public discourse.

What philosopher's writings have you agreed with the most?

My initial response to this question was “Richard Rorty's writings constantly gave me that sense, although I probably have agreed even more with the writings of Joseph Margolis.”

Thinking about it more I imagine that among my contemporaries I have usually agreed with Yuriko Saito the most.   However, I am not sure how important it is to agree with someone or how important this category really is.  I sometimes have written “I agree” with regards to some claim by some philosopher:  but who cares how often I do this?  In philosophy it is often much more interesting to disagree with someone than to agree with them.  I suspect that I have also disagreed the most with Saito. 

If you could change one period or stage in philosophy, what might that be?

"I would let Descartes disappear:  he did not really do any good for philosophy.  The value of his work is mainly to provide something to argue against, although I admire his dedication to truth.”  This is what I initially wrote in response to this question.  But, thinking again about Nietzsche’s idea of saying yes to life, I would say that I would not change anything about the history of philosophy:  why would I want to?  Even Descartes has value for me.  The debates between Descartes and his contemporaries are particularly fascinating. 

A second possibility would be to have had Heraclitus and Parmenides travel to India or China and have some serious discussions with the philosophers there.  Or Plato.. Or Aristotle:  definitely Aristotle.

Do you believe philosophy is a subject-matter capable of being understood only by a few?

My initial response was “Not at all:  anyone who cares to learn can sink into the world of ideas created by a philosopher.”

I am not sure that philosophy is one subject-matter.   There is philosophy as a practice and philosophy as a collection of writings and talks.  Also some people argue that there is philosophy in literature and film, maybe even in painting and music.  One should not forget the philosophy in one-to-one dialogues such as those described by Plato.   Each work of philosophy presents its own challenges.  If you are reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra you need to learn how to read it.  It is a different think to learn how to read John Dewey’s Art as Experience.  That is why we have seminars and professors.

“Understand” usually means being able to appreciate and explain.   Only a small number can currently appreciate and explain Nietzsche’s great books.  But potentially almost anyone can do so if you are willing to put in the work.   Of course there is a distinction between superficial and deep explanation.  Perhaps the deepest form of explanation (and the deepest form of appreciation) is when someone creates his or her own philosophical work in response to the work in question.  Plato was possibly the deepest reader of Socrates, as Aristotle was of Plato.   As a practical matter, not everyone can read and understand on that level.  There are also multiple possible equally good understandings of a philosophical writing.  There are many other readings of Plato than that offered by Aristotle.  Yet some really good philosophers are not very good readers:  they are perhaps best as coming up with their own theories and may even be engaged in creative misreadings of others.

Do you think philosophers are wrongfully viewed and represented by most people?

“Yes.  But we philosophy teachers are constantly trying to correct that.”  That would be my initial reply.  A better way to answer this would be to survey adults on the question “How do you value philosophy?”  That is, this would be a good question if, by “philosophers rightly viewed,” one means “philosophers rightly appreciated.”  Maybe, however, it means “philosophers rightly appreciated and understood.”  OK, so we generate some questions, ask them of a representative sample of most people and then analyze the responses. But how would you determine the representative sample?

Since most people have not read a lot of philosophy we already know that most people will not have much understanding of philosophy and hence will not view philosophy rightly, if by “rightly” is meant “with understanding.”  One way to answer this question would be to look at popular sayings about philosophers and philosophy.  It might be popularly agreed that “Atheism necessarily implies immorality.”  That would be a wrong view of atheism.  To check this, one would have to read most of the great atheist philosophers and most of the great works defending atheism.  Some people rightly view some philosophers largely because they have read them and understood what they have said.  Some people can do this simply by listening to lectures about the philosopher or reading secondary sources.  Most people wrongly view most philosophers simply because any partial understanding of a philosopher is an incorrect understanding.  I am not entirely comfortable, however, with the dichotomy “right view” vs. “wrong view.”  Maybe we should speak instead of better and worse views of philosophers.

Shawn Chong was a student in my Introduction to Aesthetics class and he uses these questions to write an interview for another class.  I want to offer my thanks to Mr. Chong for posing these questions and getting me to elaborate on my original responses. 

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