A Cure for Academic Bullying

Portrait caricatureWorkplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro-aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior. Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

(This piece originally appeared in May 2, 2017 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Academic Bullying and the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy.”)

The Land of Smiling Children

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“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015), Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation, is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or (1843) as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) (1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “believing” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

Rees fails to comment on the quality of the new translation of Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That departure was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If that’s true, it’s an odd fact to omit in a review of a translation by him. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of my blog on Kierkegaard are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the surrender of his ethics.

As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure in his translation of a Danish biography of Kierkegaard, that the author of that controversial biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to Piety on Kierkegaard:Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

Cap and GownI’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright Fellowship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see the photo).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience (through its co-op programs) that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not angry with me, he was actually eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for this blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length (people going up for tenure or promotion must produce three separate binders: one for teaching, one for service, and one for scholarship). It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put those binders together, a summer when I would much rather have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work demanded of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.IMG_0886

 

 

What Philosophers Think They Know

Portrait caricatureAh philosophers, you gotta love ‘em. Even if they have given up the pretension of being wiser than everyone else, they still purport to be smarter, or at least more analytically adept. And yet they continually make conspicuous public display of just how bad their arguments can sometimes be. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s recent review of the infamous Colin McGinn’s new book, Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained, is a case in point. Goldstein, a prominent philosopher herself and recipient of this year’s National Humanities Medal, argues in her review that philosophy, contrary to popular belief, does progress in a manner analogous to the sciences and does have practical value. Unfortunately, her argument is deeply and obviously flawed, revealing, once again, that philosophers are often no better at reasoning than is the average person and that academic philosophy probably does not have the kind of practical value she argues it does.

McGinn’s book is designed to make some of the classics in the history of the philosophy of language, which are notoriously impenetrable to nonspecialists, accessible to students, and others, who have “no previous familiarity” with the field. Goldstein begins her review, “What Philosophers Really Know” (The New York Review of Books, Oct. 8, 2015), with the observation that “[a]cademic philosophy often draws ire.” There are two sorts of complaints against it, she says, but they are “not altogether consistent with each other.”

The first complaint is that philosophers “can’t seem to agree on anything.” This “lack of unanimity,” she explains, “implies a lack of objectivity” and that suggests that philosophy doesn’t actually “progress” in the way the that, for example, the sciences do. This complaint, she continues, “culminates in the charge that there is no such thing as philosophical expertise.”

The second complaint, she asserts, “is that academic philosophy has become inaccessible,” in that it has generated technical “vocabularies and theories aimed at questions remote from problems that outsiders consider philosophical.” But this latter charge, she asserts, contradicts the earlier charge in that it implies “there are philosophical experts and that, in carrying the field forward, they have excluded the nonprofessional.”

It’s pretty clear, however, that the second charge implies no such thing. How could the nonprofessional lament being excluded from this purported forward movement in philosophy, when any movement whatever within the profession has already been dismissed by the nonprofessional as remote from what he or she considers philosophical? A reading of the second charge that makes it not only internally coherent, but cohere with the first charge is not that it implies that there are philosophical “experts,” but rather that it implies there are philosophical initiates whose technical vocabularies are so complex and foreign to ordinary language usage that they make it impossible for the lay person even to enter the philosophical conversation, let alone argue that philosophers theories are “aimed at questions remote from problems outsiders consider philosophical.”

That is, the second charge is, I believe, that philosophers have effectively insulated themselves from criticism by making their ideas and theories inaccessible to anyone but themselves. Or in the words of Jonathan Rée (as quoted in Philosophy Now), that they have become nothing more than “a self-perpetuating clique like freemasons.” This reading is perfectly consistent with the charge that there is no progress in philosophy, the real “culmination” of the observation that philosophers can’t seem to agree on anything. No one disputes, after all, that there are degrees of mastery of any technical vocabulary and methodology specific to a given field and hence that those on the high end of the spectrum may be considered “experts.” What is at issue in criticisms of academic philosophy is whether this “expertise” amounts to wisdom (i.e., sophia), which is to say whether it can make a positive difference in anyone’s life, or indeed, any sort of difference at all.

Goldstein claims philosophy has practical value, but the examples she offers fail to support her claim. She presents the fact that “[c]ertain speech situations yield their meaning without inquiring about the speaker’s intentions… [and that] other situations require inquiry into what is called pragmatics, which analyzes both the language employed and the language user’s intentions” as an insight specific to philosophers. This in itself strains credulity given how important “misunderstandings” based on mistaken interpretations of “the language user’s intentions” have been throughout human history and how often they have been depicted in literature and film. Goldstein observes herself that “[e]very serious novelist” pays close attention to the relationship between “what a sentence means and what a person means in uttering the sentence.” But then she goes on to assert that this relationship is some kind of philosophical discovery, as if, even serious novelists cannot make sense of the relationship without the help of technical philosophical terms such as “referential definite descriptions” and “attributive definite descriptions.”

”Definite descriptions,”Goldstein explains, are ones that begin with the definite article ”the,” such as ”the blonde woman over there.” The philosopher Keith Donnellan, continues Goldstein, came up with the distinction, however, between referential and attributive definite descriptions. Whether the woman is really blonde, or only wearing a blonde wig, doesn’t matter. “When I use a definite description referentially,” explains Goldstein,

I have a specific individual in mind, and my aim is to refer to that individual. So long as I get the listener to know who or what I’m talking about, I’m using the definite description successfully… The specific content of the description doesn’t really matter; I’m just using it in effect, to point. But when I use a definite description attributively, the content is precisely the point. The phrase will refer to anything or anybody that uniquely satisfies what it describes, even if I, as the speaker, am ignorant of the referent, as when I say, “The bastard who hacked my computer has made my life a living hell.”

Goldstein then gives an example she asserts illustrates the practical value of this purported philosophical insight concerning the difference between what people mean with their words and what the words can be interpreted to mean independently of the speaker’s intentions.

The example is of a man who deserts his wife, but then later “marries” a new woman. In the process of forming a new business, he signs a contract stipulating, among other things, that “‘the wife of the depositor’ shall benefit in the event of his death.” He makes it clear, explains Goldstein, “though of course, not in writing,” that he intends the beneficiary to be his new “wife,” not the wife he deserted.

But what happens when he dies? The wife he deserted suddenly presents herself and declares she is the rightful beneficiary. “Should ‘the wife of the depositor’ be interpreted referentially, asks Goldstein, so that it would refer to the woman the bigamist intended to indicate with the phrase, or attributively, as the real wife demands?

“Just such a legal situation arose in 1935,” explains Goldstein, though she does not identify the case by name, “and the majority of judges decided on the referential interpretation.” But then Goldstein goes on to assert that “[t]he philosopher Gideon Rosen has argued that subtle points in the philosophy of language raised by, among others, [Saul] Kripke, imply that the majority opinion was mistaken.”

Really, I kid you not, she says that. How, one is compelled to ask, can philosophy of language determine that sort of legal, or indeed any sort of legal question? The court knew that “the wife of the depositor” could be interpreted to refer to either the original, and legally only legitimate wife, or to the second, legally illegitimate “wife.” It didn’t need the fancy-schmantzy philosophical terminology of “referential” versus “attributive definite descriptions” to know “the wife of the depositor” could be interpreted in two different ways. Nor, on Goldstein’s description of the case, can there have been any doubt on the part of the court concerning how the dead man intended it to be interpreted.

The question for the court was how it wanted to interpret the phrase. Did it want to honor the wishes of the dead bigamist or the technically correct claim of the first woman to be the genuine “wife” and hence the legitimate beneficiary? That is, did it want to honor the spirit or the letter of the contract? Philosophy can’t answer that question for the court. It can only give the court a new way of articulating it.

The second example Goldstein gives involves the interpretation of the Constitution. This example is analogous to the first and hence has the same problem. “Should we,” she asks, “as strict constructionists urge us, consider only the semantics of the words themselves in order to interpret the Constitution’s meaning, or must we use pragmatics, too, consulting historians to try to understand the original intentions of the framers?” That is, can philosophy “lend support to those who argue for the Constitution as a living document?” The answer, of course, is yes, it can, but so can it lend support for those who do not want to see it as a living document.

How, one might ask, are we supposed to be able to reliably determine the original intentions of the framers? What are we going to consider sufficient evidence of those intentions? Those kinds of questions are the very lifeblood of philosophy. God help us if we turn to philosophy for answers to them because philosophy, as Goldstein observes herself, is better at discovering questions than at discovering answers.

Goldstein points out that McGinn’s book omits many classics in the philosophy of language. Among those whose writings were omitted is, according to Goldtein, is Willard van Orman Quine. Goldstein would have done well to review her Quine because Quine argues in an essay entitled “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People? (Theories and Things, 1981), that professional philosophers are not, in fact, purveyors of wisdom, nor, he asserts, have they any ”peculiar fitness for helping society get on an even keel.”

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no value at all to academic philosophy. Nor do I mean to suggest that there is no practical value to it. Philosophy, whether it is defined as the love of and search for wisdom, or as the love of and search for “conceptual clarity and argumentative precision” (Goldstein’s articulation of the “analytic” conception of philosophy), is a perennial human activity, and like other perennial human activities such as art and literature, it deserves serious study. I believe as well, and have argued elsewhere, that it has practical value. My point here is simply that it does not appear, according to Goldstein’s own arguments, to have the practical value she claims it has.

There is one point on which I agree with Goldstein. If there is such a thing as philosophical progress, then it is indeed “less accurately measured in the discovery of answers and more in the discovery of questions.” I doubt whether most people would consider this progress, but I do think it has a certain positive value in that it can encourage humility.

Strangely, humility is precisely what so many professional philosophers, including Goldstein, seem to lack.

(This piece appeared originally in the Sept. 18, 2015 edition of Counterpunch.)

On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

Sport and the Sublime

Greg LouganisThe following piece originally appeared in the 25-27 January 2013 edition of Counterpuch. I am posting it here in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics that have just gotten underway in Sochi, Russia.

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. That was before cable, so finding something interesting could be challenging. I was channel surfing one day when I happened on some diving. I didn’t know anything about diving. but even people who don’t know anything about it can appreciate the beauty of it. There was nothing better on, so I decided to watch for a bit.

One diver after another came on the screen and executed what seemed to be perfect dives. But then, suddenly, there was Greg Louganis. There’s a video of Louganis on YouTube that begins: “There are two categories of divers, those who perform with magnificent skill, grace, beauty, and courage–” there’s a pause and the narrator’s voice drops an octave, “then there is Greg Louganis.”

That pretty much sums it up. I was watching all these divers who seemed perfect, and then suddenly there was Greg Louganis. He wasn’t just perfect–he was sublime. I didn’t know anything about diving and yet watching Louganis gave me the feeling Emily Dickinson reportedly said one gets from good poetry–it made me cold to the bone. It gave me that shiver of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talks about in The Idea of the Holy.

That was a defining moment in my life. It was, I believe, when I first realized that there was more to reality than what appears on the surface of experience. Louganis executed the same beautiful movements as all the other divers, and yet there was something more in his movements than in everyone else’s. Something ineffable and yet so powerful; it hit the spectator with the force of a blow, like the shock of electricity. It seemed as if there were more energy in every fiber of his being, more vital life force. It was as if he were more real than the other divers, as if the other divers had been only moving images, whereas Louganis was a man in the flesh. Except that the other divers had been real. So Louganis seemed somehow to have more reality than the others.

*

I saw the same thing a few years ago in person. I’d just started taking figure skating lessons and used to go to competitions to cheer on a little boy whom my teacher was coaching. I stayed, once, to watch the next competition for slightly more advanced boys. One of the skaters caught my eye during the warmup. He was doing a very simple move, one I was trying, in fact, to learn myself at that time. It’s called “edges with three turns” and involves the skater making large arcs across the ice on alternating feet with a turn in the middle from forward to backward so that the tracings left on the ice look like a series of elongated number threes facing in opposite directions. It’s a simple looking move, yet it’s very difficult to perform well because, after the turn, the skater’s shoulders have a tendency to continue to pull him in the direction of the turn. If this motion is not checked, then it will be almost impossible for him to step forward again into the next arc. The shoulders and hips have to turn independently of each other, and the skater has to have a considerable degree of control over his upper body to keep the motion of the shoulders in check.

This boy, the one I was watching, can’t have been more than 14 years old, but he had the serene self possession of a dancer at the barre. His movements were slow, deliberate, and exquisite. I’d never seen anything like it. Not only did he have perfect form, he had perfect concentration. Other skaters raced past him, but he was so absorbed in what he was doing he seemed not to notice them. It was almost as if he were out there alone, as if the other skaters had been reduced to shadows. I could not take my eyes off him.

*

The idea that there are degrees of reality will seem strange to most people nowadays. It was a familiar one, however, to medieval and early-modern philosophers. For the medievals, things that were dependent on other things for their existence had less reality than did the things on which they were dependent. People, for example, had less reality than God. God had created people, hence people were dependent for their existence on God, whereas God’s existence was absolutely independent of anything else. God was the ultimately real thing, the thing with the greatest degree of reality, the thing that was more real than any other thing.

Kierkegaard also appears to have appropriated this idea of degrees of reality. Human beings, according to Kierkegaard, begin as ideas in the mind of God. The telos of an individual human life is therefore to bring the substance of that life into conformity with the form God conceived it should have. That’s what Kierkegaard means, I would argue, when he asserts that we must become who we are. We must become concretely who we are for God abstractly.

Most people, and that includes most athletes, don’t do that. Rather than striving to instantiate the ideal of their uniqueness, they constantly compare themselves to other people and try, in effect, to be better at being those people than those people are themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition can push athletes to higher levels of performance than they might otherwise achieve. What has not been adequately articulated, however, is precisely how this works. Competition improves performances, I would argue, only when athletes strive to instantiate a transcendent ideal that no particular performance can ever adequately instantiate. An athlete who strives in this way to instantiate an ideal provides a glimpse into the essence of that ideal that can spur on others in their own pursuit of it.

That’s a very different sort of phenomenon, however, from that of one athlete effectively copying another in the belief that he can do what the other has done better than the other did it himself. That kind of competition is inherently frustrating for the athlete in that he is trying to be something he’s not, and boring for the spectator in that he’s being subjected to what are effectively a bunch of imitations. When athletes strive only to win, rather than to be the best that they can be in their chosen sport, the reality of all the participants in a competition is diminished. Each becomes merely a copy of the others, and the ideal, which in a sense is more real than is any particular attempt to instantiate it, is lost sight of.

 

The idea that there are degrees of reality provides us a way to explain something that is otherwise inexplicable–greatness. Philosophers distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences. A thing can be more or less blue, for example, in a quantitative sense. To be red, on the other hand, is to be something else entirely. Red is qualitatively different from blue.

A performance that is great is not distinguished from other performances in a merely quantitative sense. There’s something more to it that sets it apart. Greatness is qualitatively different from skill, even the most highly refined skill. It’s possible to execute a movement in a manner that many would judge to be technically perfect, and yet to be uninspiring. Conversely, it’s possible to deviate from universally accepted standards of performance and yet move an audience more profoundly than someone who is merely a consummate technician.

Part of this has to do with passion, but it is not reducible to passion. Passion is necessary for greatness, but it’s not sufficient. Passion is a natural attribute. Some people have more, others have less, just as some people have more or less patience than other people. Greatness, on the other hand, is not a natural attribute. A great artist, as every great athlete is, has to be passionate, and yet he also has to be more than that. He has to have a gift. That’s why greatness is edifying. It bursts the confines of the temporal-phenomenal world, provides us with a glimpse of something that is transcendent. There’s a spark of divinity to it.

That’s why the sport/art dichotomy is false. All great athletes are artists. They give us glimpses of the sublime by bringing into their performances something more in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense. That’s why it’s wrong for athletes to strive merely to win. It’s not simply that striving to win, as Aristotle pointed out, is misguided in that winning is something over which one has no direct control. To strive to win is to aim for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, and that is inherently limiting. Athletes who strive to be the best they can be at their chosen sport rather than simply to win this or that contest are pursuing something transcendent. That’s ennobling, both for the athlete and the spectator.

Why then is winning so important? Because it is more obviously valued than is being sublime. It takes less energy, less effort, less engagement on the part of the spectator to be caught up in a contest than to be caught up in a performance. We can follow a contest with only half, or even less, of our attention. To follow a performance, on the other hand, is energy intensive. Human beings, like every other living creature, like to conserve energy. Contests are a way of doing that. We are told who the winner is rather than having to determine that for ourselves. To follow a performance, in contrast, requires us to be fully present in the moment, to bring all our capacities of attention and discrimination to the fore.

When we do that, when we truly follow the performances of athletes, we sometimes find that the superb performance is not always the one that wins. There are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes reputations of athletes unduly influence scores. Other times the scoring systems themselves are simply too arbitrary and opaque to ensure that the best performance wins. Finally, scores are sometimes manipulated to ensure that particular athletes win, independently of how well they perform.

All of these reasons are traceable back, however, to a suspicion of the ineffable. It’s ultimately impossible to articulate what makes a performance great, and not everyone is an equally good judge of greatness. So in the service of fairness, we attempt to construct a set of objective criteria for evaluating performances, and the performance that best satisfies these criteria is the one we call “the winner.”

 

*

The name of the skater I saw a few years ago is Alexander Aiken. I tried to follow his career for a while. If there were a competition in the area I would go in the hope of seeing him, and I would look for news of his results in Skating magazine, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. I eventually lost track of him, however, as my interest in the sport waned. The new judging system has imposed a level of conformity that is increasingly making skating boring to watch, and the perennial problem of inequities in the judging too often make the results of competitions an offense to the fair minded.

I quit following competitive skating. I continued to skate myself, though,  because it is the only real exercise I get. When I arrived in Jacksonville, where my husband teaches and where I spend half the year when I am not teaching in Philadelphia, I was surprised to find that a very advanced skater had recently begun to train there. I noticed him as I entered the rink and stopped to watch him for a few minutes. Something about him looked familiar. And then I realized who it was; it was Alexander Aiken. He was older, of course, than he had been the last time I’d seen him, but his looks had otherwise not changed much. I think it was less his face, though, than his skating that caused the shock of recognition to run through me. His skating is distinctively beautiful.

I could hardly believe the coincidence of his showing up to train in Jacksonville. I’d first seen him in Philadelphia and had learned then that he was from Atlanta. What, I wondered, was he doing in Jacksonville? I went over and introduced myself when he finally got off the ice. I told him how I’d seen him years ago and had been impressed with his skating. He smiled and thanked me politely and continued unlacing his skates. I learned later, from his girlfriend Michelle Pennington, who is a former competitive ice dancer and one of the instructors at the rink, that he’d moved to Jacksonville to live with a sister whose husband was in the military and was stationed there.

We skated together, Aiken and I, the sublime and the ridiculous, through the end of the summer and into the early fall. It was wonderful. Most of the time, we were the only two people on the ice. I was concerned that my presence might interfere with his training, but it was wonderful to be able to observe a great athlete so closely, and he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Aiken brought a better face to the sport than the one I had seen of late and that helped bring back the joy I had earlier taken in it.

I was excited to have someone to cheer on again in competitions. Aiken was going places. He’s not just supremely graceful; he has enormous athletic ability. He’s able to land triple axels solidly and consistently, the jump widely considered to be the most difficult in the whole sport.  He won the bronze medal at the 2011 national figure skating championships in the Junior Men’s division and had competed at the Senior level for the first time last year. He hadn’t placed terribly well, but that’s how the sport works. Skaters are rarely allowed to place well their first year in “seniors.”

 

The nationals are this week in Omaha. The senior men compete on Friday and Saturday. You won’t see Aiken there though. He’s been plagued over the last few years, as so many skaters are, by the astronomically high costs of training. The stress of that has taken its toll on him. He narrowly missed qualifying for nationals and decided he’d had enough. He’s quit skating, or at least quit competing. He said he can no longer afford the $50,000 he’d had to pay every year to train. He’d gotten some help, of course––most skaters at his level do––just not enough.

It’s hard for me to say, finally, which spectacle is more ennobling: the sublime performance that wins the contest, hence reinforcing our faith in providence, or the one that doesn’t. I think sometimes that it’s the latter. The celebrity of the winner makes him a kind of public figure, someone who belongs, in a sense, to the masses, whereas the triumph of the athlete who achieved greatness but did not win is a more private thing, something that belongs only to himself and that select group of spectators whose intensity of attention has initiated them into the realm of the transcendent.

No skater I’ve ever seen in person has made such a strong impression on me as Alexander Aiken has. He’s a sublime skater, a great athlete, a great man. This piece is for him.

(This article has been excerpted from Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport. I’m indebted to Michelle Pennington for her help with it.)