© Lee Braver and Figure/Ground Communications
Dr. Braver was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on May 4th, 2011
Lee Braver is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hiram College. He specializes in Nineteenth and twentieth century continental philosophy, history of philosophy, the connections between analytic and continental philosophy, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Foucault. He is the author of A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (Northwestern University Press, 2007), Heidegger’s Later Writings: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum Books, 2009), Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (MIT Press, 2012).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I like the second part of your question, because I’m rather sympathetic with what’s sometimes called anti-humanism, which argues that we misconstrue the nature of conscious choice. My fate was at least as much the result of notmaking decisions as it was of making them. From my first taste of the subject—Philosophy 101 was my very first college class—I couldn’t get enough; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in particular blew me away. Certainly, the pump was primed. I declared myself sentient at the age of 9 when I realized that just grasping the idea of sentience conferred that status upon me. I also clearly remember being fascinated with a cup that had a cereal mascot holding a cup with a picture of himself hold a cup and so forth. Such are the stirrings of a young philosophical mind. I knew I wanted more, and the place to get it was graduate school; inertia then played an embarrassingly large role. Which is not to say that I’m unhappy with my vocation—there is a great deal to love about the academic life. I’m just not in a position to evaluate it since, as Nietzsche said of the universe, I have no fleshed out alternative life to compare it with.
As strange as it sounds to my students, one of the reasons I’m so taken with the subject is that I bore easily. The complexity of philosophy means that I can think about a topic or philosopher for a long, long time without getting close to the bottom.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I can’t give an informative answer about this since my career has been split between two very different kinds of schools. I attended medium-sized, moderately prestigious universities, but have taught at a very small, low-profile liberal arts college, so that any account I could give of the evolution of the professoriate would suffer from a severe punctuated equilibrium. During the 11 years I’ve taught at my liberal arts college, I have seen the encroaching mentality of the market that many others have noted. Students think of themselves as consumers who know what they want and complain when they haven’t gotten it, while schools and programs feel compelled to justify their existence in market terms, and of course the size of the administration only seems to increase, regardless of the circumstances.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?
Statistically, I’ve read that the trait that best tracks student learning and positive evaluations is teacher enthusiasm. When the teacher gets excited about the ideas, it’s often contagious. I don’t have to simulate this since I find it thrilling to rebuild the structure of an argument and give students a guided tour through it.
I think that we do need to push back against the distractions and disrespect that’s somewhat endemic to this generation. I refuse to let students sleep or pass notes in my classes, though it’s hard to disallow laptops since many students prefer taking notes on them. We need to push back on grades as well, though this is much easier to do once one has tenure.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
As I said in another interview, graduate students might want to seriously consider other options, as I did not. It’s a very tough time in academia, and many argue that the trend points to its getting worse, possibly much worse.
I see a problematic strategy that is unfortunately built into the early stages of an academic career. On the one hand, grad students and untenured professors are under tremendous pressure to publish, and for their own sake they really need to get out as much as possible. However, this is bad for the profession, collectively. Journals have outrageous backlogs (I recently submitted a paper to a fairly good journal, and was told that it would be nine months before they could let me know anything), and so much gets published that really isn’t worth it—extremely narrowly focused skirmishing, multiple articles and presentations with very slight variations on the same ideas (smallest publishable slices), etc.
Ideally, one should publish only what deserves to be read, but this is very, very hard and takes a long time. I wasn’t able to write material of any genuine quality until I was seasoned with a good five years of teaching and thinking after finishing my dissertation. Since search and tenure committees rarely read candidates’ work—and who can blame them from doing what they can to tame the avalanches of paper—the criterion of quantity wins out over quality. But I still tell myself that quality wins out in the long run.
One piece of advice is to email people when you read something you like. Most publications create very little feedback, making most authors quite grateful to know that anyone’s reading something they worked so hard on. And the contacts made this way can have very long-lasting benefits.
In another interview, R. Kevin Hill spoke of the “overqualified-professor-at-a-less-prestigious-institution” phenomenon, and you just mentioned that you had attended moderately prestigious universities but have taught primarily at a very small, low-profile liberal arts college. What are the pros and cons of being a big fish in a small pond?
Well, I think that in order to experience being a big fish in a little pond, one’s pond would have to at least have some intimation of one’s size. In my case, whatever my “size” may be, I doubt that more than ten people at my school know that I’ve published anything. I’m more like a camouflaged fish, maybe a cuttlefish. To some degree, the ethos of my college is such that it is not particularly interested in research. It’s a bit like drinking—a glass of wine now and then is fine, but getting carried away is just gauche.
Of course, I initially had a rather low opinion of publishing myself, partially due to the fact that I saw it primarily in terms of the narrow skirmishing mentioned above. One of the things that changed my mind was when I realized that research is not entirely about its readers. At least as important is the impact on the author. When I write something, I am first and foremost explaining an idea to myself, one that I can’t fully understand until I’ve spelled it out thoroughly.
One of your areas of specialization is the points of contact between analytic and continental philosophies and by extension, I suppose, the specific connection between Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In a nutshell, what are the most prominent links between these two thinkers? Was the later Wittgenstein analytic philosopher?
While writing my first book, A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, I became fascinated with the connections between Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and I’m presently wrapping up a book on the two titled, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, that will be coming out with MIT in January. I think their similarities are both wide and deep, but to explain fully would require, well, a book. I wrote 5 chapters, each taking on a central topic of their work: their views of philosophy, their main candidate for bad philosophy, holism, the nature of thinking, and anti-foundationalism.
Wittgenstein presents an interesting test for classification. Imagine that he wrote his works in private, and there were just published today without their implication in the history of analytic philosophy. What impression would they make on eyes unaware of their history? The Tractatus obviously has a great deal to say about logic and the philosophy of language with the clear influence of Frege and Russell, but equally prominent are elements of Kant and Schopenhauer. Indeed, like Kant’s treatment of science, Wittgenstein is clear that despite its length, the logic is there to limit language, to set off what lies beyond, the mystic, which is far more important. And the later work can be just as easily read as a deconstruction of metaphysical conceptions of knowledge and the self as, say, a work of ordinary language philosophy.
Beyond Heidegger and Wittgenstein, what other points of contact between continental and analytic philosophies are worth exploring in your view?
If I knew that, I’d be writing on them! I think of the division in a Gadamerian way: each branch has developed its own prejudices which, shared by each member’s interlocutors, go unnoticed. Dialogue with those who don’t share them provides extremely fruitful challenges. The very point of such exchanges is that we don’t know what will come of them—if we did, they would be almost superfluous. One general point, I suppose, would be one that has been noted by many—analytic philosophers should pay more attention to the role that history and rhetoric play in philosophy. The last couple of decades has produced a great deal of high quality work in the history of analytic philosophy, which is great. There’s a longer answer concerning the flexibility of reason, which my next book is going to discuss.
Actually, in a recent interview, Professor Dermot Moran declared that the distinction between continental and analytic philosophy “has had its day.” He pointed out that it especially does not make sense when you attempt to impose this distinction upon the entire history of philosophy: “you have this bizarre idea that there are some texts of Plato where he is an analytic philosopher, and other texts where he is a continental philosopher,” he said. Do you agree with Moran here?
Well, since they are historical movements, it certainly would be problematic to go back and classify much earlier philosophers under these more recent rubrics; I don’t particularly see why anyone would want to do that. But there are clearly divergent approaches to Plato: continentally influenced philosophers will pay attention to rhetorical aspects of the dialogues such as the setting, the characters, Socrates’ tangents (which are, virtually without exception, more interesting than the main topic), whereas analytically-trained philosophers will focus in on the arguments, sifting them out of all the external factors in an attempt to bring them into direct conversation with contemporary debates. Obviously, these approaches can and should be complementary; I doubt you could find a completely pure example of either, but as far as I can tell, there is a difference of emphasis. The distinction can be real, while of the “family resemblance” type.
I also want to say that the distinction between continental and analytic isn’t intrinsically wrong or insidious. Everyone has to specialize. Indeed, from the Gadamerian perspective, it’s precisely the differences that make dialogue so worthwhile (I just wrote a paper about this on Davidson and Gadamer). The problem is that people trained in one tradition close themselves off from the other, in principle. It’s very hard to read philosophy, and it’s almost impossible if you are completely unfamiliar with the intellectual landmarks someone takes for granted, or with the conversation she is participating in. But moving from difficult to understand to wilfully obscure and without merit is a non sequitur, and an insulting one at that. What I’ve tried to do in my work is not erase the distinction, but lower the ante to join the conversation.
You’ve just wrote an essay entitled Is the Mental a Myth? I believe Hubert Dreyfus often toys with this turn of phrase during the course of his lectures on Heidegger at UC Berkeley, possibly as part of his “quarrels” with John Searle. His position seems to be that we don’t need “minds” (representations, intentional content, etc.) to come in and inform our actions when we are fully absorbed in the ongoing flow of our daily practices. Following Heidegger, he believes that there is a much more primordial, non-thematic form of understanding that is embedded in our skills. What is your position on this issue? Is the mental really a myth?
That’s the title of the anthology; my contribution is “Never Mind: Thinking of Subjectivity in the Dreyfus-McDowell Debate,” and I actually go further than Dreyfus! Where he sees a great deal of our daily behaviour as coasting along on autopilot, with conscious intentional thought rarely arising, I want to collapse the distinction between mindless coping and explicitly conscious attention. I see all action as reaction to solicitations which permeate the mental and linguistic realms just as much as the bodily and perceptual ones, as described so well by people like Merleau-Ponty, Rodney Brooks, and J.J. Gibson. This extension is one of the signal accomplishments of the later work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and Chapter Four of my upcoming book explains the idea at length.
In a nutshell, the claim is that all the phenomena that characterize our being-in-the-world as absorbed reactions to solicitations apply to the arenas where we are more tempted to believe ourselves freely, consciously, voluntarily making decisions as well. Just as hot apple pies cooling on window sills send out tendrils of aroma to pull us towards it by the nose, as the great phenomenologist Tex Avery has it, so “2+2=__” pulls forth “4.” The same goes for “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal;….” Even when I relieve my auto-pilot and take charge of my decision-making, I rely on the way the various options appeal to or repel me. I have to. Without these claims on us, we would stand paralyzed between the options as Buridan’s ass, with free choice only being an Lucretian swerve. It will be objected that yes, we receive solicitations, but we are free to follow or reject them; as Merleau-Ponty quotes Malebranche, they impinge upon us respectively. But how do we decide whether to resist or give in? Certainly, different solicitations affect us differently so that one has greater impact than another, but we are already in the terrain of compatibilism. As far as I can tell, the train of argument only ends in reacting, indecision, or unmotivated coin-flipping.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing a book on continental realism, actually. It takes up a thread that was in my first book, but seen in a new light. I’m also using it to analyze some works of art and literature, which I’ve never done before. After that, I’d like to follow up some more on anti-humanism; it’s out of fashion, but I still think there are some nuggets left.
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