Lucifer's Valet

a JOKE I DID NOT GET TO TELL OFTEN ENOUGH

Posted in Poeticks by lucifersvalet on 1 September 2011

Sometime just before the middle of the 80’s, I took Barry Stroud’s upper division Hume class. Stroud was not a flamboyant teacher. The class was not a barn-burner. We had two primary texts, the Enquiry and the Treatise, & we read a bit more than 100 pages of the first and a bit more than 200 pages of the second. In 15 weeks. You know when Homer compares Hector’s charge against the Greeks to a wildfire tearing down a hillside? We were not wildfire tearing down a hillside. More termites gnawing, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, halfway into a couple of important books. We were parsing something fierce, questioning the validity of each statement Hume was making. & finding that just about all these statements had some serious problems, philosophical validity-wise.  & since Hume’s whole project is an exercise in philosophical validity, these statements weren’t quite doing what Hume wanted them to do. In other words, Hume wasn’t quite saying what he meant to say. (You too can get this lesson yourself  Stroud’s s book.  Another similar exercise would be Jonathan Bennett on Kant.) The conclusion from the course would be that it was very difficult if not impossible to extract from Hume’s philosophy accurate propositions, not about the world, but about Hume’s philosophy! Everything that could be said would have to be extensively qualified.

For a contrast to this querulous incrementalism, there was the class before us. It was a History of Ideas class, a survey of the Enlightenment. It’d make for a better story to say that Martin Jay was teaching it, but to be honest I don’t remember who it was. What I do remember is that a large group of folks from the history class (History of Ideas was a hot thing at the time) would leave the room, and a smaller group of folks from the philosophy class (Hume was not hot) would come in, to find all of the chalkboards, two walls worth, crammed with an outline of whichever monumental thinker of the Enlightenment had been the subject of that day’s lecture, and a couple of harried lingerers rushing the last of their notes into the binders. This class was burning brush-fire quick through a whole era of thought. Each day we’d walk in to find yet another philosopher reduced to four or five dozen propositions.

Now here’s where our joke came in. Stroud would come into the class, after the last of the history students were gone, and  scan the board. (Now that I’ve done some years of my own teaching, I think he was mostly annoyed at having to muck through erasing two big boards’ worth of chalk.) He would look through all these propositions, and single out the most ridiculous of them, the greatest over-generalization or the most logically preposterous claim, point to it and  turn to us, without saying anything. & we would quietly guffaw. & after Stroud was done erasing two walls of chalking, we’d start  cutting the next paragraph on the syllabus into sawdust.

If you prefer a moral equivalence version of things, you could say that there’s this big steep hill & two kinds of bicyclists. One kind likes grinding uphill in bottom gear. It’s slow work, but you’ve got time to look at little things like loose rocks in the asphalt. The other kind likes screaming downhill in top gear. It’s very fast & very exciting. Note that both kinds of cyclist are doing something difficult.

Maybe I didn’t tell this joke that often because it’s not that funny. Humor in analytic philosophy tends to a dryness comparable to borax. However, the moment captured in that image, when Professor Stroud pointed at a sentence and turned to look at us,  returned to me often in moments of seminar distress. While in the grips of a vertiginous panic induced by the theoretical sublime (which did not occur, strange to say, during discussions of the Kantian sublime), I could see that impassive face, not even smiling, & amidst the tumult find a still point.

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