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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Balancing Acts

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
USS Cole – The Minches, North Uist New Hebrides 58°47N 006°48W

A pod of Atlantic porpoise were cavorting off to port when I came onto the bridgewing this morning, appearing to race in the bow wave as they typically do. To be able to swim that fast looks like fun. Although we’re not going that fast. “Five knots to nowhere” is the phrase for the position we’re in at the moment, making right-angle course changes periodically to stay in our assigned “box” in the channel between the Hebrides and the coast of Scotland. The winds are more than 30kts out of the NW, but the seas show merely choppy whitecaps here in the protection of the islands.

My courses are now passing the halfway point in this compressed six week semester aboard. The students have now sorted themselves into the outstanding, the competent, and the passive. It’s the time when, with rare exceptions, you know the outcome. So teaching becomes a balancing act, in which you free the best as far as possible to do what they can and speak to the others as encouragingly as you can. You never know—despite experience—when that one more may rise from amongst the others.

I had a really good class on Kant just this evening, for example. Several students were skeptical, not to say scornful, of the possibility that one might revolutionize human experience—as Kant did with his insight into the formative character of consciousness—without ever having any “experience,” like travel. I enjoyed pointing out that the reason the rest of us are not innovators is that, especially when we travel, we drag along the apparatus of our personal culture and perceptions like Cratchit’s ghost, not only not open to discovery but positively armored against it, for the most part. Someone mentioned Darwin’s travels. “Perfect example of my point,” I said. For Darwin’s greatness rests on his willingness to abandon his (and his culture’s) presuppositions about biological forms, revealing—but only after he was home thinking through his questions—knowledge of living process until then concealed by “experience.”

I also argued that the reason philosophers’ claims seem either obvious or outlandish is that the insights of the greatest of them change the language. Almost everyone now speaks, for instance, the language of Descartes. In the 17th century his picture of the mind or self as interior to the lived body and senses was a threat to the existing intellectual—not to mention ecclesiastical—order. Now it’s conventional to talk and think of ourselves as somehow inside ourselves; the “real me” beneath this exterior appearance. Yet in this convention we’re all four centuries behind the times. Kant’s insight made possible everything that people now have in mind when they think of science and technology, but the changes he wrought on human thought and speech are still on the way, like light from distant stars, to use Nietzsche’s metaphor. People are less modern than the times in which they live. It will always be so. It’s one of the things that makes teaching such an adventure.


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