Monday, September 14, 2015

There Is No Theory of Everything By SIMON CRITCHLEY

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to teach a lot of graduate students, mostly in philosophy, and have noticed a recurring fact. Behind every new graduate student stands an undergraduate teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of higher education.

Some lucky people have several such teachers. This was the case with me. But there is usually one teacher who sticks out and stays in one’s mind, and whose words resound down through the years. These are teachers who become repositories for all sorts of anecdotes, who are fondly recalled through multiple bon mots and jokes told by their former students. It is also very often the case that the really good teachers don’t write or don’t write that much. They are not engaged in “research,” whatever that benighted term means with respect to the humanities. They teach. They talk. Sometimes they even listen and ask questions.

In relation to philosophy, this phenomenon is hardly new. The activity of philosophy begins with Socrates, who didn’t write and about whom many stories were told. Plato and others, like Xenophon, wrote them down and we still read them. It is very often the case that the center of a vivid philosophical culture is held by figures who don’t write but who exist only through the stories that are told about them. One thinks of Sidney Morgenbesser, long-time philosophy professor at Columbia, whom I once heard described as a “mind on the loose.” The philosopher Robert Nozick said of his undergraduate education that he “majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.” On his deathbed, Morgenbesser is said to have asked: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?”

These anecdotes seem incidental, but they are very important. They become a way of both revering the teacher and humanizing them, both building them up and belittling them, giving us a feeling of intimacy with them, keeping them within human reach. Often the litmus test of an interesting philosopher is how many stories circulate about them.

I want to talk here about an undergraduate teacher of mine about whom many stories were told, but who is not so widely known. His name was Frank Cioffi (1928-2012), an Italian-American from a peasant family who spent his early years close to Washington Square. His mother died giving birth to him, and his distraught father died when Frank was an infant. 

He was then brought up by his grandparents, who spoke in a Neapolitan dialect. He dropped out of high school, spent time with the United States Army in Japan and then in France trying to identify dug-up corpses of American soldiers for the war grave commission. In 1950, he somehow managed to get into Ruskin College, Oxford, on the G.I. Bill, where he began to study philosophy and discovered the work of Wittgenstein, whose later thinking was just then beginning to circulate. After teaching in Singapore and Kent, he became the founding professor of the philosophy department at the University of Essex in the early 1970s. I encountered him there in 1982. It was memorable.

Frank (which is how he was always referred to) has recently become the subject of an interesting book by David Ellis, “Frank Cioffi: The Philosopher in Shirt Sleeves.” It gives a very good sense of what it felt like to be in a room with Frank. Truth to tell, Ellis’s title is deceptive, as I never recall Frank in shirtsleeves. He wore a sweater, usually inside out. He never had laces in the work boots he always wore, and strangest of all, because of an acute sensitivity to fabrics, he wore pajamas underneath his clothes at all times. 

The word “disheveled” doesn’t begin to describe the visual effect that Frank had on the senses. He was a physically large, strong-looking man, about 6-foot-4. The pajamas were clearly visible at the edges of his sweater, his fly was often undone (some years later, his only word of teaching advice to me was “always check your fly”) and he sometimes seemed to hold his pants up with a piece of string. In his pockets would be scraps of paper with typewritten quotations from favorite writers like George Eliot, Tolstoy or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whom he revered.

He walked the few miles to the brutal architectural dystopia that was the University of Essex from his home in Colchester wearing an early version of a Sony Walkman. I always assumed he was listening to music, only to discover years later that he was listening to recordings of himself reading out passages from books. I remember him saying during a lecture that he was “not a publishing philosopher.” This is not quite true, but although his books, like “Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer” (1998), are fascinating, his rather tangled prose gives no sense of what it was like to listen to one of his lectures. They were amazing, unscripted and hugely funny performances, where he would move about over a vast range of quotations and reflections, his considerable bulk straining to control the passion of his thinking. 

Occasionally he would suddenly perch himself on the edge of a student’s desk, smoking a small, Indian cigarette (yes, it was that long ago). We were at once terrified and enthralled.
I was studying English and European literature in my first year at college, but my friend Will and I were considering switching to philosophy, partly because of Frank. We went to see him in his office for advice. I don’t remember him giving any. We sat with him for about an hour and I remember a story about how, when he had been teaching in Singapore, he used to put down poison to deal with the many cockroaches that infested his office. One day, while watching an insect die in agony in the corner of his room, he thought to himself: “There is a problem with other minds after all. It is a real issue. I knew that the bug was dying in pain and felt profound sympathy and stopped doing it.” Will and I both switched to philosophy immediately and never looked back.

Some years later, I went back into his office to ask permission to switch from one course to another. “Which courses?” he said indifferently. “I’m meant to be reading Foucault, but I want to do a course on Derrida.” “Man” he replied “that’s like going from horseshit to bullshit.” In fact, as others can confirm, the latter word was his most common term of reference and it also expresses his approach to philosophy: No BS.
In the preface to “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James said that it was his belief that “a large acquaintance with particulars makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep.” This was Frank’s pedagogical credo and his teaching moved from particular to particular, often working from the quotations written on small slips of paper and stuck into his pockets, to be pulled out with great dramatic effect. He hated big theories and any kind of metaphysical pretention and he would use little quotations to pick away relentlessly at grand explanations. He used the particular to scratch away at the general, like picking at a scab… read more: