Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My teachers (2): Bernard Harrison


I had two professors at college who made a deep impact on my philosophical development. The first was Fred Hagen, who was equal parts challenge and validation.

My other great "official" teacher (I have been lucky in my unofficial ones as well) was Bernard Harrison, who filled a more traditional (but perhaps more crucial) role, party advisory, partly exemplary -- a teacher who would really argue with you, and really listen. He was closer to me in my intuitions and orientations than Hagen, but he was also more challenging because I had to think hard about every divergence, without the luxury of an Oh-well, agree-to-disagree shrug.

Harrison let me audit several courses -- on Wittgenstein, on phenomenology (this was when I first read Husserl, and also Merleau-Ponty), and on the interweave of philosophy and literature. I will always be grateful to him for making room for an extra (and sometimes non-paying) student, one who must have seemed more than a bit odd at first. I spent many happy hours discussing problems with him in his office -- not just Frege, Heidegger, Rorty, but Coleridge, Austen, Kermode. Without ever consciously shouldering his way into an avuncular role, he did what is rare and welcome in a student's life -- he "took an interest." He not only sold me his car for a shockingly low price when he and his wife Dorothy eventually stopped coming to Salt Lake regularly from the UK, but he personally drove me to his insurance agent to see to it that I had coverage. I remember a day when I walked with him to his apartment after class; it may have had to do with the car, or perhaps he was going to lend me a book. I was feeling a little under the weather, and thought I ought to wait outside. "My dear fellow," he said, "you may have the wog, but you're a human being!" Up I came, and sat down for a cup of tea with the two of them. Much later, the visit my wife and I made to them in Sussex was a highlight of our honeymoon. I also credit Harrison for confirming my intuition that I would be miserable in academia, a conclusion I have re-affirmed many times since.

Bernard Harrison's work deserves to be much better known. He did not agree with my assessment of Wittgenstein in every respect and he let me know it (we also disagreed on Husserl), but he did pay Wittgenstein the compliment of treating him as a single thinker rather than as a mythical beast with the head of a logical positivist and the body of a pragmatist. (He had studied under Wittgenstein's student Peter Geach.) He placed equal emphasis upon the early and late work in a way that underscored their continuity, and for a while I believe he was something of a voice crying in the wilderness. (Eventually I found my impression of Wittgenstein confirmed in Ray Monk's excellent biography.) Harrison's project is a nuanced one that essentially takes seriously the Wittgenstinian insight that our thinking is a kind of practice, and it derives far-reaching consequences from this apparently modest seed, including a full-blown defense of a literary tradition both recognizably humanistic and as endlessly "experimental" as you like. In some ways, Harrison's work is the successful fruition of the dialogue between Wittgenstein and the great critic F.R. Leavis, who argued with Wittgenstein throughout his career. Moreover, Harrison, too, saw the split between analytic and Continental philosophy as a false dilemma, and his work is a robust example (and the first one I deeply appreciated) of what would be done if you act like these are different dialects, rather than a zero-sum contest for the soul of philosophy.

The best introduction to Harrison's work is his own prologue to the volume Reality and Culture, an anthology of essays on his entire oeuvre, edited by Patricia Hanna (his co-author of the important Word and World, and a longtime colleague at the University of Utah). Here he outlines the root intuitions of the project that has occupied him his entire career. He acknowledges that it looks a bit curious, initially. His first two books were an odd couple indeed: the para-Wittgenstinian Form and Content -- a minor and unacknowledged classic of the philosophy of practice disguised as a very specialized investigation in the grammar of colors -- and Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones", which I'm tempted to describe as a display of unabashed enthusiasm for Fielding disguised as a canny excusrus in moral philosophy disguised as a "reading" of Fielding. Except there's no "disguise" involved here; at every step you know exactly what Harrision is about, because he tells you in advance, and reviews it patiently, in well-wrought prose and without any didacticism. He somehow manages to keep you reading as if he were surprising you at every step, all the while getting you to say, "Yes, yes, I see that. OK, right." As if you were the mark in a Socratic set-up -- but never feeling the barb of the ironist's scorn.

These two works, "as bizarrely different in ostensible topics as they must seem ... laid down the foundations" for what turned out to be Harrison's lifelong project. In Harrison's account, Fielding -- and by extension (an extension he went on to make himself) any other great literary artist -- shows you the force of an argument without actually arguing it. That is, in engaging with a novel, you find yourself shown things (human relationships, actions, and more importantly the valuations and grammar of these relationships) that are not expressly contended for. Harrison's point is that this "not expressly" is a feature, not a bug, and that it is essential not to the nature of the art ("indirection" or "brain-washing" or whatever) but to the realities in question. In short, Harrison was deploying the saying/showing distinction from early Wittgenstein in a very late-Wittgenstein sort of way.

Harrison's essay goes on to show the way these insights developed, how he wrestled with strong objections and how he extended the arguments through numerous other authors and milieu. His work in literary studies has since filled up two more books (Inconvenient Fictions and What is Fiction For?); these works show Harrison as very close to his teacher Iris Murdoch in how he sees the work of literature as not merely illustrative of a paraphrasable philosophy, but vital and irreplacable in its own right. Meanwhile his book with Hanna, Word and World, develops the argument in Form and Content into a full-blown reading of Wittgenstein (one he calls here "reading Wittgenstein for the arguments") and, far more importantly, an extensive engagement with questions of language, thought, practice, and the whole scope of what philosophy is and ought to be about.

Harrison's prologue to Reality and Culture also gives a flavor of what it was like to be in class with him, as by turns he raises an eyebrow at the reader, or thumps on the table, laughing aloud; also as into a philosophical argument he slips a joke or a historical observation or a biographical note. The biography in particular comes through here, because of the occasion (a prologue to a volume of essays honoring his whole career). But there is one aspect of his work that does not show up in this prologue, which I want to underscore. It is Harrison's engagement with Judaica and Judaism.

Harrison is, or was the last I talked with him, a gently skeptical agnostic on matters beyond the horizon of our temporal finitude, but he has been concerned with Judaism for his whole career, I think. He is an outspoken defender of Israel and a grave critic of those who would flirt with the line between criticism of Israel and an older, uglier and more deadly set of tropes. Harrision has engaged with anti-semitism several times (and this engagement is treated by some contributions to Reality and Culture); for my money the best example is his essay "Talking Like a Jew," again because of the biographical element. Harrison talks here about the esprit of Judaism in thinking and culture; he talks about antisemitism both of the cranky one-off kind and of the endemic and ruinous; and he tells, very movingly, the story of his own personal encounters with Jewish culture in the household of a childhood schoolmate, an encounter which clearly inspired a loyalty which has oriented Harrison through his life. The essay is both intellectually compelling and humanly moving, and not because it treats of all-too-easily manipulable occasions like the Shoah, though it is worth saying that it persuaded me once and for all that those who argue for the "uniqueness" of the Shoah among the horrible parade of human atrocities are not wrong (though they might be mis-motivated). Harrison's discussion of the death camps it is the only place I have ever encountered the word eldritch outside of Lovecraftiana, and it was the only time I understood it. In its interweaving of biography and argument (political and philosophical), "Talking Like a Jew" shows the way that reasoned but frankly partisan commitment emerges from the warp of rational reflection and the woof of personal life.

The essay takes its title from a moment in which Harrison, mistaken by Jewish tour-guide in Jerusalem for being Jewish himself, tries to disabuse his guide, only to be told: "Well, you talk like a Jew." And Harrison knows immediately what is meant, even if this impression is impossible to summarize more succinctly. What, exactly, is "Jewish" in Harrision's presentation of philosophy? I would venture: his enthusiastic returning to argument, his refusal of the pretensions of any single set of argumentative rubrics to give the secret of life; his willingness to look atrocity in the eye and not despair for the possibility of a good life. None of these are "uniquely Jewish," it will be (rightly) objected, of course, and so the question will remain, but it seems to me that Harrison's refusal to accept the verdict of "mere subjectivity" on human culture is precisely the fruit of his having engaged over and over with this Biblical inheritance; above all with the twin refusals of idolatry (worship of images) and paganism (worship of nature).

That would perhaps not be Harrison's way of putting it, but I know of no one who has more thoroughly internalized the way in which Wittgenstein's distinction between saying and showing recapitulates the Mosaic interdiction against graven images -- an insistence on theophany, not theology, as it were -- than he has. This kinship between Wittgenstein and the second commandment has been observed before. What is less frequently seen is the way in which this forbidding of idols -- i.e., the making and ultimate valuation (i.e., "worship") of human constructs, whether material or conceptual -- is entwined with another ban, on the ultimate valuation of "nature". It needs emphasis that this is not -- pace Nietzsche, and pace Fred Hagen -- the same as a devaluation of nature; it is a refusal of regarding nature as ultimate. There is a widespread assumption, rarely stated in so many words, human culture is a matter of distraction and illusion -- the Sellarsian "manifest image" turned though various societal permutations -- while "nature," by which is always meant non-human nature, is the "only reality." In all of his work, Harrison is at pains to point out, contest, and undermine this unexamined and all-too-frequent ostensible correlation between culture and "subjectivity". To him it seems plain that this is an absurd prejudice; culture, art, value, language, are as real as anything extra-linguistic, and non-human reality, while (in itself) unstructured conceptually is accessible by the senses, by cognition, and by contrivance. Harrison underscores that human meaning is grounded in the paradoxical way that Being "loves to hide," and that values are part of what it means to be the kind of creatures we are. There is nothing inescapably "unreal" about that!

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