Friday, December 17, 2010

Dialogical Combobulation

We've been conducting interviews for an open position in our department and Kerry has been asking the candidates how their scholarship relates to their teaching. You can't go through the process and not think about how you would answer the questions if you were being interviewed. So, I've been thinking about the odd nature of this job.

You'd think it would be continuous. I sit in my office philosophizing and then go into the classroom and show the students how I do it, training them in the steps, so they can do it too. But it doesn't work like that. In fact, the doing philosophy and teaching philosophy are in a certain sense opposite tasks.

The job of a good philosophy instructor is to problematize. Students come in naively smug about their beliefs which they've never thought very hard about. This sort of simplistic certainty is inimical to the entire philosophical project, so it is the work of the philosophy instructor to disturb it. Every philosopher you will ever talk to will claim to use the "Socratic method," but what we really take from Socrates is his goal of being the gadfly. The one thing we want students to see is that no matter the view they came in with, you can assert the proposition "It's more complicated than that." When it happens several times in a row -- if you are doing it right -- it causes a crisis, students become completely discombobulated. It is an uncomfortable place and there is the ever-present fear that the reaction will be "Well, then there is no answer and it's just whatever you think it is."

But this is wrong. Being discombobulated is the starting point, not the end. The act of philosophizing is taking the problem and making sense of it, pulling insight out of it, restoring in a deep and subtle way an understanding of what really is true. Philosophy is the process by which we stop being discombobulated and resume in a more sophisticated way being combobulated. But recombobulation is a difficult task. It is really, really hard to do.

We assign names to views that make significant strides in the recombobulization -- Kantian ethics, Platonic realism, Cartesian skepticism -- and this gives the false appearance that it is something atomic individuals do on their own. When I am being a philosopher, I sit in front of my computer and combobulate myself. We attribute authorship to articles and books because they announce individual efforts leading to combobulation on some topic or another and by reading them in your study, you too may follow this path to combobulation.

But it doesn't work that way. Combobulation is a communal process. It takes interaction with other minds. It is the result of hard work undertaken jointly by all of the members of discourse communities. It takes cooperative and competitive conversations where we build on each others ideas, synthesize each others ideas, and challenge each others ideas. It is why we have conferences where we leave our families for a period time, converge on some city or other and spend entire days together giving and responding to papers, taking part in panel discussions, and then having a nice meal together at a Thai restaurant, and going back to have a couple beers in the hotel bar so that we can combobulate each other.

It takes a group to reach any sense of combobulation. You do it through interaction, through dialogue. That is why doing and teaching philosophy are so different. Where teaching philosophy is the art of discombobulation, doing it is an act of dialogical combobulation.

It's probably a good thing I already have the job...