Cavell as Educator

July 5, 2011

“To poor students”


What can I profess? The age of new doctrines has closed.

The role of a professor may be to confess to what is already known. Thus one professes an established faith, as an adherent. But to what, or whom, could I cling? Is there any single thing, learned in school, that you can stick to for a lifetime?

The professor of philosophy stands at the junction of two worlds: the original and the rote. Emerson teased the scholar, calling him a divided philosopher. Impartial, but reduced thereby to part and halfway commitments. The scholar borrows plumage, a “parrot” of his betters. “The boy is not attracted. He says, I do not wish to be such a kind of man as my professor is.”1 Or such a bird. Thoreau put in, fatefully, in 1854: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.”2

At least Thoreau was a little encouraging. Professing, on his admonition, partway reclaims, at least recalls, what it formerly was to live. Life glows on one side of a chasm. And philosophy, curiously, shines from that same side, across from wherever we’re stuck.

But if philosophy and life are opposite to us, it still isn’t obvious what is on our side, or where we are. How do you name our entanglement in an unlived life? How could to live, in better, bygone times, ever have meant to live as a philosopher?

Nearly every great philosopher in the era of the university has said somewhere that there is no such thing as education in schools. Nearly every one of these, too, taught or lectured (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, James, Arendt), or was entangled as far as to have learned from a university, in its lecture halls and library, what philosophy would be.3 The terminal degree the modern university grants every Ph.D. recipient declares him or her a doctor of philosophy. As compensation, novice teachers of philosophy help themselves early to the ultimate title of their profession, and any young professional in a department of philosophy calls himself or herself, nowadays, a philosopher. Even graduate students try on the honor. To others in the university, this can seem like a presumption, unless they are putting on others’ coats themselves. Only lay readers, outside the university, of Plato, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, know it to be a sin and a betrayal, as the occupation of an unearned office.

  1. Emerson, “Beauty,” The Conduct of Life

  2. Thoreau, Walden

  3. Nietzsche was a professor at Basel, Heidegger at Freiburg, Hegel at Jena, James at Harvard, Wittgenstein at Cambridge, Arendt at the New School. Thoreau early in life taught school with his brother, but otherwise returned to Harvard only for its library. Of the two main figures at the late edge of a pre-university moment in two peripheral countries, Emerson became a star of the American lecture circuit; Kierkegaard went to Berlin to see Schelling teach but defended his dissertation (The Concept of Irony) in Denmark and published independently. Both retained the marks of their nations’ premodern institution of ideas, the Church. 

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