Monday, March 19, 2007

On Being There

One of the classes I teach this semester is at the graduate level. This makes the class both challenging and fun. Although there is a good dose of philosophy in the class, there is also a certain amount of history. This is because it is a class designed for a fairly interdisciplinary program, that is just beginning to get firmly established.

Almost any discipline has some kind of basic creation myth. For example, in philosophy everything was supposed to have started with Thales of Miletus. According to the standardly told tale, philosophy was supposed to have begun on the 25th of May 585 BCE, when Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse.

Naturally, such stories should be treated with some caution, not least due to the vastly improbably precision of the date. Indeed, according to people who know about such stuff (I am not too much of a scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy), the current thinking is that Thales may never have actually existed. Oh well.

This new discipline that I am involved in, is still in the process of working out their own creation myths. This process is complicated in part, due to the fact that the discipline is made up of an unholy alliance of sub-parts of a range of other disciplines. That is to say, the story is complicated and is still being written.

However, what is quite fun is when we get to allegedly important moments in the history, where I was actually present. It is also interesting when the myths involves people I know, or have met. Today we covered some material that was of these kinds.

It is funny how things turns out. Many years ago when I was in graduate school, it was deemed important by those in the know that I manage to attend certain events. Fortunately, there was also funding available which made going possible. Because of these lucky circumstances, I was able to witness certain, now classic battles, between various titans of the field. I was also able to have the chance and sit down with a number of important figures and ask questions. With still others, I was able to engage in e-mail dialogues.

This was all a while ago. Although much of the excitement in the field is still there, some of the early major figures are no longer actively participating in the field, either due to death, or ill health. Today, while I was teaching I was able to recount anecdotes about how these people saw their work. I was also able to debunk some of the standard myths that have grown up, as is inevitable.

One of the papers we read today is now an absolute classic, that regularly appears in collections of important papers. Both authors are now dead. However, there is a certain puzzle about this paper. One of the authors wrote a later paper in which he made certain additional claims. The other author then wrote a paper that appeared to contradict these claims. This always puzzled me.

A few years ago, when the first author had died, but the second was still very much alive, I was able to ask him about the apparent discrepancy. His explanation was a bit of a disappointment. He noted that the two of them did not discuss the topic too much and that their views must have drifted apart. Although the answer lacked a certain color and drama, it was at least the man's own view, based upon his recollection of the times and the events. I was fortunate to be able to ask these questions, as that gentleman too is now dead.

The point I wish to emphasize here though is the very living nature of the history we all have around us. I had a bit of good luck, being in the right place at the right time. I am able to pass the insights that I gained from these experiences to my graduate students. I hope that in turn, when they graduate, they will be able to pass these insight on to their students, in conjunction with the insights of their own. It is situations such as this which make being a professor a wonderful job.

The CP

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