James South is Professor of Philosophy, Associate Dean for Faculty in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University, and Director of its Center for the Advancement of Humanities. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Duke University in 1995, working under the supervision of Edward P. Mahoney, and has been at Marquette University since August 1995.
What excites you about philosophy?
I’ve been excited by philosophy for so long, that this turns out to be a really difficult question. As a historian of philosophy, I like to find new and unexpected links between philosophers or show more clearly how their arguments work. As a philosopher, what excites me are the uniquely contemporary circumstances in which we find ourselves. How to make sense of this experience of the contemporary, using both past and present thinkers as well as my own thought (“thinking without a banister,” as Arendt put it) presents a series of fascinating questions. The evolving notions of classic topics is a good example—epistemic violence, standpoint epistemology, critical race theory, the varieties of feminist thought, and the way we think about our treatment of animals.
At root this excitement is the response that I have to a text or conversation when I feel it calls for a response from me or leaves me unable to formulate a response, what Cora Diamond refers to as “the difficulty of reality.” Not all philosophical texts do that, of course, nor do all conversations, and I’ve read my share of texts and engaged in conversations that called for no response because they didn’t hit a mark of some sort that called for a response from me. But experience has these dimensions. This has often left me puzzled.
Stanley Cavell writes somewhere “In their response to reason, philosophers may not know why one guise of reason has come to attract them more than another to a life’s work.” I think of that quotation and its use of the word “guise” with all its many meanings, among which the OED tells me are “manner, method, way; fashion, style.” My guise of reason has become more capacious as I have become more mature as a thinker. I’m more willing to expand the circle of people who influence me intellectually, the topics I want to think about, and about whom I want to reach in my writing.
Doing history of philosophy is rewarding—the sense one has of getting an interpretation of text right. But it also requires a guise of reason from which increasingly I am moving away. So, when I write about popular culture, as it is often dismissively called, I worry over how to do so. It’s presented me with a new guise of reason, as it were, one in which not only philosophy, but questions of style, allusion, appropriation of past instances, and my own autobiography play a role. I think Cavell’s comment is one that is impossible to answer from inside philosophy as a discipline, and that has led me to question the neglect (if not near banishment) by philosophy of psychoanalytic thought over the last one hundred years. And in exploring psychoanalytic thought, I have arrived at a minimal understanding about my “guise of reason.” I think, that is, that I have come to understand a bit better what Terrence meant when he had one of his characters say,
I am a human being, and nothing that concerns a human being do I deem a matter of indifference to me.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
I am proud that I have been a strong voice for diversity and inclusion in the profession, have worked to expand the boundaries of philosophy, and for supporting and advocating the need for philosophy written for a broader public.
What is your favorite sound in the world?
This one is easy: the slam of the snare drum at the beginning of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” That is the sound of anger, of the sense of starting something new, of registering a unique voice. And, of course, what is so fascinating about it is that it might never have happened. There were twenty takes to that song, but it happened on the fourth take of the second day of recording it and Dylan and his musicians recorded the song eleven more times that day. Of that take and the song, Greil Marcus, whose writings I have expanded into my circle of what counts as philosophy, writes: “Like a Rolling Stone” is a triumph of craft, inspiration, will, and intent; regardless of all those things, it was also an accident.”
As a philosopher, I want to think that there is something very profound going on here. All those takes—all botched except for the one that we now experience as definitive, and yet it was an accident. So much of our life and thought has that mix of accident and necessity after the fact. I ask myself if that is, in the end, the root of philosophical experience: an accident that accrues from all that “craft, inspiration, will, and intent” that might or might not pay off. In “Nature,” Emerson notes that,
The motion of the earth round its axis, and round the sun, makes the day, and the year. These are certain amounts of brute light and heat. But is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?
If, as I increasingly think, this lesson from Dylan demonstrates, there is an analogy, between our lives and the seasons and that there is some intent there, we are going to find it from the human side. In her writings about animals and ethics, Cora Diamond repeatedly challenges us to recognize the distinctiveness of human, as figured in Wittgenstein’s claim that if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand. There is no sense to what happened on take four, but what we received was intentional, as Marcus points out. The lesson I’m drawing from my favorite sound, then, is that how we distinguish between the accidental and the intentional is a serious philosophical question that we rarely think about. And maybe that because we do not ask enough: “How does it feel?”
What’s your personal philosophy?
To borrow from The Big Lebowski, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” I don’t know what it would mean to have a personal philosophy short of trying to write a book that might express it. I do have, though, fundamental starting points in how I think. I am, more rather than less an ordinary language philosopher. The influence of Stanley Cavell, which came midway through my career is profound. I always have in mind the words of one of his essays.
We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of book of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls “forms of life.” Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying.
John McDowell glosses that vision of learning and teaching as producing a kind of
vertigo induced by the thought that there is nothing but shared forms of life to keep us, as it were, on the rails. We are inclined to think that [this] is an insufficient foundation…
But that is the foundation on which I stand and think about the world and my place in it, and it orients my thinking.
I supplement that outlook with what I take are some key insights from Freud and psychoanalytic thought. As Eli Zaretsky has nicely phrased it,
each individual has an inner world that is, in good part, not only unconscious but repressed … when we speak of the unique value of the individual, it is the concrete, particular, and contingent individual, not an abstract locus of rights and reason…
Anytime, then, I think about a philosophical problem, I try to keep these themes in mind. If anything constitutes a personal philosophy, that is it for me, but as the Zaretsky quote makes clear, I don’t fully know my inner world, which means any answer I arrive at it provisional as I continue to work towards some sort of personal autonomy in relation with others.
What is your favorite holiday and why?
May Day. I’m assuming anyone who sees this answer will know why.
What do you like to do outside work?
I read a lot of fiction, both classic and contemporary. I believe that more philosophers should engage with the complexities of fiction than I fear happens. Reading a novel for me is an act that makes a claim on me to respond to it and increases my imagination, which in turn, makes me a better teacher and philosopher—or so I hope. Adam Phillips writes that when he started psychoanalytic training, he was fortunate to have read Tristram Shandy because that made him a better analyst. I would recommend the same to any philosopher. The key, of course, is not to compartmentalize, but let those sentences merge with all the philosophical sentences you’ve read.
What are your favorite books of all time? Why?
My top three, in no particular order: John le Carré’s trilogy of George Smiley novels, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, and Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net. All three take on big ideas, flesh out characters minutely, show the inevitability of story in making sense of our lives along with the dangers inherent in such stories, and confront us with our inevitable mortality. The Smiley trilogy goes a long way in explaining the inner psychology of a human being, the remorselessness with which some people will act, the way friends betray us, and how we never can know another or even ourselves, unless we drape that knowledge under abstract ideas. Hogfather is about the importance of stories and the human need to make meaning in the world, as well as the way in which we need to take nature seriously. Under the Net is about the way that taking abstractions seriously will lead us to make a series of bad choices and cause us to fail to develop any kind of self-knowledge. I would recommend these books to everyone.
What are you reading right now? Would you recommend it?
I just finished Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913. I would recommend it very highly. I learned more about American labor movement, the violence perpetrated on American Indians, the failure of organized labor in the U.S. and the pernicious tentacles of corporations than I could have expected. It is a book that any philosopher could read for insight into the present circumstances in the U.S. from which philosophy needs to proceed.
Which books have changed your life? In what ways?
Actually, I’m going to be a bit perverse and mention articles: Richard Rorty’s “The Contingency of Selfhood,” Stanley Cavell’s “The Thought of Movies,” Cora Diamond’s “The Importance of Being Human,” and Kristie Dotson’s “Epistemic Violence: Tracking Practices of Silence.” All these pieces were revelatory when I read them, shaking me out of preconceptions and prejudices of what philosophy is and can be, reorienting my thought. Rorty’s piece, which I have read and taught multiple times, helped me to think seriously about Freud, Cavell’s essay opened avenues for tracking my own experience and passions, Diamond’s essay made me think about animals and our treatment of them in new ways, and Dotson helped give me a vocabulary for everyday practices that I had witnessed in the profession. I think one key continuity between these essays is that they are intended to have practical effects on the reader and I take that to me a model for the philosophy I care about.
What’s your most treasured memory?
This one is a bit embarrassing, I guess, but I recall a summer evening in the deep south when I was teenager, sitting under a tree as the sun began to set, drinking some sherry I’d snuck out of the house, reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and experiencing that moment as incredibly fulfilling and peaceful, knowing then that I wanted a life where reading and ideas were central to it. I recall that vividly, and probably inaccurately, often because I treasure so many lines from that novel, especially:
In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Week-ends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in book. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
As I look back over my life, I think very few observations characterize my own experience: I’ve read about people who “treasure memorable moments,” but for me, memories of movies, television, and music are central to my life. One example: the incredible look on the face of Walter Matthau when he hears the Martin Balsam sneeze at the end of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. That’s a look that bears remembering.
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
I suppose that I am old fashioned in thinking of myself as a philosopher by vocation, not as a day job. So, my aspiration is to continue to develop as a philosopher. I am currently pursuing a M.S. degree in clinical psychology and am also an academic candidate at a psychoanalytic institute. My aspiration is to learn more about human nature and the insights psychology/psychoanalysis can provide. I hope to retire at a reasonable age and become a professional counselor, where my goal, as Freud so memorably put it, would be to “transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”
What’s your favorite quote?
Here’s my life, why not, it is one, if you like, if you must, I don’t say no, this evening. There has to be one, it seems, once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.
Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing
What’s your poison?
Jack Daniels, two ice cubes, and a splash of soda. If it was good enough for Frank Sinatra, it’s good enough for me. I enjoy a good Islay scotch with one ice cube, too.
What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?
Don’t be afraid to co-author work with others. My experience suggests that philosophers typically take themselves to be thinkers who write single-authored papers and books. Collaborating with someone else on a project can be an extraordinarily rewarding practice. I do not mean something like co-editing, but rather co-authoring. The back and forth between two philosophers (or a philosopher and someone from another discipline) can be intellectually challenging and, at least from my attempts to do this, it has led to better papers than I would have written by myself. I realize that for promotion and tenure, colleagues are going to want to see papers that are single-authored, but I would humbly suggest that start to change. Certainly, by the time one has tenure, there is no reason not to do put your own thoughts in front of someone else and enjoy the conversation (and tensions) that develop.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
I think there are two pieces of advice that I did not get in my Ph.D. program. First, it would have been very useful to have been told to read some “continental” philosophy. Luckily, I landed at a department very strong in the continental tradition and have developed an appreciation of it I would never have expected based on my Ph.D. program. Second, I wish someone had told me that “you’re not your AOS.” For years, I felt constricted by my AOS and thought publishing outside it would be taken badly (as, indeed, some of my colleagues do), but I have found it wonderfully fulfilling to spend time with work outside my AOS and to publish work that is not in my trained AOS. So, I guess I’m saying I wish someone had told me that were pleasures and professional accomplishments that could occur by reading and writing about whatever I take to be interesting.
Find out more about James here!
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