In China

A quick note to let you know that I am making a grand tour through China right now, and I have only very limited access to the blog.  I am off the mainland for the next 24 hours or so, and access seems to be smooth from here.  But for whatever reason I couldn’t get to the site while in China proper.

I can report that one of the talks I gave on the mainland two days ago was on the topic General Education in America.  It was an extraordinary experience.  Well over a thousand students crowded the aisles and spilled out through the doorways to hear the talk.  The fervor in the room was palpable, and during the question period a number of students asked serious and heartfelt questions or else made angry and impassioned speeches.  Some of the most impassioned speeches I couldn’t understand, since they drifted in and out of Chinese.  But I gather that they were not acceptable, because eventually the party official monitoring the event closed it down.  The moment that happened I was immediately mobbed by students asking for autographs.  I can honestly say that never in my life have I been mobbed by anyone asking for my autograph.  But I was shuttled out by the official before I could sign very many.

I’ll try to write more about the event if I can.  But suffice it to say that it made a very big impression on me.  If I can find a way I will post a draft of the speech that I spoke from.  (Update:  Please click here for a PDF copy.)  In the meantime, thanks for the fantastic discussion on the previous thread.  I can usually read the comments because they are e-mailed to me, even when I can’t get to the site.  Please keep them coming.  They are sustaining me here.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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11 Responses to In China

  1. dmf says:

    glad to hear that you are being well met in China, while I share many of your concerns about the lack of depth/meaning in higher ed. I don’t share your belief in our having a “culture” here in the States let alone something like common traditions (Stephen Turner’s Social Theory of Practices might be helpful here). I do think that we can become aware of how much of what we take for granted comes via the efforts of others (including other generations) and that there are many resources/ways available to us outside of our familial impresses.
    Such broader issues aside I don’t see how higher ed. as currently constituted can provide the kinds of experiences, through commitments/relationships, needed to foster substantial styles of care. There is just too little time, too little respect, and not enough of a possibility for true mentoring within the formal system. Plus for students to be equipped for such encounters I think that we would need John Dewey style (Naoko Saito has some interesting thoughts along these lines) reforms for the education of kids, perhaps even going as far back as pre-k. safe travels.

  2. Charlie says:

    Lots of food for thought in the interesting speech. First, with respect to combating nihilism, a brief anecdote. Some 30 years ago now my Philosophy professor made a case that the discipline was not an anachronism. He said that people wrestle with the “grand questions” all the time, and need to appreciate that some of the best minds in history have already made some progress on these problems. Enlightening our modern world and improving the dialogue is nothing other than “general” education…the “outdated” liberal arts.

    Your poetry example is a different expansion of the sensibility. I would not be so presumptuous as to lecture this erudite crew and esteemed blogger about the phenomenology of poetry, but it similarly exercises our capacity to experience.

    Getting more to the point on the question of the value of general education, the blog immediately brought Spinoza to mind, as in the broadest sense his definition of virtue and love of god/nature is the logical extreme. A more concrete example would be a loosely weaved strain of thought made by several other thinkers: transcending sensation under the misunderstood (or at least quoted) Epicurus, the aestheticism of Schopenhauer to rise above the “worst of all possible worlds”, and – are you noting a trend – Nietzsche’s forceful and nuanced case for human excellence with the emphasis on culture and learning.

    • dmf says:

      Self-discipline is as viable as ever but not so sure about the shelf life of the “great” questions/Concepts post structuralism. How do we move students from studying philosophy as merely a mode of reading comprehension, or history of ideas, to practicing thinking thru the difficulties/possibilities at hand? Paul Rabinow is working on an anthropology of the contemporary which shows promise or perhaps folks here would prefer a Gay science?

      • Charlie says:

        Dmf, thanks so much for this post. I’m about as modern as American Transcendentalists, so I appreciate being brought up to speed with the likes of Avital Ronell. I finally had a chance to listen to the whole lecture and enjoyed the rich rendering of the Gay science. Nietzsche’s critique of science is ultimately praise (similar to his ambivalence – obsession? – toward Socrates or critique of Spinoza or, to a lesser extent, Schopenhauer). My few observations:

        I would add one element to the case for, first, audit, and then experimentalism: historicity as part of the dynamic vision for science. Although the critique of ahistorical philosophy is more prominent I think contextual exposition (e.g. philology, physiological determinism) is foundational to the debunking process.

        I also subscribe to her view that the aphoristic construct is a reflection of the hypothesis for testing. Rejection as a pillar of truth. The abundance of style in Zarathustra is an experiment. It warmed my heart to hear her describe the Gay science as Dyonisian, as fictionalization. That exerimentalismf is part of a becoming and there is space for the unknowable. It is, of course, a creating – a broader view of Kuhn’s scientific revolutions.

        To pick one bone of contention, I think she crosses the apologist line in suggesting that Christianity was co-opted for the moral triumph of truth. I don’t see the intellectual rigor of Christianity turning on itself. This is the provocative tension with Nietzsche’s aristocracy. Either/or, if you will. She tried, or at least alluded to the fact that the Gay science could be put to democratic ends. I think that’s strained.

        I would prefer to stop with her excellent conclusion that the primary lesson is to push the limits of consensus. That incorrect questions can at least promote democracy

      • dmf says:

        Charlie, glad you liked it, her book on the Test Drive is quite good and gets into some of the questions you raised, I share your (and Rorty’s, you might read Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity ) concern for the tendency to confuse the history of Ideas for the unfolding histories of our planet (this is why I don’t take too much stock in Concepts or Epochs or such except as causes for reflection).
        somewhere on this blog I think I put a link to an interview with Lysaker on his update of Emerson/self-perfection that you may enjoy. For someone doing work more directly with literal experiments check out Paul Rabinow:

  3. Lian Chang says:

    Wow. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the event.

  4. dmf says:

    for charlie and perhaps some inquiring minds from farther East:

    Click to access paradigm3.pdf

    • Charlie says:

      Dmf, thanks for more ideas. In fact, I went to the basement to dust off Rorty. Please excuse a few glib thoughts before I dive in fully.

      First, I don’t see how pragmatism bridges any Platonic/Positivist gap by leveling truth. I think agnostic philosophy is viable but has no epistemic standing. It’s also boring. The most interesting Philosophy is moral. To throw out a few new names so I don’ t repeat myself: Aurelius, Pascal, Hegel, and the Existentialists. Philosophy started with critical thinking and the physical world (Heraclites) but quickly turned to advocacy and is in the modern public domain because of Greek ethics.

      I don’t think Philosophy is viable as merely a method or process. I would like to think it’s more than the mother hen of science.

      Second, having recently read Della Rocca’s Spinoza, I think trivializing truth is incomplete. It may be irrelevant, but that’s because it’s necessary. Causation is intelligibility.

      But I need to re-read more, and get Sean’s book which apparently is now available. Thanks for all the information

  5. Joseph Rees says:

    This is very interesting! What I have always found intriguing about the philosophy of General Education is how it informs the way we think about liberal democracy. Divided from one angle into basically two camps–minimalist liberals who trumpet the “procedural republic” as a way of preventing harm ultimately divorced of any substantive conception of the good life, and teleological comprehensive liberals who champion a thick conception of autonomy which, far more than the capacity to simply choose between options, is a substantive picture of a truly free individual which requires cultivation by the family and community–both, in my experience, voice the essential need for comprehensive general education for their conception of democracy to run properly. But if, as I think you have shown here brilliantly, General Education programs are not simply concerned with providing students with the empirical database to make informed, intelligent decisions, but are more profoundly concerned to cultivate a deep sense of historical situatedness meaningfullness, and life purpose, then that gives us, I think, a pretty strong indication of the latent teleological conception of autonomy at work in most of our democratic sentiments and commitments.

  6. Charles Spinosa says:

    In case you have not heard, Amazon wrote me to say that _All Things Shining_ has been shipped. That’s great news. Happy New Year to all!

  7. Paul says:

    Sean, I very much enjoyed reading the speech. In your post, you mention that it was a lively Q&A session. I am curious: what were some of the questions? What were the impassioned and angry speeches?

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