Saturday, May 16, 2015

Unleaving Philosophy

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these famous lines: "Margaret, are you grieving/ over Goldengrove unleaving?" As the poem is titled "Spring and Fall," it's clear, or as clear as anything ever is in a poem, that Hopkins is referring to trees shedding their golden and crimson foliage in the autumn. But I've always thought of "unleaving" as undoing a leaving, reversing a departure, coming back again to what you thought you had left forever.

In my life, it's the academic field of philosophy that I've left, and unleft, and left, and unleft, and left, and am now once again on the brink of unleaving.

I tried to leave philosophy partway through my first year of graduate study at Princeton. I was overwhelmed, out of my depth, surrounded by the smartest people I had ever met in my life, people who had come to the Ph.D. program at Princeton with M.A. degrees from Berkeley and B. Phil degrees from Oxford already in hand. I returned all my books to the bookstore. I waited in line to tell the graduate adviser that I was withdrawing from the program. But the line outside her office that day was long - maybe many of us were having first-year terrors - so I wandered back to my room in the Grad College. And then I re-bought all my books from the bookstore and didn't leave philosophy after all.

Two years later, when I had just completed my "generals," comprehensive oral exams in the subject matter of my proposed dissertation - which in my case had to do with philosophy of time (!) and why the future is different from the past (!) - I happened to see in the Sunday New York Times an ad for an entry-level editorial secretary position at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. I applied for it, was offered the position, and withdrew from philosophy, this time more successfully. Or more successfully, for a while. Eighteen months later a chance encounter with an old philosophy professor from my undergraduate days led to my being offered, and accepting, a position editing philosophical publications at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Several years into that position, I left philosophy again, deciding I wanted to try my luck as a full-time children's book writer. I quit my job with the plan of moving to the town of Opportunity, Washington, chosen only on the basis of its name. The Institute advertised for my replacement. But then the replacement turned out to be . . . me, unable to make good on my severance plan, after all. So back again in philosophy, I ended up finishing my Princeton dissertation, that is to say, starting an entirely new dissertation, this time on the much more (for me) manageable topic of a philosophical analysis of the concept of coercion. I finished the Ph.D. a few years later and ended up teaching philosophy for two decades at the University of Colorado.

There I almost left philosophy on the eve of my tenure decision. I just couldn't bear the process of being subjected to that kind of intense, scathing scrutiny by my colleagues. But I forced myself to continue. I was back in philosophy for good.

Until I took early retirement last May. I was so done with philosophy this time that I gave away 90 percent of my books, confident I would never need them again. I was going to be a full-time children's book writer at last! But a few months into "retirement," I came to DePauw for a visit, and fell in love with academia again, which also meant falling in love with philosophy again. I wangled myself another visiting position which had me teaching Rousseau this spring, greatly enjoying the Young Philosophers series organized by Prindle director Andy Cullison, and giving a philosophy talk this past week at the Poynter Center at Indiana University. The talk went so well, in my humble opinion, that I came home all aglow: "I do like philosophy, I do, I do!"

And now I'm negotiating an opportunity to teach at DePauw on a semi-regular basis, perhaps a semester each year, dividing my time between teaching philosophy, children's literature, and possible courses in the Honors Scholar program. I've unleft philosophy yet again.

Claudia, are you grieving over philosophy unleaving? No, I'm not. I may leave it again, and come back to it again, and then leave it, and then return, but that's all right. Life has its seasons, of leaving and unleaving. Right this minute that's fine with me.


  1. Claudia, I did not know that you have studied philosophy of time! Do you have any thoughts on how time is handled differently in quantum field theory and general relativity? We are trying to understand this at work, because we want to know how quantum effects limit our ability to make high accuracy clocks.

    You don't say this explicitly, but your accounts of leaving and unleaving philosophy sound like most of the leavings are caused by a culture of competitiveness and intimidation in academic philosophy. (Do you agree?) I am impressed that your love of wisdom brings you back in spite of that culture. I am glad that DePauw's culture is more welcoming and supportive. Wouldn't it be great if all philosophy departments were like that?

    Have you ever heard of the Partially Examined Life? It is a "philosophy podcast by some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it." -- some guys who unleaft. I love it! Their recent episodes on Ricoeur on Interpreting Religion and Jesus’s Parables were especially good.

    1. Scott, my knowledge of philosophy of time was pitiful even at the time and all but vanished now. That was part of the problem for me: that I had stumbled onto a dissertation topic outside of any area in which I had a real chance of success. I was focused at the time more on medieval philosophers of religion who were pondering a lot of puzzles about God's foreknowledge and how it creates problems both for human freedom and for our understanding of time.

      Yes, the culture of competitiveness and intimidation in academic philosophy played a huge role in my repeated departures. My little slogan for DePauw just happens to be: "Intellectual stimulation without intimidation."

      I don't know that podcast but I will look for it!