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What is Philosophy?


David Mowry, my friend, mentor, and teacher passed away on April 23, 2019. The next day, I shared some reflections on both of our lives. Although I published it on this blog, that essay was mostly for my own benefit, a grief-stricken grab for the meaning of our relationship. This past Saturday, at his memorial service, I spoke for others, trying to describe the ineffable experience of being hist student. Please allow me the indulgence of sharing these more recent words as well.

David N. Mowry died at the age of 78, a retired SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and the founding director of his university’s honors program at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. He was survived by his wife, Ruth, his daughter, Melissa, his grandchildren, Helen and Alex, and his broth Olin. An obituary can be found here

I really wasn’t sure what I had to contribute today. I have spent so much time thinking, talking, and writing about David’s death, that I was convinced my reflections had run their course. Not surprisingly, it was Ruth who taught me I had more. In a note to me about this service she wrote, “I remember him saying after his first philosophy class, ‘there ARE other people in the world like me.’” It never occurred to me to think about young David, looking around someone else’s college classroom, finding his people, and feeling at home.

A philosopher’s first experience with philosophy is both an exhale and in inhale. The former is a release from uncertainty, a confirmation that one belongs in the world. It is the expulsion of a particular strain of anxiety that follows devotees as they grow into what used to be called the age of reason.

The latter, the inhale, is full of expectation. It is the internalization of a promise, and, for many, the beginning of a commitment. Plato accurately described this experience as erotic. It is a desire for intimate connections with interlocutors, with ideas, and with Truth.

David would have carried the memory of this breath every day of his life. He would have known that each philosophy class caters to two different audiences. The first is made up of students who will have one brief encounter with philosophy then move on to other things. To them, David would have owed as full an experience as possible. He would have offered them the chance to participate in a grand tradition that has moved humanity forward, even while its great masses were distracted by other things. David would have understood that the Introduction to Philosophy class is the professor’s sacred trust, even in the face of reticent and resentful pupils. A good teacher knows that reciprocation is an ideal, not an expectation.

The second audience would be the students for whom philosophy is a revelation, something that they suspected existed but didn’t have the right word for. This activity, this feeling, this way of being…it has a name! This is what I suspect David referred to when he told Ruth that there were people like him, and this is what he would have been able to detect in his charges, often before they admitted it to themselves.

David mowry programThese students, he would attend to and usher forward until they got to their own crossroads and decided how far they were willing to walk with him. There would be students like Owen, who is here now, for whom philosophy would be a shadow that follows him throughout his life, and Steven who will play music for us, for whom it will always be the path not taken. And there would be a few students like me, and like Donna and Jacques, neither of whom could be here today, who would make it their vocation, who would accept that in some profound way, philosophy chose them, not the other way around.

I have asked myself repeatedly what it was that made David’s courses so powerful. His pedagogy was not special. His texts were not radical. There was nothing edgy about his teaching persona. If David ever strove to be hip or “with it,” he hid that very very well.

His bigger classes vacillated between easy-going lecture and Oprah-style call and response. His seminars certainly aimed for true discussion, but David, like all of us, usually spoke too much, and the students’ engagement with each other were more like scrimmages than endurance events. I have individual memories that I am happy to share, but to the outside observer, these sessions would just be classes. Good classes with engaged, committed, and sometimes, even, prepared students, but just classes nonetheless.

What David brought to the table was unchallengeable moral authority. When he engaged his students, there was no question that he was right where he was supposed to be. Maybe it was his low center of gravity, but whether in a classroom, at a seminar table, in his office, or strolling around Hawkins pond, David felt sturdy, an edifice upon which to light. He wasn’t a guidepost or a way station. He was neither a resting place for the weary, a guru, nor a zealot. He was a natural part of the landscape. You would have to be ecologically- not cosmologically-minded to wonder why he was there. He just was and that gave students the permission to take him at his word and do with his presence what they would.

David’s moral authority came from his authenticity, an authenticity coextensive with student advocacy. There was never any sense that he asked questions from some script or that the hierarchy of the classroom relegated anyone to second-class citizenship. David made his students his peers and colleagues, even as he nudged them in the direction he demanded they go.

maxresdefaultI still have, to this day, a deep distrust and dislike—no, that’s not right. What I had then and still have now, is a bitter and primitive contempt for authority, an unabating hostility to those with power over me, or who deem themselves in some way my superior. But I gave myself entirely to David’s teaching, long before I understood it’s meaning in my life. I made it a part of my self-image without any anticipation of what it would do for me.

How aware David was of this power, I don’t know. Most of the people here are more qualified to address that than I. Students are selfish. They want their teachers’ gaze when they are in need and their averted eyes when it is convenient. I never sought David’s perspective when I was with him. I wanted his approval and for him to know how grateful I was.

As I grew into my own career, David’s game plan became more transparent to me. Remember that crossroads? David became unsatisfied with where it was and the number of students who would share philosophy with him. So, he intercepted them earlier, not with philosophy classes, but with Honors seminars, and a study lounge, and volunteer opportunities, and he created a community of interdisciplinary learners to engage with, to guide and expound to, to share his sturdiness with, and to nudge further down the road. Folks like Amanda, Ashley, Cindy, Doug, Haagen, Justin, Preeti, and Tim, all who are here today.

But this, this was deception. Underneath his deep respect for other disciplines, interwoven with his faculty colleagues’ explorations, shaded from the brightness of his love of learning and teaching, David used the face of honors education to open the gates of philosophy to students and teachers who had their own commitments to serve. The honors program was guerrilla philosophy. His tiny office, shared by his secretaries, was his beachhead, and before long, that program went from rebel to empire. Professor David Mowry was a curricular imperialist.

But like all things teaching, David made no attempt to hide this. A transparent deception may feel like an oxymoron, but that’s what it was. Everyone knew what he was doing and each reacted in their own way. Some were jealous, some were resentful, but the good ones, the best ones, wanted to be a part of it. It was exciting, and promising, and flexible, and an embracing of a holistic conception of the liberal-arts that is disappearing from universities under cultural pressures and professionalized career administrators. David’s honors program was a kind of teaching which is not long for this world because it was radical and conservative at the same time, simultaneously backward and forward looking. That was David’s hipster legacy. He was retro.

I was asked by Ruth and Melissa to speak today as a representative of philosophy and his students. It is one of the greatest honors I have ever been given, but I cannot do his legacy justice. Only his own words can do that. The last thing David ever said to me was also the most gut-wrenching. As I walked out of his house almost a year ago today, he looked me straight in the eye and remarked, “some relationships never end.” It was the closest he ever came to saying “goodbye” and I know why he wouldn’t use that word. Because for thousands and thousands of students, David may be gone, but he still walks us through that crossroad, as our friend, as our equal, and as our teacher.

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