As a philosophy professor at Tufts University, what do you think is the hardest aspect of your subject to teach to the students?
Patience. That’s the hardest thing to teach. That’s the hardest thing to learn too. Philosophical problems are difficult. They’re difficult in the sense that none of the easy answers work. By “easy answers” I mean the sorts of answers that really smart people come up with between half an hour and half a lifetime of thinking about them. It’s really tempting to try to undercut these problems with some offhand glibness; but if you take your time you learn to appreciate what it is about philosophical problems that make them so resistant to quick moves and cheap shots. Why some of them have lasted a thousand years or so without being solved.
Can you explain how anyone can find relations between philosophy and another subject (e.g. math, science, language or logic)?
It’s not so much that there are relations between philosophy and other subject areas; it’s that thinking about those subject areas (or how we do what we do in those subject areas) gives rise to philosophical problems. Logicians simply “do” logic: they prove results about logic or in logic. Mathematics is similar.
But philosophers, for example, worry about the kind of knowledge we have in logic and mathematics, and how that kind of knowledge fits in with other kinds of knowledge. For example, proof (when you think about it) is really quite amazing. It has quite peculiar properties. It doesn't look the same in mathematics as it does elsewhere. Mathematical proofs are quite intricate and can be, especially these days, extremely long. They are also very convincing. It seems impossible to generate the same kinds of successful and convincing proofs, that we do about mathematical objects (triangles, Hilbert spaces, etc.) if we instead use ordinary concepts such as house, or snake, or wrongful behavior, and so on. But why exactly?
At just this point the question has become philosophical. This is, in part, because no one else wants to take up the problem and really try to appreciate how hard it is to answer it. (So that brings us back to my answer to your first question.) Philosophical issues arise in pretty much the same way with respect to other subject matters. A rough rule of thumb: if the question you've raised looks intractable and conceptual, then no matter what vocabulary it’s couched in (biological, mathematical, aesthetic, etc.), it’s probably a philosophical problem.
How do you make the subject fun for the students to learn?
Well, a big part of it is showing why what you’re talking about is interesting. (So this is surely true: If you don’t find it interesting, don’t try to teach it to anyone else.) But a lot involves all the standard pedagogical tricks: move around a lot, make sure the room is coldish (not warm), make jokes. (By “jokes,” I mean real jokes—not those pedantic things some people think are funny.) And most important, listen to the students, and watch them. See what they’re getting and not getting. Ask. It’s just like having a conversation with someone, really. How do you prevent yourself from boring the other person when you explain something? Watch them to see when they've lost you. Be entertaining (at least a little bit). And, of course, be on top of what you’re talking about. (That helps too.)
What interested you in pursuing a career in philosophy? When did this interest come about?
When I was twelve I found a box of books and read all of them. One of the books was by this guy named David Hume. It talked about ideas and how they were copies of impressions—except for a certain shade of blue. It talked about the various ways that ideas are associated in the mind. I thought it was a psychology book: sort of like Freud but without any sex. I didn't know until years later who Hume was. And you’re right—I did a lot of “studying” but all my life most of that studying has been idle reading. I've read constantly from the time I learned how. And I read whatever I wanted to. It just happened to be that most of what I wanted to read was “highbrow.” Unless it was assigned to me in school. Then I usually refused to read it. (This was my problem until college.)
I certainly didn't intend to “pursue a career in philosophy.” That was a complete accident. To me a career in philosophy just meant being a professor. (I had no interest in teaching as a career.) I intended to major in English when I went to college: I wanted to continue writing fiction and poetry—and eventually live in a hotel somewhere in Switzerland or something once I became famous (and rich). But I didn't like the English major requirements: too much of them telling me what I was required to study. I knew what I liked and what I didn't like.
The philosophy department, instead, required only ten courses in whatever I wanted—nothing specific. I liked that. So I majored in philosophy. I took more than enough undergraduate English courses to have majored twice over—at least as far as the number of courses was concerned. But I wasn't going to take a course just because I was required to. An actual commitment to philosophy came slowly—I deviated into higher mathematics for a couple of years. I've kept all these specific interests; but I also eventually realized that I had a lot to say that was philosophical. I needed to recognize that many of the issues I was raising about whatever I was studying were philosophical issues. My issues didn't come with labels telling me what academic discipline was the best place to study them.
Two of your poems—“The reflection yearns” and “When that last snowflake has been stamped out”—are published in The Worcester Review Volume XXXIV. I really enjoyed the former, particularly the last line about burying a twin we don’t remember. It is spiritual and philosophical that there are some things in this world we don’t see, think, or remember; thus when we take a moment to “acknowledge” their existence, it’s a chilling thought (at least for me when I read that line). My question is: How do you decide what to write about? What inspired these poems?
Most of the time, when I write a poem, I’m trying to create a kind of aesthetic object. And again, most of the time, I build (at least initially) the aesthetic object in question out of certain kinds of images. I've been doing this for decades now, but I start by thinking of words, say, “reflection”—and then I look for associations that I can use: “water,” “mirror,” shadow,” “light,” and so on. “Use” here means: they have a certain emotional impact, they have a certain sensuality, a certain richness—they make (most) people think of certain things. Imagine (although this isn't quite it) that I’m stirring these words and their associations around—looking for ones that blend together in a way that has a visceral effect of some sort. And then I’m searching for themes, for voices, that fit with these. (Imagine someone making jewelry: what settings, what background colors, fit with this stone, etc.) When everything works together, I've got a poem.
So in “The reflection yearns,” we have the thought of a kind of second-class citizen, a fan, a follower, a younger sibling (whatever) who we forget about as we rush along successfully. Someone who is, perhaps only circumstantially, pushed aside. But the aim is that these “grand themes” are built almost entirely out of visual descriptions (and careful adjectives). And the voice that emerges: somewhat detached, somewhat sad.
The other poem (“When that last snowflake …”) illustrates something I often try to do: pick up on a theme or a topic that it is almost impossible to say anything fresh about. (And by “say anything fresh,” I mean this: just about everything you think up about Spring is going to be pretty stale, it’s going to have shown up before. I was once reading—in French—an anthology of 16th and 17th century poetry. And I came across this image: The eyes are the flowers of the face. “Oh that’s so nice,” I thought. But I didn't think this any longer by the time I’d finished the anthology, having had to read numerous variations of the same image by poet after poet after poet.)
Do you personally believe poetry is the best writing method to express your learning of philosophy and other subjects you've studied? Or is it prose, essay, or research paper?
I wouldn't attempt to express real philosophy in a poem. Philosophy calls for too much exposition. I might allude to philosophical themes in a poem—but only if those allusions were made to function completely poetically. For me, like I said, poems are aesthetic objects. Philosophy papers aren't aesthetic objects. So you don’t read poems to see how a philosophical problem is supposed to be solved. Another question, maybe, is whether a dialogue can be better for philosophy than an essay. And I think, even about this: No. A dialogue, actually, is kind of artificial. Philosophy is a kind of thinking that you’re trying to get across. It’s a kind of: You’ll see what’s going on here if you think about it this way. But the best way to communicate a kind of thinking may not be two stick figures having a debate with one another.
I found the short stories on your website to be deep and reflective. We got to be inside the characters’ heads and see them analyze their lifestyles in a philosophical way that still fit within the mold of creative writing. Were these stories from personal experiences or spurs of the moment that came through your teaching of philosophy?
When I write short stories, I’m not doing what I do in poetry or in philosophy. Here again, usually, the aim is different. A story is an aesthetic object—but a different kind of object. (The way that necklaces and rings are different kinds of aesthetic objects from tapestries.) So a different approach to stories than what I do with poems or philosophy is required.
And here, yes, getting into alien heads (as I sometimes put it) is what I almost always want to do in stories. Conveying a person’s sensibility by the words they use, or what they do. And almost always, I’m trying to indicate something surprising, or something that I think should be noticed. About us, or about certain people, or about the way that people can be. And sometimes, the surprising thing or things can also be profitable philosophy. But that’s not my aim while I’m working on the story.
And almost nothing I write—in stories or in poems—is autobiographical. Except in the sense that I’m willing to loot my biography for material I can use in stories and in poems. (But I’m just as willing to loot someone else’s biography for material I can use. Or just make it up.) So when autobiographical material does show up in my work, it’s usually really small bits—someone’s hairstyle or a turn of phrase I like or a smell (good or bad) or bit of cartoon I once saw or a kind of gesture.
So I guess my activities in these three areas—poetry, philosophy, storytelling—aren't unified very much except in the sense that it’s me doing all of it. (When I swim and when I play baseball, I use my arms. But not in the same ways. And perhaps not even in ways that it makes sense to compare. That isn't to say that something I figure out in one area isn't something I might use elsewhere. That happens a lot, actually. There’s this locution: It is raining, where “it” is operating in an interesting way—not the way that “it” operates in most locutions. This can have philosophical fallout and it can also make for some interesting tricks in poems.)
For more information, visit Dr. Azzouni's main website here.
The Worcester Review would like to thank Jody Azzouni for his participation to the newly created online feature interview and his contribution to the publication.