My Philosophy 101 prof was somewhat of a campus cult hero. He was a wizened Kris Kringle whom generations of students affectionately referred to as simply “Doc.” The master had suffered a stroke and was nearing the end of a long career, but was still helping young tyros like yours truly to dissect their own assumptions while asking tough questions. In socratic fashion, he posed challenges to the class and poked at those who dared to answer. Those who were arrogant were in for some kindly drubbing. Those who held their tongues mostly got far less from the experience. “Dare to be stupid,” was and is a more fruitful path for sincere learners than is, “avoid being the protruding nail.”
Doc used typically undefined bon mots as shorthand for key concepts. In dialogue he would often challenge an interlocutor with one or another of these to stop lazy thinking or encourage clarity and probity. The one that most stuck in my mind was, “push it through.” I took this to mean, follow that idea where it leads you. It may be a dead end but you’ll find something good along the way. This functioned as a zen koan might.
The training in critical thinking I received from Doc, who rattled my cage profoundly and with whom I had an occasionally tempestuous relationship, was of inestimable benefit. I learned that while bodily laziness could make you physically unhealthy, intellectual and spiritual laziness could be far worse, and make you a danger to yourself and others. This meant one has to not just blab nonsense but to invest the time and effort to go through the logic and history of an idea–to delve its archeology, to bowdlerize Foucault. Being somewhat of a pug who is by no means avuncular, I would later refer to this as doing the f…ing homework.
It is with profound gratitude that I reflect on the great teachers I’ve had, including “Doc” Richardson. May they all find their way to the Valhalla of the kindly-wise.
To those who now wonder whether studying philosophy has any cash value, to borrow from William James; I would say it can lead you down perilous but beautiful paths. It can be a tool for the crafty and a weapon for the mind, which is the sword. With power comes responsibility, Spiderman.