Monday, August 3, 2015

Professor Humbug

William James loved interacting with students but despised other aspects of his Harvard professorship. When the time finally came to retire, he wrote a friend:

I thank you for your congratulations on my retirement. It makes me very happy. A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographical information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. Hitherto I have always felt like a humbug as a professor, for I am weak in the first requirement. Now I can live for the second with a free conscience.

He also said:
"It's the harness and the hours that are so galling! I expect to shed truths in dazzling profusion on the world for many years."
He didn't have many years left, alas, and never finished the grand systematic summation of the pragmatic, radically-empirical anti-system he intended but only just began with the posthumous Some Problems of Philosophy.
But he did shed some truths, and a lot of dazzle, before checking out in August of 1910. As professors go, he wasn't such a humbug. But I'm happy to reassure all young aspirants to the profession that a sane and functional professor of philosophy these days really doesn't have to be a walking bibliographic compendium. I've known one or two who seriously aspired to earn that description. Most of us know better. You cannot imagine how much bad academese you'd have to ingest, to stay on top of the current literature. Du bist was du isst, so there are worse things to be than Professor Humbug.

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