In it, Frankfurt talks about his education and career. Here’s one passage about his time in graduate school at Cornell, before he transferred to Johns Hopkins:
To pursue my post-graduate academic goals, I enrolled in the philosophy department at Cornell University. It was a great department, at that time, but on the whole I did not flourish there. I did have one inestimably valuable educational experience at Cornell: a one-on-one tutorial course with Professor Max Black, an extremely intelligent and conscientious analytic philosopher.
At our first meeting, Professor Black assigned me to write a paper dealing with the question of our knowledge of other minds. At our second meeting, he subjected the essay I had written to a bewilderingly relentless and devastating critique: he tore apart my arguments, pitilessly exposed and condemned my ambiguities and my vagueness, and left the whole thing in a humiliating shambles. Then he told me to rewrite the essay for our next meeting. At that meeting, it was the same story: when Professor Black was done with my work, there was nothing left of it. Again he told me to rewrite the essay, and the outcome was more or less the same. Throughout the semester, I presented him weekly with revisions of my original essay; and weekly, he destroyed them. The experience was excruciating, but I learned a great deal from it. It taught me how to construct a solid argument, how to clarify my thoughts, and how to write a coherent and convincing philosophical essay. In short, it taught me how to function competently as an analytic philosopher.
Max Black, apparently, was a major hard-ass.
I would bet that a good number of Daily Nous readers have an experience somewhat like the one Frankfurt recalls with Black in their own educational past*, but I’d guess that it is becoming less and less common. Is that a change for the worse?
Such experiences develop certain skills philosophers tend to value: argument, clarity, writing. And they also develop certain attitudes or dispositions philosophers tend to value: to take criticism of you or your work as something that’s good for you, and to be able to persist in the face of it. So if such experiences are on the decline, one might see that as a loss. At the same time, it’s not clear that these experiences are the only means to those valuable ends, or even the best ones. (Perhaps that they’re among the most memorable learning experiences, for some people, in part because they’re among the most emotionally vivid, should lead us to lower our estimation of their pedagogical value.)
It should also be noted that such experiences also work as filters, selecting for advancement those already in possession of a good amount of the relevant skills and attitudes, and those with the psychological and social resources to judge continuing with such experiences worthwhile. And it isn’t clear that the only people who’d make good philosophers are the ones who’d flourish under a hard-ass professor.
My own view, shaped by my own educational experiences, is to appreciate and value the hard-ass philosophy professors, but also to acknowledge they’re not good for everybody—and so what we’d want, as usual, is a mix of rather different teaching styles. We philosophers are quite accepting of substantive philosophical disagreement; we can stand to be accepting of disagreement over philosophical teaching, too.
You can read Frankfurt’s intellectual autobiography here.
* As I commented on a previous post, “It is interesting to me how many of the respondents have not only named as ‘most impressive’ philosophers they describe as terrifying, or devastating, or even in one case driving them to tears, but quite clearly look back on those terrifying interactions with affection.” See also, “The Unsung Hero of Your Undergraduate Philosophy Education.”