Autobiography and Influences

It is customary in places like this for academic writers to list their credentials, which I have dutifully done. The suggestion often seems to be that whatever it is one ostensibly knows is a consequence of having attended the institutions listed and of the letters after one’s name. Is this really the case? What is a writer’s education? In my own case it has always seemed that my true educators were not teachers or even professors but writers of various kinds, and not only philosophers. Before I knew what philosophy was it was songwriters I was learning from. If you grew up in the 1970s, you grew up with music on the radio that is now called classic rock. There was always music playing in our house. My mother, herself a singer, would be playing Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, or Shirley Bassey while my older brothers and sisters, all five of them, would take turns playing their own records on the family stereo. My father’s idea of music was mostly the Irish Rovers. I learned a great deal from him, but maybe not so much about music. Writers have influences, usually from a young age. I’d like to talk about a few of mine.

            In my elementary school years reading books was a joyless school activity. Music was my passion, and I was listening to whatever albums my brothers and sisters brought home. My early favorites were Elton John, Cat Stevens, Bruce Springsteen, Supertramp, Styx, and Kiss (the songwriting was questionable, but the makeup was undeniably cool). One of my brothers was always buying new albums and I listened to all of them. One day in 1976 he brought one home by a new band called Rush, telling me I’d never heard anything like this before. Indeed I had not. It sounded like three drummers playing at the same time. The guitarist sounded better than Jimmy Page, or so it seemed to me, and a high-singing bass man too. Not everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Instantly they were my favorite band and 40 years later they still are.

            In high school I saved enough money from working on the farm and around the neighborhood to buy the complete catalogues of Rush, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, Kate Bush, Supertramp, Heart, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, and a few others. I listened to a lot of Canadian bands, not just Rush: Max Webster, April Wine, Triumph, and some others. It seemed to me that they shared a code, and I needed to make it my own. They were free spirits—blazing trails, following and defying conventions as they pleased, putting everything out there and taking chances. They seemed fearless. It was in the lyrics too. They were talking about things that mattered—how to live, how to think and to feel about things, what things meant and how to find your way in the world. Springsteen wasn’t writing “She loves you, ya, ya, ya.” He was writing “There’s a darkness on the edge of town,” and it was as if he was writing it for me. The characters they were writing about were all me, or I needed to become them. I hadn’t experienced what they had, but I needed to. Kate Bush was “Running up that hill,” and I needed to do that too. Supertramp was writing “If you know what the meaning is.” I was wondering that too, or I was now. There were a thousand examples like this. This bunch of eccentrics knew something I didn’t, something about themselves and about life, and I needed to find it out. Like so many of that time, I’d memorize lyric sheets and stare at album covers for unseemly lengths of time. We had a very good stereo and a good set of headphones. Some of those records I must have listened to hundreds of times.

            Something else happened in high school. In tenth grade I discovered something called philosophy. I hadn’t known what the word meant, and my teachers weren’t talking about it. The school library had no books on it, but my home town had one bookstore, Leeds County Books, which had a small section on philosophy, another on psychology, and a bigger one on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. You could special order books too, so if they had one book by an author I liked I could order them all. At 16 a world was being opened up to me. My grandmother, nearly thirty years a widow and always a reader, told me that if I read books I would never be lonely. She also bought me a Roget’s Thesaurus which I still use.

            My habit of buying every record by any recording artist I liked now carried over to authors. Through the high school years I was reading Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, W. Somerset Maugham, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell. I revered these writers. Ayn Rand: here was a woman from Soviet Russia who came to America and sang hymns to freedom. How could you not be inspired by that? The questions she was asking: What is the motor of the world? What is integrity? I’m still asking those questions. I didn’t care for her answers, but the questions lit a fire in a 16-year-old high school boy. Her brand of rationalism looked too much like religion to me. Bob Dylan was singing “Gotta serve somebody” and that was all the religion I needed. I’m still asking, who or what am I serving? Where I’m most grateful to Rand is for turning me onto Hugo and Dostoyevsky, her two favorite novelists and mine too from the moment I discovered them. By age 17, I wanted to be Jean Valjean, also Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, Howard Roark, and a bunch of others. J. R. Ewing too, all at the same time if that was possible. Sigmund Freud: I couldn’t sign on to psychoanalysis either, but what an imagination. Couldn’t help but admire his boldness, and he could tell a story as well as any novelist I was reading. I couldn’t put his stuff down either, read every book I could get my hands on. Other psychologists too: Jung (speaking of imagination), Horney (much more sensible than Freud—her I could actually agree with), Menninger.

            These writers weren’t talking about the stuff I was supposed to be learning in school and wasn’t. They were talking about life. Big questions I hadn’t thought about before and didn’t have an opinion about, but I needed to get one. That much was clear. I had grown up with Catholicism, but that didn’t speak to me like these writers did. I wasn’t about to become a psychologist, novelist, or musician, but what about philosophy? Were there philosophers in the world anymore? I was reading books on the history of philosophy that always seemed to end in the nineteenth century or the turn of the twentieth. I was imagining bearded men in togas. One of my sisters was in university at the time and taking a course in philosophy. I remember asking her, are there philosophers in the world today? She said there are; they’re university professors now. There was a way, and the decision was final. I was 16. I knew I was going to have to go to university for an unthinkable length of time and by that point my grades were lousy. All that reading and music meant precious little time for school work. I found out that to get into the university I wanted—McMaster—I needed a particular average in grade 13. I bit the bullet and achieved that grade and not one per cent higher. One university I didn’t apply to was Queen’s, where I now work. It was just an hour down the road, but that was too close to home and I also didn’t have a high enough average even to apply.

            McMaster it was, then, in Hamilton, Ontario. A big city, by the standard of what I was used to. I loved the professors, or some of them. Gary Madison was by far my favorite. I took all his courses and then read all his books. It was Gary who introduced me to continental philosophy and I loved it all—Søren Kierkegaard (minus the Christianity, if that was possible), Friedrich Nietzsche (philosophy “out of the spirit of music”—how could you not love this guy?), Martin Heidegger (especially the critique of technology), Karl Jaspers (reason as boundless communication), Hannah Arendt (the banality of evil), Gabriel Marcel (the individual against the mass). These writers mattered, and unlike most of what I was reading in high school (Russell, Rand), I could actually agree with a lot of it. They weren’t rationalists or philosophers of the blackboard. They were talking about what was happening, the world I was living in, and showing me a bigger picture. They were looking beneath surfaces, and whether I agreed with them seemed to matter less than what they were attempting. Big themes, bold questions, thinking on a large scale. Again there seemed to be a kind of code. It was to become my code too, and it forbade being a disciple, also a specialist. What was Nietzsche’s area of specialization (“AOS”)? He didn’t have one, so why should I? Neither did the philosophers I was reading through my 20s: John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur. You couldn’t pigeonhole any of them. They were writing on so many things and seemed the same kind of free spirits that I had been listening to since childhood.

            By the end of my 20s, the Ph.D. was done—Gary Madison was the only supervisor I wanted—and the job market beckoned. Still no AOS? How do you apply for a job that way? My dissertation was titled Ethics and Hermeneutics, so I applied for jobs in ethics (which meant analytic ethics) and continental philosophy (precious few jobs there, and none in Canada where I was determined to remain). I spent a couple of years on a postoc and a few more making the rounds between a few universities in southern Ontario before coming to Queen’s, where I have taught since 2002. It has been an eventful 15 years. I met my wife, Gwyneth, we had a daughter, Evangeline, I taught a thousand courses, wrote some books, and became a full professor in 2015.

            Still, climbing the professional ladder does not a philosopher make, or so it has always seemed to me. From the day I first heard the word “philosopher”—I was 16 and I remember it like it was yesterday—that’s what I was, or had to become, and with some urgency. To become it, one needs a certain reverence for the written word, and if my high school teachers were not instilling it my extracurricular reading was: Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Dead Souls. These books and many others changed my life. Years later I’d venture a few things of my own, having seen it done so many times before by so many writers, each so distinctive yet somehow contributing to a single conversation. A philosopher—anyone who does creative work—becomes what they are by finding their voice in a conversation and trying in some way or other to take it further. This has always seemed to me a very natural thing to do. A philosopher is a writer (maybe a professor too, but maybe not) who tries to take some things on their shoulders, who knows their tradition without getting trapped in it, always taking it forward, making a new beginning, and taking risks. Heidegger said a philosopher is only ever a beginner, and he was right.

            Philosophers are lovers of reason, but they are also creatures of passion, and the two are probably of equal importance. These days my passions are three: my family—my wife, Gwyneth (“I’m gonna look at you ‘til my eyes go blind”—Bob Dylan again) and daughter, Evie (“I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow”—and again)—music, and writing. I have made three decisions from which everything that’s good in my life has stemmed: deciding to become a philosopher, asking one Gwyneth Kearney to marry me, and saying “okay” when a few years later she said “Let’s have a baby.” I have grown to like teaching very much as well, but that’s more of an acquired passion. The others came naturally and immediately. These are what inspire me today. Musically, it’s mostly Rush (still), Joe Satriani, The Eagles, Springsteen, Sade, Sarah McLachlan, and Michael Jackson, but especially the above-mentioned Mr. Dylan. While I grew up with his music on the radio, only now do I understand why everyone speaks of this artist in superlatives. Now I do too. His records of the last twenty years or so—Triplicate, Tempest, Together Through Life, Modern Times, Love and Theft, and Time Out of Mind, among others—are indescribably good. The way he sees life and the world is pretty close to the way I do too, now. When he speaks of his early influences, Woody Guthrie in particular, Dylan writes: “All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp.... Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down.... The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” The writers I’ve mentioned had the same effect on me, including the one just quoted. This is what a writer’s education is. One stands on the shoulders of one’s teachers, as Dylan continues to do to this day. “It’s almost like I didn’t have any choice,” he says. Pete Seeger put it this way: “The moment I became acquainted with old songs I realized people were always changing them. Think of it as an age-old process, it’s been going on for thousands of years. People take old songs and change them a little, add to them, adopt them for new people. It happens in every other field. Lawyers change old laws to fit new citizens. So I’m one in this long chain and so are millions of other musicians.” It’s no different for philosophers. If what we write works at all, it’s because we are extending a chain, appropriating and varying a conversation that has been going on for millennia.

            It’s impossible to say exactly how any of this finds its way into what I write, but it does. A writer writes nothing in a vacuum. They breathe a particular air, and there’s always some deep but intangible connection between what they take in and what they breathe out. The metaphors are apt. Links in a chain is what we are. We have a home life too. What is a good father? These days the question is on my mind daily. Becoming a parent does change everything, and for the better, but again how does it influence what I write? I couldn’t really say, but it does. Same with being a husband. What’s the meaning of that, and what is a good one? I’m not about to write a book on that and an expert I am not, but what I write is of the same stuff as what I live and have always lived. One writes from experience, tries to make sense of it, think one’s way through it, including the stuff that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. The questions that become vital questions, one’s own questions, do not come out of thin air. I grew up on the eastern outskirts of a small town in eastern Ontario, about an hour east of where we now live—which is on the eastern outskirts of another town in eastern Ontario (a lot of easts), and on the same highway, with the St. Lawrence River just to the south and visible from our house. Don Henley writes, “It’s like my daddy told me, ‘You just bloom where you’re planted,’” and these days I’m inclined to agree. A writer comes from somewhere, stands somewhere, and is rooted some place in the world. I couldn’t say how this part of the world factors into my writing either, but it does.

            My formative experiences included many a conversation at the dining room table after supper, the topics ranging from politics to morality, religion, and life in general. As the youngest in a family of eight, I mostly listened. Then there were the weekly sermons from the parish priest. I listened to those too, although some cringing was involved, increasingly as the years went on. After school I would watch question period in the Canadian House of Commons. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister, Joe Clark the opposition leader. Clark was a skilled parliamentarian, but Trudeau usually got the better of him during those exchanges, or so it seemed to me. It was not a stretch for me to become more than a little curious about politics and morality. Years later I would write a few books in this area, focussing on the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy. I was not about to become a lifelong specialist in this, however. By my 30s and 40s I was doing a great deal of teaching and educational questions now occupied me. This also led to a couple of books, and there were other, more or less related, projects along the way. Always in the back of my mind were historical questions too. The church sermons had always seemed less compelling than the stained glass windows, which I would stare at for an hour every Sunday. Who were these people and how did they live? What was it like to live in that time and place, and how did we get from their time to our own? Seeds are planted this way—small and unassuming at first, but under certain conditions they grow. Philosophy of history is my current interest and will undoubtedly remain so for a long time to come. My older interests haven’t subsided, but moving on once you’ve had your say has always seemed to me a natural thing to do, especially in a field with so many urgent questions. The writers I revere did not spend a lifetime re-plowing the same ground. A writer must follow their instincts, and mine have led me down a few roads that all relate in some way or other, although saying how is not easy.

            I work in a tradition, as every philosopher does. Philosophical hermeneutics, phenomenology, and pragmatism—the three have always seemed inseparable to me and to provide the resources with which to think about a great many questions without hardening into any dogmatic system. The philosophers who have had the most enduring influence on my work so far are Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. There are many others too—too many to list—and if they have anything in common it is more like a disposition of mind than any fixed position. Each of these writers possessed a radically open mind and an impatience with doctrinal systems. They are philosophers of the big tent, and that has always seemed to me the only kind of philosopher worth being. The starting point of creative work is experience and its trajectory leads forever onward and outward. My idea of a writer is of someone who is always on the move, offering a contribution to a conversation without repeating themselves more than the necessary minimum, and who has a certain restlessness of mind.

            How or why one goes from having experiences or ideas to writing about them in a certain form is difficult to say. Dylan says he almost didn’t have a choice, and I imagine any writer who knows what they’re doing would say the same. There is necessity here. One writes what needs to be written, follows one’s instincts, and done what one must. A certain level of intelligence does help, but it’s not enough. One needs influences, a big palette, imagination, a larger than average ego, and especially drive. The passionless and the cowardly do not put pen to paper, or not for long. To be a writer one must unlearn both laziness and fear. There are no letters after one’s name for that.