A while back Robert Paul Wolff published his memoirs over at his blog, The Philosopher's Stone. I thought it was pretty gripping stuff, providing wonderful glimpses into the personal and professional life of a philosopher in the 60's and 70's, including really neat tid-bits about influential philosophers like Quine, Parsons, and many others.
I don't pretend that my philosophical story is nearly as gripping, but I thought it could be fun to share some of ours together, both so that we can see into one another's lives a bit, but also into the discipline we inhabit together? So, I'd like to encourage everyone to share some of your "philosophical story" in the comments section below. I'll try to start things off in what follows.
My first exposure to philosophy was a trip I took as prospective undergraduate during my junior year in high school. I attended a philosophy class at St. John's, a tiny liberal arts school on the east coast. They were discussing Plato's Republic. I found it utterly gripping, bought a copy, and couldn't put it down during the 4-1/2 hour flight back to San Francisco with my mother. I was "a goner." Philosophy had me at hello.
That summer, I took my first philosophy course -- a course on philosophy in literature -- at Stanford with Taylor Carman, who was a grad student there at the time. We read Voltaire's Candide, some Dostoyevsky, Camus' The Stranger, Sartre's No Exit, Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, and Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I wrote a term paper on the problem of evil. I love the problem to this day.
Next came Tufts. My freshman year there, I knew I wanted to take philosophy, but since there was no internet at the time, I had no idea who was "famous" or whatnot. Someone told me I should take an honors course with some guy named "Dennett", as apparently he was a big-shot or something. I showed up for the first day of class -- a class with something like 6 other students -- and met this gigantic man who looked like a cross between Socrates and Santa Claus. Being in that course was a stroke of luck, and an honor, that I will never forget. We read the classics: Plato, then Descartes, then Hume, then I'm not sure, then Wittgenstein. We had five 3-5 page papers to turn in. Dan let us rewrite them as many times as we wished. I spent weeks writing my first paper while the other students on my floor in the dormitory were drinking and doing drugs. I just wanted to do philosophy, and so became something of an outsider. Anyway, after weeks of working on the paper, turned it in believing it was the best thing I'd ever written. I got a B- on it, which Dan told me was the best grade in the class. In other words, Dan was a pretty brutal grader. I rewrote it 5 times before I finally got an A. It was the best educational experience I've ever had. It's why I always give my students the same option. Give someone the incentive to work hard for results, and most people will take it. That, anyway, has been my experience.
Anyway, Dan showed up every day and just lectured on whatever he found interesting. Some days what he talked about seemed to have little to nothing to do with what we read for the day -- but I didn't care. The stuff he was talking about was always fascinating. And he was a great, great dude to all of us. He pretty self-consciously pushed his views in the classroom and in grading our assignments, but I also didn't care about that, as I thought it was an honest thing to do. If this is what my professor thinks, I thought, and I disagree, well I'll challenge him. Of course, most of the time I lost, but he always took my challenges seriously. Dan didn't suffer fools. If you came to him with a foolish idea, he'd tell you in no uncertain terms why it was foolish -- but I respected that. He always treated us like fellow philosophers in the classroom and office hours, with important things to say, not as "mere students." That attitude has always stuck with me, and I've tried to emulate it as a teacher ever since.
I rewrote so many papers that semester it was insane. I wanted to get things right. But, with the last paper -- one on Wittgenstein's On Certainty -- we had one chance, and one chance only. No rewrites. I put my all into it. I got it back at the end of a semester with a grade of "A+" -- according to Dan, one of the only ones he'd ever given out -- accompanied by the simple phrase: "You have great promise." It was the first, and really only time that anyone other than my mother had said something like that to me. It meant the world to me. It still does.
At the end of the semester, Dan had us all over to his house for pizza. We met his robot: "Cog", I think it was called. I really tried to soak it all in. By that point, I really knew how lucky I had been to have taken his class. Philosophy had become a part of me forever.