I'd like to follow-up my earlier post recounting my early days in philosophy with the next chapter of "my philosophical story": my two-year stint in Syracuse's graduate program. I've decided to share my story in the hope that others will share theirs as well. We know each other, after all, primarily as colleagues -- by our discussions about philosophy and the profession. However, I, at least, carry the hope that we can be more than that: that we can be friends as well as colleagues, even if we've never met in person; and that by sharing our lives a bit, including our histories, we can not only get to know each other better as people, but also share the wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences we've had in the discipline. Anyway, that's my hope, at least. On with the story.
After graduating from Tufts, I spent a year working in a mental institution and preparing grad school applications. I didn't know at the time how important the GRE's were (there wasn't anything like the amount of online discussion about such things back then), and truth be told, I've never been much for studying for standardized tests. I've always found it very easy to work incredibly hard on things I find intrinsically interesting, but next to impossible to work hard on things for merely instrumental reasons. So, I ended up taking the GRE but didn't do very well. The only other thing I recall about my grad school application process was my personal statement, which I entitled, "Think different", which I had not-so-slyly coopted from Apple Computer's advertising slogan at the time. As I take it is often the case with grad school apps, the personal statement was a undoubtedly a bit cloying. Still, it's funny how, after all these years, I still pretty much subscribe to it as my "calling card." I may not be the most brilliant person around -- I'm certainly not the most rigorous by any means -- but still, I think I have a certain knack for seeing problems in new ways. That, at least, is what I tell myself, and it's what I live for as a philosopher. I live for insights; arguments, to me, come a distant second (as merely of instrumental value, a test of whether an insight is anygood).
Anyway, because I was pretty into phil mind at the time (having focused on it as an undergraduate under Dennett), I applied to mostly phil-mind-y PhD programs. I remember being flown out to visit the PNP program at Washington U in St. Louis, the best part of which was a trip to a bowling alley where Andy Clark accidentally forgot to let go of his bowling ball and slid halfway down the bowling lane with the ball still attached to his hand. That was awesome. I didn't enjoy the rest of the trip all that much, though, for reasons I can't quite remember (I think I found the whole experience overly intimidating).
The best PhD program I ended up getting into -- and which I had applied to mainly because Robert Van Gulick was there -- ended up being Syracuse. Truth be told, I was pretty disappointed that it was the best school I'd gotten into. It was only ranked something like 34 on the Leiter report at the time, and I had expected to do better than that given my undergraduate credentials. Whatever disappointment I had disappeared once I got there, as the two years I spent there are to this very day the best, most exciting time I've ever had in philosophy.
My first semester at Syracuse I took an amazing course on vagueness co-taught by John Hawthorne and Jose Benardete. I assume most of you know who John is (he's now an endowed professor at Oxford). At the time, though, he was just a young shooting star on his way up. He basically showed up at class and simply talked off the top of his head with what appeared to be little preparation. It was almost always brilliant. Seminars were also always from 7-10pm, and the entire class almost always went out for beer and games of pool with John afterwards. We'd usually stay out til the wee hours of the morning drinking beer and chatting philosophy. It was awesome.
For those of you who don't know Jose Benardete, I would be remiss if I told the story of my time at Syracuse without introducing you to him. Jose is, without a doubt, one of the most...extraordinary people you'll ever come across (if you're so lucky). Apparently, he was a super-hotshot philosopher when he was young, but after writing a pretty brilliant and megalomaniacal book on infinity, he appears to have cared relatively little for publishing. Anyway, about Jose...there is just no way to really convey who he is. Let me begin by putting it this way: there is an entire facebook page devoted to Jose stories. Most of these stories seem so ridiculous that they couldn't possibly be true, but I know they're true because I had one of them happen to me. To tell the story properly, I'll have to give some background.
During my two years at Syracuse, I had a rather extraordinary personal situation. I had a girlfriend in school at UPenn in Philadelphia, and was a member of a punk rock band in Boston. For two years straight, every Thursday afternoon I would drive 4 hours after class from Syracuse to Philadelphia to visit my girlfriend (I had no classes on Friday). On Friday, I would take a 6-8 hour bus ride from Philadelphia to Boston to either practice with my band or play a show at club. Then, in the wee hours of the morning (1 or 2am), I would get back on the bus back to Philadelphia. The bus stopped in New York's Penn Station at 4am, and so I would sleep on the ground (it was freezing!) until the 7am bus to Philadelphia came. Obviously, I hardly really slept through all of this, so I was usually a total wreck by the time I got back to my girlfriend's place. Then, on Sundays, I would drive 4 hours back to Syracuse, and repeat the whole thing again the next week.
It was, I recognized then and do now, all quite mad. But what can I say? I wanted to live while I was young, and not let life get away from me. Which brings me back to Jose. After one of my trips -- there were I think some department functions that weekend -- Jose spotted me from a distance of about 50 feet in the department hall. His face turned stone-cold white -- he looked like a ghost -- and he roared, "You're A-LIVE!" I said of course I was alive! I learned from him that he saw a headline on the front of the newspaper that read "Arkan Murdered", and he assumed that this Arkan was me. Well, as it happened, Arkan was a Serbian warlord, and it never occurred to Jose that I wouldn't be front-page news. But well, that's just Jose! ;)
That was one of the real treats I experienced at Syracuse. Another was the fact that a lot of the grad students (including my good friend at the time, Alyssa Ney) all lived in the same apartment building. We called it the philosophy dorm or something like that. It too was awesome. We'd stay up til whenever and talk about philosophy like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Which of course it was to us. I can't begin to describe how exciting and edifying it all was.
Anyway, believe it or not, I was a metaphysician during this time. I had no interest at all in ethics or political philosophy, and actually regarded it as all basically garbage. Funny how things change. The other truly great memory I have from the time was the single best class I ever took: "Logic and Language" by Mark Brown. It was the single most difficult course I ever took (it was Syracuse's grad student "weed-out" course), and we did really crazy-difficult stuff ranging from different modal logics to proofs regarding infinities to set theory to the Frege system (where modus ponens is the only inference rule)...basically a bunch of super-difficult stuff you could imagine smashed into one semester. It was awesome. Brown taught from his own unpublished book, which was totally brilliant and I kept with me like the Bible for years afterwards (but which mysteriously disappeared after my girlfriend and I broke up!). I remember giving the most ridiculous proof on the final exam, deriving a result in quantified logic from five nested reductios. I later learned that it was probably the most circuituous way possible to give the proof...but it was also correct!...which, well...is totally like me. If I could go back in time and take that class again, I swear I'd do it a dozen times.
Anyway, I should probably stop here. My office hours are over and I have a book to begin writing this afternoon. I hope you all enjoyed the story and decide to share some of your own. It would be really wonderful to hear everyone's personal stories -- as it's good for the soul to share, I think. I was once told by one of my profs at Syracuse that I was (and I quote), "The single most aloof person" he'd ever met. I was always terribly guarded about my personal thoughts and feelings. That's sort of changed a bit. ;)