Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Dialectic of Dissatisfaction: Interviewing Simon Critchley on Education and Philosophy

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Dialectic of Dissatisfaction: Interviewing Simon Critchley on Education and Philosophy

Article excerpt

Simon Critchley, the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, is a philosopher whose work has had few limits, either in form or subject matter. He has engaged the intersections of literature, ethics, politics, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, art, deconstruction, and questions of life and death. Adept as a scholarly interpreter of the history of philosophy, a public spokesman for philosophical conversation, and an artist of timely and untimely thoughts, he has published over twenty-five books in both paper and digital formats, most recently Suicide and Bowie,1 published in numerous journals, appeared in film and digital video, and given scores of interviews. A public philosopher in the best sense of the term, Critchley has also been the moderator of The Stone, a philosophical opinion series in The New York Times, since 2010, extending the terms of philosophical discussion and its audience far beyond the confines of any academy.

Alexander Kardjian Elnabli is a doctoral candidate and Graduate Teaching Fellow in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. Under the supervision of Dr. Samir Haddad, his work examines ethics and identity in democratic education. This interview took place on September 21, 2016.

Alexander Kardjian Elnabli [AE]: Academics often think of education in terms of higher education, but what was your primary and secondary education like? Did they play a role in your eventual pursuit of philosophy?

Simon Critchley [SC]: I failed at school pretty dramatically . . . on purpose. In England there were these things called O Levels (Ordinary Levels) that you took when you were sixteen. I got one of those-Grade C in geography-and then went to catering college because it was next door to my school and I thought that would be easy. I expected that I would end up as a rock star within a matter of months, so education seemed immaterial to me.

I don't remember much about my secondary education, because I had a very bad accident when I was eighteen. I was working in a pharmaceutical factory, and my lefthand was effectively severed. It was put back together, and I still have it. There's a long story connected with that, but one effect of it, which is very common in serious injuries, was traumatic memory loss. So I realized a few weeks after the accident that I couldn't really remember all sorts of things about my past. Some of it came back. Some of it was told to me. But when something's told to you it feels unreal. So with school my memories are really pretty hazy.

There's an idea you find in Sartre of what he calls a "fundamental project." Because he's opposed to psychoanalysis-because he's opposed to the idea that all of the formative elements that make you who you are occur in early infancy-Sartre has this idea that you can make a decision like Genet made when he was fourteen to become a thief. That's his fundamental project, his radical choice. And I was always very attracted to that idea because at eighteen it seemed to me that I began again as a kind of tabula rasa. Then I began to read in the years after that and slowly, after a period of years, ended up at university doing philosophy. So it's not the kind of conventional story.

I mean that would be one way of answering the question-that philosophy begins with an accident that wipes out your memory. Then you remember very little, almost nothing, about what happened before and begin to try to construct forms, views of things. At that point for me, from when I was eighteen through my late twenties, I was enormously receptive for whatever reason, and so I just soaked things up very fast. That was when I think that things really took shape. Obviously things happened earlier on, but I just don't remember that much about it.

AE: What were you reading after the accident?

SC: Initially it was people like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell's 1984. I realized that reading books was interesting. My family is a very ordinary working class family, and there were no books in the house. …

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