Dennett & Pirsig

I’m reading Dennett’s memoir “I’ve Been Thinking” – not really intending to read the whole right now, as I mentioned before, but it’s a pretty good read, so I am close to a third through.

The reason to pause and make some notes was a striking parallel to Pirsig that jumped out at me.

Like his collaborator Hofstadter, some biographical similarities, but not so much. Ocean-going sailing from Connecticut to Maine for one. Very much not into the 1960’s hippy and drug culture and disparaging about the faux-profound lifestyle philosophy. Serious jazz pianist. Anti-Vietnam war / conscientious objector, but not a pacifist – concern for Hilary Putnam’s mental health as an obsessive anti-war campaigner. But no, none of that.

No. What jumped out was his teaching quality.

At Tufts, one of the undergraduate courses I began teaching was a section of Introduction to Philosophy. It was a “writing intensive” course, in which a small group of freshmen and sophomores (twenty or fewer) were obliged to write, and rewrite, a series of short papers. It was a lot of work for me […] Only the grade on the final submission counted, so I graded the early efforts sternly, giving students D’s and F’s, which they had never before seen on any assignment in their lives.

We’d go through [awkward and boring sentences from their papers] on the blackboard one at a time. “What needs fixing in this sentence?” [Nothing grammatical or content-wise.] “Does it sing? Does it make you want to read the next sentence? […] Or does it just limp along?”

I’d be busy erasing and writing on the blackboard, while they argued among themselves about which revisions were the most apt. They knew good writing from bad writing; they had just never been encouraged to aspire to good writing and didn’t know how to raise their standards until I showed them.

Dennett p107-108

Assessing their own work in class, they knew good from bad.

Pirsig quoting Plato on having his class grade themselves rather than him assigning grades: “And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good, Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”


[Oh, and I think I spotted a way of reconciling Dennett’s determinist compatibilism with informational subjective pan-proto-psychism.]

[Great Dennett review / interview by Julian Baggini.
Dennett<>Pirsig<>Baggini, now there’s an interesting triangle. It was Julian who attempted the only academic philosopher to philosopher dialogue with Bob – and it didn’t go well.]

[Another sympathetic review, this time from Nigel Warburton in the TLS.]


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