Interview with Calvin O. Schrag

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© Calvin Schrag and Figure/Ground
Dr. Schrag was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. January 24th, 2011.

Calvin O. Schrag is George Ade Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. He was a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a Fulbright Scholar for research at Heidelberg and Oxford, and a Guggenheim Fellow at Freiburg University. His published works have been translated into eleven foreign languages, and among his most famous books are Existence and FreedomGod as Otherwise than Being: Toward a Semantics of the GiftConvergence amidst DifferenceExperience and BeingRadical Reflection and the Origin of the Human SciencesCommunicative Praxis and the Space of SubjectivityThe Resources of Rationality, and The Self after Postmodernity. Professor Schrag has been invited to partake in seventy five lectures in the US and abroad.  He is the only living member of the original group of five philosophers who designed the format for the current Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in October of this year.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

Plainly enough there was no single factor that occasioned my choice to become a university professor. And it is difficult, if indeed not impossible, to sort out the multiplicity of factors involved. One such factor in charting my path to academia can be found by recalling certain family influences. Growing up as son of a Protestant pastor may well have played a role in my decision to strive for a university career. Discussions at the dinner table often involved theological and philosophical issues. Hence, there is a sense in which my very early upbringing already opened a path to academia. There were also additional factors that played a role in my decision to project an academic career. This had to do with three older brothers who were in process of achieving advanced degrees while I was growing up. The older one finished his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago and became a professor of sociology; the second entered academic life with a doctorate in philosophy, and the third completed his postgraduate studies in theology and biblical studies and became a pastor. You can well imagine some of the critical discussions that took place at family reunions! Plainly enough, these three older siblings were a formative influence in my deciding to aim for the professional life of academia.

These early formative factors in my decision to become a university professor became intensified during my college and graduate school studies, where two professors in particular became veritable models for the shaping of my future academic life. These two were Professors John Wild and Paul Tillich. Wild was one of the senior members of the Harvard philosophy department and became my principal advisor and director of my dissertation. Tillich had just been appointed University Professor at Harvard and taught graduate courses both in philosophy and theology. Although Wild was my main mentor, who suggested that I opt for the continental track in my research, which led to a Fulbright Fellowship for study and research at Heidelberg University in Germany, Professor Tillich was of considerable help in the framing of my dissertation on Heidegger and Kierkegaard as he was a colleague of Heidegger at Marburg University during the 1920s. I functioned as a Teaching Fellow for both Wild and Tillich during my stay at Harvard. The main point at issue in regard to your question is that it was John Wild and Paul Tillich who solidified and consolidated my desire to become a university professor.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

There can be no doubt that the media in its multiple modalities has had a significant effect on the role and function of the current professorship. It certainly has played a dominant role in the evolution of the self-understanding and task of the profession since I was an undergraduate student. Such has become particularly evident given that I will be eighty three years old in 2011! My undergraduate years extend to a quite distant past! Among the most noticeable changes I would cite those having to do as a result of the emergence of the computer age. During my university career, as well as the major portion of my academic publication career, the typewriter was the communication medium for the publication of articles in professional journals as well in my exchange of letters with colleagues in the profession. Since the typewriter has now become a virtual antique from years past, electronic communication has taken over and expanded the range and intensified the speed in getting messages to their designated termini. Hand in glove with general trends of globalization it has greatly facilitated the exchange of data by scholars across the globe in a way that was hardly imaginable during my undergraduate days.

Now there are both positive and negative components that accompany this global electronic communication. Being able to provide my colleagues both at home and abroad with instant messages is surely a good thing. The rapid exchange of information across the globe provides researchers in their various fields resources that contribute to the critical expansion of their current projects and provide a wider variety of interpretation on matters at issue. There are, however, also negative factors in the new arena of global communication. It has a tendency to tilt the role of the professor as researcher, appropriating a vast amount of information for his publication projects, away from her/his responsibility of teaching effectiveness in the class room. The number of articles that she/he has swirling around the globe becomes more important for the tenuring process than does effective engagement with students in the teaching encounters. The student/professor relationship tends toward a depersonalization in which the voice and the face of the student becomes marginalized as the research telos of the profession takes on a primary focus.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

These are very pertinent questions which need to be asked time and again as we continue our quest on the role of education in our fast moving academic environment. I can at best provide you with an abbreviated answer which would require considerable elaboration. What makes a good teacher today? Given that we are now living in an information age a good teacher will need to be abreast of the relevant information in his specialty. But good teaching is more than the retrieval and cataloging of bits of information. Good teaching also involves, and I would say primarily so, critical thinking, awareness of conflicts of interpretation, and skills of genuine communication. The latter is of crucial importance. Communication is the marrow of the educational experience and should never be confused with information retrieval. This places an extraordinary demand on the “good” teacher, for s/he must move out from the questions and concerns that are uppermost in the minds of the students. This involves the difficult task of understanding the context from which the students questions flow—and an understanding of context that involves a measure of empathic identification with the mind of the student. One does not fulfill the requirement of good teaching by constructing answers to questions that students are not asking.

Another requirement for good teaching that follows from the above has to do with the balance of teaching excellence with scholarly production. Because the information age tends to confuse the collating of bits of information in sundry forms of media for genuine communication, review committees for advancement in the university are prone to highlight the number of journal articles and books produced by the candidate for promotion and pay little attention to students’ evaluations of the effectiveness of teaching. Unfortunately the well worn criterion, “Publish or Perish”, still is called upon in our varied citadels of higher learning. Now it must be understood however that what is at issue in good teaching is not a rejection of scholarly studies and publication in the relevant journals. The point is that the two aspects, communication skills and scholarly research, need to be properly balanced. Teaching and research reinforce each other. To be a good teacher is to be effective in imparting a knowledge that is won through the travails of disciplined research.

The second part of your question is more difficult to address. “Attention deficit” and “information overflow” are problems that travel with the emergence of the information age as it expands the space of the age of technology and inherits some of the problems that it had already created. This is especially the case with what you refer to as “information overflow”. The technologization of information retrieval does indeed invite a variety of sensory overload in which the person caught up in the super abundance of information on this and that stands to lose a center from which to respond, and in the end stands in danger of losing her/his identity as an authentic self by becoming nothing more than a conduit in the flow of information. The other issue that you cite, namely “attention deficit”, may well be one of the results of the loss of self as it is caught up in the continuing information overflow. And this can lead to what appears today to be an increase of the medical symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder among the youth in our land. It is at this juncture that medical and educational resources need to cooperate hand in hand in working out resolutions to this troubling phenomenon.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

My advice to young graduate students who wish to enter the world of academia would depend on their selected fields of study. Given the current market conditions my advice would depend on whether they are in a scientific or liberal arts field. We must be honest in counseling liberal arts students and point out the difficulty of securing a position at a university or college because of lack of openings. There are very few positions for new appointments in their chosen fields. The situation is somewhat better for graduates competing for openings in math and the physical sciences. In either case, however, young graduate students should be informed of procedures for promotion at the selected college or university and be aware of the usual requirements of achieving a good record of publication coupled with excellence in teaching.

You are one of the most influential figures in the multidisciplinary field of philosophy and communication. How did you realize that there were important yet unexplored connections between these two disciplines, and what are some of the most significant points of contact between them?

The connection between the two disciplines go all the way back to the ancients and the medievals. Aristotle wrote a book on rhetoric and provided rhetoric with a philosophical foundation. Later rhetoric, logic, and grammar became the tripod of medieval learning. It is thus that there is an interesting history of the connections of rhetoric, logic, and grammar, without which what is called “communication” today would be under some quite pronounced restrictions. Yet, new faces of communication have appeared in the developments of modern and especiallypostmodern thought, resulting from the developments of existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, critical theory, etc,

So in addition to my interests in the historical developments in the cross fertilization of rhetoric and logic, my attention turned to some of the new faces of communication within the corridors of the changing scene in modern and postmodern philosophical thought. My book, Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity, was very much a continuing conversation with Jürgen Habermas, and especially with his two volume work, The Theory of Communicative Action. This conversation was both constructive and critical. My main reservations at the time had to do withhis theory of rationality which continued to be linked to the transcendental epistemological foundations of modernity. I was of the view that there are modes of communication that extend beyond modern rationality with its criteriological epistemic conditions determined in advance of the event of communication. Plainly enough, there are examples of direct communication which use the resources of constative forms of expression, but there are also indirect forms of communication that display the uses of irony, satire, metaphor, and other tropes in which the speaker communicates with his hearer. Communication is not bound to the rationalist criteria as set up by the minds of modernity.

The other formative influence on my work on the relation of philosophy to communication came from the ground breaking thought in contemporary phenomenology and hermeneutics – and principally that of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. What we have learned from these two thinkers, and their like-minded associates, is that there is a pre-conceptual understanding of what it means to be a human self and the world in which s/he exists. The epistemological subject-object dichotomy with its subsequent reduction of language to the play of sign and its referential signified is deconstructed. The language of everyday communication is freed from its modern epistemological requirement, and is able to disclose the concrete interdependence of self and world in its practical quotidian uses as well as in its poetic aspirations. At this juncture, it needs be said, the relevance of the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his return to ordinary language also opened new pathways to an alignment of philosophy and communication.

Toward the end of his life, Marshall McLuhan declared: “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” How can phenomenology and communication studies reinforce each other in this age of information and digital interactive media?

This is the first time that I have learned of this particular quote from McLuhan, which of course indicates that my knowledge of McLuhan’s writings is regrettably of a quite meager sort. I simply am not familiar enough with his works to speculate on how phenomenology impacted his own thinking. But I find it interesting that this question follows directly on the heels of the previous one, in which I was asked to list some of the formative influences in my own philosophical appropriation of phenomenology as one of the sources of my interest in communication.

Hence the most that I can do in responding to this question is to mark out some of the main themes in phenomenology that could well have been appropriated by current philosophers, social scientists, linguists, and communication theorists. This inevitably becomes quite a challenge given that there are numerous sorts and divisions of phenomenological approaches. These would include, for example the transcendental phenomenological idealism of the early Husserl, the phenomenological ontology of Martin Heidegger, the existential phenomenology of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the social phenomenology of Alfred Schutz. But the list does not end here because there are distinctions within these approaches, for example the distinction between the early Husserl with its presentation of “phenomenology as a rigorous science” and the later works of Husserl that mark out “a return to the life world (Lebenswelt)), making the point in his last published work, The Crisis of the European Sciences, that the idea of phenomenology as a rigorous science is a dream that is now over.Plainlyenough,it is Husserl’s later descriptions of the concrete existential subject making his/her way around the life world, articulating concerns in the everyday discourse of one’s being in he world, that has elicited the most attention by communication theorists.

However instead of supplying you with a bibliography of names of individuals who had something to say about communication, let me attempt to consolidate what I would consider the main points or issues in the relation of phenomenology to communication. A) The emphasis on praxis rather than theory. The phenomenologist seeks to describe and interpret the phenomenon of communication as it shows itself in its lived concreteness rather than through a derivation from a theoretical construct. B) From this accentuation of the practicalfeatures of the communicative event phenomenological attention will be focused on the concretely embodied performances of the speaker and hearer. Phenomenology investigates the meaning in the locutions of the speaker as they are directed to the hearer, and seeks to decipher the responses by the respondent in the life of the conversation between speaker and hearer. C) The meaning of the exchanges in the communicative event requires the application of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, to sort out the roles that the speaker and hearer play in the determination of the meanings in what is said. D) Insofar as the emergent meanings cannot be readily understood by somehow entering the minds of the speaker and hearer, the hermeneutical demand requires an examination of the background of meanings already extant, supplying the context for understanding. Phenomenological communication is always contextualizedinterpretation. E) Phenomenology gives attention to the variety of modes of communication, and not simply to the distinction between oral and written communication, but to the more subtle differences that extend across the forms, such as the difference between locutionary and perlocutionary utterances, prosaic and poetical forms, metaphorical reference versus objective reference, the relevance of silence in the communicative endeavor, etc.

The above consists of very abbreviated issues and concerns in the linkage of phenomenology and communication. Now whether McLuhan had some of these in mind when he declared that Phenomenology is that which he has been presenting for many years, I am unable to tell.

What is communication anyway? Do you think communication studies should be a discipline in the first place – concerned as it is with a sort ofnothingness, i.e., the effects stemming from technological environments?

This is a very important question, and it would take many pages to provide you with an adequate response. So I will need to make an abbreviated response in an effort to hit upon some of the central issues at stake in your question. First off, what is communication anyway and should it be a specific discipline in the contemporary university?  The question has two parts that need to be sorted out. What is to be understood of communication as an event–or even better understood as a mode of human existence–and to what extent does it qualify as a specialization in a “Department of Communication” alongside the course offerings in other departments?

By speaking of communication as a mode of human existence I mean that in our speaking and listening and in our writing and responding we to a great measure constitute the beings that we are. One could speak of this as the ontological dimension of communication. It is through communication that we become who we are. There is also an epistemological function of communication, which requires a deconstruction of the subject-centered approach to knowledge as defined by the modernists, and especially as promulgated by Descartes as “the father of modern philosophy”. Descartes sought the basis for knowledge by way of his famous procedure of hyperbolic doubt, whereby he was able to doubt everything except the fact that he was doubting. Here Descartes was of the mind that he had discovered the ego-centric foundation of knowledge. But is it not the case that the “other”, either as individual or as a community, first enables one to think and reflect, and in this thinking and reflecting achieves knowledge by responding to the call of the “other”. It is thus that communication plays a more decisive role in self-knowledge and self-constitution than the egocentric approach of modernity is able to recognize. Descartes celebrated one-liner, cogito ergo sum, needs to be reformulated into a colloquy ergo sum.Before the “I think, therefore am” comes the “I communicate, therefore I am”, Communication is constitutive of who I am, as it is also constitutive of the knowledge about myself as a member of the human race.

Such is my very brief response to the first part of your question. Now as to the place of communication as a special “discipline” in the course offerings at a college or university, much will depend on how the specific courses are named and described.

Communication as constitutive of our being and knowledge of one’s self should be understood as operating in a predisciplinary space. However residing in this predisciplinary and multifaceted space, there are numerous profiles that can be can be focused on for specific analysis, description, and interpretation, including rhetoric with its own range and depth of questioning, organizational communication with its own research into the structure and dynamics of social institutions, journalism which needs to attend to the multiplicity of media reporting the events of the day and the effects of the changing technologies on the several media, communication having to deal with issues of race, gender, and ethnic origins – among other specific course titles! Communication is a complex phenomenon that shows itself in many profiles and modalities. The task is to keep the encompassing workings of communication from being reduced to any one of its perspectival profiles.

You have also written extensively about the Self. Your book The Self After Post-modernity is a comprehensive treatment of the question of selfhood. What do you make of the “death of the author/subject”? Is it possible to revive the body, perception, and the self after post-modernity?

Yes, some of my published works deal with the problem of the self, and the one in which I deal specifically with the problem is the one that you mentioned. In this book, The Self After Postmodernity, which was originally presented as a series of lectures under the auspices of the annual Gilbert Ryle Lectureship, I develop four entwined portraits of self hood: the self in discourse, the self in action, the self in community, and the self in transcendence. The underlying motive in doing this work was to develop an analysis that splits the difference in the feud between the moderns and the postmoderns on what constitutes selfhood.

The moderns, who themselves come in a variety of packages, argued for the self understood as a thinking substance (Descartes), the self as simply a cluster of sense perceptions (Hume), the self as a transcendental ego (Kant), the self in the process of overcoming its finitude (Hegel), were all influenced by the modern mindset of  the need for philosophical construction. The postmoderns, consisting of philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes, subjected the modern mindset to a radical critique, calling for a deconstruction of all traditional categories and overarching schemata in search for the human self. It is thus that the call for deconstruction became the pivotal notion for the postmodernists, and this then became, as you indicate in your question, the basis for the proclamation of “the death of the author/subject”. Now this proclamation was articulated in different forms, such as the “death of Man” by Foucault, who read his proclamation as a natural consequence of Nietzsche’s announcement of the “Death of God”. And then there was another aspect of the dying that was taking place, promulgated by such as the literary critic, Roland Barth, who made a case for “the death of the author” to which you refer in your question. This becomes a major concern for you in your concluding question, “Is it possible to revive the body, perception, and the self after postmodernity?”

This was precisely also my concern as I worked through the various writings by the postmodern philosophers and literary critics. Admittedly, I was never all that fond of the heavy metaphysical baggage that the modernists carried with them in their searches for the self, for example the employment of doctrines of substance, soul/body bifurcations, universal categories, transcendental entities, and the like. Hence I had some sympathies with the postmodern call for deconstruction. There is indeed much in the tradition that is ripe for deconstruction. On this I was in accord with the postmoderns, but I chided them for failing to realize that the basic truth of deconstruction resides in the fact that no complete deconstruction is possible. The self, I argued, is not an unchanging substance, or a transcendental ego, or a universal entity of some sort, or an abstract assimilation of attributes and properties. No, the self is a concrete, life affirming, sensing and perceiving lived body, dynamically changing and developing in its struggle for self-knowledge and self-constitution. The self is a wayfarer along life’s way who is able to understand and constitute itself in its discourse, its action, its community, and its encounters with transcendence.

The following question was drafted by Professor Corey Anton“what are the challenges and opportunities of self within the changing communication landscape, e.g., the possibility and meaning of immortality technologies, and perhaps also the role of community in the future given the rise of distance communication technologies?”

I am particularly interested in Professor Anton’s inquiry, as it deals with a quite urgent matter in present day communication, namely the encounter of communication with technology. This is a difficult matter to address as there are clearly both positive and negative features in the role of communication in the age of technology. That technology has made possible global exchange of information virtually in an instant of time is clearly a positive. The securing of medical information from a distant medical facility via electronic mail to save the life of a critically ill patient in a remote sector of the country is surely to be considered as a notable advance made possible by current technological developments. In the globalization of the current age, the resources provided by the developing technologies of rapid information retrieval open new possibilities for advances in international relations in economics and politics.

So there is much that can be said of the positive spin off from technological design and implementation. Yet, there are certain pesky problems that often make their presence felt in our age of technology. Permit me in the restricted space allotted in an interview of this sort to briefly discuss two closely related problems. The one has to do with the required distinction between “communication” and “information”. Information may well stand in the service of communication. When we communicate we do at times make use of information, particularly when we are dealing with objective matters of fact. But communication itself is never simply the presentation of algorithms and scientific facts congealed as a data base. Thus it is necessary to avoid confusing communication with information retrieval processes.

The conflating of communication with information leads to another problem that comes to the fore in what Professor Anton refers to as “the rise of distance communication technologies”`: the phrase “distance learning”, which may well be an oxymoron, has contributed a fair amount of misunderstanding and particularly among those in the teaching professions. Distance information retrieval, yes, but no “distance learning”. Learning, as has been known since the time of Socrates, and no doubt earlier, is what occurs through embodied human interaction. The communication that takes place in the transaction of teacher and learner requires the dialectical process of proceeding from lower to higher stages of understanding that transcends the anonymity made possible by the developing technology of information retrieval. Genuine communication is not an anonymous and disembodied transfer of raw data. It involves the lived body of the teacher and the lived body of the learner, each with their face and voice and general bodily comportments that convey their own meanings in the communicative process of interaction of teacher and learner in the pursuit of an understanding that is won through the give and take of a genuine rhetorical encounter. Such is the nature and dynamics of communication as a form of life.

What are you currently working on?

I believe it was Joe DiMaggio who once said upon his retirement, “There are only so many hits in my bat”. My reply to your question is similar to his: “There are only so many books in my head!” As an aging senior citizen strains on my bodily and mental energy are beginning to take their toll. From time to time I still present colloquium papers at professional conferences and at other universities. I have developed a more focused interest in political and legal philosophy in my later years and am currently experimenting with a paper on “The Transvaluation of Human Rights”. But I have no desire to write yet another book.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Calvin Schrag
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Calvin Schrag,” Figure/Ground. January 24th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-calvin-o-schrag/ >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com