Interview with David Cerbone

© David Cerbone and Figure/Ground
Dr. Cerbone was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 5th, 2010.

David Cerbone is a Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University, where he specializes in 20th century continental philosophy. His ongoing research focuses primarily on the phenomenological tradition (with an emphasis on the work of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl), Wittgenstein, and early analytic philosophy. His research in these two domains overlaps considerably: he looks to both areas for resources for understanding and criticizing traditional philosophical problems (e.g. problems oriented around skepticism, realism, and idealism), as well as currently dominant philosophical views, most notably naturalism in various forms (scientism, physicalism, materialism). His most recent work has primarily been concerned with the latter, with the often antagonistic relation between phenomenology and scientific naturalism. He is interested in documenting both the attractions and dissatisfactions of naturalistic accounts of human beings and the world, so as to ascertain more fully just what phenomenology has to contribute to our self-understanding. Professor Cerbone is the author of Understanding Phenomenology and Heidegger: a Guide for the Perplexed.

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

I decided very early on (first year of college), at least indirectly.  What I mean here is that I remember consciously deciding at that time to become a graduate student in philosophy, fully realizing that this would lead more than likely to becoming (or trying to become) a professor.  I’m pretty confident I can blame nearly all of it on the section leader I had for my introductory philosophy course, Randall Havas.  I thought that he was the smartest, coolest person I had ever met, and he became my exemplar and mentor.  (We subsequently became – and still are – very close friends.  He stood up for me at my wedding, and he’s become a mentor to me on dog training as well.)  Randall encouraged me to continue with graduate work in philosophy.  He had also been an undergraduate at Berkeley, so it was through him that I learned more about the faculty there, especially Hubert Dreyfus.  There was at that time a lot of Harvard-Berkeley traffic (Berkeley undergraduates becoming Harvard grad students, and Harvard undergraduates heading off to Berkeley), and I tuned into that pattern pretty quickly. I remember visiting Berkeley one summer when I was out visiting my brother, who was living near there.  I sat in on lectures by Donald Davidson and John Searle and also explored Berkeley quite a bit.  I think that cemented my decision.

How did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

I don’t have a real sense of any dramatic change, in that professors still teach most classes in the usual way, publish papers and books, go to conferences, and so on.  Things have changed at the level of detail, for example in the way that technology is changing the structure of classrooms:  many professors use PowerPoint and other gizmotronics in their teaching, more things are done online through university-sponsored websites, that sort of thing.  For my part, I still prefer chalk-and-chalkboard, so I probably teach in pretty much the same way as my professors did when I was an undergraduate.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in this age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?

This is actually a pretty sensitive subject for me right now, as the second question especially is something I’ve been actively pondering.  I teach large introductory lecture courses, among other things, and over the past couple of years I’ve started to notice students here and there – especially in the nosebleed seats – texting in the middle of class.  I very rarely interrupt class to call them on it, but it does bother me that a student considers that acceptable behaviour during class.  (It also makes me less surprised when students do poorly on the exam.)  Then again, you hear so much about texting and driving that doing it during class should hardly seem shocking.  People seem to be increasingly wedded to these powerful little devices and it’s hard (for me) to figure out how best to combat their influence.  A lot of professors in my department decided to put a “no device” statement in their syllabi this semester.  I opted not to, primarily because of questions concerning enforcement.  For one thing, I don’t want to devote any energy to watching for the clever student who keeps his or her iPhone or Blackberry on her lap, but also many students use laptops to take notes.  Do I really want to go around and check to make sure they are taking notes, rather than updating their Facebook pages or booking their spring break trip?  There’s also a part of me that feels that if students want to text rather than pay attention, then it’s their loss; it’s not like talking on the phone or noisily rustling the newspaper, so it doesn’t really affect the students around them.  College students are legally adults in most respects, so they need to figure things like that out.

I’ve actually been more worried of late about my smaller, upper-division courses, not because of texting and the like but because I’ve noticed a sharp decline in students reading the assigned material.  I’ve been amazed over the last few semesters especially at how many of the students seem to read little to none of what is assigned to them.  Instead, they try to pick up what’s what from what I say in class (which ends up being more lecturing than I’d like, because they do not come in ready to discuss the material).  I should note that I do not lay it on thick in terms of reading assignments.  The stuff I assign – phenomenology, existentialism, deconstruction, and so on – is hard, but I give it out in small doses, usually less than twenty pages for an entire week.  But no matter how small the assignment, it still does not get read.  I had started to take it personally, thinking it had to do with how I taught or the kind of thing I’m trying to get students to read, but in talking to colleagues, it seems to be a more pervasive problem.  Even in the most advanced undergraduate seminars in my department, students very frequently do not read the assigned material.  The deep worry I have in this direction is whether students are losing – or simply lack – the necessary reading skills really to do the reading, in the sense of having the patience and attentiveness to wrestle with “difficult” writing.  I have yet to hit on a winning formula for overcoming this problem.  I’ve been loathe to resort to pop quizzes and the like, but it may come to that.

Are you of the opinion that ICTs and social media make us stupid? Do you think today’s generation is the “dumbest generation”?

I would never say anything that sweeping (although when you hear about texting and driving, it is tempting).  And besides, I think there are many many positive dimensions to these new technologies.  I live in rural West Virginia.  My house is fairly isolated and even with respect to university life, I’m still relatively isolated in the sense that very few members of faculty are interested in things like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, phenomenology, or continental philosophy more generally.  It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without such things as e-mail and the Internet.  I can stay in touch with people, find things out more quickly and easily, share my work with others, and so on.  All of this would have been much more difficult in the days of only the telephone and the stamp.  (I also spend a lot of time doing photography and for this, the web has been invaluable:  there are some really great online communities where people who are passionate about photography can share ideas, techniques, and work.  I’m pretty sure that being a part of these communities has made me a better photographer.) Having said that, I do nonetheless worry about the level of stimulation and distraction these technologies seem to create.  It is very hard for people to ignore them – to turn them off, leave them at home, and so on – and so people seem to be constantly distracted (or on the verge of being distracted).  I have on occasion walked by the student lounge and noticed students talking to one another, while also having their laptops open and cell phones out.  So, there’s conversation, texting, and web surfing (usually Facebook updates) going on all at once, and it’s hard for me to see how any of those things are getting sufficient attention, especially the conversation that’s actually happening there in the room.  Can you really converse with any depth if you’re simultaneously attending to your laptop and your phone?  And to go back to something I mentioned above, I wonder about the effect of these things on reading.  Reading philosophy requires effort and patience, a willingness to read slowly and attentively.  Texting, web surfing, and the like do not really cultivate those skills; indeed they seem to make people far less patient and careful (consider how hazardous e-mail communication can be). I have seen some studies about brain development that underscore the importance of reading for deep cognitive development, so it worries me that students are less and less willing to read because, to press the worry, I wonder if it will make them less and less able ultimately to read at a deep level.

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

My dissertation advisor – Barry Stroud – gave me some really excellent advice that I do not think I can improve upon.  For those who are still in graduate school, always remember that the dissertation is the last piece of writing you’ll do as a graduate student.  I think what Barry meant was that although the dissertation is important and should be taken seriously, it is not – and should not become – your life’s work, something to try endlessly to perfect.  When I first got to Berkeley, a lot of people seemed to be taking forever to finish graduate school (the national average in Philosophy was over eight years at the time), and I think Barry’s advice is good for helping to avoid that.  For those in grad school or already professing, the second thing Barry told me was always to distinguish between the discipline and the profession.  What matters philosophically is not the same as what matters for advancing one’s career.  I think this distinction is hard to keep sight of, given the pressures and difficulties of the job-market and tenure-track (if one is lucky enough to get on tenure-track).  I don’t know if I’ve always succeeded in following it.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school, and what did you learn from them?

I feel like I got a lot of support during graduate school.  The faculty at Berkeley were generally very supportive and encouraging.  My primary mentors were Barry Stroud, Hubert Dreyfus, Hans Sluga, and David Stern, but I also got a lot of help from Alan Code, Daniel Warren, Hannah Ginsborg, Elizabeth Lloyd, and Janet Broughton (among others).  Bert was especially influential in terms of my interest in Heidegger, as well as phenomenology more generally, while Hans seems to know something about nearly everything (Frege, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, logic, art, politics, and so on).  I think Barry had the biggest influence on my philosophical sensibilities.  I continue to admire his incredibly meticulous approach to philosophical questions and problems.  I think Barry is the best philosophical worrier I’ve ever come across (in more than one sense of “worry”).  I have tried, over the years, to follow his example, although it most often feels like an unrealizable ideal for me.  Occasionally, people respond to something I’ve written by remarking that it is reminiscent of Stroud (even when I hadn’t been thinking especially about Barry or anything he’s written).  For me, this is tremendously flattering.

As you probably know, Hubert Dreyfus was recently featured in the movie Being in the World, directed by Tao Ruspoli; the film centers around the notion of “ongoing skilful coping” or “mindless everyday coping.” Do these terms capture the pre-reflective state of playful absorptive engagement with the world driven by operative intentionality? 

I have not yet seen Tao’s film, though I certainly know the cast of characters quite well, at least the academic end of it.  The phrase “mindless coping” strikes me – has always struck me – as particularly problematic, as the qualifier “mindless” suggests something unintelligent, maybe even zombie-like about the activity.  But it is misleading in a more fundamental way:  the whole point of, say, Heidegger’s appeal to “circumspective concern” or Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “motor intentionality” is to name and develop a phenomenologically accurate and so less philosophically distorted account precisely of mindedness.  Merleau-Ponty says in Phenomenology of Perception that “consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’.”  It seems to me to be crucially important not to lose sight of the fact that Merleau-Ponty is here characterizingconsciousness, and so nothing at all “mindless.”  Rather, I read him as trying to get clearer about what it comes to for us to be minded as we are, what it means to have experience, and I don’t think you’re going to get very far in that endeavor if you simply delete the notion of experience from the start.  (Dreyfus on occasion cites approvingly Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of us as “empty heads open on a world,” but if you check the context, he is actually talking about children’sconception of other people rather than any kind optimal state.)

That said, I don’t balk particularly at some of the variants on the phrase:  “absorbed coping” and “ongoing skillful coping” strike me as less problematic.  There are some unwanted connotations that come along with “coping,” which suggests managing to deal with some adversity, but those seem easier to avoid than the ones attaching to “mindless.”  I think there is a genuine phenomenon that Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are onto here and I think they’re right that getting clear about this phenomenon reorients how one thinks about the philosophical tradition they’re emerging from, but also how one thinks about current trends in philosophy, such as various forms of scientific naturalism.  Thus, I don’t think worries about terminology are central, though I see no reason to cede concepts like “mind,” “consciousness,” and “reason” to the tradition phenomenology generally opposes.

What you call a “labour of love” certainly has nothing mindless about it, nor should it be understood in terms of the kind of impersonal anonymity Heidegger discusses under the rubric of das Man.  To become absorbed in such a labor is not to become transparent, but instead to become more attuned, more attentive, more responsive.  Dreyfus is right that this way of being skillfully attuned is not a matter of self-consciously (or even implicitly) following a set of rules; part of the freedom that comes from mastering a skill is the way one becomes open to the situation in its particularity, but that openness is something one experiences.  It is not the absence of experience.

I guess the next ‘logical’ question might be, does the body “think”?

Putting it that way does sound odd, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it would be better to say that thinking is a bodily – or embodied – activity.  While there are cases where we are thinking in ways that approximate a more disembodied stance, e.g. when we’re running through something in our heads or thinking about something very abstract, we need to be careful not to overread those kinds of cases, and in at least two ways:  first, there are other forms of thinking that are clearly embodied.  Consider cases where I’m getting the feel of a new piece of equipment (for me, it’s often a new camera or lens).  Here, the learning process is clearly bound up with my exploration of the item:  turning it about in my hands, looking at it in various ways, probing and testing the various parts, making guesses sometimes about what this or that lever or button does.  That kind of activity is a form of thought, a way of engaging mindedly with the world, which seems unintelligible in the absence of the body (even Husserl – Dreyfus’ arch-nemesis on occasion – recognized the importance of free bodily exploration for the possibility of objective thought).  Second, though, is that even the less directly bodily forms of thinking still presuppose a more explicitly bodily engagement, i.e. without more direct bodily engagement with the world abstract forms of thought would not be possible.  Phenomenology is especially good at bringing this out.  Husserl is already on to this in Ideas II, but Merleau-Ponty develops it to the greatest extent in Phenomenology of Perception with the primacy of “I can” and his ideas about motor-intentionality.

Richard Rorty once identified Heidegger, Dewey, and Wittgenstein as the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Having read both Heidegger and Dewey, I personally could not agree with him more. In fact, I began reading the post-modernists as an undergraduate, however, by the time I got to graduate school I realized that one could not understand Baudrillard without McLuhan; that one could not make full sense of Derrida without Heidegger, and so on. So I went back and took on Being and Time and Phenomenology of Perception; and the more I studied them, the more I felt as though everything the post-modernists talked about was in a way “always already” there in those classic texts. I am curious about your take on the relationship between post-modernism/post-structuralism and existential phenomenology. Some point to a “missed” existential turn and blame it on Schutz’ influence in North American theorizing – that is, its “uncritical” appropriation of Husserl (Anton, 2001); others speak of “an unspoken goal of the post-structuralist project to render Sartre history” (Martinot, 1991), and in a recent interview, Iain Thomson declared that the father of post-modernism was none other than Heidegger. What do you make of all this and where does Wittgenstein fit in?

There’s a lot going on in this question, so it is hard to know just where to start in answering it.  I’m not familiar with some of the specific references you make – to Martinot and to Anton – so I cannot comment with any confidence on their particular claims about the appropriation of Husserl or the goals of post-structuralism.  The thing about terms like post-structuralism and, even more so,postmodernism is that they are awfully hard to pin down, and so I think it is hard to adjudicate claims made about the relations certain figures may or may not have to them.  Having said that, I do think your own discovery is generally right, i.e. that many of the figures associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism are considerably more intelligible if read against the background of phenomenology (and I would include Husserl here, who’s absolutely essential for Derrida).  Even if the relation is one of opposition, that is only going to come into view by first getting clear on just what is being opposed (and one can also then view the later criticisms more critically, e.g. is Derrida right in reading Husserl as implicated in a general “metaphysics of presence”?).  But I also think there’s something to your sense of “already there,” in that a lot of what gets emphasized in postmodernism and post-structuralism is already on display in a lot of phenomenology and existentialism.

But to say much beyond this requires having a somewhat more definite conception of postmodernism or post-structuralism in mind.  So take Lyotard’s proposal that postmodernism is marked by incredulity toward any kind of metanarrative, any sort of grand overarching account that makes sense of it all.  Postmodernism is in this sense a kind of scepticism concerning the possibility of philosophy.  Now, using this definition, there’s certainly going to be some tension between postmodernism and the Heidegger of Being and Time, at least in the sense that “fundamental ontology” looks like a kind of metanarrative.  But the more existentialist strand of Heidegger’s thought – and so Sartre’s existentialism – cannot be so readily dismissed from this perspective.  One way of cashing out Sartre’s slogan that “existence precedes essence” is that one must construct and evaluate one’s narrative in the absence of any metanarrative (or, to put it in Nietzschean terms, to construct the view that best accords with the insight that every view is an interpretation.).  You could argue, I suppose, that there’s still a metanarrative there – to the effect that God is dead – but it’s not much of one; indeed, it’s hardly distinguishable from Lyotard’s definition.  So is Lyotard’s postmodernism a new view or is it already there in existentialism or in Nietzsche?  It’s at least foreshadowed in some very significant ways.

But there’s also later Heidegger.  Though I don’t want to try to channel Iain’s views, I suspect he was thinking more of late Heidegger in his pronouncement that Heidegger was the father of postmodernism.  I know that Iain has a very definite idea of Heidegger’s relation to modernism that gets worked out in his views about art and aesthetics, but even without getting into those kinds of details, just consider Heidegger’s titling a collection of his essays Holzwege.  The image of his thinking as pathways through a forest again suggests a resistance to any kind of metanarrative:  there is no one true path, no final destination, not even necessarily a connection between one path and every other.  Heidegger’s refusal to systematize his later thinking marks a kind of postmodern mindset.  I don’t know if Heidegger is always true to this kind of piecemeal, fragmentary anti-systematicity.  For example, his appeal to dwelling seems to have a kind of normative force for all human beings, just insofar as they’re human.

You asked about where Wittgenstein fits in.  Consider the Preface to theInvestigations, where he describes the work as “a number of sketches of landscapes,” and as traveling “over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.”  That certainly resonates with Heidegger’s Holzwege imagery.  Again, in Wittgenstein we see a kind of refusal of systematicity, and in that sense, a refusal of philosophy understood as kind of general explanatory project.  That Wittgenstein lurks in the background of postmodernism is hardly surprising, given Lyotard’s appropriation – for better or for worse – of Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games. (I should note here that I’m generally sympathetic to Rorty’s criticisms of Lyotard, some of which are entered on Wittgenstein’s behalf.)

What are you currently working on?

This feels like a hard question to answer during the second-to-last week of the semester, when my own work feels both far away and yet, with a break from teaching, getting perhaps a little bit closer.  I just finished up a paper on phenomenological method, which will appear in the Routledge Guidebook to Phenomenology.  I’m also in the very early stages of thinking about Heidegger and Wittgenstein in relation to architecture (and so in relation to postmodernism in a different sense).  I’m interested especially in getting clearer about Heidegger’s appeals in his later writings to dwelling, especially in relation to Wittgenstein’s philosophy as calling us back to the “rough ground.”  Beyond their interrelation, I’m wondering about the ways specific conceptions of architecture may be understood as expressing concretely these philosophical ideas.  I’m going to need to learn a lot to make progress on this project, as I’m pretty much an outsider when it comes to architecture and architectural theory.

As for the “next book,” that’s a little murkier than I’d like it to be.  I currently have a book project – What is Continental Philosophy? – that I’m working on for Cambridge (it’s meant to be a companion of sorts to the volume on analytic philosophy that Hans-Johann Glock wrote).  However, it is going very slowly at the moment.  I find that the more I think about the term “continental philosophy” and the so-called analytic-continental divide, the more problematic I find these labels and oppositions to be, and so the less I feel I have an answer to the question the book’s title poses.  The more I think about it, the more the question comes to seem loaded, or as requiring more of a meta-level answer than anything else.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with David Cerbone,” Figure/Ground. December 5th.
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