Interview with Dermot Moran

© Dermot Moran and Figure/Ground
Dr. Moran was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 12th, 2011.

Dr. Dermot Moran is Professor of Philosophy (Logic and Metaphysics) at University College Dublin. He previously taught at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Queen’s University of Belfast, and Yale University. He has served as a visiting professor of philosophy in many universities around the world, including Rice University, Sorbonne, University at Albany, SUNY, Catholic University of Leuven, Trinity College Dublin, Connecticut College and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He has been an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy since March 2003 and has been involved in the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie, the highest non-governmental world organization for philosophy, since the 1980s. He is the founding editor ofInternational Journal of Philosophical Studies, published by Routledge, and co-editor of Contributions To Phenomenology book series, published by Springer. His book Introduction to Phenomenology was awarded the Edward Goodwin Ballard Prize in Phenomenology (2001) and was translated in Chinese. A Turkish translation of the book is in preparation. Moran has also been elected President of the Programme Committee for the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy which is scheduled to take place in Athens in 2013.

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

Well, I always wanted to be a teacher, and even in my high school I was already asked to teach some of the other classes – especially mathematics, because I was actually very good at it. So I wanted to go on with math in university, but I was also interested in literature and I was writing and publishing poetry at the time. I was really torn between the two, so I actually enrolled in both English and mathematics; that was in 1970s, which was prior to computers, and they allowed me to do so – but three weeks into the course I discovered that all the English lectures were at the same time as the math lectures. I had to make a choice, so I picked English and then from there I chose philosophy to replace the mathematics, moving gradually into philosophy.

Originally when I went to Yale, I was going initially to do a one-year master’s degree. It was only when I got there that I discovered that I could turn my master’s into a PhD, and that really made me think that I wanted to be a university professor. So it was not originally a conscious choice. I might also add that when I left Yale, which was in 1978, there were no university jobs available, so I spent a year working in a bookshop and so on until I did get a temporary university position back in Belfast. Even if you wanted to be a university professor a the time, that did not mean that you got to be one.

It sounds like the job market back in the late 70s was somewhat comparable to today’s market…

It was exactly like right now; we are going through a cycle. What happened was that there was a large expansion in the 60s, and then in the 70s – especially after the oil crisis in the US in ‘73/74 – many of my colleagues at Yale who finished PhDs were moving either to Business school or Law school because they didn’t see any future in academia. And we are back at that situation again, unfortunately.

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

My own sense of this is that the media did not change radically until extremely recently. I don’t think that radio, television, phone calls and faxes changed the university at all; I think where the change has been, very recently, is in the provision of these electronic ways of teaching, for example, Blackboard. These commercial packages have led to a kind of ‘infantilization’ of students and professors alike. Students especially now expect everything to be on this electronic blackboard; they expect you to upload everything and just click on it. I always tell them that they still should go to the library and search for books, because often where you are supposed to find the book that you are looking for you will find other books that are even more interesting. You have to actually do the physical work of walking around in the library, and very few people want to do that; as a result, experience is impoverished. That is ironic because you would have thought that with hyper-textuality and the Internet, the range of reference would be broader; but I found that actually the opposite has happened. It’s all surface too: I just read a study which said that the research for most undergraduate essays nowadays is based on the first page of a Google search, whereas, even if the relevant information were all on the Internet, the really interesting stuff might be on page 13th of Google. The students either do not have the time or the patience or lack the scholarly sense to conduct proper research. So that’s from the university side.

On the professor’s side, what really worries me is that we are regarded more and more as service providers. I was discussing this yesterday evening in France where I was, and we were all saying that – in the US especially, but now also in Europe – the students think nothing of emailing you anytime of the day or night to say “I can’t find this on Blackboard” or “I’m writing my essay, is it okay to cite this book?” There is just a complete lack of recognition of what used to be back in our day the more senior role of the professor as having more serious duties to perform than to answer rather trivial emails from students about materials that they could find themselves. So my view is that these Blackboard-type platforms are changing things very radically, but I don’t think in a good way.

You seem to be suggesting that there is a great deal of babysitting taking place in these new electronic environments we dwell in, but isn’t your position regarding the role of teachers and educators somewhat elitist?

Actually, I think you are right, and of course, I would sound elitist in saying that. Well, even yesterday, talking with my colleagues – a French person, an American, and myself – we were all wondering whether it would be a terrible mistake to not answer emails at all. That sounds elitist; but on the other hand, we are in a constant situation where we get cold calls, spam emails, etc., and we are overwhelmed. I think we ought to have some sort of limit. We have office hours and people rarely come physically to your office, but the night the paper is due they think it is fine to just send emails. I think they miss the role of independent studies.

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

I think it is easy to command attention if your material is interesting. Although I very early took on using PowerPoint, I now really hate it because it sends the students to sleep and freezes their capacity to engage with the material…

Which makes you wonder what we really mean by “interactivity”…

Yes, this so called interactive technology is not at all interactive. Look, I have a colleague who runs a Facebook page, and she has admitted to me that she does not even read it anymore; it is a requirement for the course that people engage with this page, but she just checks whether people have uploaded stuff for the course. So what we are doing here is rewarding people for pretending to participate; this is like, just because a person asks a question in the class, it does not mean that they are awake. So I do think that a good teacher senses this immediately, and will answer the right material. There is an intuitive way of being a teacher; there is a very human way of engaging with people, and all of this information overflow you describe is actually causing the problem. Right now I have a problem in class, and I am talking with other professors because we are considering taking off the provision of the WIFI in the lecture theatres. People are spending their time either uploading Facebook, or chatting, or texting each other. They are all multitasking. Or else – and this I find just as bad – they check on what you say by Googling every term that they do not understand. This causes a sort of deflection of attention. During one of my lectures, I was talking about Meinong, who is a German philosopher, and someone Googled meinung, which in German means “meaning” or “intention.” The student put the hand out because they mixed both terms up, though it was clear that I was talking about a human being and not the word meaning. And that kind of thing happens because they were only half listening.

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

I believe graduate students should be TAs. What is happening right now in Europe – I don’t know if it’s happening so much in America – is that a lot of the graduate Fellowships that are available specify “no teaching”; the funding says that you are not allowed to teach. I think that’s a mistake: graduate students only know they have learned something when they are able to teach it to somebody else.

As for aspiring university professors, I think it is really crucial to build a course thinking of the best courses that you yourself have taken. I like to build my courses around classical texts, so in my intro to philosophy we read Descartes’ Meditations. And when students ask me: “what else do you want me to read?” I say “nothing else; I just want you to read Descartes’ Meditations.” Students find that it is surprisingly hard. By week three, they are struggling to read one paragraph. So I think we need to restore the art of reading – how to read slowly and carefully –, because all of the major books in philosophy require that level of attention; and that’s something that you cannot get by any other way except by carefully reading, stopping and trying to figure things out.

I know somebody like Dreyfus, for example, when he teaches Heidegger, he only assigns up to 20 pages of Being and Time, because it’s such a condensed text…

Yes, absolutely. I heard him lecture, I never actually sat in a class of him – but I think that’s very good. Another thing that is very good for people to do at the graduate level is translation, because again, you can only really translate something if you understand it. So the challenge is really trying to get to understanding. Someone who was a terrific teacher was Gadamer, of course. I partook in seminars with Gadamer: one of the things he would do is announce the text in advance that he wanted to talk about, and when he came into the room he gave everyone five minutes to write down the questions that they were most interested in discussing concerning that text on a slip of paper. Then he collected up all the slips of paper and went through them and grouped them. And then he would talk about the five most prominent themes that would emerge out of those questions. So this was a really good way of connecting to what students wanted to know, and at the same time not just leaving it be a free for all where maybe one person dominates the discussion by asking questions that are not very intelligent – or questions beginning with the turn of phrase “by the way,” which are not directly connected. I think the discipline of listening is terribly important. Seamus Heaney once said that it is very hard listening to poetry, and he made a distinction between really listening to a poem and what he called “daydreaming along in sympathy.” I think it is the same in philosophy. It’s easier to daydream along in sympathy, but when you really go “wait a minute, why is Heidegger saying this?” it is much more difficult…

Let’s talk about your book, Introduction to Phenomenology, which was awarded the Edward Goodwin Ballard Prize in Phenomenology (2001) and has been translated into Chinese and Turkish…

Well, several people have said to me that, although the book is calledIntroduction to Phenomenology, it is actually quite an advanced text. This was deliberately so. I called it “Introduction to Phenomenology” because I thought of it as leading you into phenomenology along the lines of which Heidegger has a book called “Introduction to Metaphysics” instead of “Lectures to Metaphysics,” which were actually very difficult lectures. I don’t mean by “Introduction to Phenomenology” that this is a kind of lazy man’s handbook that will clearly explain all things about phenomenology at an undergraduate level. On the other hand, it’s being used like that, so curiously it has relatively succeeded in being a first introduction to phenomenology as well as an advanced introduction. I got an email from a person who was an expert in technical writing and taught technical writing in university – and by “technical” I mean writing the handbook for the latest Lotus racing car, or the handbook for flying an airplane; these are technical works of great sophistication that nevertheless have to be done in a relatively clear and straightforward manner. He wrote to me saying that he used my book “Introduction to Phenomenology” as an example of good technical writing, so I’m really proud of that. He was not a philosopher or a phenomenologist, yet part of his job was to go into bookshelves and try to identify good introductions to those subjects. I think McLuhan would have been interested in that too, actually.

It’s interesting how some books can be difficult to read yet remain quite accessible. Difficult does not have to mean obscure, I guess. For example, I read both Being and Time and Being and Nothingness, and I thought both of them were extremely difficult, yet the former was infinitely more inviting than the latter. Do you agree with this appreciation?

I think in the case of the two books you mention, in Being and Time you get a sense of great intellectual rigor and discipline. Heidegger was struggling to articulate what he wanted to say, but he really does try in each of the chapters to get to the core issues. Let’s say, the chapter on being-in-the-world, he is really struggling to get a sense of what worldliness really means. And it is a very difficult chapter but it is all focused, there is nothing in there that is irrelevant; whereas Sartre was a very difficult writer – wonderfully imaginative, but sprawling –, so you would never have the sense of where he is going to go next. I think that is why most people get lost, even myself when I teach parts of Being and Nothingness.

Interesting. To paraphrase McLuhan, what I feel when I read Being and Time is that I am right there sitting in a seminar with Heidegger, whereas when I read Being and Nothingness, it feels more like a lecture…it’s a much more distant experience, less inviting.

I think that is right, and I think that is deliberate. Heidegger is always challenging you and forcing language, whereas Sartre was a great literary writer, so he often loads you into thinking that he is not saying much, when in fact he is saying something quite considerable. Also, just from a technical point of view, whereas Husserl and Heidegger, and later on Wittgenstein, use this idea of numbering sections and using headlines and subheadings, Sartre has very little of that, so it is very hard to find anything. Actually, I will say something else having to do with the form of the book – and again McLuhan would be interested in this: the French are very poor at producing analytical indexes of book, so there is no really good index for Being and Nothingness, and I never understood the French tradition of putting the table of contents at the end of the book. It is just a formal matter, but surely the table of contents – intellectually speaking – should be at the beginning.

That’s an interesting observation…

Yes, and I have been saying this because I have huge difficulty in finding the passages of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness when I want to cite them. And that is something that has been changed by technology; for example, I have a PDF version of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and now you can search for individual words, which means that you can follow a thread in ways that you never could. So there is some advantage now to these PDFs – not to mention the fact that you can carry around a whole library on a stick.

Toward the end of his life, Marshall McLuhan declared that, “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” Is phenomenology still useful and relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?

Absolutely! In short, phenomenology really involves the careful attention and description to the way things present themselves to us, and surely this is very important in an age of digital interactive media. McLuhan was of course famous for the phrase “The Medium is the Message” and it is in a way true, but the phrase is often misinterpreted, I think. There was a very interesting article in the New York Times quite recently by a critical commentator complaining about the way in which the Egyptian and the Tunisia revolutions were presented in the US media as if they were victories for Facebook. The fact of the matter was that the Internet was down, as was the mobile phone system in these countries, for five or six days. So people were not mobilizing via Facebook or the Internet. There was external people doing that, raising consciousness, but within Egypt and Tunisia it was not done that way; they did it the traditional way by meeting each other than passing on traditional messages – like having a sense of going to the square at the same time or whatever. The point is that we are told that “The Medium is the Message” in that simple-minded sense, and I think that is deeply distorted. Phenomenology looks at the way things appear; and looking at the manner in which knowledge appears, we have to be very careful, because that is often quite distorting. We must have a sort of “hermeneutics of suspicion,” to paraphrase Ricoeur – the sort of equivalent of Husserl’s epoché: the non endorsement of the initial presumption. The discipline of phenomenology means the discipline of stopping yourself from being carried along any particular avenue of meaning, until we really allowed the phenomenon to show itself. And I think this is more necessary than ever, especially when information is being packaged and distorted in various ways.

One of your areas of research interest is the relationship between analytic and continental philosophy. Is the division between analytic and continental philosophy an insurmountable dualism?

I think that it’s a distinction that has had its day. What happened was that, for various reasons, including political reasons, two different versions of German philosophy (broadly speaking, Husserl and Heidegger students on the one hand, and the students of the Vienna circle on the other – both of whom were exiled by the Nazis; some because they were Jewish, some because they were Marxists) settled down in America after WWII. These two different groupings had very different visions of what philosophy was, depending on how they understood the nature of the à priori and so on. So you have on the one hand logical positivism, and on the other hand you had the Husserlian tradition, which went on into the New School and led to various different stresses. I have written about this, but I think that once you step back and see them as two tendencies within an overall tradition – as you do when you look at the Husserl/Frege correspondence, for example – you realize that that particular opposition had its own sense in a particular time and place and does not make sense anymore. Especially, it does not make sense when you attempt to impose this distinction upon the entire history of philosophy. I mean, you have this bizarre idea that there are some texts of Plato where he is an analytic philosopher, and other texts where he is a continental philosopher…

What are you currently working on and when is your next book coming out?

I am currently working on the phenomenology of embodiment. I was giving a doctoral seminar this year and I ran a number of workshops during the course of the last academic year. I am really interested in revisiting the whole area of our embodied subjectivity. What I am interested in is overcoming both the cognitive science approach to human beings that tends to overemphasize things like cognition, perception, memory – the sort of intellectualist paradigm that Dreyfus criticizes.

Thinking of the human being as an information-processing machine…

Absolutely, I actually was just talking about this yesterday in Paris. We were talking about Dreyfus, who has this idea of absorbed coping, this sort of expert basketball player who does not have to think when playing a game. I think there is something right about that, but the contrast that Dreyfus has is a sort of Cartesian/Husserlian picture of the mind. My argument was that Dreyfus probably has Husserl wrong here; I think Husserl is probably more on Dreyfus’ side than Dreyfus realizes. The picture that Dreyfus has of that kind of Cartesian intellectualist model of the mind is, I don’t know if you have ever seen the movieRobocop. The main character was half man half machine and had all these calculations showing on his visor. You are supposed to see that on jet fighters as well, where the information is coming up in the screen in front of them; it’s almost as if we were calculating in some kind of mathematical way all potential for action. I think that’s the model that cognitive science definitely has, in that they are trying to track all the routines and have a line of codes for everything that a human being does. While Dreyfus is right to attack that model, but I think that in between that and the sort of absorbed coping, there is an intermediate model of the embodied person who is conscious of his/her body but not extremely self-conscious unless something goes wrong.  I am sitting on a chair now and I am really more thinking about talking to you than being conscious of sitting on a chair, but I can bring my attention to bear on where my feet are, and I can move my feet and adjust my position to make myself more comfortable – and I do all of that while I am doing everything else because I am embodied all the time. I think that level of embodied consciousness has to be brought to bear, and frankly I do not think Dreyfus quite gets it. There is a kind of aware body that is not the mindless robot that is in the zone, nor the calculating robot that is doing everything like Robocop. There has to be something in between, which is the human person.

I am also working on this: phenomenology was always characterized as a philosophy of consciousness, especially in Husserl. But in Ideas II, he talks about the personalistic attitude, that is, living first and foremost in a personal world with others; and “persons,” of course, means that we respect each other as sources of meaning and value that are in some respect irreplaceable. That personalistic philosophy you find it also in Wittgenstein and Scheler, and it is something I want to bring back to the phenomenological debate.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Dermot Moran,” Figure/Ground. March 12th.
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