Interview with Julian Young

© Julian Young and Figure/Ground
Dr. Young was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. June 19th, 2011.

Julian Young is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Wake Forest University, where he specializes in Continental (nineteenth- and twentieth-century German and French) philosophy, philosophy of art, environmental philosophy, and philosophy of religion. Prior to moving to the USA, Professor Young taught at all levels at the universities of Auckland, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Tasmania, the following: Introduction to Ethics, Introduction to Metaphysics and Theory of Knowledge, Introduction to Theories of Human Nature, British Empiricism, Quine and Sellars, Wittgenstein, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. He has supervised and examined numerous MA and PhD theses at Auckland and throughout Australasia. He is the author of ten books, mostly on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German philosophy. He has also written The Death of God and the Meaning of Life. His most recent work is Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography. He has appeared on radio and television in Ireland, New Zealand and the USA, and has written for the Guardian, the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. He is currently completing The Philosophy of Richard Wagner, and plans a book on tragedy.

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

Well it was certainly conscious, but I have to confess it was not a very positive affirmation of the academic life. The main problem, as I peered cautiously over the walls of academia at the world of work, was that anything I could possibly do looked like drudgery. And so I decided that, if I could, I would stay where I was. For all the multiple disappointments I am about to detail, being an academic still strikes me as the best job in the world.

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

My first, and almost only intellectual mentor was my medieval history teacher as boarding school, Michael Cherniavsky. (A brilliant man, he was the son of the court cellist to the last Tsar and the Canadian heiress to the Benjamin Tingley Rogers sugar fortune). Michael had studied at Oxford during the excitement of A. J. Ayer’s introduction of Logical Positivism to Britain, and always taught us historians that philosophy was the Everest of the intellect. (The political philosopher, Alan Ryan, was another of his pupils.) And so, after two years of history at Cambridge, I changed to philosophy (‘moral science’). Although it provided a great university experience in other respects, Cambridge taught me nothing about philosophy. Wittgenstein had died only a few years previously and most of the professors were still wandering about in a shell-shocked condition. They offered vaguely to show ‘the fly [me] the way out of the fly-bottle’ whereas what I wanted to do was to get into the fly-bottle. From my present vantage-point I would say that I learnt nothing in graduate school either, apart from the ‘technology’ of thinking – logic and the application of logic to philosophical argumentation – which still seems to me essential to philosophy of any sort. What I was trained in at Wayne State and Pittsburgh was ‘analytic’ (Anglo-American) philosophy. A couple of years into my first job I realized that I did not want to spend the rest of my life wondering why, if Tom knows that Ortcutt is a spy, and the man in the brown hat is Ortcutt, Tom could still not know that the man in the brown hat is a spy. And so, to the ire of most of my Auckland colleagues, I jumped ship, crossed over to the ‘continental’ (Franco-German) side of the great cultural divide. What continental philosophy discusses – sex, death, and boredom I tell people when I am feeling facetious – did seem to me something I could spend the rest of my life reflecting upon. That being said, I was, at Pittsburgh, greatly impressed by Wilfred Sellars. Though Sellars had little to say about sex, death or boredom he did have a system – a ‘continental’ characteristic.

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

At Cambridge, I caught some of the tail-end of the nineteenth-century university. The nineteenth-century ideal – in Germany it was known as the ‘Humboldt’ model – called for the integration of teaching and scholarship. It was necessarily ‘elitist’ since only highly talented students could profit from such a high intellectual level. The fundamental aim, however, was not merely to communicate knowledge and develop the intellect. It was to nurture the flourishing of excellent human beings who would come to occupy leading positions in society. The fundamental aim, that is, was to inculcate moral as much as intellectual excellence. Partly this was to be done by the teacher himself being an inspirational model of excellence. But more importantly, it was to be achieved through the teaching of the humanities. History was especially important. It was to be taught in an unashamedly selective manner in order to identify certain historical movements as progressive – the ‘Whig view of history’, for example – and certain figures as heroes, positive role models. The most disastrous intellectual wave to hit the humanities in the latter part of the twentieth century was so-called ‘deconstruction’. Under its almost totalitarian dominion throughout the humanities the aim became to destroy the entire idea of the life and literature of the past as a repository of positive value. (To be fair to analytic philosophy, it must be said that, alone among the humanities, it resisted this wave of cultural vandalism.) There are other reasons which make it almost comical to think of the aim of the modern university as the production of excellent human beings – the transformation of the university into a factory for the production of economically viable ‘human resources’ is a major factor – but deconstruction is the way in which academics have themselves contributed to the destruction of the university, the way in which they have shot themselves in the foot.

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?

It is very difficult to give a general answer to this question, for teaching, like love, is an intuitive business that cannot properly be articulate in rules and procedures. (That is why one should never go to a ‘teaching-improvement workshop’.) One thing to do is to stop complaining about students. Sure, they suffer from ADD but one needs to get into the habit of liking them, of not regarding them as the enemy, patients, cannon fodder, or a necessary evil. Students tend to respond well to someone they sense wishes them well. Never let students think that your real life is research-work that happens out of the classroom – try to make it the case, so far as possible, that (as in the nineteenth-century) your research and teaching are one and the same. Do not pander too much to the demand for ‘visual aids’. Do not teach in a darkened classroom and, especially, do not structure your lecture around a set of ‘bullet points’ projected onto a screen. Remember that bullet points are discrete while thought is continuous so that what bullet points represent is, in fact, the death of thought. Address what interests students – sex, death, boredom, technology and the meaning of life.

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

Don’t. Not in the current job-market. Not unless you are extremely good and can get into a top graduate school. They still have reasonable employment records. But if you can’t get into a top school, forget it.

The following question was drafted by Professor Jeff Malpas“Academic work in the Humanities, especially in countries like Australia and New Zealand, seems to be increasingly under threat. Having recently moved from a Professorship in New Zealand to one in the US, do you think the situation is any better than that in New Zealand? What would you say are the major differences, if any, regarding support for Humanities research in the two countries?”

Modern Western universities have, to varying degrees, been taken over by the ‘business model’. They construct a ‘strategic plan’ which aims to satisfy ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs) that are set by either important business interests or, which comes to the same thing in the end, the state. The strategic plan is then administered via ‘line management’: requirements reach the workers at the coal-face – the professors – via the president, the provost, deans and then chairs of departments. To make sure the workers do what the strategic plan (i.e. the business community) demands they are required to complete an on-line ‘annual performance review’. The categories into which the professors are required to slot their life and thought is determined, ultimately, by the KPIs. This general management scheme was invented in the Harvard and Yale business schools in the 1980s. Among universities, however, it was first implemented in Britain followed by New Zealand and then Australia. In my experience the scheme is still in its infancy in the US – which is paradoxical since it was American universities that invented it in the first place. But it is starting and soon the circle will be completed. So in terms of the integration of the university into the business world the US is perhaps six or seven years behind Australasia. The effect of this is that there is a time lag in the process of downgrading the humanities in favor of disciplines that make a more visible contribution to GNP. At Wake Forest, unlike Auckland, the business school is not the biggest building. And of course there is a great deal more money in the US, so that even though the humanities’ slice of the pie is shrinking it is still a lot larger than in New Zealand. Basically, however, all trends are, like Starbucks, global.

Your main area of expertise is nineteenth- and twentieth-century German philosophy. What attracted you to Continental philosophy?

‘Philosophy’ comes from philo-sophia not from philo-theoria. It means ‘love of wisdom’ not ‘love of theory’. Philosophy is about living wisely, that is well. Although theory can make an important contribution to living wisely, philosophy is not about theory for theory’s sake. Theory is a means not an end. The ancient Greeks understood this as did the Hellenistic and Roman philosophers – the Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, Cynics, Neo-Platonists, and so on. Theory was important but only to the extent it was relevant to the art of living. In the Middle Ages, however, the question of how to live well became the exclusive province of religion, and so philosophy was reduced to scholastic logic-chopping by monks. The ‘analytic’ tradition inherited the scholastic conception of philosophy whereas nineteenth-century German and twentieth-century French philosophers returned, in the main, to the original idea of philo-sophia. I was never interested in theory for theory’s sake though it took me some time to realise this.

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.” Are phenomenology and existential philosophy still relevant in this age of digital interactive media?

Yes, of course. Nietzsche called the philosopher the ‘physician of culture’. That we suffer from information overload and the challenges of digital media just tells us what philosophy should be addressing at the moment.

The following question was prepared by Professor Lee Braver“Why do you think Heidegger has had such lasting value? What is it about his work that continues to stimulate questions?”

Heidegger observed that in the age of electronic media the principle existential issue is ‘homelessness’, lack of ‘dwelling’. One dwells when there are things that are ‘near’ to one. But if some things are ‘near’ others have to be ‘far’. In electronic modernity, however, the ‘near’-‘far’ distinction is disappearing, things are assuming a ‘uniform distancelessness’. So the idea of a dwelling place is under threat. But there is more to dwelling than the idea of a special geographical region. Dwelling also depends on what Heidegger variously calls ‘the holy’ and ‘the poetic’. If you possess a dwelling place then it has, for you, a dimension that does not show up in a photograph – unless you are a very great photographer. One of the things Heidegger tries to do in his own writing is to convey the sense of this hidden, poetic, dimension. At the end of perhaps the greatest of his later works, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, he writes that ‘as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer’. This is my experience of reading and thinking with Heidegger, which is why I return to him again and again. It is, I guess, a kind of spiritual therapy.

What are you currently working on?

I have just completed a long essay on ‘the turn’ in Heidegger’s ‘path of thinking’. But my main current project is a book on tragedy, which looks at what philosophers have said about tragedy starting with Plato and ending with Žižek. I am interested in the question of whether a great tragic artwork is still possible or whether we live in a post-tragic age. I am also writing on Richard Wagner who sought to bring about, in the form of his own artworks, ‘the rebirth of tragedy’, the rebirth of the great tragic artwork of fifth-century Greece.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “A Conversation with Julian Young,” Figure/Ground. June 19th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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