Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates: Remembering Fergal O’Connor OP

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<ul><li><p>Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates:Remembering Fergal OConnor OP</p><p>Joseph Dunne</p><p>(The late Father Fergal OConnor OP was born near Causeway, Co. Kerry,on 6 December 1926 and died in Dublin on 29 September 2005. Having studiedat St. Marys Tallaght, he was ordained a priest in 1951. He took the STDat the Angelicum in Rome in 1955 and then went on to take PPE at Oxford,staying at Blackfriars from 1956 to 1959. Having taught for a short time atthe Dominican House at Cork, he was assigned to St. Saviours Priory inDublin in 1961, where he lived for the rest of his life. From 1962 he taughtpolitical philosophy at University College Dublin, continuing beyond retire-ment in 1991 to teach a course on Plato until 1997. A social critic and activist,he was for many years a provocative panelist on Irelands foremost televisionprogramme, The Late Late Show, and wrote regularly for newspapers andperiodicals; also he founded and for several decades directed Sherrard House,a hostel for homeless girls in Dublin, and ALLY, an organisation supportingsingle mothers. But it was as an extraordinarily inspiring teacher, primarily inthe university but also in many other informal settings, that he was perhapsmost deeply influential. The following is a slightly amended version of an articlefirst published in Questioning Ireland, Debates in Political Philosophy andPublic Policy (eds, J. Dunne, A. Ingram and F.Litton, Dublin, IPA), aFestschrift for Father OConnor written by former students and colleagues(including the theologian, Denys Turner, and the political philosopher, PhilipPettit) and published in 2000.)</p><p>It was a matter of regret to Fergal OConnor that in discussions inthe media and elsewhere fascination with personalities so oftendisplaces critical analysis of issues. If this essay, then, focuses afair bit on Fergal himself, I hope it will escape his strictures to theextent that in doing so it also addresses an issue that was ofspecial concern to him the nature of teaching. It is a betterapproach to human affairs, according to Aristotle, not to pre-scribe how things should be done on the basis of some antecedentprinciples but rather, having consulted our experience of bestpractice, to forge concepts that do justice to the exemplars ofexcellence with which we are already familiar. If we wish tounderstand practical wisdom, for example, we should attend lessto a treatise on the subject than to a person who is practicallywise the most worthwhile treatise in any case will be the onethat best captures the quality of such a person. I shall assume herethat the case is similar with teaching that if one is lucky</p><p># The Author 2006. Journal compilation# The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX42DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA</p></li><li><p>enough to have had a good teacher then one is better placed tosay what good teaching is. In Fergal OConnor several generations ofstudents were fortunate to have had a great teacher, the impact ofwhose lectures on many of us was life-changing and unforgettable.This reflection on teaching then arises out of memories of him in hiselement as a teacher of political philosophy in University CollegeDublin. As an avowed Platonist, of course, Fergal might be discom-fited by thus being made grist to an Aristotelian mill. But philoso-phical justice may be served by the fact that his main company in thefollowing pages will be that of Platos Socrates. He and Socratesthrow an interesting light on each other; and both together, as Ihope to show, do much to enlarge and enliven our understandingof a teachers calling.</p><p>Back to the Lecture Hall</p><p>In introducing us to the great figures of political philosophy, Fergaleschewed the conventional role of first presenting their views andthen offering dispassionate assessment of their merits and weak-nesses. When he lectured on Hobbes, he was Hobbes, unleashingthe full power of the latters thought and defending it against all-comers. The disconcerting effect was realised only later when, nowthat many of us had become convinced Hobbesians, Fergal meta-morphosed before our eyes in the next set of lectures as Rousseau, thehuman world now being re-configured so that only Jean-Jacquestruly divined its secrets. When, later again, Rousseau suffered theearlier fate of Hobbes, and newly enthusiastic Rousseauians wereexposed to the unrelenting force of Hegels social vision, Fergalssorcery was in full view and the question of what he thought hadbecome acute. But if we were now gripped by a desire to know hismind that many other teachers might have envied and been onlytoo eager to gratify Fergal was not about to provide readyanswers. What really mattered a hard learning, perhaps for thefirst time in our whole education was what we thought.Not that Fergals inscrutability was in the service of a student-</p><p>centred pedagogy for which thinking for oneself could be a suffi-cient goal. He was indeed adept at eliciting our immediate prejudicesand understandings, but only so that they could be tested by expo-sure to the master whose mask he had temporarily assumed; thewhole point of being introduced to a succession of great thinkers,after all, was to have ones own thinking stretched or deepened, orsometimes overturned, by theirs. Fergals exposition of the ideas ofthese thinkers was extraordinarily lucid, won by long hours of patientstudy (unblear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil) but also fruit of amind natively sinuous and uncluttered. Exposition, however, is not</p><p>212 Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates</p><p># The Author 2006Journal compilation # The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006</p></li><li><p>quite the right word here. For Fergals way of opening up classictexts enabled him at the same time to scrutinise current issues andprevailing assumptions in their light. Far from distracting from thetexts, this scrutiny served only to confirm their continuing interpre-tative and critical power; to read these texts with Fergal was at thesame time to be read by them.His doctoral dissertation had been on Aquinass understanding</p><p>of the role of imagination as the crucial hinge between perceptionand feeling (sense) on one side and concept and argument(intellect) on the other. And the imaginativeness of his ownteaching enabled the perceptions and feelings of students tobecome less blind (to echo another philosopher, Kant) in the actof his showing that the concepts and arguments of the philoso-phers were not empty. The young followers of Socrates had beenboth perplexed and captivated by his way of raising the deepestquestions about human existence while still talking about packasses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners (Plato, 1989, 221 E).And Fergals thought retained a similar footing in the life-world:in his lectures, Platos allegory of the cave or Rousseaus conceptof amour propre or Hegels analysis of the master-slave dialecticshared mental space with references to fashions in student cloth-ing, a row in a political party, an ongoing strike by a group ofworkers, a pending piece of legislation, or a recent judgment in thecourts. Such were these juxtapositions or rather inter-penetra-tions that it was hard to say which was more brilliantly illumi-nated: the universal reach of the present event or the veryparticular saliency of the classic text.The lectures in which all this went on were immensely lively, even</p><p>theatrical. The drama of ideas in which students got caught up owedits momentum to the peculiar, and in some respects paradoxical, giftsof the teacher. Although politics is inevitably about power whohas it and for what he seemed happy to give away whatever powerlay in his position as lecturer (he frequently offered the lectern toanyone who would propose a counter-position) and to rely only onthe power of the better argument. Though bound, as a Dominicanfriar, to the disciplines of a religious order, he seemed to have thefreest, most unfettered mind in the university. He delighted in argu-ment and was fearless in provoking it, goading and teasing hislisteners usually in direct proportion to their complacency andcock-sureness. Still, the sharpness of his dialectical rapier never tookaway from his gentleness; he had no need to hurt. And while ironypervaded a great deal of what he said, he never seemed cynical. Tothe contrary, his thinking was generous, not only in the sympathy itbrought to his chosen authors but also in the imaginative vistas itopened up; the sting most often lay in the dawning sense of howmuch less we are than what we might be.</p><p>Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates 213</p><p># The Author 2006Journal compilation # The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006</p></li><li><p>For all the personal gifts that made Fergals style so attractive,there was a rigorous impersonality in his teaching. Irony served himas a mode of self-effacement, of directing attention to the texts and,beyond them, to the truth of the matter ultimately the truth aboutus as humans with which they were concerned. Winning us over tothe point of view of his chosen authors, however, was not Fergalspurpose in expounding them. For, despite the clarity of his presenta-tion and the flair of his defence of a specific text, his espousal of itcould always be subverted by his subsequent partisanship on behalfof another text. Well before the word was in currency, then, decon-struction indirect and cumulative was part of his pedagogicalarsenal: apparently well-earned positions broke down and thinkingbecame disseminated in an ongoing movement of deferral. Still,Fergals teaching was different from what has come to be practisedunder the rubric of deconstruction. For the latter, the act of unmask-ing, or of showing every reading to be necessarily a misreading, isenough; since texts are mainly bound to other texts, the energy ofendless deferral can be taken as its own end. This taboo on referenceby texts to a reality beyond themselves, which they might be about, isalso a disavowal of truth; texts no longer make truth-claims whichconstrain a readers assent or challenge her to justify dissent.Deprived, then, of their own truth-claims, texts are also displacedas realities about which interpretations might, or might not, be true.Under the rule of intertextuality, and freed from the tyranny oftruth, interpretations can succeed just by proving themselves inter-esting or inventive. Now Fergals own interpretations were never lessthan interesting or inventive the playfulness and mobility of hismind enabled him to conjure up and entertain hugely disparate ideasand perspectives. But playfulness was never a substitute for pursuingtruth; it was, rather, a fruitful way of making this pursuit.While Fergals commitment to a truth to be pursued distinguished</p><p>him from exponents of deconstruction, his playfulness distinguishedhim no less from zealous custodians of a truth already achieved.There was no trace of a hectoring tone in his teaching nor evenof what some might have regarded as a proper earnestness.Instead, a lightness of touch and ease in banter bespoke something ofthat joyful kind of seriousness and that wisdom full of roguishness thatNietzsche sees as the finest state of the human soul (Nietzsche 1986,p.332). Indeed our responses to Fergal seemed to confirm anotherof Nietzsches sayings (in oblique allusion to Socrates): that nothingbetter or happier can befall a person than to be in the proximity of oneof those who, precisely because they have thought most deeply, mustlove what is most alive (Nietzsche, 1984, p.136). His combination ofneither appearing to have designs on what we should think nor ofbeing threatened by what we did think dissipated resistance; with him,stereotyped reaction against authority-figures did not get its usual</p><p>214 Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates</p><p># The Author 2006Journal compilation # The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006</p></li><li><p>purchase. Not that we didnt react strongly, sometimes fiercely, towhat he said given the frequent outrageousness of his baiting, howcould we not have done so? But this reaction had none of the indif-ference or sullenness of withdrawal. It was, rather, an expression ofengagement, evidence of being already hooked. And here was notrivial gamesmanship on Fergals part but rather something that hesaw as indispensable to the teachers role: the arousal (in Platoswords) of eros in a students soul. This eros is a desire for under-standing, which may eventually become that love of wisdom which isnot only a prelude to but rather (as etymology attests) the very heart ofphilosophy itself.</p><p>Negative Dialectics</p><p>Fergal took it from Aquinas that the intellect, being in harmony withreality, is naturally fitted for the pursuit of truth. But if this picturesuggests an ultimately secure goal for the human mind it by no meansindicates that its essential task can be immediately or easily accom-plished. According to the early Greek philosopher, Heracleitus,nature loves to hide an idea which gave rise to the conceptionof truth as an unconcealment brought about only through a processof outwitting what otherwise escapes notice. In one form or another,this notion of truth, not as given to immediate apprehension but asthe prize of an arduous quest, has been deeply embedded in westernthought. It is reflected for instance in the notion of dialectic, as theprocess through which the mind is extended and tested in a back andforth movement towards knowledge, first elaborated by Plato. It stillechoes in Aquinass own mode of inquiry, which proceeds onlythrough recurrently posing and then unpicking difficulties or objec-tions that arise at every turn, as well as in Hegels account of thereconciliation between subject and object as achieved only throughthe cumulative overcoming of contradictions along the way. It isfound also in thinkers who attend less to the explicit content oftheir writing than to the difficulty of any straightforward commu-nication of this content to their readers. While these are less systema-tic thinkers, they are also more self-consciously pedagogical, eventherapeutic. Their mode of address is complicated by their sense thatif what they have to say is true then ipso facto their readers may notbe well disposed to receive it. And so there are the strategies and rusesof Kierkegaards mode of indirect communication: One can deceivea person for the truths sake, and to recall old Socrates one candeceive a person into the truth. Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. bydeceiving him, that it is possible to bring to the truth one who is inillusion (Kierkegaard, 1962, pp. 3940). Or there is the unsettlingangle of Wittgensteins writing, as an exercise in conceptual therapy,</p><p>Teaching in the Spirit of Socrates 215</p><p># The Author 2006Journal compilation # The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006</p></li><li><p>an attempt to break the bewitchment of thought by language, or toshow the fly the way out of the fly-bottle (Wittgenstein 1973, 309).And, unsurprisingly, these styles of writing find strong equ...</p></li></ul>