Lectures at St. John's College

When the new, liberal arts curriculum at St. John’s College was laid out in 1936 or so, one of the first moves was to shake off the academic habit of conducting classes by lecturing to the students. Instead, students and faculty at St. John’s would join in learning from the great authors, who were to be the real teachers. The corollary of this was the conclusion that the faculty would not function as experts, but would leave their special fields at the door and undertake to teach around the program. All would be known simply as “tutors”; there would be neither faculty ranks nor faculty departments. A new tutor knowledgeable in literature would, on arrival, be assigned to teach mathematics, while a mathematician would be assigned to teach Greek. All would join with students in a common learning experience, and an ongoing common conversation. 

Almost unbelievably, that setup, essentially the work of the College’s initial dean, Scott Buchanan, has remained the rule to this day!

 What, then, was to become of the art of lecturing? It was not to be abandoned, but transferred from the separate classrooms, where it was no longer needed, to the lecture hall in the form of a weekly lecture directed to the entire college. Such lectures, always on Friday evenings, might be given by a tutor or by a visiting lecturer, and might address any topic in the liberal of arts of interest to the college as a whole. They needed to be couched in terms accessible to everyone, though it would often happen that freshmen would be bewildered by lectures on Einstein or Joyce, while seniors would be pressed to remember their Euclid. Each lecture would be followed by a gathering for a conversation with the lecturer–not a “question and answer” session, but a probing investigation of the ideas the lecture had presented.

 My lectures presented on this site are instances of this tradition: addressed to the college community as a whole, and drawing freely upon the authors we read in common. They are meant to address fundamental questions and to promote discussion. They were given at various points along the path of my own life at the College, and thus do not necessarily present views I would hold, or express in the same terms, today.

 It would be gratifying if their role on this website might be analogous to the role they once had at the College: to promote thought, and to prompt questions. Responses will be most welcome; for that purpose, please turn to the “blog” site by way of the appropriate pull-down menu.

The Dialectical Laboratory:
Towards a Re-Thinking of the Natural Sciences


Lecture given 15 April 2004
St. John’s College
Santa Fe, New Mexico


I gave two “final” lectures at St. John’s College: one on the Annapolis campus, and later, another on the Santa Fe campus. Each was meant to raise a fundamental question important to me, as a sort of parting shot.  Each was addressed to the whole College, and draws freely upon the whole curriculum.  A reader who is not part of that community should not feel daunted, however: what is important about each lecture is an issue which is of concern to society as a whole.

 The issue referred to here as “dialectical” refers to a serious rift within our thinking about what is loosely referred to as “western science”, or even “modern science” – as if there were no question about what that was. I claim here that there are, under the umbrella of this one label, two very different concepts of “science”, and with them, two very different approaches to the natural world. One is fragmentary; it looks at forces which act between individual entities–forces characterized by Newton’s “laws of motion”. The other is holistic: it looks at whole systems, and is expressed in terms, not of forcer, but of energy. The underlying principle is that of “least action”, which is not complicated and is explained in the lecture.

 Practicing engineers and physicists are likely to use one or the other, as happens to be convenient in the solution of any particular problem.  But fundamentally, they are not at all equivalent: they describe the world in very different terms, and that’s where “dialectic” comes in. Dialectic is operative at precisely those watershed points at which choices lead to very different world-views. Here the choice is crucial: do we approach nature in terms of least elements which we add up in the vain hope of arriving at something which is more than the mechanical sum of its parts?  Or do we perceive in nature systems, including especially living organisms, which are indeed whole in a way which is very different from the mere sum of a collection of parts?

 This lecture argues for the importance of the latter, holistic approach.  We desperately need to learn to think–before it’s too late–in terms of true, organic wholes. Ecologies are whole, the atmosphere and the oceans are whole systems which must be understood in terms of principles adequate to organic wholeness. There is a rigorous line of scientific theory stemming from Leibniz and running smoothly through modern quantum mechanics; its truth is not doubted, but its importance is largely unrecognized. 

That’s what this “dialectical” lecture is about: comments on it will be most welcome, and can be posted on the “blog” section of this website. Look for the posting labeled “The Dialectical Laboratory”.

Prometheus Unbound:
Karl Marx on Human Fredom


Lecture given 14 April 1978
St. John’s College
Santa Fe, New Mexico

 This is a lecture based on a great book: Capital, by Karl Marx. It’s a book so encumbered by history–some would say, a history of its own making–that it is seldom read today without prejudice: that is, for the ideas Marx is expressing. This lecture follows Marx’s own thought, to see what that is and where it leads. The surprise is that it leads to a striking formulation of an idea of human freedom, which rings remarkably true in our time.

To comment on this lecture, please use the “blog” pull-down menu on this site, and go to the posting labeled “Prometheus Unbound”. All comments welcomed there!

Faraday's Mathematics:
On Getting Along Without Euclid


Faraday Conference Lecture presented on 30 March 2001
St. John’s College
Annapolis, Maryland

    Today marks, as we have just heard, the opening of a very special event at St. John’s, a conference devoted to one of our beloved authors, Michael Faraday.  It is not only unusual to have a conference devoted in this way to one author, but it is even more unusual to have that very author make a cameo appearance, as Michael Faraday has done this afternoon, to repeat a lecture out of the distant past — a children’s lecture, fresher with every successive generation.  This presents me with a special challenge, of course, as a lecture by Faraday himself is an impossible act to follow!  I can hope only to express my own appreciation of Michael Faraday, and to suggest he is a figure with whom St. John’s might well feel a special affinity.  He is, in a sense, “our kind of guy”.  Let me try to explain my understanding of that special bond. 

      Faraday, as we recognized this afternoon, is a very direct and acutely perceptive observer of nature: fact, rather than elaborate theory, is his domain — not however fact in the dry and objective style people call these days information, but fact in a very different sense, that of a warm and immediate appreciation of the creation.  He sees nature as an open book, a book to be read, as he himself read the scriptures, as simply, directly and fully as possible, with the least intervention of artful interpretation.  Public lectures were an integral component of his scientific life, because he very evidently felt that nature is a book meant to be read and enjoyed by everyone. Complicated theories and especially mathematical elaborations would only stand in the way; in their place, Faraday brings a new light to the sciences, illuminating their beauty, and encouraging a direct, intuitive sense of purpose and human meaning. 

      Now you might be surprised to hear that I would call this a dialectical reading of the Book of Nature, and that I sense a genuine relation to the direct and clearly dialectical way in which we at St. John’s approach the great books.  We embrace the conviction that these works were written, in whatever era, for us, and at the seminar table we engage in conversation with them as though their questions were directed to us.  In fact, we adopt their questions as our own, and pursue them, with the help of the authors, as if our lives depended on it.  We realize, of course, the respect in which this may involve an element of illusion — a thousand things and more than just two thousand years separate us from some of our most respected authors — but this is, like all good myths, more true than false.  The questions are still real ones, and our conversation with the authors about them is genuine and, in its best moments, still life-giving.  This seemingly naïve reading of the books, direct and unadorned with the apparatus of academia, turns us in the direction of a living light of genuine human loves, hopes, fears and earnest convictions.  Thus that simple and direct reading is, by the same token, a dialectical reading.  All of our hard work in the tutorials and laboratories is merely ancillary to it.  It is at the same time a genuinely free and democratic approach to education, since it is a reading appropriate for everyone, pursued because it is good in itself, not because it is useful for other goals.

      Faraday was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, and thus had little formal education. He left school after the primary years to be apprenticed to a bookbinder, and he reputedly learned his first science by reading the article on electricity in the Encylopaedia Britannica as it went through the shop.  He was taught no mathematics beyond simple arithmetic, and he never felt that he had thereby missed anything that he needed, even as a physical scientist.  He thus turned directly to read the book of nature without adornment and went on to share it with all of us, as if confident it had been written for the very enjoyment of us all. It is in this sense that St. John’s shares with him a fundamental, life-giving dialectical conviction.  Faraday’s unmathematical science is fundamentally akin to our dialectical seminar.

      I want to carry this one stage further, to claim that we and Faraday are not merely on strikingly parallel tracks, but that the two concerns are finally one.  When what some of us still can think of as the “new program” in the liberal arts was introduced at St. John’s in 1937, the overall enterprise was characterized as the attempt “to recover the tradition of the liberal arts in the modern world,” and it was thought essential to this that the sciences be brought to the seminar table and fully incorporated in the body of liberal education.  That was the beginning of our long experience in reading mathematics together, and our never-ending experiments in constructing a liberal laboratory.  Thus the ongoing attempt at achieving a dialectical reading of the sciences is not incidental, but central to the purposes of the College.  It also happens to remain a central unsolved and increasingly critical problem in the world today.  That is why I have claimed that Faraday, with his direct and very human approach to the sciences, is “our kind of guy”.