John Searle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophy and the Habits of Critical Thinking: Conversation with John R. Searle, Mills Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley; 9/22/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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What do you hope to impart to your students? Once they've had John Searle, what do you want them to have taken away?

A whole lot of things. There's always the immediate objective of the course. You should understand from this course how language works, if it's a course on the philosophy of language. And you should understand the predominant theories, the dominating theories about how language works, but I'm not bashful about telling you which theories I think are right. I mean, I'll teach you the other guy's theories, but I'm not concealing from you my own opinions. When you go away from this course you should know that. You should understand the material of the course. And then you should have acquired a certain kind of disciplined practice of reading and studying in the course, of reading the articles and writing the term papers and preparing for the exams. And really, if I am successful, then you ought to be able to go and read the latest philosophy journals and read the articles and read the latest stuff on this. I mean, I tell my students that if I'm successful in the course they should, in an undergraduate course, they should be able to pass a Ph.D. qualifying exam in this course, in the philosophy of language or the philosophy of mind, which are two courses I teach.

John Searle today However, having said all that, I have to say I think the most important thing that I try to convey, and the most important thing any professor can convey, is to exemplify a style of thinking and a mode of sensibility. It's what you provide an example of that is as important, and in some ways more important, than what you actually say explicitly. You convey by example what it's like to actually engage in a process of investigation and research, what it's like to formulate ideas and have them challenged by other ideas, and then deal with the conflicts of these ideas. So the style that you exemplify, the mode of sensibility you express, I think is as important as the content of the course. Now you don't want to get too self-conscious about that. You don't want to go into class thinking, well you know, today I've got to really exemplify this. You do your thing. But at the end of the semester, or even more importantly ten years later, when the student comes back to the campus, if you ask yourself what difference could I have made to these students, I think that's as important as the content of the course.

Is there something that students can do to prepare for the next millennium?

Work hard. You see, what I've found about Berkeley students in particular is that they hunger for commitment. Searle, teaching philosophy at UC Berkeley. And what they want to know from the professor is, does this material matter to you? Are you really intellectually committed to this material? And they are remarkably instinctive at spotting phonies, at spotting fake commitments or various forms of intellectual concealment. I think there's a kind of instinctive ability to spot this, and Berkeley students are looking for commitment and they hunger for intellectual commitment. And not everybody does. When I've taught at other universities, I teach at a lot of universities, and at some universities I've taught at you get students whose IQs are as high as the Berkeley students, they're just more apathetic. They just don't much care about it. They don't have the hunger for commitment. They don't have the passion that I find in my Berkeley students.

Professor Searle, thank you for taking time to be with us today and giving us a sense of the habits of critical thinking.

Thank you very much for having me.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

To Conversations page.

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