An Insider’s Look at Philosophy

By Sabrina Aller

Q+A with Philosophy Professor Eric Gerlach

sabrina

Professor Gerlach speaking to students about Hegel and Kant. Photo Credit: Sabrina Aller

I signed up for Introduction to Philosophy because it is a subject I’m passionate about and I was able to fulfill a transfer requirement. My teacher is Eric Gerlach, a Bay Area native, who enthusiastically endorses critical thinking in Berkeley City College’s Philosophy Department. I was able to chat with him before our Thursday night class.

Philosophy is generally defined as the study of general and fundamental problems such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. What made you decide that you wanted to teach philosophy?

When I was in high school I was unsure what I wanted to study in college, but I have always been fascinated by the human mind, particularly the way that people are hypocritical and hide things from themselves. I was thinking of getting into psychology when I got to [UC] Berkeley, but then a good friend of mine, a few years older than myself, told me that I should take an upper division philosophy class with him my first freshman semester, Philosophy of Mind with John Searle.  I protested that it would be over my head, but then agreed to attend.

Searle believed that there was such a thing as objective truth, and that if you disagreed with this, you were wrong. Sadly, he supplied no argument to back up this repeated assertion.  I have always admired the sciences, since I was a small child wandering through the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, but I knew that there was good reason to doubt that anyone, scientists included, have pure objective truth in grasp.  I began to wonder how Searle could be so famous in philosophy, which is supposedly the acquisition of wisdom.  I once read a French philosopher who said that sometimes it is best to have a terrible teacher in philosophy for inspiration.  Thanks to Searle, I now try to be that for others.

As I continued my studies, particularly those with Hans Sluga, Barry Stroud, and Hubert Dreyfus, I found that German and French Continental philosophy is far more resistant to mindless declarations of objectivity found in American and British Analytic philosophy.  From them I discovered the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Foucault.  I also found classes in Chinese and Buddhist philosophy, leading to a passion for global thought beyond the Eurocentric focus on the ancient Greeks and modern Europeans.  After taking a few years to think, write and work, I went back to school to study philosophy found in the world’s religions, and from there began teaching at Berkeley City College.

On your website ericgerlach.com you mention that you are giving  “A Skeptical & Global Guide to the History of Human Thought.”  What does that mean to you and why do you think it is important?

Sadly, it is still true to this day that we rarely have an opportunity in higher education to study human thought in general, as well as general human culture. I have always found the idea that the ancient Greeks and modern Europeans are rational and scientific in their thinking to be completely unfounded, unsupported by any research in psychology or anthropology, and yet professors at the highest levels speak as if this is the simple plain truth, pointing to cultural achievements of Europeans to support their claims without making many comparisons between cultures.                

It was only when I got to graduate school, studying philosophy found in the Islamic world and Medieval Europe, that I truly began to see what a limiting straight-jacket Eurocentrism is to understanding the human mind. All too often people declare thinking to be rational or scientific without understanding history or social context.  Unfortunately, humans are brilliant at being stupid, and so much success and achievement often accompanies so much ignorance and brutality.  This is why I believe in taking the side of the skeptic, a position found across our general human culture, which we all share, as well as looking at the development of human thought as global rather than European.

I know I was shocked to learn how much Sumer (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) played a role in the development of civilization, but all of my humanities and history classes throughout the years focused on Greeks as the major player in the development of our society today. Are other philosophy classes including this information in their curriculum?

I have heard of some classes taught here and there which compare ancient Greek and modern European thought with philosophy found in other cultures, but the sad truth is that I have seen little development over the years in a positive direction. Now that many are worried about China economically, there are some Chinese philosophy classes which have become popular at prominent universities, which is a positive step, but I am convinced that our culture, as Lyotard argues in The Postmodern Condition, is based on the story that Europeans, starting with the ancient Greeks, separated themselves from the rest of humanity by being rational. There is no evidence to support this claim in developmental psychology, but for many the presence of democracy and science in our lives, as problematic and all too human as they are, justifies European economic supremacy, whether one believes on the right it is a simple matter of superiority or believes on the left it is a complex matter of economics.

Those few students and professors who suspect these claims of superiority are little more than a sham are afraid of appearing stupid at best, disloyal at worst. In the past, lauding the Greeks for inventing reason was the standard way of maintaining the story.  Now that few learn Greek or Latin, the sciences are praised as evidence of European reason with a quick nod to the Athenians in the first few words.  I do not believe that we will see much change in our lifetimes.  While media moves faster than ever, empires are still slow.  Studying human thought on a global scale has convinced me of this.  I hope to change and open the minds of my students, but I do not think it will have much impact on our culture at large.  The role Sumer played in civilization has been set in print for well over fifty years, and yet each semester I have a new set of students in the progressive town of Berkeley who are once again blown away by what they have not heard.

Sometimes philosophy can get a bad wrap for being too intellectual, not relevant, or just something old white men write about. Intro to Philosophy isn’t a required course of many programs for transferring to a four-year college.   In the chance that someone doesn’t take a philosophy class, what do you think BCC students should know about philosophy?

Philosophy has been called “thinking about thinking,” but it could better be called “thinking about living.” Philosophy is the practice of questioning everything as much as one wishes to, whether or not one arrives at set conclusions. Revolutionary thinking is rare, though we are all capable of it.  It is important to push thinking beyond simple agreement with familiar circles, as we are more capable than ever before of surrounding ourselves with thinking that already agrees with us.  Philosophy familiarizes us with the unfamiliar, challenging our ideas with conflicting ideas and perspectives.  There is no end to developing oneself, one’s life, and one’s mind. 

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