by Thomas A.E. Hesketh
Eric Gerlach, an instructor of philosophy at Berkeley City College, originally from San Francisco’s Haight District. He was awarded a B.A. in philosophy from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in religious history from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. For the last dozen years, he has taught a wide range of subjects within the BCC philosophy department, including, logic, European philosophy, from ancient through contemporary, and Asian philosophy, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Buddhism.
Good afternoon. It’s now 12:42 p.m. on April 12, and I’d like to thank Professor Gerlach for allowing us to do this interview on virtually no notice whatsoever. As a matter of full disclosure I have had several philosophy courses at Berkeley City College with you as an instructor and I hope you won’t hold it against me.
Eric Gerlach: (Laughs) Sure!
Do you have any superstitions you’d like to share?
That is interesting. I am one who definitely thinks that human beliefs are always somewhat superstitious, in some sort of sense. I tend to be somewhat of a relativist and think that culture is somewhat superstitious, so I suppose . . . one of the things I find myself very much believing and superimposing, definitely wondering and suspecting, is that humanity has been very much as rational and moral as it’s been for the last hundred thousand years, since we’ve had the human brain.
One of the things from a skeptical angle that one can ask is how much culture makes people moral or logical, or whether people in the Amazon are as reasonable and as kind or as warlike as everyone around here, people that we find walking around.
That is one of the superstitions I have, because I can’t prove it one way or the other, that we’re simply as moral or logical as pre-literate people, but it is something I suspect quite highly, so that is the first thing that occurs to me to say.
When you say, “as moral or as reasonable as pre-literate people,” do you mean we’re not more advanced than they are?
I suppose in the sense that computers are more capable of helping people do things, do good and bad, be healthy, so computers can now allow people to do more good and bad things, to be more structured and unstructured, to be more aware and unaware of what they are doing.
It may be questionable whether we are more aware or more rational people compared to a tribe in the Amazon. It is worth considering whether or not, after religion, after science, and after government, people feel as free, people feel as good, and people feel as solid, as people felt in the Amazon where, according to Stephen Pinker, about a third of the people, you know, die by violence. Other than that, human beings treat each other good and bad.
I am very happy to be a post-’60s person from the Haight who hopes that we can have more egalitarianism in our lives. I happen to be a very big fan of multiculturalism, of egalitarianism towards gender and sexuality. I’m an extremely proud proponent of these things. At the same time, in embracing a greater, more egalitarian society, we can ask ourselves if egalitarianism is actually an advancement, or if, in fact, it is simply an acceptance of what humanity has been the entire time. If we are a more accepting and aware people, from a Greek Stoic angle or a Buddhist Indian angle or from a Chinese Taoist angle, maybe we don’t need to carve ourselves apart from the people of the Amazon and think that we’re specifically logical or specifically rational, which would give us more freedom to use any logic of science or any sort of morality of religion, more freedom to live as we want as human individuals, and then use religion, science and politics in the way we want to freely use them.
I am very passionate about the idea that by accepting humanity as humanity, as it has been for a very long period of time, we might be able to live more freely as individuals, such that we can be more accepting of ourselves, and more accepting of others. That seems, yes, a decent enough rant! (Laughs)
Is philosophy as a discipline obsolete in a digital world where everything seems reduced to zero or one, or a combination of the two?
That’s an excellent question. It is true, as some science fiction authors have said, that we are primitive apes with godlike technology.
In a certain sense, we accept that we are, perhaps, as good or bad, as not punching people in the face as, say, an Amazonian tribe, much in being good and bad to each other. Perhaps, we simply have more technology, greater machines; and yet, overall when I ask whether we do more good or bad with this life than other people in other cultures, are we better or worse than people walking around Babylon, I don’t find clear responses and answers out there. I don’t know of anyone who knows that the Babylonians were evil individuals and that you and I are good.
At the same time, it is very nice that in some ways the world has gotten over slavery, but not entirely at all, that we are able, in some ways, to live in a more egalitarian world, but at the same time, it is questionable and doubtful whether or not humanity is remaining what we are, and what is required is acceptance and awareness, rather than developing a particular culture, or new forms of morality or logic or laws.
The Buddha said long ago that truth is an attitude, not a form, and if that’s true, maybe identifying with all cultures and individuals is more important than regarding ourselves to be of a culture, such that we, with these devices and with these technologies, either in Babylon or today, are the logical rational people.
One of the things that does give me hope is that in Babylonian and Egyptian texts, we find human skepticism; we find doubt; we can find human beings saying human beings are human beings. As tautological and foolish as that sounds, that is a meaningful thing to say in a situation where people are distinguishing and judging between groups of human beings.
To say human beings are human was a meaningful thing to say in Babylon; it was a meaningful thing to say in Egypt; it was a meaningful thing for Jesus to say. It’s a meaningful thing for people to say who believe in scientific objectivity, because human beings are bad at seeing human beings as human beings. This is something where I think the Buddha was very much on point. I think Socrates very much realized that, which is why they force-fed him hemlock.
I think that people have great trouble building lasting, trusting relationships with their fellow human beings, and, so, unfortunately, they have fixated on forms of culture and truth when, in fact, what they are compensating for is developing healthy, lasting relationships with their fellow human beings, which are not entirely moral or logical at all. In fact, having a healthy relationship with another human being is accepting that other human being in all the ways that they do not conform to a box, that they don’t exactly fit into any sort of mold, in the same way that one loves one’s family, not because they are truthful human beings, or because they are bad or good human beings; you love them because they are people you are familiar with. In the same way, we can become more familiar with humanity and stop being so judgmental.
At this moment again, I’m very into the idea that acceptance of humanity is key to a whole lot of problems that human beings seem to have had, actually, since they gathered into city states. I suspect that — not that tribal life was a beautiful, wonderful thing, and that people were nice, but that simply by moving into cities, humanity started believing in larger systems and started believing in “Truth” with a capital “T” rather than living in comfortable relationships.
It may be that squeezing ourselves into cities as a technological device, having so much technology around us, leads us to compensate for having healthy relationships, in which we can make mistakes, be immoral, and then come back, and be accepted by the community, by making people believe in constructs like logic and morality.
Unfortunately, it seems one can have a cleaner, nicer relationship with words like science and morality and religion than one can actually have a clean, perfect relationship with one’s fellow human beings. From a Nietzschean angle, we may be losing meaning, progressively; we may be losing significance, as we increasingly believe in abstractions, in laws, in morality, rather than just accepting people as they are, and like the Prodigal Son, accepting them back into one’s life as human beings.
How does philosophy respond to, “Why are there questions?”
There are questions because, even though we have answers, that does not stop us doubting and questioning. We would be very different beings, with very different lives, if, with the answers we have, we found ourselves questioning less and less. We would be a very different creature, with a very different brain, a very different self, and a very different spirit, however one wants to say it.
What’s the sexiest aspect of philosophy?
The sexist aspect?
OK, yeah. Different term. Huh!
Well, Hume says that there is a distinction between the active philosopher and the rational philosopher. He thinks the active philosopher is someone who teaches people simply and profoundly, using metaphors, and can teach the average person profound things. He thinks the rationalist philosopher is somebody who is a passing fad of university talk that’s all complicated. He thinks that’s not very good for helping people, and hopefully people will go back to being active philosophers who are simple and use metaphors. He probably is thinking of Jesus and Socrates and others like that.
Taking that distinction in mind, I like people who can speak simply and do philosophy, and that often can be profound. You can mean a lot with few words, and if you can [also] be profound, that is extremely sexy, honestly.
If we are going to use power and strength, and not a vain show of pride or complication, we are able to say very much with very little, such that the average person can understand it, and I am one to say studying philosophy such that you can say few words, that are very true, then stop, that strikes people as strong and profound. That’s not just sexy, that’s strong — where you actually feel and know what you’re talking about, and people can hear that in you.
It’s rare; it is unfortunately rare that people speak slowly, deliberately, and in ways that make sense, rather than cloud an issue or try to lose people in diverse ways. Taoists say, don’t try to be clever. Don’t try to know things for everything. Just say a little bit. Do a little bit, and leave. That strikes people as the true profound strength that simple people had in the past, the strength of the human personality itself, and that we can still have as individuals today.
People can be profound. They can be simple. They can be free, and tranquil, and happy by being so. People find that to be very attractive, and very strong. I mean beyond being sexy, although it is certainly that, it is possible to be a strong person, to be a balanced, well founded person, which was the ancient purpose of philosophy.
You were mentioning poetry — poetry, of course, can be profound, like philosophy, in saying a few words and meaning so much. They are interrelated and pass by each other plenty, and we can talk about that in the way simple philosophy, active philosophy for Hume, can be profound.
Unlike poetry, I believe that philosophy is also about how do we become stronger people, and that is why I get somewhat angry at the school of rationalist analytic philosophy, which does not teach the world’s religions, teach the world’s philosophies, as it might.
I prefer the approach of saying, ‘Hey, maybe we’re like Amazonian people,’ and saying, ‘Hey individuals, let’s see what we can do!’ I find that is inspiring to students across all cultural groups, across gender, across everything. You don’t even temper the message for a particular people; you just say, ‘Hey, we’re human beings.’ People find that strong, and they find that powerful, and they find that deep and meaningful in a modern world with shopping malls, as simple and cheap as it is.