Potash Hill

The foundation of our experience: An interview with William Edelglass

Sophomore Noah Strauss Jenkins went on a stroll with philosophy professor William Edelglass, on the driveway to his off-grid solar home off South Road, to discuss classes, research projects, life with twin toddlers, and what is so phenomenal about phenomenology. 

Noah Strauss Jenkins: So I’m wondering how you’ve seen this semester going, with all of your classes? Are there some that you like more than others?

William Edelglass: Phenomenology is a course I’ve been teaching this semester that I totally love. I am inspired by the material, and it’s really challenging for students. Many of the texts are often taught at the graduate level. I think they are amazingly profound and insightful, and the students are really wonderful. They have been doing their presentations, and I thought they did insightful and excellent work. One of the questions that ran through the phenomenology course was about “what is a subject and how do we relate to others?” and that was of particular interest to some students. So in discussion with that class I decided to teach a class next semester that looks at the history of that question from Descartes through more contemporary thinkers.

NSJ: I guess the natural question would be: what is phenomenology?

WE: Pheno in Greek means to seem or appear. Phenomenology isn’t really a Greek word, but one way of defining it would be to say that it is the study of that which appears. What that means is that it is an approach to thinking about, well, just about anything that begins with the first person experience of whatever it is we’re are talking about. So what does it mean, as opposed to what it is objectively.

NSJ: Okay, I see.

WE: So for example you and I are now walking up this driveway. There are all kinds of ways we could think about this driveway right now: you could look at the chemical elements, you could look at the how deep the sand and gravel foundation goes, you could look at the incline, you could look at the trees on the sides.

NSJ: So how is phenomenology different?

WE: A phenomenological approach might be to start with, well, what does it feel like right now to be walking up, and what is the meaning of it, and mainly what is the meaning of it to me? If I were to measure it and give some mathematical or technical analysis of it, that mathematical analysis would always and necessarily be abstracted from the experience I have. There is no immediate access to the world that is not through our experience. Phenomenology tries to provide an account of the structures and meanings at the foundation of our experience, or the foundation really of any knowledge.

NSJ: Alright, so that’s a pretty wide umbrella. Did you just start doing phenomenology with Aiden Keeva (’15)?

WE: Do you mean teaching it at Marlboro?

NSJ: Yeah.

WE: No I actually taught a course on phenomenology my very first semester here. and I’ve done a regular one every three years or so.

NSJ: That’s awesome.

WE: It’s had different titles at different times

NSJ: So, are you still pursuing your own research as well?

WE: Three or four chapters of my dissertation were written on a phenomenological thinker named Levinas, who I taught for classes this semester and that I will teach some more of next semesters. I also co-wrote a book that addresses how you can use his work in the context of environmental thinking. And I published, I don’t know, six or seven articles or chapters on his work. But I’ve written about other parts of phenomenology as well, like phenomenology and art. Phenomenological thinking has certainly been a big part of my own works, both my scholarship and teaching.

NSJ: I was wondering about the book on apophasis you are writing with Amer? Can you tell me about that?

WE: So Amer and I, with three colleagues at other universities, have been working on this project for a while. It included several conferences one of which was a week-long seminar we held here at my house in May 2015, which included faculty and students from as far away as the University of Hawaii and several Marlboro students as well. One of the faculty colleagues is a specialist on Hindu traditions, one on Jewish traditions, one of Christian traditions, Amer is working on Islam, and I’m working on Buddhism. Part of that project, for which, strangely enough, the foundation gave us $100,000, was to do some public events. These have included a town meeting in Kansas City and working with students—like in the class in Apophatic Discourse you took with Amer and I—but also research trips to India and Pakistan among other places. It also is leading to a collaboratively authored book that we hope to finish in the next five months. We are each writing two chapters: one chapter that is more focused on the tradition, and giving an account of the relation between the apophatic and the cataphatic form within the tradition; and then a second chapter that is more methodological. The second chapter will step back and analyze the work in the first chapter, and look at how the category of the apophatic operates across these different traditions.

NSJ: And who are the three other people involved in the project?

WE: One of them is Aaron Simmons who is a Pentecostal Christian and a very sophisticated philosopher. Another is Martin Shuster, and he working in Judaism. The third is a woman named Sai Bhatawadekar.

NSJ: Cool, okay. And how did you all get to know each other? Is it through this project?

WE: Years ago Aaron contributed a chapter to a book that I was editing and we met… (baby Jasmine (?) wakes up in the stroller) So she’s been asleep…it’s two now?

NSJ: Yeah

WE: So she’s been asleep for something like four hours now, and honestly I was getting worried because she has never napped this long. I was wondering if she was okay. Every once in a while I would loose my train of thought, so do you want to go inside now?

NSJ: Yeah, totally

William: Aaron had me give a talk, he teaches in the south, and there was a talk on climate ethics. At the time it seemed kind of strange to fly all the way down south to give a lecture on global responsibility and climate change, so I used Skype from my office in Marlboro, and it went really well. Since then I’ve had him speak to my class a few times through Skype, and I’ve talked to his class through Skype. He’s taught some of my works, and I’ve taught some of his. So we’ve been professional colleagues for a long time, but we hadn’t met until a year or so ago. We’ve spent a lot of time together; He and his wife and child were up here for a week, and Martin and his wife and child were here for the seminar, and we all got to know each other well. Actually Sai Bhatawadekar, who studies Hinduism and German philosophy, also teaches Bollywood dance, do you know what Bollywood is?

WE: Yeah, definitely

William: So one night she taught us a Bollywood dance routine, which was so much fun, and then we performed it the next morning before the ending ceremonies. And as it happens I’ve seen a couple of them at various conferences since then.

NSJ: That’s awesome. Has it been harder this semester with the kids? 

WE: Totally, I mean I get very little sleep, and there are a few other things that I’m writing. I gave a couple papers; you remember I had to travel out of town for a week or so.

NSJ: Yeah, yeah

WE: Prior to the girls being born I used to be co-director to the International Association of Human Philosophy, which is an international philosophy organization with members in five continents; last year I was in charge of the big conference in New Orleans. So I had a whole bunch more professional responsibilities, but even shedding that, my life is completely different. So I’m not playing soccer this year, and getting very little sleep. But in addition to the collaborative book project I am writing something on Buddhism and poetry. There’s actually a Marlboro graduate named Nahum Brown who completed a PhD in philosophy working on Hegel and Deleuze, and he is putting together a book. Do you remember the guy who edited the book that we used in the Apophatic Discourse class you took, William Franke?

NSJ: Yeah, of course.

WE: So, he is a professor at Vanderbilt, and in Macau in China, and Nahum has been working with Franke in China the last year and a half, and they actually wanted me to co-edit a book with Nahum on Franke’s work in apophaticism. But I didn’t have time for that with the girls. However I am writing something on W. S. Merwin and Gary Snyder, two contemporary Buddhist poets, and I’m teaching a workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist studies on Buddhism and poetry. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies is a place where people send academic work, it’s a really wonderful place to teach. I taught a workshop there earlier this summer and loved it. Actually my best friend from college and I—he’s a meditation teacher—we’ve agreed to teach a week long seminar there every year

NSJ: Oh wow. And wait, where is that?

WE: It’s in Barre, Massachusetts. And there are three other lectures that I’ve committed to in the spring so I’ve got my hands full, but I really love that part of life. I just agreed to teach, as a part of a seminar with grad students and faculty, in Sitka, Alaska for a couple weeks this summer. We’re all going, Kirstin and the girls and Kirstin’s mother.

NSJ: that’s awesome! And what are you teaching out there?

WE: Well I haven’t really decided yet, but it may be something on embodied practices on the landscape in Himalayan peoples. I’m working it out with the organizers. Did you read Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram?

NSJ: I read the beginning of it.

WE: There’s a guy who is mentioned a lot in Spell of the Sensuous named Richard Nelson, who’s the foremost Tlingit anthropologist. Tlingit is the native Alaskan group in the inner passage area around Sitka, where we are going to be. He is actually going to be teaching as well.

NSJ: So what are the other papers you are working on right now?

WE: So one is on the apophatic tradition in Buddhism in India, Tibet, and little bit in China. Another is thinking about negation and positivity in those traditions, that’s the more methodological chapter where I’m looking at the question of language in the apophatic of these two poets Merwin and Snyder. And I’m giving a talk at Smith College, as part of their Buddhist studies series in February, on Buddhism and happiness. I was asked to give a talk at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Bhutan and Buddhism and happiness. I don’t know if you know about…

NSJ: I know about the national happiness index, what is it called?

WE: The gross national happiness index. Yeah, so I’m going to give a talk related to that. I don’t know if I’m going to do this but I agreed to give a talk on Buddhism and painting, Buddhism and art, at a conference at the Barre Center of Buddhist Studies. There’s the guy who was here, Steven Batchelor, and four other people who will be doing presentations of Buddhism and art, but I don’t know if I’m actually going to do it. So those are some of the things.

NSJ: That’s a fair amount of stuff. What classes are you teaching next semester? There’s the genealogy of race and then what?

WE: Yeah, there’s the Genealogy of Race, and then a class called Selves and Others.

NSJ: and that’s the phenomenology class?

WE: Well there’s a lot that is prior to phenomenology but it’s going to end with two phenomenological thinkers.

NSJ: That’s cool.

WE: It will include people like Kant and Heidegger and Husserl and Hegel and Hobbes—all the big H’s—and Kierkegaard

NSJ: I took the Kant’s Critic of Pure Reason class last semester.

WE: Was it primarily on the Critic of Pure Reason?

NSJ: Yeah, that was the main thing. It was pretty crazy, I had a really rough time with it until the end but it was really rewarding. Casey Ford (philosophy fellow during William’s sabbatical) was a good teacher.

WE: Yeah he seemed like a great teacher.

NSJ: How are the classes finishing up this semester? I know ours is going pretty well (Seminar in Religion, Literature, and Philosophy).

WE: I really enjoyed the small class, the smallest class I ever taught. Being able to all sit in my office and drink tea, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s also the case that it’s very hard to hide if you’re a student, like if you’re in a class of 25 and you don’t do the reading nobody cares, but if somebody doesn’t do the reading in our class everybody knows it.

NSJ: It’s true

WE: Which is okay. There’s a kind of vulnerability, but since it’s kind of small and everybody knows each other so well I feel like there’s no competition.

NSJ: Yeah, I really like it. I think it’s a very safe place to be confused.

WE: The phenomenology class is a little bit different in that respect. It’s got a wide range of students with regards to background in philosophy, and it’s just very hard material and doesn’t have quite as relaxed a feel. But I’ve been very impressed with the presentations people have been doing and I’m reading the drafts of papers now and I’ve enjoyed it.

NSJ: What was the final paper supposed to be about?

WE: Whatever they wanted—there’s a wide range. One paper is on disabled bodies and using one of the phenomenological analyses we read to apply to disabled bodies. Another is the experience of looking at a photograph and photography. Another is on mental images and cognitive science and models of thinking about things in human experience. One of them is about two poems by Elizabeth Bishop and a poem by Emily Dickinson that demonstrates the phenomenological dimension of their work in those poems. Phenomenology can also be something that happens in poetry, not just philosophy. Then several of the papers are primarily interpretative and trying to give an account of one or a few of the texts we’ve read.

NSJ: Yeah, I have to write a 15-page paper about the changes in Dorothea in Middlemarch by George Eliot.

WE: Was the topic assigned?

NSJ: No I chose it, it’s for Realism to Modernism that Geraldine is teaching

WE: How is the paper going?

NSJ: Not great. I really loved the class; it was just very challenging. I’m a very slow reader and there was a lot of reading. But I’m excited about it. I really liked Middlemarch—it was amazing.

WE: It’s a great book. David Abram was saying that he is a very slow reader.

NSJ: Yeah, my mom always said that I would get faster at it, but it hasn’t really worked out that way.

WE: It’s ok to be a slow reader, but I suppose it makes things harder at times. It’s only helpful to be a fast reader when what you are reading isn’t really worth reading. Like I just read a book on sleep for children, and I was just skimming through it, but when I read philosophy I usually read very slowly.