Professor Andrew Cole, Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton, will give the Clark Lectures 2019 at Trinity. Here he is in conversation with Trinity Fellows, Dr Ross Wilson and Dr Phil Knox.
You began mainly as a literary scholar and have increasingly moved into writing about the history of philosophy and theory. What led you to expand your focus in this way?
One friend ribs me for hating literature. Yet another – and let me get the quote right – chides me for ‘loving on it.’ That’s the story. My career certainly unfolded such that it seems I’ve moved from literature to philosophy, but the truth is, I’ve been with philosophy for as long as I’ve been with literature. Both scratch the same itch. Often throughout the day, when I pause to dictate into my phone a philosophical insight, I usually speak out a poem. Odd, I know, but poetry is shorthand philosophy while blabbing out prose is embarrassing and unartful.
You’ve written a book called The Birth of Theory. Would you say that literary theory is now a toddler, an adolescent, middle-aged, or old? Or is it dead?
Well, I’d say literary theory is all of those things – generations of family who have each other, for better and for worse. They’re bound by blood, which is sometimes thinner than the baby’s bathwater. But so it is. Theory is an all ages show. It’s all hands on deck, too. And it’s a cliché. The main thing is that theory is alive and well, which is why I wrote The Birth of Theory. Now, I’ll have to get back to you on whether this means I’m Dr Frankenstein, but I can say that this book is a reminder that no one should apologise for theorising while breaking some eggs.
What one medieval text do you think all contemporary philosophers should read and why?
William Langland’s Piers Plowman all the way. It is crazily infused with philosophy. Every line is an aromatic torsion of ideas. What Adorno said about Hegel is often said of Langland: ‘one literally does not know, and cannot conclusively determine, what is being talked about.’ They’re both difficult thinkers, and likely difficult persons, if art imitates life, pace Wilde. Still, any thinking philosopher would receive Langland’s poem as a gift of thought. (And, incidentally, regifting is how this poem circulated in the Middle Ages.)
What one work of modern philosophy do you think all medievalists should read and why?
That’s easy. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Medievalists should read it because they could really crack it wide open – or, to use the old language of medieval studies, they could solve its cruces and revitalize Hegel scholarship. You see, and with apologies to my best friends, modernists have tapped the hogshead of Hegel dry. Yet for medievalists Hegel would be a fresh ton for the bacchanalian whirl. To be boring about it, the Middle Ages perfected the discipline of dialectic. Hegel’s sole ambition was to think deeply about the dialectic. Put two and two together, and you start to understand Hegel, difficulty and all.
What do you consider to be the most urgent tasks for intellectual historians today?
Shout from the rooftops that history repeats itself. Then proceed to ground level and show people exactly how we live with the past. Spread the word that we make history but, as Marx says, ‘under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ There’s a future here, is the point. The past matters in the way matter matters for Aristotle: it is potential ready to hand, and when grasped and formed, it gives us ‘actuality,’ a present fashioned by all for all.
The Clark Lectures 2019 are free and open to all on a first come first served basis in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre, Trinity College. The lectures will be audio-recorded.
Marx after Feudalism, 6 February, 6-7pm
There will also be two seminars in the Junior Parlour, Trinity College. For the seminars (but not the lectures), please reserve a place in advance using the links below.
The Substance of Thought, 30 January, 6-7.30pm
The Forms of Theory, 4 February, 6-7.30pm