Sunday, September 26, 2010


Today I listened to a portion of the newly-renamed radio program, "Being." In case you're confused - it was called "Speaking of Faith" until last week. Krista Tippet interviewed Nicholas Kristof, a journalist who has written widely on issues like human trafficking and rape.

At some point, she asked him about his favorite philosopher, and they talked about ideas and the way that they shaped Kristof's approach to life and writing.

I started to wonder what I would answer to the question, "who is your favorite philosopher?" Putting aside the question of whether you can or should have a "favorite," this strikes me as one of those litmus-test questions. Presidential candidates face the question, and they had better be ready to answer someone who rings all the right bells. Say "Jesus," and the media assumes you're winking at your evangelical supporters. Say "Martin Luther King, Jr.," and you send a completely different message.

But my background in philosophy is thin, thin, thin. So suppose someone jumps out of the bushes and asks me to name a philosopher? Ouch! I could drop a famous name on the fly ("Denis Diderot! Because it's fun to say 'Denis Diderot!'" or "Kant! Because I like to hum, 'Emmanuel Kant was a real pissant...'") but that would only reflect the shallowest possible knowledge of what that person actually had to say. turns out that I do know a philosopher. One whose life and personality impressed me intensely. One who taught me something about thinking when I was a child - something I taught to my own students last week. I knew Ferdinand Schoeman, philosopher.

Dr. Schoeman's son was my classmate from kindergarten until we graduated high school. And because his son was in our classes, Schoeman visited and told us what I can only describe as philosophy stories. He talked about the progress of time. He talked about the unknowability of the future. He talked about ethics and morality and sin and redemption and generosity and complexity and fun. He was great.

Most importantly, he was open-handed and open-hearted with his ideas. I'm sure he's not the only philosopher who speaks about ideas to third graders (and then fifth graders, and then seventh graders, and then...), but he told me things that I remember - in detail - 25 years later.

So if anyone ever asks me, my favorite philosopher is Ferdinand Schoeman. He specialized in writing about privacy, and in influencing kids to be more interesting thinkers. There's a lecture series in his name at his university, because he died too young.

1 comment:

Bart said...

And here I thought you were going to say it was me. ;¬)

I remember, in the arrogance of youth, turning my nose up at the thought of someone calling themselves a 'philosopher.' After all, they're only sitting around guessing at things. What could any of them have to say to me that I couldn't figure out for myself?

I'm more open to the notion now, but I'd still be hard pressed to give a favourite. Does Yoda count?