By Robert Castle
When I arrived at the Junior Common Room on Wednesday the 8th, I came prepared with a pad and paper. I was attending tutor James Carey’s lecture “Kant’s Grounding of a Dual Metaphysics” as a journalist. I got there about ten minutes early and the JCR was already filling up. By the time Mr. Carey began speaking, chairs were being brought in from other rooms to accommodate the huge crowd that the lecture drew.
Mr. Carey began speaking in his characteristic southern drawl. He explained the purpose of his lecture and the form that it would take. Just from the manner of his speech and the familiarity with which he employed the technical language of Kant’s philosophy, I could tell I was in for a wild ride.
My notes started off as a neat little ledger. The date and the speaker’s name were written on the first line. The next five or so lines were filled with thematic phrases, stuff that I thought would jog my memory when I sat down to construct a reader-friendly version. But after only a few minutes, once the introductory niceties had been left by the wayside, after terms had been defined (terms I shortly thereafter realized would be dispersed like seeds from a sower’s hands), Mr. Carey began to give a technical account of Kant’s philosophy.
My notes morphed quickly from neat line-by-line paraphrasing to desperate diagram drawing, replete with arrows, tree charts, question marks. My handwriting turned from somewhat sloppy print to amateur stenography as I tried to keep up with his initially unassuming (but unrelenting) pace.
I realized somewhere near the end of scratching out the first tree diagram that I would not have a lucid memory of the lecture, and I would therefore not have the requisite material for an adequate here’s-what-went-down-at-the-lecture-type write-up. So I spent the next hour or so musing on (among other things) What In Kant’s Name I would write about. (This journalistic endeavor was a paid gig: I had to write something.)
Sitting in the middle of the large crowd–unusually large for a Wednesday lecture–I realized that I couldn’t be the only person for whom the lecture’s words had transformed from a meaningful discourse to a soothing flow of phonemes whose meaning could be accessed only by concerted effort of self-reawakening. The resulting periods of such waking would last only for a minute or two, for me, before I would catch myself attentively and carefully scanning my periphery for interesting movements from the colorful blobs therein.
And so I decided my write-up would be about the (not uncommon, I think) St. John’s experience of finding yourself in a lecture where your only goal becomes to get out without a drool stain on your shirt.
It should be mentioned here that there were tutors and students (presumably those who either have read or are reading Kant) in the front row and elsewhere whose attention seemed rapt for the entirety of the lecture. (Such observations are easily made when one’s mind and eyes wander without purpose over the same scene for over an hour.)
A certain tutor in the front row looked back into the audience with a bemused smile every time Mr. Carey entered the second half of a particularly long and jargon laden sentence. (Some of these sentences lasted maybe around 20 or 30 seconds, or so my memory tells me. But, for the sake of honesty, I should admit that much of the experience is quickly becoming myth in my act of recollection. This is largely due to the simple fact that it is downright strange to sit in one place for an hour and hear a ceaseless flow of noises that you only know must mean something to someone. You know this only because of the furrowed brows and vigorously nodding heads scattered through the crowd, letting themselves be seen.)
At one point an old woman who was staring dead-ahead and tranquilly sitting to my right vigorously whipped her head first to the left and then to the right and then back to center, almost to her neck’s full rotational extension in both directions, like a soldier scanning a recently burst-into room. Later she vertically extended her small left arm violently into the slot between our two chairs and formed her hand into a claw and then proceeded to flex her fingers between full extension and claw-like tension; when she flexed, her hand vibrated a little bit. She and I shared many uncomfortable, peripheral, is-she/he-looking-at-me?-type glances. I think she was also scanning her periphery for interesting blob-action. She left about twenty minutes before the lecture ended among the last wave of folks who decided I just can’t do it.
One thing that stuck from Mr. Carey’s words was the idea that the human mind has an a priori ability to understand space and time, and that the data received of space occur simultaneously, those of time consecutively.
So I occupied a block of maybe five or ten minutes memorizing visual data from the scene before me and then clenching my eyes shut and trying to reconstruct the scene with my imagination. Every time I reconstructed all of the details I had made it a point to memorize, I could pick more, so the process was pretty much progressively infinite. Once I had gotten the back of each person’s head, color of shirt, the picture frame on the wall, the lecturer and podium, etc., I could go to the texture of the paint on the wall, the particular weave or pattern of each shirt, the consistency of people’s hair, etc. It was interesting to notice that my imaginative reconstruction of the scene was both simultaneous and sequential. I could sometimes just see the three people in the row directly in front of me with my mind’s eye: short brown hair, red shirt; long wavy hair, smallish head; spiky black hair, horn-rimmed glasses; I could see those details in my imagination simultaneously but that mode of recollection was fleeting. Sometimes I would see those details and then they would slip from my memory. But I could reconstruct the scene by approximating completion sequentially: I would have to say, OK first the row in front of me: red shirt, etc. … OK and what’s on the wall? … What color is Mr. Carey’s moustache again? etc.
Perhaps the biggest frustration of attending a lecture (whose content might as well be a hot air balloon drifting peacefully thousands of feet above your head) is that it makes you realize that your memory and attention are imperfect. You can’t help but recognize in such situations that in every lecture and every dialogue you bring both a certain willingness and a certain capability to learn and to think. Most often we don’t have the luxury to say, “This is so far over my head, anyway, I’m just going to daydream and entertain myself with all the little absurdities of the scene.”
And so it is not hard to understand why Socrates tries to convince us in Plato’s Meno that we have knowledge of every knowable thing latent in our soul, and that what we call learning is actually recollection. Such a belief allows us a faithful optimism when daunted by our inadequacies. When I sit down to study Kant’s philosophy next year, my willingness to learn will be the first determinate of my success.