WILLIAM H POTEAT
To understand what teaching was for William Poteat, it is important to realize what he sought to accomplish in his teaching and in his intellectual endeavors generally. It was no ordinary matter of conveying information and understanding, nor helping his students gain mastery of difficult ideas and texts and, in turn, achieving a position to help students gain such mastery—although these tasks were unavoidably involved.
His primary aim in teaching was to provoke and assist his students to undergo a paradigm shift in sensibility: a shift from the ordinary mode of critical intellection and reflection that characterizes modernity and predominates in the academy, to a post-critical mode of thinking.
First of all, this involves a shift from attending solely to the what (a content, a teaching, a matter to be subjected to intellectual mastery and critique as an indifferent object of thought) to becoming aware of, and keeping track of, the how of intellection itself (something predominantly tacit but profoundly consequential), specifically to the how of one’s responsive relationship as person in the world to it, to how one happens to be relating oneself to it.
Soren Kierkegaard, one of Poteat’s intellectual mentors, called this “double-reflection.” A critical mode of thinking (the kind of thinking dominantly characterizing modernity) tends to lose track of this “how” in favor of simply presuming a relationship of critical suspicion, guarded distance, withheld personal presence and participation, minimal or non-existent indwelling, and objectification (e.g., through conceptual abstraction of certain features) toward the objects of thought—tacitly presuming that only such a relationship will give access to truth. But this loses entirely the actual and true dimension of those objects that come to light through personal presence, participation, empathy, caring, and thoughtful hospitality—indeed, through sensitive and respectful interpretation, and leaves in its place a colorless, purposeless, meaningless world of objects available for unchecked manipulation.
In effect, to make the shift to a post-critical mode of thinking is to break free from the largely unconscious, profoundly self-alienating abstractedness of modern critical thinking and come to be at one with oneself, fully present to others and the things with which one is concerned in the world—and also, of course, to be acutely aware of the self-alienating tendencies of modern critical thinking and their tragic consequences. In place of an alienating critical suspicion as the driving, central motive of thought, a post-critical sensibility recovers a passionate methodological faith in the tacit intimations of a reality and truth that reveals itself inexhaustibly.
Poteat accomplished this feat with his students through a combination of an ironic stance, whereby he deliberately made impossible any simple, straightforward taking in of what he might have to convey, and skillful Socratic questioning that drew out and brought to light the implications of his students’ own thoughts and ideas on the text under consideration and the issues it raised. A close friend and later a colleague at UNC Chapel Hill, Ruel Tyson, spoke of him as “the most consistent, most unrelenting practitioner of Socratic dialectic of any teacher I have had or known in over 65 years in the classroom as student and teacher.”
All this was typically done in seminar fashion while discussing a number of key texts: primarily Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and Kierkegaard’s works, particularly his essay “The Immediate stages of the Erotic or the Musical Erotic” in Either/Or Vol. 1.
Why these texts? Precisely because their authors undertook a radical critique of the “prepossessions of the European Enlightenment concerning the nature of human knowing and doing” [Poteat’s phrase in Polanyian Meditations]. Here, according to Poteat,
He described the principal focus of his teaching effort later in his life in the following words:
[It was] a sustained critical colloquy with three generations of graduate students set among a half-dozen or so “canonical” volumes in the context of our mutual search for the imagination’s way out of what Walker Percy has called the ‘old modern age.’
I, and my students in the measure to which they have truly joined the colloquy, have from the outset aspired to be radically critical of the Critical tradition of modernity, which is to say, we have undertaken to become postcritical.
Like any parasite, this essentially polemical convivium has battened on its host, hoping, not to weaken and eventually bring down, but, rather, modestly to change the universities in which it was formed and by whose sufferance it has lived. At least those of us who have sustained this colloquy have hoped to be and have changed.
Although this was the core of his teaching effort, particularly at Duke, his teaching had an incredibly wide-ranging, renaissance-like scope that sought to incorporate most aspects of the history of Western culture, visual art, tragedy, ancient Greek culture, the interaction between Greek and Hebrew metaphysics, existentialism, ordinary language philosophy, theory of myth and symbol, religious language, philosophy of science, phenomenology, philosophical psychology, and philosophical anthropology.
A good friend and colleague at UNC Chapel Hill, E. Maynard Adams, at the time of Poteat’s death characterized him as a “learned man who exuded a joy in living, one of the colleagues from whom I learned the most and an inspired teacher.” “I still find people, many of them prominent people, who tell me having Bill Poteat as a teacher was the most meaningful thing in their lives.”
As a friend, what Adams enjoyed most was Poteat’s warm wit, and a “great joy in life that was contagious. He had friends; he made friends.” Adams and others recognized his personal connections with students—legacies that are living and breathing still. Those connections, Adams believes, came about because of “the way in which he interpreted life for them. He gave them a sense that life wasn’t just a matter of getting what you want and getting by from day to day or year to year or job to job or from birth to the grave. He taught them that one should have a sense of purpose, a sense of meaningfulness in living and should find self-fulfilment in one’s life, in one’s work, in one’s relationships.”
modern culture . . . is under the maximum radical pressure from the author and which, therefore, most vividly discloses—sometimes wittingly but more often unwittingly—the repertoire of concepts in which both we and the author are immured. Usually these are profoundly confused books, for no author is so likely edifyingly to exhibit his or her embranglement in those very destructive conceptual dualisms which define modernity as when he or she undertakes to bring them explicitly under attack.
I shall claim that our imaginations in the West, increasingly in modernity, have superordinated the visual picture over the auditory one.