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Philosophers on Philosophy

A Farewell Letter To My Students

John Corcoran looks back on his career as a philosophy teacher.

Dear Students,

I am saying farewell after more than forty happy years of teaching logic at the University of Buffalo. But this is only a partial farewell. I will no longer be at UB to teach classroom courses or seminars, but nothing else will change. I will continue to be available for independent study. I will continue to write abstracts and articles with people who have taken courses or seminars with me. And I will continue to honor the LogicLifetimeGuarantee™ you earned by taking one of my logic courses or seminars. As you might remember, according to the terms of the LogicLifetimeGuarantee™, I stand behind everything I teach. If you find anything to be unsatisfactory, I am committed to fixing it. If you forget anything, I will remind you. If you have questions, I will answer them – or ask more questions. And if you need more detail on any topic we discussed, I will help you to broaden and deepen your knowledge. Stay in touch.

I want to take this opportunity to say something about my intellectual development, and to leave you with some advice. In the four years that I was a graduate student I went to almost every philosophy colloquium. I met several famous philosophers. I asked each of them: “What is your one piece of advice for a philosophy graduate student?” Only Paul Feyerabend said anything memorable. His advice was to find some fundamental problem that could serve as an anchor or focal point for a lifetime of philosophizing. Some time later I realized that I had already found such a problem: What is proof? This question gives rise to a series of epistemic, ontic, linguistic, logical, mathematical, and historical questions which still energize me.

As I look back, I feel that for the first twenty-five or so years of my life I was being hindered by something. It felt like I was driving with my brakes on, carrying useless baggage, or slogging through a muddy swamp. Thinking that I was mysteriously and gratuitously granted belief in the truth was a terrible burden. What set me free was overcoming my need to be loyal to the beliefs I happened to have. I had been afraid to doubt. I remember discussing my fear of doubt with two of my high-school pals; but it wasn’t until graduate school that I saw how destructive that fear was, and only then did I overcome it. I now realize the power of creative doubt. I now see that doubt is not to be feared and shunned, and that stubborn belief is the scary thing.

It was only after working on the problem of proof that I discovered that doubt is often productive. A crucial property of proofs is their capacity to remove doubt – so if one lacks doubt, the detection of proof may be inhibited. And without the ability to doubt, some kinds of knowledge are difficult or even impossible. For instance, in order to find a proof of a given proposition (even one believed to be true), it is sometimes useful or even necessary to doubt it. Are the premises really known to be true? Does the chain of reasoning really show that the conclusion follows from the premises? In fact, the most direct method for verifying that an argumentation is a proof starts by doubting the conclusion. How can one doubt what one believes, or thinks one knows to be true? It seems paradoxical to say that people can doubt propositions they believe or even know. But mathematicians do this every day (as do non-mathematicians). In mathematics we often prove propositions that ‘do not need proof’. Maybe the frequency of creative doubt in mathematics was one of the reasons Plato found mathematics so important in philosophical training.

The experience of creating a doubt and the experience of having a doubt removed are both empowering, like the experience of grasping an ambiguity, detecting an implication, or perceiving a non sequitur. The experience produces self-knowledge, self-reliance, and self-confidence. It also overcomes the debilitating alienation generated by indoctrination, or by loyalty-motivated self-deception.

Once I grasped the creative role of doubt and freed myself to employ it, instead of putting energy and emotion into protecting preconceptions that had been imposed on me, I was free to investigate anything and to follow any path. I became an autonomous member of the community of investigators, and thereby became collegial with people who had been ideological enemies.

I discussed this theme with Alfred Tarski. He said that the motto of Jesus, “The truth will set you free” was almost exactly backward: a better motto would be “Be free to find truth.” One of my former students said that “The truth sets you free” should be replaced with “Doubt sets you free.”

The courses I taught were mostly introductory, having no prerequisites and presupposing no previous knowledge. I tried to reconstruct the subject-matter from the ground up. I stressed the priority of self-education over authoritarian indoctrination, and I stressed the superiority of learning how to think over being told what to think. I tried to assist students to connect with the reality that logic is about so that they could become autonomous judges of the current state of logic. One of our class mottos was ‘Ridicule the ridiculous’. I encouraged students to themselves become autonomous members of the community of investigators, and to discover and accept their own temperaments. Not every student is ready for intellectual freedom, and not every institution approves of it.

Over the years I had been fortunate to have benefited from many great institutions and many dedicated students, but I treasure the University of Buffalo and its students above all others. After I settled in here at Buffalo, I had a feeling that I had arrived at my academic home: that this is my kind of institution, these are my kind of colleagues, these are my kind of students. There was confidence, dedication and competence, without conceit, affectation or pretension. I am grateful to all of the talented and energetic people that have made my years at UB so rich. I will miss the Buffalo Logic Colloquium and the fun at the dinners and parties afterward. I will miss seeing you.

This above all: To thine own self be true.

Warm regards,

John Corcoran

© Professor John Corcoran 2012

John Corcoran founded the Buffalo Logic Colloquium in 1970.

• A similar letter dated November 2011 was conveyed to the UB Philosophy Department in its Winter 2011 ‘Noûsletter’.

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