Dave Liakos on Plato and Traveling Where Nobody Told You to Go

Noodle Expert Dave Liakos talks about the importance of asking for help when you need it, the "bitter divide" between what counts as good and bad philosophy in academia, and why you should seek out places off the beaten path.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

In the "Republic," Plato gives an incredibly detailed account of how the guardians and the philosopher-kings of Socrates's ideal city would be educated, from young childhood to full adulthood, including training in music, literature, gymnastics (what we would call physical education), military strategy and tactics, mathematics, and philosophy. Obviously it's far too late for me to begin what Plato refers to as "physical training for bodies and music and poetry for the soul" exactly as he prescribed it, but if I had to spend a year with any teacher, it would have to be the founder of the Academy and the writer of the dialogues with which philosophy — the field I study — as we now know it began. Plato's vision of education, at least as he presents it in the "Republic," is astonishing in its comprehensiveness. He saw the point of education as striving to grasp nothing less than "what itself provides light for everything." I'd like to try to learn what he meant by that.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

As far as my academic life goes, an important piece of advice was to try to animate what I was working on with my broader interests, concerns, and passions. Instead of working on intrinsically interesting but otherwise isolated and esoteric intellectual problems, one of my teachers wisely encouraged me to steer my work to things I truly care about. This idea helped increase my motivation to engage in academic work, and made my work more interesting not only to myself but hopefully also for others too. (My work is still pretty esoteric though!)

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Maybe I'm just a contrarian, but I'd recommend students travel somewhere they've been advised to think of as not worth traveling to. I don't mean going to a war zone or something like that. I'm just suggesting you could learn a lot from traveling to places under the radar of the obvious choices for especially educational experiences (such as Paris, London, or New York). I grew up and went to college in New England, but have traveled widely in the United States since then, and I have seen a lot of the country that I had never seen before. It's been a rich experience and it was, surprisingly, nothing anyone ever recommended I do. If there's a place that a lot of people have not told you to see, maybe that's a place worth seeing, because chances are it's a lot different from where you've been spending most of your time.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

In high school I struggled a lot with classes in math and science. Even though I didn't learn nearly enough about those fields as I probably should have (which is something I occasionally regret) I did learn the value of asking for help when I need it, and to not be ashamed about doing so, especially when you have no choice but to admit you need it. In retrospect I also learned a lot of practical study skills through doing so poorly in those classes, such as writing outlines, taking notes, rereading, seeking supplementary materials, and so on.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I first began studying philosophy because I quickly learned, as I began taking classes in the field, that it offers an extraordinarily rich tradition of texts that tackle deep, profound questions, about justice and the good life, the self, knowledge, truth, existence, free will, and God and the soul. Philosophy also interested me because it seemed to address the most troubling and perplexing questions that arise in practically every other discipline, which is why we have philosophy of art and literature, of science, of mathematics, of religion, of history, of mind, of language, of law, political philosophy, etc. In short, philosophy seemed to me as an undergraduate as the most intellectually exciting discipline; for the most part, I still think of it that way. What I didn't know when I first began studying it is that professional philosophers are bitterly divided about what counts as good philosophy. This is why the discipline is afflicted with the well-known conflict between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy, and a less well-known divide between philosophers who want the discipline to be closely aligned with the natural and formal sciences and those who prefer to think of it as what Bernard Williams called a humanistic discipline. I see the conflict in both those domains as unfortunate and detrimental to the field as a whole. I think the climate in philosophy is generally improving on the first divide I mentioned, but I'm not as optimistic about the second conflict being resolved.

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