Q&A with Professor Ken Seeskin
You were an undergraduate here before you were a professor. What sticks out to you now when you think back on your experience as a college student?
The student body was much more homogeneous and politically conservative than it is today. Northwestern had just lifted its Jewish quota for incoming students. Students of Greek, Italian, Hispanic, or African-American ancestry were under represented as well. There were very few foreign students. When the War in Vietnam broke out, I joined five other students in the first campus protest. Most people thought we were crazy. I should also point out that while male students could stay out as late as they wanted at night, female students had to observe strict curfews.
Were there classes you took then that you view as being particularly influential for you, either personally or in terms of the direction of your career?
Yes. Fall Quarter of my Freshman year I enrolled in Philosophy 210-1: History of Ancient Philosophy taught by James M. Edie. From the first day, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Philosophy was marvelous! I once wrote an essay comparing my first philosophy class to my first taste of chocolate ice cream. Neither was an acquired taste. The thrill was both immediate and intense.
Do you remember the first class you taught at Northwestern? How did it go? What was the experience like returning to campus, now in the role of professor?
My first class was Philosophy 210-1. Like most new teachers, I crammed too much reading into the course, presumed too much background, and was too hard a grader. Although the class wasn’t a disaster, it could have been much better. I also taught symbolic logic, which is hard to prepare for because you never know what problems students will ask you to work. My “solution” was to drink 3-4 cups of strong coffee so I was flying high by the time class started.
What drew you to the history of philosophy as a field of study?
The history of philosophy is interesting for two reasons. First, it lets you see how important ideas evolve over time. Second, it also lets you study intellectual revolutions or what Thomas Kuhn called paradigm shifts. If you only study one period, you run the risk of missing out on both.
One of your central interests over the past couple decades has been the work of the Medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. What do you find exciting about studying Maimonides and what would you say is the enduring relevance of his thought?
Like other medieval thinkers, Maimonides tackled two intriguing problems. First, how do you characterize something – God – that doesn’t share a property with anything else, falls under no category, and cannot be described by a normal subject/predicate proposition? Second, how do you characterize an event – creation – that cannot be observed, or repeated, or explained by normal scientific principles, what we today call a singularity? From what I can tell, these problems are still with us.
You have not only been a member of the Philosophy Department, but also of the Religious Studies Department, how do you view the role of philosophy in the study of religion, and vice versa?
When you are talking about things like God, creation, love, or evil, the distinction between philosophy and religious studies begins to evaporate.
Your classes have been among the most popular offered by the philosophy department, and you’ve received many awards and honors for your teaching. How has your approach to teaching philosophy evolved over the years?
What I learned early on is that you need to be controversial to be an effective teacher of philosophy. So I made sure that in most of my classes I either took a swipe at common sense or presented the class with opposing solutions to a deep-level problem. In most cases, the class responded by taking issue with what I said or taking sides in an ongoing debate.
How has Northwestern as an institution changed over your career?
The student body is much more diverse and more highly selected. I am always delighted when I walk through campus and see students from a range of backgrounds and hear four or five languages spoken.
I have always been skeptical of people who try to predict the future.