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Post The Adventures of Thinking: A Conversation Between David A Westbrook and John H Schlegel
Created by John Eipper on 11/06/21 3:10 AM

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The Adventures of Thinking: A Conversation Between David A Westbrook and John H Schlegel (David A. Westbrook, USA, 11/06/21 3:10 am)

In August of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Jack Schlegel and I had a long conversation over Zoom, occasioned by a conference we could not give: "Serious Fun: Conversations With and Around Schlegel!"

For those of you who do not know, Schlegel! is an enfant terrible on the cusp of 80, our longest serving faculty member. Jack (I've always called him Jack) sees himself as an economic historian of the 20th century US, but he knows many, many things. He has been particularly interested in the institution of the law school, which of course constitutes and expresses American power in complex ways. He is perhaps the preeminent historian of American Legal Realism, a then radical movement of the 1930s. He was also a participant in, and has since been a commentator on, the Critical Legal Studies Movement, which somewhat indirectly birthed the Critical Race Theory that has been getting so much attention lately. (I was trained in the wake of CLS, by some of its founders.)

At one level, this is inside-baseball conversation between two long-term interlocutors. Jack and I have been talking since I came to Buffalo, and I don't have a better reader. We have taught together many times. And when I don't know things, or just have an idea that needs floating, I often email, or better, call. Usually I start talking, sometimes phrased as a question, more often a loose set of propositions that are starting to hang together, to see what he'll do with it, if I'm missing something obvious, else . . . and just for the performance. If he calls, it is to check on somebody, tell a joke, or sometimes get me to read a text. Over the years, I‘ve learned many things, including much of what we discuss in this podcast--but in embedded fashion, suffused, in the vein like ore, the osmosis of thinking together. Not stand alone, and not all that legible to a third party.

Something different, however, happened this time. Underneath the bluster about being a 2x4, Jack suffers from the modesty common in the Midwest. So here, I ask rather direct questions about corners of the world on which he's worked, and in which he has lived, for decades. In response, he takes the laboring oar, rather than saying "right you are, Socrates," or "there's something else: ____". As a result, our August zoom produced a sustained articulation of much of a major scholar's life work. And you may hear more, aside and interwoven, about writing, teaching, family, friends, generations, aging, audience . . .

I originally hoped this would be film--a law professor's version of My Dinner with Andre--but Zoom quality/connections precluded that. And My Dinner with Andre was actually quite scripted. This was ex temp, even though I thought about questions in advance. Therefore, the Baldy Center and I decided to turn the conversation into a podcast. I shortened the conversation a bit, for length and clarity. This year's Baldy Podcast producer is Edgar Gartin. He has done a great job with the editing, the sound, and the production generally.

Episode 21: John Henry Schlegel and David A. Westbrook discuss “the adventure of thinking” - Baldy Center - University at Buffalo

JE comments:  I listened to the conversation last night.  Bert, this post gets filed under "philosophy"--you and Prof. Schlegel address the deepest of the deep questions.  Not so much "why are we here?", but one that is even more profound for those with the blessing/curse of reflection:  How can we make thinking an "adventure," and not, if our profession gives us the luxury of thought, merely a job?

You and Prof. S cover a menu of topics, but of personal interest to me are your reflections on Academia.  Your emphasis is on law school, but it applies across the spectrum:  How can the Academy focus on intellectual aspirations, when the institutional pressure is on the practical and pre-professional, to "train" students for a career?

Bert, we've long known that you are a charm, and Prof. Schlegel is a jewel:  wise, approachable, and avuncular.  Such a mentor has certainly been a blessing during your time at U-B.


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  • The Adventure of Learning: Gary Moore Reflects (John Eipper, USA 11/13/21 3:19 AM)
    Gary Moore writes:

    A beautiful reminder from David A. Westbrook (November 6) that learning is an adventure.


    The idea--that learning is an adventure--has been hackneyed almost into invisibility, but its majestic power remains. Bert went farther (with his learned interlocutor John Schlegel) to remind that the essence of adventure, including learning adventure, is fun. Tolkien pointed out drolly (in every bygone hippie's adventure-Bible) that the hard facts of real adventuring--into the peaks or the horizon--are actually miserably uncomfortable, since Mama is not out there preparing your hot cocoa. But that irony only deepens Bert's meaning of "fun."


    To be driven by the thrill of the unknown--the "fun" of adventuring geographically or intellectually--is to again meet the hackneyed commonplace obscuring the sublime. The Unknown, the Beyond. These are what call to the scholar in the stacks (following what Arthur Koestler dubbed his intuitive "research angel") or to the physically miserable Dr. Livingstone yearning to map the Lualaba River. Just the mere physico-perceptual fact of the horizon is a talisman, compressing every inchoate inner roar of "What's out there is more than I know!"


    And in the adventure, the very meaning of knowing something is that it gets you that much closer to the next step, into trying to learn or figure out that which you don't know. It doesn't have to be the giant step all the way to God. Just that next locked door on the indefinably lengthy way is somehow transfixing--because it's right there staring at you, demanding inquiry.


    The "fun" of it is a quiet insinuator, long-habituated as merely the routine of seeking a research goal, and yet in anybody's Bible that horizon is God. Even to the atheist, there is That Which Is Beyond What I Know. "The beyond" doesn't have to be distant galaxies or an old guy sitting on a heavenly throne, but something as overwhelmingly yet familiarly unknown as...memory. Why can some savants remember nearly everything they've experienced, and on what day (and not just autistic savants but completely unmarked people like actress Marilu Henner, whose one-in-a-million mystery is dubbed HSAM)? Why, physiologically, can't I do that? I know from the rare astonishing flashes that every memory is in there--somewhere, lurking. So why can't I access them, when Marilu can? That, too, is The Beyond. The thrill of thinking of striking the priceless jackpot, of breaking through to the next level of The Unknown.


    Eureka! (Sounds like fun?)


    What a fitting anthem Bert has called up for the mysteries of WAIS, whose fundamental engine is the unfathomable drive in all us to express what we know--or to reach for what we long to know.


    JE comments:  There's one affliction all WAISers share--the thirst for travel.  Do we go places to learn new stuff, or for the sheer thrill of it?  In my case it's the latter, although I cite the former as justification.


    I had never before heard of HSAM (highly superior autobiographical memory)--or if I had, long ago I forgot about it.  (!)  Its opposite number is SDAM (severely deficient autobiographical memory).


    HSAM may be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.  How often does forgetting bring us peace?  WAIS is many, many things for me, but on a persona level it's a mnemonic tool.  What year was I in La Paz, Bolivia?  Well, check the WAIS archives.


    The late, great Randy Black was a citizen of the Republic of Amnesia.  In case you forgot, here's Randy's 2011 explanation:


    https://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=60283&objectTypeId=54533&topicId=4966


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