Jonathan Lee has been a professor in the Philosophy Department at Colorado College for 25 years. His work focuses on ancient Greeks, modern French, Africana, and a variety of other philosophical fields. In addition to his academic pursuits, Lee also performs improvisation music with the saxophone and enjoys practicing yoga.
Interview and photo by JONATHAN TIGNOR
The Catalyst: It seems a lot of people are often dismissive of philosophy as heavily westernized and patriarchal, at least in American institutions; what would you have to say to them about that?
Jonathan Lee: I would say that’s not true just of philosophy, it’s true of all academic disciplines. And by the same token, there is a lot of work available in philosophy that is not patriarchal and Western in its nature. For example, my colleague Alberto Hernandez-Lemus teaches courses in Latin American philosophy and philosophy and race; I teach a course in Africana philosophy with Michael Sawyer, exploring very different canons of what counts as philosophy, and by and large what we read is not by white people and not exactly by what we would call Western thinkers. What’s different [in non-western philosophy] is how people see the world, how people think about themselves, how people think about their relationships with other human beings. This is very much a product of the cultures that they live in. And all of our academic disciplines in philosophy, at least as much as any other academic discipline, have been grounded for a very long time in people coming from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds: Western Europe and the United States. And because we are a discipline that is pretty grounded in its history, by virtue of the fact that women and people of color have been and still continue to be systematically excluded from institutions of higher education, the inevitable outcome of that is that there are fewer of their voices, so some of us are working hard, each in our own way, to bring those voices into the dialogue. The dialogue is only better—the discipline is only better—as there are more voices. But that, at the same time, is not to say that Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, Nietzsche and Derrida aren’t themselves fascinating, interesting, and important. I think the more the merrier.
TC: Being on a number of college advisory committees, what prospect for the college are you most excited about?
JL: I’m going answer two different kinds of things. One is, I’m really excited about the college’s acquisition of the Fine Arts Center. And I think, personally, that’s going to make an enormous difference in the life of our students—the life of my colleagues, the life of the college—in ways that we don’t yet understand because it’s not just an art museum, and it’s not meant to be programmed as simply an art museum. And I think that’s actually very, very exciting. It will have a huge impact, and it’s not clear yet what that impact will be, which I think is great. On a pretty different note, I have been really happy to see the increasing diversity of the student body and of the faculty. We’ve taken, I think, very big steps in that since Jill Tiefenthaler became president. We still have many steps to take; it’s not done. But I do think the composition of the college is changing, changing for the better. I would like to see more socioeconomic diversity in our student body; that’s very important to me and to a lot of my colleagues, I think. And that we seem to be, for a variety of reasons, having more trouble with. But, that’s the next step.
TC: If you could have dinner with any philosopher, who would it be, and what would you cook?
JL: I think that the person I would most like to have dinner with would be Jaques Derrida. And Derrida was from Algeria, but I would still run the risk of cooking some sort of Tajine, a kind of Moroccan dish. He was a vegetarian, so it would have to be vegetarian, but that’s what I would do. Derrida seems to me to have been a very warm personality and funny, so it would be fun to hang out with him. If I look at the great figures in the history of philosophy, I have my doubts that most of them are a good time.
TC: You take students on trips to Greece and France, what about a sense of place enriches the learning of philosophy?
JL: I think many people would say it doesn’t—that philosophy is so abstract, so disconnected from the real world that there couldn’t possibly be any relevance to the sense of place. And I think that’s profoundly wrong, but I think it’s hard to explain why. I mean, I think you actually have to experience it. But, for example, when Dave Mason and I started teaching our course in Greece, it was remarkable to me how immediately those ancient Greek philosophical and poetic texts that we were teaching came alive in that landscape. The landscape of Greece, once you get past the big cities, really hasn’t changed much in 2000 years: its mountains, and its sea, and its people. And sure, there have been countless changes, but there are ways in which it’s a remarkably undeveloped country. So, you are really sort of thrown back—not back into the past, but back into a sort of relationship to nature that, at least to me, made those texts speak […] I’ve been very pleased and gratified at how well the courses have worked, and the level of student response has been great.
TC: What would be your dream class on the block plan?
JL: I think I already teach it. Honestly, I think almost all my classes are a dream class, and I know that sounds really cheesy, but I have come to really love the Block Plan. Not, I think, because of the Block Plan, but because of you, the students. And so, almost every class I teach feels a little bit like a dream. I think the ability to teach a course, especially in Paris, and work with French philosophers who come in and spend time with our students—who bring a French perspective to what’s happening—is the kind of experience that I actually never would have dreamed of until we made it happen. Dennis McEnnerney and I came up with this idea [taking a class to Paris], and the fact that we work with actual French philosophers is a seriously enriching aspect of the course. But honestly, even the course I’m teaching right now—the 20th-century continental philosophy course—is not a course I could teach just anywhere because undergraduate students would really struggle reading most of the things we read in the course. But Colorado College students, you may struggle, but you get it. So, for me, the ability to teach a really challenging course that stimulates me and that actually works and stimulates you [the students] is remarkable. I’ve taught in a number of other institutions before I came here, and they weren’t bad institutions, but the quality of students here is just so much better and so different.
Danny Arroyo-Rodriguez and I are in the first steps of planning a course on flamenco that we would teach in southern Spain. And I hope it will happen I keep saying this to people in hopes that it will help it happen, because it’s a little outside anything that would seem like a normal zone. But the idea of bringing Spanish culture and philosophy, my own deep passions about music, my interest in dance and poetry, all that together would be really great. That’s kind of like a course that I haven’t done. That’s the dream class right now.
TC: As someone who plays the saxophone and attends opera, where do you see the worlds of philosophy and music converging?
JL: Pretty much everywhere. I’ll give you two small examples. One is, when I was in high school and college, I was very absorbed by some of the best contemporary, broadly speaking, popular music. And I would say that the words and music of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell helped me become who I am. And that this music, which in its day was popular, was also in profound ways philosophical; engaging questions about who we are and how we should live.
At the same time, I’ve always been interested in what you might call art music: more esoteric, Avant garde music, especially improvisational musical tradition. The outer limits of jazz, for example. And that’s how my saxophone playing enters into both those sides. And I also write music, which is fairly out and which does involve some degree of improvisation. To me that kind of improvisational dimension of music reflects the sort of improvisational character of thinking at its best. So, I think of my teaching as a kind of improvisation—students probably really think that—because in the spirit of great improvisation, although I may have lots of ideas about what we might do on a given day, I don’t know what we’re going to do till we do it. And I hope that my teachings reflect a kind of give-and-take between all of us in the room. And in that sense, it’s very much like the improvisational musics that I most love. So that’s more about what kind of methodology I suppose, but it’s a very deep part of what I think I am.
TC: What is the most interesting lecture you’ve attended in your time at CC?
JL: There was a great lecture just a couple of years ago: “The Poetry of Rumi” by the American scholar Franklin Lewis, who is probably the most important, greatest living scholar—at least in the English language—of Rumi, both his poetry and, more broadly speaking, his philosophical and religious thought. And I think that was a kind of stunning lecture. One way in which it was stunning, one sign that it was stunning, is that walking out together, of my colleague in Religion, Peter Wright, and I started talking about learning Persian. And so, we have taken some baby steps towards learning Persian together so that we can read people like Rumi. That lecture was the catalyst that made that happen.
TC: What is a poem that you feel will resonate with you forever?
JL: There are quite a lot of them because in the same way that I think of music and philosophy as so deeply connected, I certainly think poetry and philosophy are deeply interconnected, which is the theme of the course that Dave and I teach in Greece. I think the poetry that I can’t escape is the sort of high modernist American poetry, and maybe two authors, neither of whom are household names. There’s a very great woman poet named Lorine Niedecker, whose work has not been much appreciated, but whose poetry has a kind of incandescent, deeply human quality that I find constantly resonant. The other would be a somewhat better known but not much read poet named Charles Olsen, who is one of the first generation after Ezra Pound in America. I discovered his work when I was in high school and, somehow, I’ve never been able to shake it. It’s dense, difficult, but in its greatest moments it has this kind of music and this kind of voice that to me feels distinctively American. And there’s something about that that I like.