What where the motivating factors for your choosing to go into academia?
I grew up in New York City, and I was a curious young man, interested in various things of the world. The atmosphere in the 1950s was political because of McCarthyism and I grew up in a kind of Socialist-oriented community. So, I had a kind of childhood that was already fairly alert to larger problems in the world. Like a lot of bright young kids I was good at math and I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is a public high school with a competitive exam. It was a high school where we were very committed to science and math. So, I had a public high school education but of a terrific sort. It was all boys which, given how immature we all were, made life easier. I had a kind of exposure to and enjoyment of very intense thinking in particular in mathematics but there were also literature courses and what have you. I was also in an intellectual milieu in which, in that part of NYC (i.e. Queens), there was a summer camp in which, believe it or not, we even had a philosophy counselor that would bore us with Ludwig Wittgenstein at a young age.
The idea that I was moving into sophisticated, intense, political and intellectual activity from a fairly young age in New York was unusual at least up to a certain point. It may have been unusual in many other places in America but less so there. Also for whatever reasons, I have never been very clear about this, I was a fan of Paris from a very young age. Certainly by high school and actually even before I was reading French literature and philosophy, and obviously that interest has stayed with me.
I had a choice between going to Columbia University or the University of Chicago. I met some friends of my parents that had gone to Chicago and I liked them a lot. They were very intense, bohemian and very active politically and intellectually, and it struck me that if that was what was coming out of Chicago then that was exciting. So I went to Chicago, although my parents wanted me to stay in NY. Chicago was an incredibly advanced intellectual place that suited me extremely well, and it is where I earned my B.A. and Ph.D.
The University of Chicago is one of the main universities in the U.S. that had a very structured curriculum. They assumed that they knew better than the students what the students should learn, at least for several years, that you were capable of learning anything, and that learning shouldn’t be overly specialized. We also had a very broad and rigorous exposure to many things in the world and I liked that a lot. For instance, there was a required non-Western civilization course (this is in the early ‘60s) and so I took the Indian civilization course, which was taught by multiple people: anthropologists, historians, sanskritists, lawyers, and others. Hence the idea that first of all the world is global and that multiple disciplines had to contribute to an understanding of any important phenomena was there all the way through for me. My main philosophical training was with a man called Richard McKeon. He was the dean of Humanities and a famous Aristotle scholar with a particular approach to the history of philosophy. It was very intimidating and rigorous but I found it to be extremely challenging and exciting, both as a pedagogic style and understanding what the history of philosophy was going to be. On both levels it was something I carried forward with me to the rest of my life.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to spend my life in the library arguing about philosophic ideas with other philosophers! So I majored in anthropology for which at that point and for many years to come the University of Chicago was arguably the most exciting place to be. Anthropology at Chicago had a strong social theory component to it (this is again in the 1960s). I worked closely with a number of people. Bernard Cohn, who worked on India, where I was originally thinking of going, was a wonderful teacher, a very wonderful man. And then Clifford Geertz, my advisor, who was a brilliant fellow but a kind of an awkward human being. In any case, that’s how I got to Morocco.
The idea that there was this inherent complementarity between the history of philosophy, the basic questions of philosophy, and actually going out into the world and engaging experientially in situations seemed to me not in conflict. Certainly, it is not how the philosophic disciplines have developed, that’s not what they do, which seems to be an impoverishment.
So, that’s one version of the basic formation. I should add that I took my doctoral exams as an undergraduate in Chicago, for a variety of reasons, so they were obliged to let me into the graduate program which they had not done previously for Chicago undergraduates. We made a deal that they would take me into the graduate program if I went to Paris for a year. Which was one of those offers you can’t refuse. This was 1965-66. I went to Paris and I sat in the seminars of Claude-Levi Strauss, Louis Dumont, and also the lectures of Jean Hyppolite at the Collège de France. Jean Hyppolite was one of the Foucault’s mentors, I found out later. The French connections in all of this are continued all the way though my work.
Who would you consider to be your mentors in graduate school, and were there some lessons you learned from them that you would like to share?
The thing that was powerfully impressive about the University of Chicago was the complementary influence of tradition and new pedagogy from Robert Hutchins; what really mattered was the approach to learning and the curriculum as much as any of the individual professors. The single biggest influence on me as an undergraduate was Richard McKeon. He was a very stern, tough teacher but it wasn’t just him. It was the whole structure of the college. There was a very strong sense that there were objective questions in the world and that he taught us very rigorously how to read texts in a structured and incisive manner. As opposed to other educational experiences in America today the game was not how clever your interpretation could be but being in awe and then attempting some degree of mastery, whether it was Aristotle or Spinoza, before you had any opinion about it.
That was the very discipline that suited me, on the one hand. On the other hand, there was the experiential side of research that I found in anthropology. My main influence Bernard Cohn, Barney as we called him, was a pretty warm fellow. He taught history of anthropology. That was very influential. I would not say per se that I had a direct mentor, that is, except for the institutions. Stuyvesant High School and the University of Chicago were ultimately my mentors more than individual people. I have the same kind of relationship with Foucault. That is to say, I learned a great deal from him. I was fascinated, intrigued and challenged, but that wasn’t per se a kind of individual relationship of that sort. Rather, he was someone that combined deep philosophical questions with a very impressive empirical research, and that seemed to be missing from most if not all of the philosophy. It gave a critical edge to all of the anthropology in which I was interested.
Behind all of this there is John Dewey who was given a lot of lip service in Chicago and his thinking was very influential in much of what was going on. It was only recently that I really returned to Dewey and I have been seeing a lot of connections but I think that, at some level, American pragmatism is very strong in my work. Especially in that there is no real separation between conceptual work and experience. (...)