Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy
Simon Critchley defines who he is and what he thinks by the books he writes. As a writer who prefers to publish with commercial rather than academic presses, he sees his work as both serving the academy and reaching beyond it to connect with other parts of the world. Critchley says that he often can’t explain what he is going to do before he does it. Instead, he spends months reading what interests him until ideas begin to take shape. Only then does he begin writing, keeping the process loose and discovering new avenues along the way.
Critchley forged an unusual path to becoming a renowned philosophy professor. Never planning to become an academic, Critchley left school at 16 and played in bands until he entered college at 22. This background has led Critchley to continually try to do things—like writing books or giving lectures—in a new way. His need to explore different directions means he and his work are constantly evolving.
The ideas about which Critchley writes inform the ideas he teaches and vice versa. Often lecture notes become the basis for Critchley’s next book. Not one to maintain a rigid relationship with his students, Critchley takes book and music recommendations from them, letting these influences find their way into his own lectures and books. He states that only by truly listening and interacting with students can one discover their interests and thought processes. Critchley’s mission—to uncover the “legitimate strangeness” in each student—marks the first step in helping students find their own voice, not one restrained by popular ideas of the ways in which a student is supposed to write. He works to curb students’ perfectionism by deflating their idea of him. As Critchley shows students early drafts of his work and they see the multiple revision processes he goes through, they begin to understand that everyone needs time to shape his or her ideas, including Critchley.
To become Critchley’s student, though, you first have to get through his gauntlet of dissuasion. He feels that one should always try to discourage people from studying philosophy in graduate school and present them with the worst possible outcome. If a prospective student remains interested after being presented with bleak prospects, Critchley feels that one should welcome that student with open arms and do everything to help him or her. He believes it’s his job to prepare students for lives both within and outside of academics after they graduate, noting that a philosophy education has just as many applications in the mainstream world as it does in the academic one.