2015 Graduate Center Commencement Address by Stephen Neale

2015 Graduate Center Commencement Address by Stephen Neale

Philosophy Professor Stephen Neale delivered the 2015 CUNY Graduate Center Address at Lincoln Center on May 27, 2015.

Commencement Address by Stephen Neale
Distinguished Professor
Ph.D. Programs in Philosophy and Linguistics
Kornblith Chair in the Philosophy of Science and Value
May 27, 2015

Good evening and welcome, President Robinson, Provost Lennihan, members of the CUNY Board of Trustees, distinguished recipients of honorary degrees, fellow faculty members, families and friends of graduating students, and of course the students themselves, tonight’s luminaries, numbering almost 500. To them I say: Congratulations! It was all worth it.

I am honored to give this year’s commencement address and to participate in the celebration of your achievements. You have invested wisely in the future. Through the exercise of your evolving intelligence and the unleashing of your intellectual passions, you’ve invested not just in your own futures, but in the futures of countless others, most notably the futures of those you go on to teach or train or nurse or rehabilitate.

Intelligence and passion are vital to undertaking work towards an advanced degree. But by now you’re all well aware that finishing a dissertation or thesis requires a single-mindedness and commitment to sheer hard work that can be exasperating for family and friends — indeed for just about anyone who comes into contact with you.

But, I repeat, it’s all been worth it: those weeks when you despaired of ever finishing; those weeks when the contours of your main theses were so maddeningly elusive that you questioned your own ability or even your sanity (is it any wonder that parents and partners ask if “PhD” is short for “permanent head damage”?); those countless hours in the library, the lab, or the studio — or, if you are in the humanities or social sciences, countless hours in your favorite seat, at your favorite table, in your favorite café in Bushwick or Fort Green or, heaven help you, Williamsburg. (Incidentally, if there’s anyone happier than you, happier than your family, happier than your advisor that you’ve finished your thesis, it’s the people who work at that café! And when I say “work”, I mean the people who work work there, not the people who read work there.)

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York is a unique institution. It awards only higher degrees and it’s a public institution, albeit one that is deeply grateful for the generosity of various private donors — individuals, families, organizations — donors whose names resonate within the institution. (The chair I hold is a case in point, endowed by the family of the entrepreneur John Howard Kornblith.) But CUNY is ultimately a public institution with a solid public mission: to provide the highest levels of education through academic excellence in a vibrant and nurturing atmosphere in the heart of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. I feel proud to be a part of this unique institution, and its graduates should feel proud too.

An unusual feature of the Graduate Center, one you’re painfully aware of if you realize this is actually the commencement address, is the GC’s refusal to play the Big Name Commencement Game, which is actually a rather expensive game to play. So you don’t get one of our local comedians — Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld — giving your commencement address; and you don’t get one of our former US Senators or Mayors — Hilary Clinton or Mike Bloomberg. If you were graduating elsewhere this year, you might get Michelle Obama (Oberlin), Tim Cook (George Washington), Erich Schmidt (Virginia Tech), Salmon Rushdie (Emory), Matthew McConaughey (Houston), Colin Powell (Rice University), Garry Kasparov (St Louis), Stephen Colbert (Wake Forest), Robert DeNiro (NYU Tisch),  or —  and this is serious — John Bon Jovi (Rutgers Camden). So: no First Lady, Hollywood star, politician, general, best-selling author, chess champion, tech titan or musician. No. What you get is quite likely the last thing you want to see or hear right now: a professor from the Graduate Center. And he doesn’t even speak proper American. But focus of the upside: the $50,000 or more not spent on a celebrity can fund a year of full fellowship for two PhD students.

It’s become a commencement tradition for speakers to provide a few words of — dare I say it — wisdom. In my own field, philosophy, apparently the love of wisdom, we tend to pass on the Delphic words found in some of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, “Know thyself” (though no- two philosophers agree on what this means). If commencement speakers cannot supply wisdom, then they are meant to provide inspiration; and if not inspiration then at least some advice on coping with life and its problems. “Don’t do email before lunch,” seems like good advice to me. But I’m somewhat inclined to regard advice about coping with life from a philosophy professor to be advice from someone who has chosen to avoid life’s problems by becoming a philosophy professor. I suppose I can at least advise you to become a professor — you are recipients of higher degrees, after all, and many of you are doomed to end up in the academy. You won’t get rich — unless you patent something under a pseudonym behind your university’s back — but you will almost certainly get to pursue the intellectual passions that drove you to graduate school in the first place, and do so for the rest of your days. It’s permanent head damage, remember.

Perhaps I can do better if I talk about some of the ways in which you have changed — mostly for the better. Have you learned to be a better writer or a better speaker? Probably. But I’m far more confident you’ve learned to be a better reader and a better listener. More generally, I’m confident you’ve become a better interpreter. And not just of speech and writing. You’ve spent years interpreting events, objects, and phenomena in your chosen fields — not just natural phenomena that humans have played no part in bringing about, but human behavior itself and its products; physical artifacts such as the material remains of our past, and abstract artifacts such as laws, regulations, and regularities. Whenever you’ve been looking for meaningful patterns or generalizations, you’ve been interpreting. The goal of interpreting is reaching a substantive conclusion about something. A geologist is interpreting when she forms hypotheses about the date, the duration, or the intensity of, say, a prehistoric volcanic eruption on the basis of lava composition and distribution, potassium-argon decay. A paleontologist is interpreting when he forms hypotheses about the evolution of an organism on the basis of fossil records. An archaeologist is interpreting when she forms hypotheses about the date, the longevity, or the organization of a site of past human habitation, or about the function of a disinterred object, on the basis of shape, material composition, carbon-14 decay, patterns of erosion, and stratigraphy. A physiotherapist is interpreting when he gauges the mobility of a joint, the potential for improvement, or the level of pain on the basis of perceived resistance, prior treatments, and facial expressions. An economist, a sociologist or an anthropologist is interpreting when she compares generalizations about the ways societies respond to various sorts of events. A literary theorist, an art historian, or an art critic is interpreting when….you can fill that one out yourselves.

You will be forever interpreting. It’s what humans do. It’s what the detective is doing when reaching a conclusion about the events that occurred in a given place at a given time on the basis of damaged artefacts, fingerprints, footprints, cigarette ash, and interviews. It’s what a judge is doing when reaching a conclusion about the provisions of a statute based on its text, earlier decisions of courts, the provisions of related statutes, and so on. And it’s what we all do whenever we engage in communication.

But it’s easy to overlook the sophistication involved in interpreting speech, writing, and signing. Obviously, we draw on our (largely tacit) knowledge of language (knowledge of grammar and word meaning). But sometimes what speakers, writers, or signers mean by their words these can be quite different from what the words mean, and we have no trouble interpreting them. Here’s a famous but simple example. Suppose I write a letter of recommendation for someone applying for a post at a major research university. All I write is “Dear Sir or Madam, Kelly H. Smith has very neat handwriting and is always punctual. Sincerely, Stephen Neale.” (Notice I have adhered to the dubious new CUNY policy that forbids the use of “Mr”, “Mrs”, or “Ms” or the use of gendered pronouns in any document that mentions a student by name.) I have said positive things about Kelly H. Smith: Kelly H. Smith has very neat handwriting and is very punctual. Both good qualities. But of course this letter will likely damage Kelly H. Smith’s chances of getting the job. What I meant by writing this is something I was not prepared to say: Kelly H. Smith is no good. Or Kelly H. Smith should not be hired. Something along those lines. I have damned Kelly with faint praise. Any rational interpreter would realise this.

But a great deal is involved in reaching seemingly “obvious” conclusions about what people mean. In the absence of a great many other things, our knowledge of the language being used is inert. We draw heavily on context, on local customs and standards; on background information and general knowledge; on our expectations about how rational, cooperative people typically use language; on our beliefs about speakers’ or writers’ linguistic abilities, beliefs, desires, intentions, intelligence, motivation, personality, mood, and so on. Unless the focus of your graduate work was language and its use, as it for linguists and many logicians and philosophers, and for a fair number of psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, it is unlikely you have spent a great deal of time reflecting on the fact that the psychological processes involved in interpreting linguistic behaviour depend upon a wealth of non-linguistic information and quite general principles governing the processing and integration of linguistic and non-linguistic information. But it’s well worth reflecting upon this, particularly when you are in the throes of disagreement. In graduate school, you have honed your ability to convey intricate ideas with clarity and subtlety. But that don’t let that lure you into leaning on language without looking outside it.

I said that you’ve changed mostly for the better while at graduate school. But there are a few annoying habits you have picked up. And now that your thesis is safely deposited in the Graduate Center library, I’m allowed to warn you about some of these habits and encourage you to deal with them.

The first concerns personal letters. For the first time in years, you have a chance to write them — and you should be writing them if you’ve received a gift for finishing your degree. My advice here is simple: No footnotes! And no appendices or references. The second piece of advice concerns self-awareness. Right now you feel no shame whatsoever reading a scholarly article in a bar. Even at night. You need to work on the shame! Don’t just know thyself, change thyself. Third, whether in an amorous setting or at a family dinner, do not use the phrases “whereupon”, “henceforth”, “notwithstanding”, “problematize”, “positivist”, “deconstruct”, “meta” or “post” anything whatsoever, or “if and only if”.

A final piece of advice for those going on into the academy, whether as post-doctoral fellows, lecturers, or assistant professors. Don’t let a little ignorance derail your teaching. Just recall the immortal words of one professor, “Read it? I haven’t even taught it!”

It’s hard to isolate what brings happiness. We know for certain it’s not poverty and it’s not wealth. Perhaps the active pursuit of knowledge and the active pursuit of positive change in the world are good candidates. By earning a graduate degree, you’ve made a terrific start on the former. And I hazard you are now well-placed to pursue the latter. You can make a difference. So go forward and do it. Once again, congratulations.