Graduate Student Profiles: Jacob Andrews
The following is the first in a series of profiles on Loyola philosophy graduate students, giving you a brief sense of their thoughts on their research, teaching, and the value of philosophy. This first profile is on Jacob Andrews, who specializes in medieval philosophy and philosophy of religion.
1. What made you become a philosopher?
Growing up in a household of faith was definitely the biggest influence. It has always been normal for me to suppose that (1) the most important questions a person can ask are the kinds of fundamental questions asked in philosophy and religion, (2) these questions are distinct from the matter of fact questions studied in other disciplines, (3) some of the best answers to these questions are found in books.
2. What is your dissertation about?
My dissertation is on the relation between religious faith and philosophy in William of Auxerre (1156-1231). Lots of people ask whether there is good non-religious evidence for God’s existence (as well as more particular doctrines, like the Incarnation, etc.). Suppose there was such evidence. Wouldn’t having proof or strong evidence for a religious belief make it hard or impossible to have faith in that belief? It seems difficult to say that you can believe some proposition on the basis of faith or trust in someone while also knowing for yourself that that proposition is true. But William says that you can have faith and natural knowledge simultaneously, and my dissertation explores his reasons for thinking so.
3. What has surprised you most during the process of writing your dissertation? Has writing this dissertation substantially changed your opinions? Are there any arguments or philosophical figures that you came to appreciate more as you went along, or any arguments that you are more skeptical of now than when you started?
Several times I have found William or other writers making a distinction or pioneering a concept or argument in order to solve a theological problem, and the distinction or concept ends up enriching, challenging, or changing my purely philosophical thought. William is talking about whether it’s permissible for Christian theologians to give proofs for God and the Trinity, but he ends up with valuable insights into the nature of trust and belief in general.
William’s religious epistemology is complicated for me. It is an odd blend of intellectualism (prizing rational argument above religious faith) and what seems a times like fideism (rejecting rational argument and evidence as inappropriate for or dangerous to religious faith). He thinks that faith is a kind of perception of God, such that someone with proper Christian faith really knows that Christian doctrine is true, and so must refuse to rely on any other evidence (he’s rather Kierkegaardian in this regard, and both are accused of fideism for this reason- I think falsely). On the other hand, precisely because faith is knowledge, other forms of knowledge present no danger to it: someone who already relies on their faith that God exists and is triune, can also merely possess rational arguments for these doctrines, while still having faith that those doctrines are true. William seems to think that having some argument or evidence Z that justifies belief in P is not the same as actually believing in P on the basis of Z. For example, I have ample justification for believing that the Leuven is a city in Belgium on that basis of testimony (of friends, professors, Wikipedia, etc.). But I do not actually believe that Leuven is in Belgium on that basis: I believe it because I lived there once. Likewise, someone could possess a sound and valid argument for God’s existence, but nevertheless believe that God exists on the basis of faith.
I remain attracted to this view of faith, which gives maximum power to both the radical commitment of religious faith and the God-given expansiveness of human reason. It seems superior to the view of Aquinas, who thinks that faith is not a form of knowledge, but a supposition which requires an act of the will to push the intellect toward certainty. But recently I have become more appreciative of Aquinas’ position. There are important phenomenological features of faith- personal trust in God, the ability to waver and doubt while still believing- that are difficult to explain on William’s account, but easy on Aquinas’.
4. How have you found the writing process? Are there any tips you would recommend for other graduate students to follow?
1. Write every day. I mean new philosophical prose, not just notes or editing, even if it’s just especially polished freewriting or a blog post. Get in the habit of articulating your thoughts to an actual or potential public.
2. Keep a steady pace. There will be seasons when you can write like a madman all day long. As hard as it is when you’re coming up on a deadline, resist those urges, lest you end up the next day with nothing to write and kill your habit. Once you hit your word goal for a day, work on outlining the next day’s work, so that you can jump right into writing the next day.
3. Read philosophers who write well. As a newbie writer, I’m a big mimic. If I’m reading Plantinga or Zhuangzi or Hume, I’ll start to write like Plantinga or Zhuangzi or Hume. Unfortunately, that means that if I’m reading a poor writer, I’ll write like them, too. You can’t avoid bad writers, but you can regularly refresh your palette with good ones.
4. Reward yourself. The kind of work we’re in doesn’t generate automatic rewards: it’s a long path, sometimes years, from conceiving an idea to publishing an article. You don’t even get the satisfaction of clocking out of a shift! To keep yourself going, set concrete goals between starting and finishing and reward yourself for meeting those goals.
5. You’ve had some experience with teaching. What topic have you found most interesting to teach, and why? What have you found to be the most difficult aspect of teaching, and how have you tried to address that?
Logic is just fascinating to me, and I enjoy teaching it in any class. I love showing students how a little bit of skill in logic can illuminate so many practical and theoretical problems. If, at the end of every semester, one student comes away knowing how to find and correct flaws in their own thought, or how to locate fundamental disagreements and discuss those rather than yelling at or talking past their opponents, I have done my job.
The most difficult is also the most important: getting my students to really see what philosophy is; to get behind matters of fact and to see fundamental questions; to see why it is vital that they do so, to impress on them their duty and privilege as human beings to seek and hold onto truth. It isn’t that they’re opposed to this line of thinking; they just haven’t even considered it, and their environment conditions them against considering it. How do I do counteract this? Currently, I’m teaching ethics, with an emphasis on classical Chinese ethics. I began the first session with a little talk on relativism and skepticism; it’s important that I empower my students to imagine that they really can discover truth for themselves. I try, as much as possible, to apply the theories we’re studying to situations my students may actually encounter, especially to universal human experiences of family loyalty, friendship, death, etc. And I always make a point of including material from non-contemporary and non-Western sources, to show students that philosophical questions are perennial human questions, not just Western or modern ones.
6. Are there any pieces of advice that you wish you had known earlier on in your philosophical career?
1. Treat your graduate work like a 9 to 5 job. Commit to 7-8 hours a day, at least, of real philosophical work: close reading and careful writing. Keep a log or homespun timecard, if that sort of thing helps you (it helps me).
2. Use the flexibility of an academic career to your advantage. Setting my own schedule is a pain, and a great temptation to laziness; but it means that I can provide childcare for my son while my wife works. I can have a long lunch with my grandmother and work after dinner to make up for it. I can decide for myself what times of day are most productive for writing, and make sure that my schedule is clear at those times. Don’t overcommit, but use what you’ve been given.
3. Try to unify your research interests. Once you find your avenue of dissertation research, however vague, bend all your work toward it. Keep your conference papers on that topic. Wrestle all your term papers into its mold. Be like Confucius, whose work “could be strung together on a single thread” (Analects 4.15).
4. Read widely. Get grounded in the philosophical tradition by reading widely in different eras, cultures, and subdisciplines. Make a discipline of reading off-topic philosophy. If I hadn’t taken an unproductive detour into Chinese thought a few years ago, I wouldn’t be teaching the class I am today!
5. Stick to primary texts.The philosophical classics of any culture are generally easier to understand and more profound than the newest articles. If you have to choose between reading Aquinas and reading about Aquinas, just read Aquinas.
7. Are there two or three sources that you would recommend for thinking about your area of research, and why?
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. An accessible introduction to what’s at stake in religious epistemology. In particular, he does an excellent job exposing and exorcising the intellectual bogeymen that often attend modern inquirers (religious or not) into questions about God and religion.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. The discursive style is more palatable for modern readers than the quaestio format of his other, more famous Summa. Chapters 3-8 of Book 1 give a quick and dirty explanation of the need for divine revelation and its compatibility with natural reason.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The film and TV industry never seems to get the experience of religious people. But DS9 comes close. A normal, secular Starfleet commander is declared the messiah of an alien religion. He wants nothing to do with it- but then he meets their gods. In particular I’d recommend the following episodes: 3×15 “Destiny,” 5×10 “Rapture” (despite a truly awful conversation about faith- you’ll know it when you see it), 7×09 “Covenant.” But you really should just watch the whole show, which isn’t even mostly about religion.
Jacob working with his son, Ivan.