There are myriad philosophical traditions, and that is the key point I want to share with students.
As an undergraduate reading Nietzsche for the first time, Pete Groff couldn't shake the feeling that he already knew parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Years later, he realized that his father had read the book aloud to him when he was a boy. The experience may well have inspired his academic career, which examines a myriad of worldviews but often circles back to the German philosopher.
"Nietzsche is a controversial thinker," says the philosophy professor. "He has powerful, profound insights but also says a lot of really troubling things. Some people are enamored of his attempt to affirm the world and bless it, while others are taken aback by what they see as his blithe indifference to suffering and injustice. It certainly makes for lively debate in class."
Since arriving at Bucknell in 2000, Groff has taught hundreds of students to think about philosophy from different perspectives, not just Nietzsche's. He was hired to teach German philosophy but saw the opportunity to create courses examining non-Western traditions in the field, including Islamic, Indian and Chinese thought. As he developed and taught those classes, he began to see resonances between philosophers across centuries and hemispheres.
"Philosophy is not an exclusively European phenomenon," Groff says. "There are myriad philosophical traditions, and that is the key point I want to share with students. Sometimes different perspectives can seem like hermetically sealed horizons. I used to wonder what Nietzsche and a medieval Islamic thinker like al-Farabi would really have to say to one another. But they actually have a lot in common — they're both indebted to Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and their concerns are in many ways similar, even if they ultimately go in very different directions. That realization ended up shaping a lot of my scholarship, most of which is comparative and focuses on cross-cultural dialogue. I think a lot about what kind of conversations could take place between thinkers from radically different traditions."
Groff pushes his students to think in a cautious, self-critical way as he leads them through various schools of thought. Philosophy often begins with simple, even childish questions: What is good? What is beauty? What is truth? Every moment of life is infused with such concepts, whether we stop to think about them or not, he points out — and they're complicated. Being able to understand and critique these fundamental concepts, he says, are important portable skills that benefit all students and last a lifetime.
"The vast majority of our philosophy majors are double majors, and I'm happy with that," Groff says. "I like the idea of philosophy working hand in hand with another discipline. If someone studying biology or economics or history wants to study philosophy too, that's awesome."
Posted Dec. 14, 2017