Did you know that university professors have their own lives and back stories just like your favourite secondary TV characters? It’s true! To prove it, Arthur sought out the enigmatic Douglas J. McDermid, one of Trent’s Associate Professors of the Philosophy Department.
We chatted about how he got where he is today, the philosophers he admires, and how he came close to being a famous musician instead of a man who specializes in metaphysics and epistemology. (Or, in plain speak, contemplating what exists and how we know what we know. Whoa, man.)
Thank you for speaking with us. To start off, let’s begin with some biographical information. Could you tell us where you’re from and where you’ve worked before coming to Trent?
Well, I was born in Niagara Falls, which as you may know is a pretty surreal place, because it combines this tremendous natural sublimity with in-your-face commercialism of the most unapologetically vulgar sort. Like most border towns, I suppose, Niagara Falls is not a very genteel place, but I confess that I still have a soft spot for the whole region, especially Niagara On The Lake, and I go back every now and then.
Anyhow, my family moved to London, which was a rather staid and conservative place in comparison with Niagara Falls, when I was mid-way through primary school. So, I finished primary school and high school in London. After spending my undergraduate years at the University of Western Ontario, I was fortunate enough to win a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in the United States, and I decided to do my AM and PhD at Brown University, which I loved. After that, I did a stint as a post-doc in Mexico City at the UNAM (National University) and was offered a tenure-track job at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I took the job, and spent two years there. The winters in Nova Scotia were eloquent, however, and they persuaded me to come back to Ontario, which I did in 2002, when I started at Trent. And I must say that I really like it here. Trent is a place full of real promise, and the Philosophy Department is a great place to work.
How did you come to the discipline of philosophy? Why did you become a professor?
More or less by chance, I would have to say. What happened was this. I had originally planned to study English Literature or History, but I took an intro Philosophy class in my first year which was taught by a wonderful professor: passionate, witty, rigorous, learned. Thanks to that professor, I discovered that philosophy was what I had been looking for, though I hadn’t known what I was looking for until I found it. By the end of my first year, I was pretty sure that I wanted to keep reading and studying philosophy, and so I kept at it. One thing lead to another, and here we are.
You often speak in class of your philosophical heroes. Tell us a bit more about this list.
William James — who would certainly be one of the names on my list — once said, half-jokingly, that all you need in order to be a philosopher is to hate somebody else’s way of thinking; to loathe or despise it. In light of this remark, it is tempting to list the names of famous philosophers whose work I despise, but I would rather accentuate the positive here. The truth is that there are many philosophers I admire, and some of them — by no means all — had an intense, passionate, almost palpable hatred for certain ways of thinking. I suppose Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for example, fall into this class; perhaps Kierkegaard does as well, at least in some of his moods. Another favourite of mine, the nineteenth century Scottish idealist named James Frederick Ferrier — he coined the term ‘epistemology,’ but unfortunately almost no-one has heard of him — could denounce his opponents with verve and venom. But many heroes of mine don’t belong to this group: Anselm, Aquinas, Berkeley, Reid, Mill, Dewey, and Santayana, for example. And no list of my heroes would be complete without the name of Plato — ‘the divine Plato,’ as Schopenhauer called him.
Some students have heard you briefly mention that you once played bass in a band; is there more to this? Do you lead a musical double-life?
No musical double-life to speak of, I am afraid. When I was younger, it is true, I did try my hand at the bass, and I had vain hopes of playing like Bernard Edwards or — failing that — John Taylor. What I cannot understand now, years later, is why I ever thought this was a good idea. I mean, why did I ever think that I could play like that? I suppose that on some level it had to do with sibling rivalry. You see, my older sister was an excellent pianist; she jumped through all those Royal Conservatory hoops with aplomb when I was out playing road hockey with my friends. I knew I could never catch up with her no matter how much I practiced, so – foolishly – I never took the time to learn how to play the piano properly. By the time I got into high school in the 1980s, the bass seemed a better option for a number of reasons. It wasn’t.
Besides the abundance of personal anecdotes, your lectures are also filled with humour and wit. Is this the result of an intentional effort, or just your charisma at work?
Did my publicist tell you to ask this question, Jesse? Or are you my publicist? Growing up in the 1980s I watched a lot of SCTV, if that helps, and the comedian Eugene Levy is one of my idols – a real Canadian showbiz icon. If anyone reading this doesn’t know what I am talking about, do yourself a favour and look for ‘Bobby Bittman’ – one of Levy’s greatest SCTV creations – on YouTube. ‘As a comic in all seriousness…’
On the subject of educating, a professor’s teaching style and ability can often make or break a course. Considering the lack of requirement of any teaching certification at the university level, do you have any remarks on the importance of engaging students in the classroom?
Yes, I do. Teaching well is very hard work, and gimmicks should be recognized for what they are. When teaching philosophy, all we usually need is some chalk and a Socratic willingness to follow arguments where they lead. Of course, this isn’t easy, but why on earth should it be? Here I think Spinoza was right: ‘All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.’ If you have not failed, you probably haven’t tried hard enough.