The Medium sat down with Professor Chester Scoville to chat about the book he most recently finished reading.
The Medium – Tell me a bit about your book:
Chester Scoville – I like to read things that are outside my field sometimes, and this summer I read a book called At The Existentialist Café—it was written by an author called Sarah Bakewell. It’s a history of existentialist philosophy in the mid-twentieth century, focusing mostly on the major figures like Sartre and Beauvoir [and] Heidegger, and bringing in a lot of the kind of secondary, even tertiary figures into the mix. That was probably the book that I paid most attention to this past summer.
TM – Is this the kind of book that you’d usually find yourself picking up?
CS – Well, sometimes I do. The thing about being in the humanities is that you do read things from other areas of the humanities. So, if you’re in English you do read some philosophy, [and] you have to be somewhat familiar with some of it. I had not really read any of the existentialists very deeply before though, so finding out more about them was interesting.
TM – Would you ever teach on a book like this in a course of yours?
CS – It’s not something that would be necessarily directly relevant to most of what I teach, but I have found that some of the ideas described within it resonate with some of the ideas that I have included in some of my own work, especially in my course on rhetoric. I was actually very surprised to find that some of Sartre’s ideas about human choice and freedom and facticity aren’t exactly the same as rhetorical ideas about situations and agency, but they resonate a little bit. They rhyme with each other.
TM – So it would be a good companion novel in some of your courses then?
CS – Yes, in a way. It can at least sometimes provide me with a way of thinking through some of the issues that one needs to deal with in classes, from a different perspective than I hadn’t necessarily considered before.
TM – Would you recommend this book to someone else? Or not, if you didn’t like it?
CS – I’d recommend it to someone who’s interested in how critical ideas can come out of difficult situations, because a lot of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s thought came out of the experience of being in occupied France in the second World War. Much of what they did subsequently comes out of that experience, of being in an occupied country. And on the other side, you have the very problematic figure of Heidegger, who is arguably the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, but he was also a Nazi. There, you have the very difficult problem of a manifest moral failure combined with somebody who’s thinking has, for better or worse, influenced a lot of people. That’s a difficult problem that people still grapple with; it’s good as an introduction to some of what he was about. He’s unfortunately unavoidable!
TM – Do you find it hard to balance your work time with leisurely reading?
CS – It’s very difficult to do so […] you have to protect your boundaries when you’re in this business – you absolutely must. You must set aside some time to decompress and just think every week. You must set aside some personal time. Otherwise, the nature of this job [and] this role will expand to fill up every waking moment and then some, if you let it. You have to be kind of disciplined about making space for your own thinking. And if you don’t, you’re really doing yourself and everyone else a disservice. You’re not actually accomplishing one of the major purposes of intellectual development, which is to connect unexpected ideas with each other.