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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Features ::


Philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear finds the human soul in Aristotle, Freud, and the Crow Nation’s last chief.

Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef distinguished service professor in philosophy, spent his first post-collegiate summer as a short-order cook on Cape Cod. “At the grill I felt like the conductor of an orchestra,” he recalls. Each morning he’d prepare 12 dozen eggs—frying, scrambling, and boiling them two-by-two while more orders rolled in. “The eggs would be done just as the toast popped and the bacon was ready,” he says. “I’d be cooking four or five orders at a time, all different.”

photo: Jonathan Lear

Lear graduated from Yale in the spring of 1970 with a history degree and no clear idea of what he wanted to do. For a while he leaned toward journalism: he’d covered the campus antiwar movement for the New Journal, a student magazine he helped launch (and for which his daughter Sophia, a Yale junior, now writes). “But really,” he says, “I think I was lost.” As much as he enjoyed his history courses and New Journal assignments, none of them were “at the center.” 

So he started over. In September 1970 Lear flew to England on a two-year fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge. “In those days, you didn’t try to get an advanced degree,” he says. “I was going to get another BA.” Having ignored philosophy in college (the logic requirement seemed a bother), he decided to sign up for a couple of classes at Cambridge. The exhilaration was immediate. He read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and W. V. Quine’s theories of necessity and possibility and “quantifying in.” “I didn’t know what ‘quantifying’ was, and I certainly didn’t know what ‘quantifying in’ meant, but as soon as I heard that phrase, I just thought, ‘I need to know what this is.’” Lear attended a lecture series by logician Timothy Smiley on the function of the word “the” in logic. He heard historian Quentin Skinner explain how statements such as “I promise” become both speech and act. Lear was baffled—and bewitched.

Now 58, with wire-rimmed glasses, silver-tinged hair, and a warmly precise bearing, Lear has amassed an uncommon set of philosophical proclivities. An expert in mathematical logic—at Cambridge he was “captivated by its beauty”—he wrote his first paper on set theory. When his theorem work grew narrow and technical, he gravitated toward Aristotle. In his first book, Aristotle and Logical Theory (Cambridge, 1980), Lear plumbed the ancient thinker’s syllogisms. Oxford philosopher David Charles wrote in The Classical Review that Lear’s challenge to “orthodox views of [Aristotle’s] historical achievement” would spark a reassessment of “the nature of metalogic and Aristotle’s special approach to it.” A second book, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge, 1988), won similar praise.

From Aristotle, Lear branched further outward, into Plato, Socrates, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. In 1985 a growing interest in Freudian analysis led him to embark on a decade of psychoanalytical training. In his books—eight in all—and scores of newspaper and magazine articles, written for the public as much as for academics, he has expounded on happiness, death, irony (the Socratic, not sarcastic, kind), transference, Eros, ethics, Plato, and Prozac. During Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, Lear parsed the Freudian elements of public outrage against the president’s alleged “high crimes.” After September 11 he sought to comprehend, in an essay for the University of Chicago Magazine, what drove the terrorists not only to hate Americans, but to hate them “so much” (“The Remains of the Day,” December/01). “He has published important, original work,” says Chicago colleague John Haugeland, who co-teaches a Heidegger course with Lear, “on the philosophy of what, for lack of a standard term, might be called ‘human flourishing.’”

Some readers perceive Lear’s psychoanalytic bent over the past 15 years as a shift. In an October 2006 book review, University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell called Lear’s turn toward Freudian analysis an “intellectual transformation.” But the way Lear sees it, Aristotle was the one who first nudged him toward Freud. On the island of Lesbos and in nearby Mycia, Aristotle spent ten years as a marine biologist, meticulously describing and dissecting ocean life. He identified crustaceans, echinoderms, and mollusks and recognized dolphins as mammals. He cut open dog sharks and cuttlefish to decipher their reproductive processes. For the better part of his life, in fact, Aristotle studied the natural world, watching flies emerge from animal dung and cracking open fertilized chicken eggs to look for embryonic organs. From his investigations sprang dozens of writings that fused physical science with metaphysics.

Lear took Aristotle’s example as a directive. “There’s this wonderful passage in Parts of Animals, which never left me,” he says, leaping to his feet and scanning his office shelves for a translation. Several minutes later he finds it, quoted in his own 2005 book Freud (Routledge). “Aristotle says: ‘We must not recoil with childish aversion from the study of humble creatures, for every realm of nature is marvelous. When strangers came to visit Heraclitus and they found him in the kitchen, he bid them not to be afraid, since divinities were present even in the kitchen. So we should study every creature without disdain, for each will reveal to us something natural and beautiful.’” Lear recalls, “I read that, and it was huge for me.” Yet disinclined toward biology, he didn’t know what realm of nature to study. Then in the early 1980s he met Richard Wollheim, a London philosopher interested in psychoanalysis.

By this time Lear was teaching at Cambridge. A decade earlier, his two-year fellowship had turned into three years of study, and in 1973 he returned to the States to earn a PhD at New York’s Rockefeller University. Afterward he began a stint as a Cambridge research fellow but cut the job short in 1978 to take a Yale assistant professorship when his father was seriously ill back home in Connecticut. Two weeks after the move his father died. A cousin pulled Lear aside at the funeral and said, “This would be a good time to talk to somebody about your feelings.” The thought had never crossed his mind. Nevertheless, he went to see a therapist. And he felt better. “So I got interested in the idea of a so-called talking cure,” he says. One year later he returned to Cambridge as an assistant lecturer, and when Wollheim mentioned Freud, Lear’s mind flashed. “What would it mean for us to have an inner world, and how would it work?” he remembers wondering. “What is it about a conversation that might make it therapeutic?” Lear saw shades of Socrates in talk therapy. What were the dialogues, after all, if not an attempt to “help people, through conversation, change the way they lived and make them lead a happier life”?

photo: Jonathan Lear

“Instead of doing massive surveys of 10,000 people,” Freud “would go into one room and listen to one person.”

For Lear, the congruence between the ancient sages and the Viennese physician didn’t end with therapeutic dialogue. The psyche seemed to him Freud’s version of Socrates and Aristotle’s human soul. “All these philosophers—Plato and Aristotle, but also Kant and Hegel—are struggling with the idea that our rationality is always being threatened,” he says, “by our irrationality, our appetites, self-deception, weakness of will,” our unconscious. “Read the history of Western literature; read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Proust, Shakespeare,” Lear says. “None of them think you can engage with what people are like without taking seriously the idea that we’re not transparent to ourselves.” Freud himself believed he was following the Platonic tradition that conceived of humans as “erotic, finite creatures” reaching vigorously out to the world to grasp and understand it. 

So Lear took as his natural subject the human psyche. Psychoanalysis provided, he says, an opportunity to give the psyche the same careful attention Aristotle paid to fish eggs and insect behavior. “You listen to somebody talk, for years.” He enrolled in the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis in New Haven, just as a new teaching job opened up at Yale. For  nearly a decade, until he arrived at Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and was assigned a third-floor office too small to accommodate a couch, he was a practicing psychoanalyst as well as a philosophy professor. A few months ago he inherited a three-room suite on Foster Hall’s top floor, where a new couch sits beneath a window overlooking the Midway. He plans to begin seeing patients again soon. However flawed Freud’s methods—and, often, his conclusions—his commitment to understanding humanity through individual humans stirs Lear. “Instead of doing massive surveys of 10,000 people and getting a statistical sample, he would go into one room and listen to one person,” he says. “Something about that I find incredibly beautiful. There’s the idea that every individual has remarkable things to say, and that we can learn an enormous amount about being human from anybody, if only we’ll sit and listen. It gets back to Aristotle’s quote about Heraclitus: divinities are present even in the kitchen.”

Learning what it means to be human by listening to one individual also describes Lear’s most recent project. Plenty Coups was the last great chief of the Crow Nation, and he witnessed, during the second half of the 19th century, the collapse of his people’s nomadic hunting and warrior culture. Four years before he died in 1932, he dictated his story to a white friend, Frank B. Linderman: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

Lear first heard these lines at a Yale lecture on historiography. Two decades later, during a walk along the Chicago lakefront, Plenty Coups’s words came back to him. “And I realized that this had happened before,” he says. “It took me 20 years to notice that after 20 years, it hadn’t gone away. I suddenly thought, I need to find out what this means.” Shortly afterward, the World Trade Center towers fell, and in the newspapers and magazines Lear reads—the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Economist, Harper’s, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement—he noticed “a rising sense of anxiety about civilization’s vulnerability.” What can it mean, he wondered, for a leader to say about his nation that after a certain point, nothing happened? And what connection might that assertion have to current cultural fears, which Lear believes fuel anger across the globe?

His meditation resulted in Radical Hope (Harvard University Press, 2006), a book that examines whether it is possible to maintain hope in a meaningful existence even as one’s own existence loses all meaning. “That is radical hope,” Lear says. “It is radical because it’s a hopefulness that outstrips the ability to formulate proper concepts with which to hope.” Culturally unmoored, one hopes without knowing what for. “Even though your inherited understanding of what you could do and who you could be falls apart, you trust sufficiently in the goodness of the world to endure a period in which, for instance, the question of what is courage has no answer.”

Plenty Coups guided the Crow through such an abyss, from a world in which stealing an enemy’s horse was a triumph into a world in which it was theft. As Japan industrialized in the late 1800s, Lear notes, the samurai faced a similar calamity. (He regards the Holocaust as  a separate tragedy: Jewish culture didn’t break down but gained meaning from survival in spite of Nazi persecution.) “Or take Don Quixote,” Lear says. “He wants to be a knight errant, but there’s no way to be a knight errant. Part of what makes it such a deep comedy is he’s insisting on being something it’s no longer possible to be.”

Unlike Don Quixote or Plenty Coups’s Sioux rival Sitting Bull, the Crow chief did not insist. Faithful to a dream-vision he’d had as a nine-year-old boy, he steered his followers peacefully onto their Montana reservation in 1892. Their old existence ended, but he sought to forge a new one in the white world. “The prototype for this is infancy,” Lear says. Children are born with no sense of the ideas that give life meaning and no language to formulate a thought. “And what do we do?” he asks. “We reach out.”

History, Lear says, vindicates Plenty Coups’s decision not to resist white settlers’ encroachment. Reservation life isn’t paradise—substance abuse and depression continue to plague residents—but his radical hope constitutes an “imaginative human excellence” that has helped rescue many from despair. Researching Radical Hope, he met young Crow at Little Big Horn College who still quoted their old chief 70 years after his death. “There’s always a story of, ‘My grandmother told me to listen to what Plenty Coups taught and stay in school,’” Lear says. “So here’s this dream-vision of a nine-year-old in the 1850s that is steadfastly held onto and passed on.”

For Lear, the tribe’s ordeal illuminates a significant “limit possibility.” Individuals comprehend their humanity better if they recognize, in a realistic way, the potential for collapse even when their cultures are robust. “It goes to the heart of the human condition that our sense of all possibilities is a cultural inheritance and, as such, is vulnerable.”

Lear joined Chicago’s faculty in September 1996, leaving a named professorship at Yale. “People ask tough questions here,” he says, “but always in the spirit of trying to figure things out, trying to come to a point of view.” Lear’s wife, Gabriel Richardson Lear (he is divorced from his daughter’s mother, Cynthia Farrar), also teaches at Chicago, as an assistant professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Occasionally, notebook in hand, the two sit in on each other’s classes, joining the discussion. They met at a 1999 conference honoring Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams, who was dying of cancer. Lear had been Williams’s student and, later, his colleague; she was a Princeton PhD student. “We’ve been talking philosophy,” he says, “ever since.”

Lear knows their profession is hard to pin down. Other scholarly disciplines impose more tangible demands: long nights at the library or the lab or the archives, the systematic discovery of new facts. “People think, so what the hell do you do?” he says. “On the one hand, philosophy is this weird activity that nobody understands unless they’re doing it, but it’s also endemic to life. People are philosophizing from the age of three. When I get into a cab, or find myself sitting next to some children on the subway, or have my hair cut, people are talking about the meaning of things, why things mean what they mean, what this world is about.” That “playful inquiry,” the Socratic capacity to think beyond words’ ordinary meanings and fish out deeper concepts, liberates and enriches people. “You see it in psychoanalytic situations when things are going well,” Lear says. “Patients can feel their own imaginative capacity come alive, and they get excited.”

This past fall Lear taught a graduate class on Plato’s Republic, a text, he has lamented, of which too many students later remember only “something in it about a cave.” In truth, he says, the book is nothing less than an investigation of the human soul. Having read the text countless times in the past 30 years, he’s now combing it for the origins of dynamic psychology, the idea that motives like self-esteem, shame, and respect for others urge people in one direction, while baser desires push them in another. “I think this first happens in Plato.”

When he reads Plato at home, Lear reads in Greek. When he is not reading philosophy, though, he reads poetry. Donald Justice is a favorite, as are Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens. Some of Lear’s enthusiasm for poetry comes from his daughter, a literature major. Soon after arriving at Yale, “she took an introductory course and was reading the Canterbury Tales,” he says, “and she called me high with Chaucer, just high.” When the class moved on to Milton a few weeks later, she called again. “Just high,” he says, smiling. “What I felt was really important for her—and for people in general and for my students—was to get some real exposure to human greatness, whether it be mathematics or painting or figuring out the physical world, just something magnificent and deep and beautiful.”

Like Aristotle and Heraclitus, Lear finds beauty even in the kitchen. Since that summer job 37 years ago manning the grill on Cape Cod, he has loved to cook. Italian and French provincial style make up his usual repertoire, but lately he’s learning about Southern food. “Gabriel comes from Tennessee,” he explains. The cookbooks he reads, by authors like Richard Olney and Elizabeth David, reinforce the notion of the kitchen’s everyday sanctity. “I like writers who are able to meditate, say, on why bread matters,” he says, “or on flour, or what yeast does, why cooking and eating delicious food is an important aspect of human well-being.” Like his other pursuits, it’s food for thought.