Doing Philosophy While Doing Time


White house on hill

When I’m hanging out with my fellow philosophy professors, we tend to let off steam by complaining about the everyday frustrations of our job. Overwhelming teaching prep, deathly committee meetings, endless requests for letters of recommendation, looming paper deadlines, the abject tedium of grading: all of that is bad, but it’s easy in the thick of the semester to forget that things could be a whole lot worse. We might have higher teaching and administrative burdens, yes. But also: we’ve never walked past people being wrestled to the ground or on suicide watch on our way to our classrooms. Not once have we needed to lock the door for fear of a bloodbath, or had students vomit, pass out, or weep in our arms mid-discussion. We don’t have to keep the blinds raised so security staff can check that our students aren’t assaulting each other while we teach; we don’t need to scan the room for convicted arsonists before we get to the word “fire” in our lesson plan. We can be confident that, when they leave us, none of our charges will spend the remaining twenty-three hours of their day locked into a squalid room with only cockroaches for company.


Andy West has been teaching philosophy in English prisons under these and similar conditions for the past six years. His memoir The Life Inside narrates that experience, weaving together scenes from his prison classrooms with scenes from his personal history as the son, brother and nephew of men who have spent many years incarcerated. The book is structured as a set of twenty brief chapters, with titles like “Freedom”, “Desire”, “Time” and “Luck.” The nouns alone, when set in this context, instantly provoke reflection (“what would time mean to someone on a life sentence?”). West leaves the elaboration largely to the voices of his students, who apply his class material directly to their lives in prison in insightful and moving ways.


West’s understated prose and dialogic teaching style give many of his chapters the air of guided meditations. I can imagine someone using this book as the basis for a series of personal philosophical reflections on the various concepts it discusses. You could also, maybe surprisingly, read it for the laughs. West has a keen eye for the amusing and unexpected in both his students and his situation. When his students assume their soft-spoken, snappy-dressing professor is gay and are universally tolerant in response, he doesn’t have the heart to out himself as straight and spends the rest of the semester as a “closet heterosexual.” He reports one man asking another what he’s in for and getting the non-ironic answer: “I’m an entrepreneur.” Many of West’s students are comics themselves, smart and funny in class, and quick to exploit the absurdity of their living arrangements. In a report of a cooking class that takes place with neither knives nor food, one guy describes faking tears while miming cutting an onion.


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The Life Inside directly raises many interesting philosophical questions and indirectly invites several others. Readers are likely to find themselves pondering the nature of such things as identity, truth, and happiness alongside West’s students. If Buddhists are right to claim, for instance, that the self doesn’t persist through time, does it make sense to consider someone “a danger to society” three seconds after their crime, let alone at a hearing weeks or months later? If someone comes to love a Sisyphean punishment – like digging an eight-foot hole all day and then refilling it, as West’s incarcerated uncle did for months – do they count as genuinely happy or are they merely kidding themselves? Readers will also ponder the extent to which any of us can escape the legacies of our childhood, and ask themselves what to do about the injustice of contemporary incarceration, which casts it dark shadow over everything here.


One additional, more meta, question I found myself asking was what the book I was reading was, exactly. You could call it a prison memoir, though if so it’s an odd one, written from the perspective of a teacher rather than an inmate. Another option would be a philosophical autobiography, along the lines of those written by Augustine, Rousseau, Mill, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. But that genre doesn’t fit well either. The standard philosopher-memoir narrates the author’s intellectual development, integrating personal biography with the substance of their own philosophical convictions. West, however, spends little time directly discussing his own relationship to philosophy or his answers to the questions raised on his syllabi.


Because West presents his philosophical material through dialogues between his students, I didn’t have the feeling as a reader that I was being taught philosophy.

A better comparison might be with John Kaag’s more recent memoirs, American Philosophy: A Love Story and Hiking with Nietzsche, both of which connect material from the history of philosophy to the author’s personal life and gesture at how it applies more broadly to the lives of non-academic readers. West’s approach differs, though, in coming across as thoroughly non-educative (impressive for a book that involves a lot of teaching). Because West presents his philosophical material through dialogues between his students, I didn’t have the feeling as a reader that I was being taught philosophy. Instead, I felt that I was doing philosophy – engaging in real-time, interpersonal, back-and-forth questioning of my and others’ assumptions – alongside West and his class.


The Life Inside is best understood as a work both of and about philosophy in its non-academic form. It’s a written instance of what West does orally in his non-traditional classrooms, as well as a quietly ardent defense, for a general audience, of that same activity.


In both his prison teaching and his writing of this book, West is practicing what’s often called “public philosophy.” Professional philosophers tend to disagree over the nature and value of that activity. One derogatory view is that public philosophy is merely a simplification of complex ideas for non-specialists, with the obvious risks of that enterprise. On this view, public philosophers are in the same business as academic philosophers: attempting to transmit the truth about the nature of things. They’re just doing it at a dumbed-down level, possibly for the fame and the cash.


Another, better, view (defended, for example, in Lucia Ziglioli’s essay “What public philosophy is, and why we need it more than ever”, Aeon, 2022) is that the difference between academic and public philosophy isn’t primarily a matter of level; instead the two activities have different purposes. While academics are mainly out to make new intellectual advances of their own, public philosophers are mainly out to invite critical reflection in others. Their aim is to ignite and fan the flames of philosophical engagement in those who have no formal experience of philosophy. (Of course, the same person can do both at different times.) On this picture, public philosophy isn’t about delivering answers to people, as if they were mere passive recipients of wisdom, but about inciting them to be active wonderers in their own lives.


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If you asked West what he thought public philosophy in general was for, I suspect he’d say something like that. His classroom method is Socratic through and through, and he works for an organization, The Philosophy Foundation, that claims to help individuals “to apply independent, critical and creative thought processes.” But West has his own more personal motivations for doing this in prisons in particular, and part of the interest of this book is watching him closely interrogate himself about what exactly those are.


West’s life was traumatic from a young age. His impulsive father had many run-ins with the law before leaving his mother, and West’s boyhood visits with him were confusing and frightening. He went to prison when West was ten and the two haven’t been in touch since. A few years before that, West’s beloved older brother Jason was imprisoned for the first of twelve times, for drug crimes; his uncle Frank on his mother’s side was in and out of jail for decades, for burglary.


The emotional impact of this on West has been crippling anxiety and complex guilt. West reports feeling for as long as he can remember that as his father’s son he too is destined for prison, that he somehow ought to be inside, despite his lifestyle of scrupulous rectitude. He also suffers from survivor’s guilt in relation to his brother. Why did Andy escape their father’s fate and not Jason? The answer seems to reduce to nothing more than brute luck, and the unfairness of that fact eats away at any scrap of happiness the adult Andy experiences.


Given this trauma, why would West choose to teach philosophy in prisons, of all places (a question that his incredulous brother often asks him)? A set of different answers get canvassed. Maybe West is trying to understand or connect with his lost dad through the proxy of his students? Maybe he’s trying to experience up close some of the suffering his brother has felt, to even the debt between them? Probably both, but the answer that most consistently floats to the top is that West’s classes are a kind of Freudian repetition compulsion, or, more positively, a self-administered course of exposure therapy. Like a claustrophobe forcing himself to repeatedly enter an elevator, West’s successive voluntary imprisonments are a way of defanging his fear that he’ll one day end up there involuntarily.


For teenage West, philosophy was the beginning of a route out of panic and despair. He dropped in on a college class about solipsism that resonated with the sense of unreality he’d inherited from the lies and secrecy of his childhood. Philosophy offered him a way to directly face the world’s complexity and darkness and make some sort of peace with it. It’d be easy to think, then, that another of his motivations for teaching in prison is to pass on that gift to his students: to save them, like he saved himself, and maybe, symbolically, to save his father.


Much public philosophy is explicitly driven by this self-help rationale. Think of Alain de Botton’s School of Life organization, whose books, classes and merchandise promise to help you apply the insights of the great thinkers to improve your state of mind, relationships, sex life, productivity, and the design of your apartment. Or think of West’s own employer, whose mission statement references the development of “key life skills, including problem solving, decision making, communication, and teamwork skills” that will allow individuals “to succeed professionally and personally, and contribute positively to society.”


West’s background, however, doesn’t lend itself to that brand of peppy bourgeois technocratic optimism. He’s had too up-close-and-personal an experience of the cycle of crime to think that a few weeks on the Ancient Greeks is going to fix anyone’s long-term problems. And he’s too humble a person to condescend to his students, to don the role of rehabilitator and corrector. (He may also be too much of a Socrates, or a Nietzsche, to think that philosophy is meant to make you comfortable.) His classes do seem to provide something like a therapy session for his students, but not because they’re transmitting Stoicism-lite CBT techniques or marketable skills for post-release employment. Instead, they mainly seem to function emotionally as what one of West’s students calls a “two-hour holiday”: an escape from the rest of prison life.


West’s thought experiments allow his students to share personal experiences that macho prison culture makes it hard to express.

West’s classes provide mental stimulation, entertainment, a form of community, and a break from the ever-present threat of physical violence that lies outside the classroom doors. His thought experiments allow his students to share personal experiences that macho prison culture makes it hard to express. And the spirit of egalitarian intellectual engagement that infuses philosophy at its best offers them relief from the pervasive disrespect they experience, from both their guards and society at large. “I don’t want to look away,” West writes, “But I don’t want to ‘bear witness’ either… As a teacher, I can do more than bear witness to the vanished. I can help people keep sight of themselves.”


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I confess to persistent envy while reading The Life Inside about the urgency that philosophical questions have in West’s classrooms. The topics his students discuss are unavoidable in their own lives (no one’s doing it for the distribution requirement) and the setting represents a liberation of philosophy from the dysfunctions of the contemporary university. Corporatization, credentialization, professionalization, “interdisciplinary public-facing knowledge outputs”, college as a necessary step on the ladder of status and money: none of that is relevant here, which opens up space for the search for enlightenment and intellectual exchange for, what? – their very own sakes.


But of course we shouldn’t get too romantic about this, and West doesn’t. “What’s your thought, Terry?” he asks in one class. “’I think,’ [Terry] says, unfolding his arms, ‘I think I’m going to take a shit.’” Such moments of indifference and frustration, which my students would call “relatable”, are scattered throughout the book, and the fact that prison is actually the very opposite of institutional liberation is never far from view. West describes the harsh conditions you might expect – rats, filth, violence, abuse, isolation, overcrowding, unjust convictions, indefinitely deferred releases – and mainly lets them speak for themselves. Just as, when narrating his own traumatic past, he writes hot material cool, he doesn’t embark on a manifesto for prison reform. His case for it is more implicit, in the juxtaposition of the dehumanizing conditions that his students suffer with the way they act and are treated in his classes: as individual people whose thoughts, feelings and experiences matter.


I read this moving, thought-provoking book from cover to cover during a blizzard. I loved it, but it was a long, snowy day in a long, isolating pandemic, and afterwards I texted my sister: “God, I have such cabin fever, I’m dying, what I would give to stretch my legs and see another human.” The obvious irony of this didn’t hit me till later. The Life Inside offers a potent reminder not to forget the immense differences between being a free agent and being a prisoner. But it also urges us not to exaggerate the differences between people who hold each of those statuses. Just as the life of the mind extends way beyond the walls of college campuses, and is sometimes represented in a purer form outside them, human dignity, courage and beauty don’t magically vanish at the prison gates. This book quietly challenges us to do better justice to that fact, in a part of our society where the ratio of talk about justice to actual justice is appallingly high.


The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy by Andy West was published by Picador in 2021.

Helena de Bres is associate professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. She has written public philosophy for The Point, Aeon, Psyche, and Brevity, and her book Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir was published by The University of Chicago Press in 2021. How To Be Multiple, a collection of personal essays on the philosophy of twins, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury USA. Website: sites.google.com/wellesley.edu/helenadebres/home Twitter: @helenadebres

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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