Rick Roderick and The Self Under Siege

A complaint I often hear from people averse to the subject of philosophy is that, as interesting as it can often be,  it's really sort of irrelevant to our daily lives.  In such conversations Rick Roderick is always the guy who comes to my mind.  It's a criticism he himself made of certain philosophers from time to time, but not one likely to find much ground against his own style.

Roderick (1949-2002) was a professor of philosophy who taught at Baylor, University of Texas and Duke University, which he refered to as “one of the most de-eroticized places you could ever find yourself”. While he authored many papers and reviews as well as a book on philosopher Jurgen Habermas, he's best known for the three courses he created for The Teaching Company (now The Great Courses) in the early 1990s.  These short courses (Philosophy and Human Values, Nietszche and the Postmodern Condition, and The Self Under Siege) are vibrant demonstrations of just how engaged with life philosophy can be. While at times divisive, Professor Roderick is unflinchingly concerned with questions about the modern (and yes, the postmodern) self in the context through which they arise. His lecturing style is relaxed but passionate and deeply Socratic.  Introducing his lecture on "The Masters of Suspicion" Roderick argues that a "deflationary" account of the self is deeply dissatisfying, and states as his goal to "see if a conversation rooted in philosophy can help us find our way about”.

Beginning in February our PEL Not School Rick Roderick group will tackle Roderick's "The Self Under Siege".  This 8 lecture course, the entirety of which is on Youtube, focuses on the self through the lens of twentieth century continental philosophy.  Through this course we'll be discussing many philosophers already featured in past PEL episodes Foucault, Heidegger, Sartre as well as several others.  This is a great place for those new to philosophy or the The Partially Examined Life to get more involved.

Daniel Cole


  1. dmf says

    that’s a great interview thanks, I’m a big believer, after Nietzsche, in philosophy as auto-bio-graphy not in the reductive sense that a thinkers works can be reduced to psychobabble about some aspects of their lives but that they are working out, working out of, the conditions of their lives, the weird turn pro indeed!

    • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

      I think I get the most out of that kind of philosophy as well. All of my favorite works are ones I relate to on an empathetic level as well as an intellectual one. I can enjoy thinking about things like the Euthyphro problem, but it will never be personal the way Roderick’s philosophy can be.

  2. Javier says

    Any the talk about “philosophy that is relevant to life” always brings me back to the Hellenistic philosophers like the Stoics and Epicureans, what Pierre Hadot called ‘philosophy as a way of life’. I’d actually be really interested in seeing an episode on something like this.

    • Nate Johnson says

      Seconded, (or hundreded, guessing how many episode requests the guys probably get.) I’d be thrilled to hear a Hellenists episode.
      The John Locke lecturer after Chalmers, John Cooper did four lectures on the Hellenistic philosophers. Those lectures are on iTunes U. A quick google search informs me that he (I assume it’s him) has a book on the subject titled “Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Not that I’m recommending that book, as I have only known it existed for 20 minutes. I am, however, recommending the John Locke lectures I mentioned, as well as Lectures 10, 11, & 12 (Hellenistic overview and Roman Stoicism) from the course Political, Economical, and Social Thought, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (which I believe has been name dropped by Mark) on iTunes U, and the Stoicism episdode from In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, also on iTunes.

  3. Ryan says

    It might be more accurate to say he was after life as the material for philosophy, as one of the things he was most opposed to was the practical instrumentalization of philosophy in service of the “pathetic, tragic, stupid, banal array of ordinary everyday bourgeois stinking life, surely we could do better than that.” It’s the idea that we are so trapped into a notion that nothing can really ever change again that we finally are compelled to adopt the radical attitude that every human experience will potentially be that which brings about the change which is desperately called for by so many people. We can not afford to look past any ordinary experience any longer when we can not know where the answer will come from in this dire situation, and this is done not at all with the intention of preserving life as we know it but rather with the hope to destroy it.

    I’m sure he would have hated the constant demand we’re now plagued by that philosophy always be applicable to life as much as his philosophy was very much “applicable to life”. I mean in the early 90’s before the recent economic crisis the general public took their dollar much more seriously than they did any kind of philosophy at all so his goal was basically to push them into the place where they are at least now en masse reading things like The Secret. But this place where people are finally coming around again to the idea that philosophy might even be applicable to life at all is obviously not on its own a good enough place for us to be. There needs to be more substance to the call that we merely begin to do philosophy again.

    • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

      Well put. It’s obvious that Roderick was very aware of the way cynicism serves those who are benefiting from the status quo, even though he often lapses into it himself during his talks. I think there’s one lecture where he even catches himself and comments on it. He repeatedly stresses the need to delve the complexity of our lives and the myriad problems that the pathological avoidance of doing that brings. I think he saw a basic philosophical inquiry into the self as radical in the context of a “mass communications culture”, so for him the impracticality of it became practical by default in the interest of just remaining a human being.

      • Ryan says

        Of course I have and I was speaking more from having listened to all of his lectures over and over again along with a study of changes that have happened since then. “Reason and humanity can not flourish without hope” – and given this plausible presupposition, statistically it can be said that it is likely we will not flourish. If there is something else you would like to get on board with before this ship finishes sinking then by all means lead the way, but the lack of hope in reason and humanity we find today is not a consequence of anybody’s personal resignation but rather material circumstances that neither Adorno nor Roderick were faced with in their own respective times as much as they were the ones to have read the early signs.

        What does the nearly complete and utter depletion of global fisheries have to do with the half-glass-empty vision of critical theory done in bad faith? I have nothing to gain by opening up the paralysis everybody is right now already stuck in even despite the pitiful lack of pessimistic critical theory being done today except a chance for life to so much as begin at all. It’s not a waged labor on my part and I find nothing similar to gain from any kind of cynical direct activism. Allow me to be the one to say that his concession to an “open dialogue” with somebody who was not capable of holding an intellectual discussion with him might not be the best representation of his thought, so much as it is a sure sign of the times in which one must always come up with food and rent money, a problem that he had failed to think all the way through before his death.

        Rick Roderick can prefer to throw away theory instead of the precious individual people we are because we are less depressing than critical thought in itself all he wants but that will not change the reality of other animal species going extinct every day all around us leaving the youth all but sure to follow. It is no surprise at all that the best of the critics who came before me were unfortunately less critical than I find myself to be. Shit, he had a family to feed, and I believe he told very few, but I’d be willing to tell any lie if I found myself in that position.

  4. Pugh says

    He lost me with ‘free baseball games’.

    Excellent interview. Quite prescient and very relevant to us today.


  5. Profile photo of Frtiz Donaro says

    Too bad more lefties don’t got style like Rick Roderick, or similar background. I don’t necessarily mean Texas. Joe Bageant comes to mind, who I believe coined the term “leftneck” to describe himself. CounterPunch’s Jeffrey St. Clair called Bageant the Sartre of Appalachia (cool shit to me). Both Roderick and Bageant are dead. America needs more along the lines of these two. What’s special to us here is Roderick was a philosopher by training and damn fine teacher of philosophy.

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