Office hours chat: Prof. Nemli philosophizes on liberal arts

Nemli in his bureau, welcoming his students with a bright smile. His office hours always leave visitors with a profound impression of his knowledge of and insight into philosophical topics. Courtesy of Abigail Meert.

This week, I had the privilege of talking with Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Osman Nemli in his galley kitchen of an office, Rocky 206. When I asked him to share any pertinent or wacky autobiographical details, Nemli began his tale. His early childhood took place in two cities: Istanbul, where he was born, and New York City. He then commenced his undergrad career at Trinity College. Nemli recalled, “When I entered Trinity, I was thinking between English and math. Or biochemistry, econ … So really, much like a true liberal arts student, everywhere.” The relatability made me grin. “What happened?” I asked.

“Yeah, what happened?” He briefly glanced around at his many piles of books in an otherwise sparse office. I followed his gaze and noticed a blank sticky note over his computer’s webcam among a truly impressive number of reminders stuck around the monitor. Then he explained how he got interested in philosophy.

“Day one in a philosophy class, an instructor said, ‘Not all your friends are in school, some are working 40+ hours a week. For those of you who are full-time students, that’s what we expect of you.’” This wake-up call served as inspiration to get his collegiate act together, and the subject of that class played an important role in that. He elaborated, “Philosophy really granted me that: the venue to raise the bar on my actions and interactions with others, and to raise the bar fundamentally on what it meant to be a friend, a colleague, a loved one. It forced a reflection on the words one uses.” He considered for a moment, then added, “So basically, narcissism.”

I chuckled, and he continued. “Philosophical language and discourse is in that regard kind of like being in a costume, or going to a drag ball or wearing a uniform. Just as you craft yourself in terms of the clothes you want to wear, as a form of self-expression, I think philosophy fundamentally attunes you toward those modes of self-expression.”

From there, we segued into discussing his work before Vassar at Emory University (where he did his master’s and doctoral studies) and Dillard University (he completed his dissertation while teaching there). Of those institutions, he said, “[Each has] a very different student body and they have many different expectations, at least, from the type of student that is crafted at a liberal arts school.”

“‘Crafted’ is a good word for it,” I remarked.

“Yes, absolutely. I think schools cater to and craft different personalities based upon the expectations of the students, but also their own expectations.” He chose to teach at a liberal arts school because, as he told me, “I like the challenge of trying to bring philosophy to different student groups, because I think that everyone can participate in whatever they do professionally, but also in the world, in a philosophical manner.”

“Now, why Vassar, within that?” he began, a verbal wind-up to his pitch. “I really am very much a supplicant in the church of liberal arts, in terms of crafting individuals,” he said, with one of his characteristic gestures: a circular hand-wave with a thoughtful nod.

He elaborated, “I think that the liberal arts student body is a hyper-educated, hyper-aware, hyper-reflective, incredibly hard-working group of beings who write and read and approach so many different subjects … And so I already think you have just an incredible temperature of atoms bouncing and jumping around in terms of, like, the furnace of thought.” After a micro-pause, he added, “It is wildly mind-blowing.”

“To be able to read a text together, to be able to approach contemporary issues with a text that is far removed from our everyday experience (seemingly removed), to approach a text with our expectations of today, or to be able to bracket, or stop, our expectations of today because of a question that occupied so much of the time and space of yesterday…” he trailed off momentarily. “I think all of that is extremely, just a nice concoction.” He then approached his explanation—as he often does in class—metaphorically.

“It’s like a cooking show, where you’re given a space to cook,…you don’t choose any of the materials, you don’t get to choose your tools, you don’t get to choose your colleagues in this kitchen, and it’s like ‘make us something that’s delicious.’” The rhetorical device clearly worked, because we then went on a tangent about cooking competition shows.

When we circled back to the upsides of a liberal arts education, he recounted a Vassar philosophy alum he encountered at Emory, who gave Vassar glowing reviews, encouraging him to come here. He commented, “That’s not to say it’s ‘follow the yellow brick road and here’s Emerald City where everything is great,’ because, after all, every city has its obscene undersides, as Plato showed in ‘The Republic.’” He raised one eyebrow, and I nodded, picturing the library turned to green crystal.

Next, I asked him about the classes he’s teaching this semester. “I’m teaching three courses and two independent studies, and overseeing a thesis. The courses are 100, 200 and 300. One is a contemporary moral issues course addressing philosophies of violence and nonviolence: Why do we justify violence, how do we justify it, what are the arguments we can use against this justification and why is nonviolence a virtue. The 200-level course—disclosure: The interviewer is a student in it—is…um…”

“Is a wild time,” I supplied. He nodded slowly with what I can best describe as a contemplative frown.

“Yeah. Wild times with phenomenology and existentialism. And it looks at two philosophical schools in the continental European tradition initially but not exclusively, and explores, for example, what consciousness is about, how we can comport ourselves ethically with other consciousnesses, what does it mean to be responsible, what are some fundamental moods that we have in relation to the world that we’re a part of.” I agreed with this assessment.

“And then the 300-level course is a course called Philosophies of Difference. So, trying to parse out the different implications and ways of hearing the word ‘difference’ that neither reduce it to a sort of decaffeinated understanding of diversity, which would equal the rather problematic trend of tokenism, nor, on the other hand, dismiss difference as simply being a relativity, where everyone can be an island unto themself. Since we all know that underneath those waters, those lands are connected to one another.” I nodded, Simon & Garfunkel lyrics spontaneously swirling through my head.

I moved on to my next question: “So, kind of relatedly, what are your specific philosophical interests?”

“My interests philosophically are 19th- and 20th-century continental philosophy, with an emphasis on social and political issues, as well as ethics and moral theory,” he explained, with the air of someone who has said this sentence many times. “Very broadly, what is the good life, can we live the good life, and can we achieve the virtues or the conditions necessary for it, and what is justice, and what happens when you try to pursue the good life in an unjust city.”

After a moment, he added, “And, besides that, any sort of like, movie people want to talk about. I just love movies … But that’s just a hobby, unfortunately.” He said, feigning dejection at his plebeian desire for fun.

I chuckled, then moved on to the question I was most curious to have answered. “Here’s one that invites some reductive thinking,” I prefaced. “Why do you think studying philosophy is important or valuable? You kind of touched on this already, but what advantages does it give a student, even one who might not be considering a major or a correlate?”

“In some regards,” he began, “I think philosophy is quite worthless.” He continued, picking up steam, “It’s useless because the usual way we expect to evaluate utility is according to end goals or points or achievements that philosophy is not really equipped to satisfy. Being able to read a text philosophically is not something that can be rendered tangible, except in certain lived situations and circumstances.”

He pressed forward, talking with both hands and voice. “The apprenticeship in philosophy yields absolutely nothing, but it’s precisely in its nothing and its uselessness, I think, where its worth, or value, lies. [It is] a question that can completely change the parameters and conditions of how people approach a subject.” I started to understand what he meant: The important thing isn’t the philosophy itself, but the questions it allows one to ask and try to answer.

He expanded, “This incessant raising of questions, I think, is a very powerful, skeptical, critical attitude. ‘Critique’ implies ‘crisis,’ a moment of decision, but also a judgement. And you can only make this critique by trying to establish some sort of difference, or distance, between you and the subject at hand. You and who you want to be and who you were. You and the text you’re reading.”

Nemli concludes, “The mode of critical thinking, of critical reading, that philosophy provides is a space that honors the possibility that the world which we’re in is never enough, that it can change. And that it can change with something as quick and as short as a question.”

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