I first want to thank John Owen for inviting me to share some remarks in celebration of Stephen White’s long and distinguished career, and to apologize to everyone gathered for not being able to deliver these remarks in person.
After being asked to say something, I began thinking a lot about a line from Philip Larkin, a great British pessimist of a poet. Larkin says: “an only life takes so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.”
Anonly life. Takes so longto climb clear of its wrong beginnings. And may never.
This doesn’t sound so cheery, so why bring it up here?
Well, part of why I like this line so much is that it picks up on some core themes in Stephen’s work.
Take the invocation of “an only life.” This is acknowledgment of finitude, in the broad sense Stephen commends, which is to say it’s an acknowledgment both of our own mortality andthe limitedness of our power and agency while we’re living.
In this onlylife, we can onlydo so much, and every doing narrows the range of possible future deeds and paths available to us.
Constrained as we are, the importance of being well-oriented, of finding “felicitous constellations,” is great, particularly in light of our wrong beginnings.
But what, exactly, are these wrong beginnings?
Well, they may be unchosen and enduring features of our person—our race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or species; factors that become “wrong” in light of a broader politics of hostility, marginalization, or exploitation.
Or they may be the circumstances into which we are born: those that are malleable, but only with great effort and some luck—like class, nationality, or religion.
Or they may be adherence to a path that we hold to be beyond contestation: in Stephen’s language, an attachment to a “strong ontology.”
These of course are not mutually exclusive categories, nor is this an exhaustive list. Wrong beginnings can take many forms, and ensnare us in many ways.
But whatever the case may be, our wrong beginnings should not cause us to despair. Rather, Larkin’s poem, like Stephen’s work, betrays a radical hope—an unoptimistic hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless. Because an only life canclimb clear of its wrong beginnings, even if there is no guarantee of this coming to pass.
So how do we do climb clear? What reasons do we have to share this hope?
Here, again, Stephen’s work provides helpful insight.
We can climb clear of our wrong beginnings by affirmingpolitical and ethical positions, without embracing strong foundations and ultimate values, or succumbing to the sometimes-paralyzing nihilism of postmodern critique.
We can climb clearby remaining attentive to the aesthetic-affective dimension of human life—even, or perhaps especially, when these moments overwhelm us with feelings of “fullness or dearth.” Such depth experiences, Stephen tell us, have a powerful ability to realign the values that guide us, setting us on more felicitous paths.
Of course, fullness experiences do not always arise in us unbidden; sometimes they are the work of others. And this suggests still other means for climbing clear: more interpersonal than personal; more a political and social striving than a feat of individual agency.
Thus, we can help others climb clear by cultivating an “ethos of critical responsiveness,” which, Stephen explains, means more than merely tolerating others or affording them a cold and distant respect.
We can help othersclimb clear by instantiating, in our political and social lives, the virtues of a “good host,” particularly in times, like ours, marked by a politics of resentment and wall-building.
And, finally, we can help othersclimb clear by adopting an ethos and politics of “presumptive generosity.” I know first-hand what this looks like in practice, and to show you what I mean, I’ll end now with a brief anecdote. (I hope Stephen won’t mind my sharing it.)
For a bit of context, I grew up in conservative, working-class family, in a rural, undereducated area; this is to say, I was is no way “destined” for college, and certainly not for a career in political theory. After I finally summoned the courage to apply to graduate school, I was quickly rejected from almost everywhere, save UVa, where I made the wait-list. This initially gave me some hope; but, as weeks went by with no news, I started to conclude that I was not quite academic material. For a number of reasons, I finally decided to surrender my spot on the waitlist and remove myself from consideration. After making this decision, I wrote to Stephen White, whom I had previously been in contact with over email, thanking him for his help in the process. He replied back soon after expressing his understanding and wishing me good luck.
Then, a few hours later, something strange happened. I received an email from Jeff Jenkins with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I later learned that this was Stephen’s doing: that he had intervened on my behalf, despite the fact that I was a stranger and had little real evidence of ability. This quiet act of kindness had a deep effect on me. If I were to ever write an autobiography, it would count as a decisive moment.
Seven years later, here I am: a person with many “wrong beginnings”—little money, education, or family connections—who nonetheless succeeded because an eminent host treated me with “presumptive generosity” and welcomed me into the discipline.
These quiet calls to kindness, responsiveness, and generosity unite Stephen’s work. These are not hollow invocations, tepid do-goodism, but exhortations that have the power to reorient “only lives” and help others climb clear of wrong beginnings. In this way, Stephen White’s legacy—as a scholar, a mentor, and a friend—continues to provide an “exemplary bearing,” one that I will always endeavor to emulate in my professional life. And for that I am profoundly grateful.
Molly Scudder was a graduate student in the Department of Politics from 2010–2014. She is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Stephen was the chair of her dissertation committee.
Stephen has been an exemplary teacher, friend, and mentor to me over the past decade. What stands out most about Stephen’s role as a mentor and instructor (besides his excellent taste in French wine) is that he did not expect his students, many of us just out of college, to magically transform from “consumers” to “producers” of knowledge. Instead, he taught us how to do so. It is only now, as an assistant professor, that I truly appreciate the time and effort it took Stephen to collect, read, and provide such incisive substantive feedback on our weekly work.
On a more personal note, I will always appreciate the advice Stephen gave me as I was heading off on my first academic interview. Essentially he encouraged me to enjoy the opportunity, convincing me to see this visit as a chance to disseminate my work and speak about the ideas that excite me. This advice was transformative and allowed me to approach the interview from a position of confidence – despite the extremely competitive job market. Turned out to be good advice and I got the job!
Lucky for me, his mentorship has not stopped or even slowed since I left the Politics department at UVa. Stephen, Congratulations on your retirement and thank you for your mentorship and friendship over the years!
Thanks, John for putting this together. And, again, thanks John (!) for being willing to read and speak on my behalf.
For a long time I’ve written the first draft of everything on Google Docs. If I ever want to find past notes, scribblings or even whole papers, I search there. But every time I do this, no matter what I’m looking for, I find things that I didn’t expect.
This last week I taught Locke for the first time to a large lecture. And I tend to get lost in minutiae. But fortune struck. When looking through my draft notes for the coming class, I stumbled on my notes from Stephen’sIntro class many years ago. They kind of amazed me. The presentation of ideas, the organization of details, and the specific places for introducing examples made sense. This wasn’t something I had been aware of at the time. But Stephen knew how to articulate ideas to his audience in a way that was natural and intuitive while remaining comprehensive. I am, clearly, even today still learning from that example.
Well before last week, I went hunting for some notes for a current project. And this time I found an old message that I had written to a then-fellow graduate student and friend, a response to some work they had sent me. Reading the note made me cringe a little, because I remembered the anxiety that went along with writing it. When responding to mywork, Stephen would consistently find the right balance of critique and encouragement. The critique not only made the work better; it also helped make me feel like the ideas matteredenough to engage with in the first place. And the encouragement was always pitched in a way to move the work, and me, forward. On the one hand, I couldn’t imagine myself striking this balance for another. On the other, realizing how much I neededthat balanced guidance was jarring. I am a little less anxious about these things than I once was. But, of course, this is because I’ve since had the chance to talk it through with Stephen, who supplied both critique and encouragement.
These are just two examples of the ways in which Stephen has served as an intellectual guide, directly for some and indirectly, as an example, for many more.
I’ll conclude by apologizing to John for the typos here. And to the audience if they’ve had to listen to typos. And finally to Stephen, for letting the cat out of the bag that, once upon a time, he may have passed a dissertation that was heroically, but still imperfectly, copyedited...