Holbook Robinson, ’65


When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

I was drawn to physics, having had a wonderful teacher in High School, and perhaps because my father was a physicist. But I was also deeply attracted to the study of music, especially composition.

What made you decide to major in philosophy?

Both physics and music composition are highly technical subjects that demand a basic talent that I decided I didn’t have. But I had a lot of intellectual curiosity and was excited to find that the first philosophy courses I took immediately satisfied it.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?

I was in one of Professor Harman’s classes, and he said something that I thought was not quite correct. Since he was and is at least five times smarter than I, it was with some trepidation that I went up to him after class with my objection, the nature of which I cannot remember today.  He said that he would think about it, and during the next class he announced that a student had come up to him after class (that would have been me…) and made a point that he had to admit was correct, and that he had been wrong. And then he explained why he had been wrong.  It was the high point of my career in philosophy.  It reminds me now of the time, a few years later, when I defeated a member of the Harvard chess club in a chess game, even though I was a mediocre chess player. Being out of one’s league but having a glimpse what it would be like to play in that league…

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

Having spent part of my childhood in France, I went back to Paris for year to teach in a French Lycée.  Then I went to Harvard to study French literature and got a Ph.D. in 1974

What do you do now?

I have been teaching French, and on several occasions, an Aesthetics course, at Northeastern University ever since I graduated from Harvard. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]

Final Words?

Philosophy, at least the kind I admire, teaches a way of thought which often involves thinking about how to think. It is analytic in the best sense of the word, and critical, in the best sense of that word. It is the best hedge that I know against intellectual nonsense, nonsense that is constantly lapping up against the edges of academic disciplines (think post-modernism in some of its more fanciful forms….) as well as the edges of the lives we all try to lead in an often confusing world. So as far as having studied philosophy at Princeton goes, I must quote Edith Piaf:  “Non, Je ne regrette rien…..”