John Beer, '91


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

I planned, to tell the truth, to concentrate in the Wilson School--budding politico and all that.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

I soon realized that I wasn't quite as enamored with policy studies as I'd thought, especially in the waning years of Reagan-Bush. A friend my first year recommended Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach to me, & my enthusiasm for that book led me to Gil Harman's course in Philosophy of the Behavioral Sciences, a title he heartily objected to. Reading among other things Nelson Goodman in that course hooked me.

Not that I didn't consider other options. My favorite English professor asked me whether I might major in that department, but I replied that I didn't want to read all the poetry that would entail. The irony of this will emerge.

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

I may be embellishing a bit, but I remember Steve Neale's course on Philosophy of Language very fondly. He had planned for us to read Frege's On Sense and Reference, Russell's On Denoting, and Kripke's Naming and Necessity in the first three weeks. Every week, he gave us an updated syllabus, as those three essays gradually came to consume the better part of the semester. I delighted in the close attention we gave to the detailed working out of these arguments and their implications. Don't tell my current colleagues, but I continue to think the habits of reading I developed in such philosophy courses are the epitome of humanistic learning.

One testament to the strength of the department is that I could learn logic from Dick Jeffrey and David Lewis: that such extraordinary, and memorable, thinkers would give undergrads close attention. I also signed up for Kripke's advanced logic seminar. At the end of the first meeting, he gave us a problem set, and then said, Hm--I'm not sure that last one is a result. He then looked out the window a few moments: No, you can do it. That afternoon, I decided I was better off focusing on my senior thesis.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

I went to Pitt for a philosophy Ph.D. (though John Burgess warned me about the temptations of relevance logic). That was a heady time as well--in my first year, Bob Brandom and John McDowell held seminars on what would become Making It Explicit and Mind and World. In the end, though, I left that program for the Iowa Writers' Workshop--in poetry.

What do you do now?

I'm an English professor at Portland State University, specializing in creative writing. My first book of poems, The Waste Land and Other Poems, a reworking of Eliot and other modernist writers, appeared in 2010, and I've just published my second, Lucinda, a book-length mistranslation of Friedrich Schlegel. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]

Final words?

As the titles and descriptions of my books might suggest, I've never really left behind questions about the nature of language and identity that I first confronted in 1879 Hall. And just this morning, in an undergraduate poetry class, the question emerged, as it often does, What is poetry? Several of my students proposed that poetry's whatever someone authoritative designates as poetry. I suggested they might want to consider an analogue of Socrates's Euthyphro argument: that they were getting the relations of dependence backward. That's a form of argument I first encountered in Mark Johnston's Relativism seminar. So 25 years on I'm still drawing on things I learned in the Princeton department.