A Mentor in Philosophy: Graeme Nicholson

A Mentor in Philosophy: Graeme Nicholson
Published: Jan 29, 2023
Graeme Nicholson (1936–2021), an expert in Heidegger, Kant, Hegel, and other philosophers of the Continental tradition, retired in 2002, after 35 years of active service, and became a Professor Emeritus. He died at 84. Rebecca Comay, a doctoral student of Graeme's who he helped along a difficult path to academic success, recalls him as the kind of teacher we all wish for: a deep questioner of exceptional kindness and brilliance.

Graeme Nicolson, wildculture.com

Graeme NIcholson (inset) . . . ever with his eye on the philosophical prize.


When it was time to introduce a new philosopher in his philosophy classes, Graeme Nicholson sometimes liked to recall that little quip of Heidegger's — “Aristotle was born, he thought, he died. All the rest is anecdotes.” Then he would tell the students some stories. In this spirit, I offer a few anecdotes from my years as Graeme’s PhD student.

Graeme was a legendary teacher. All his students have vivid memories of him in the classroom — how he would stop mid-thought, his whole body swaying forward, eyes squeezed tight, tongue pressed between teeth, how his face would suddenly light up as he landed on what he had been waiting for and suddenly the whole thing would spring into focus. It might have been a passage in Husserl that had arrested him; it might have a been a student’s question (he listened to us with the same intensity with which he read texts), and every question was a good question; it might have been the arc of an argument; it might have been a sudden association — it always felt like a discovery and you never knew when to expect it. We would sometimes imitate him after class, over coffee, not to mock but because we couldn’t figure out what had just happened; it was exciting, disarming, disconcerting, and we didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was as if we had been given front-row seats to see thinking in action, except it wasn’t a performance: there was nothing histrionic, and we weren’t spectators. Graeme was thinking in our presence; he was showing what it meant to grapple with a question — I think that is the best word — he invited us to think with him; he showed us that philosophy was something you did together, but also that it was something that you sometimes did alone, even silently, in the company of others; that it didn’t have to be about outsmarting everyone. You didn’t need to talk all the time, listening too was thinking, thinking took time, you couldn’t always schedule when an idea might happen, or when a sentence or even a question might form. He was the teacher, we were the students, his knowledge was limitless, his erudition profound, we soaked it up, but there was something so unguarded and guileless about the way he spoke with us that these hierarchies melted away, and we just wanted to be there. As I write about this, I suppose there could have been a cultishness or groupiness, given his charisma, and given the boy-club culture of that world, but I honestly don’t remember any of this happening. He must have somehow known instinctively how to divert all that.


It had everything to do with what philosophy was all about, why it sometimes had to be so clumsy and laborious, what it had to do with regular life, what the point was.


Graeme was my thesis supervisor and I cannot imagine another one – what I mean by this is that I cannot imagine I would have had the tolerance for graduate school in the first place without him there. “Supervisor” is an unfortunate job title that should probably be decommissioned anyway, but it is particularly unsuitable to describe Graeme’s relationship to his students. Graeme had no interest in playing Doktorvater — he had no investment in coercive mentorship, discipleship, cloning, influence, branding, succession — and this is precisely one of the things that made him so powerful as a mentor. (I can’t overstate what this meant for an ambivalent young woman studying philosophy in the 1980s at a time when the profession was (even more of) a bastion of white male entitlement. As for continental philosophy, marginalized from mainstream philosophy, and the object of ridicule, it was its own little hothouse, propagating on the sidelines in little clans and coteries, and spreading for the most part through secret handshakes.) I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have had the stomach for any of this if Graeme hadn’t been there during those years. He opened up a breathing space in the stifling world of graduate school, and he continues to be an inspiration. Graeme gave meaning to the word inspiration: it meant pausing to take a breath; it meant breathing life into very old and crackly texts; it meant discovering an idea of such breathtaking simplicity that you felt as if you’d always known it. I think revelatory is not too strong a description for the kind of insights Graeme offered. Inspiration also meant engaging seriously with some of the wildest moments in Plato’s Phaedrus. In his book on this dialogue, my favourite of all Graeme’s books, there are some beautiful pages about divine mania — what we today call, more prosaically, poetic inspiration — and what can happen when a philosopher bangs into this.


Kant and Hegel, journal of wildculture.com

Kant and Hegel, at the forefront of Continental Philosophy: a series philosophical schools and movements associated primarily with western Europe, especially Germany and France. [o]


I had started my philosophy PhD a little impulsively – I had been in the middle of doing a PhD in Egyptology, had had a sudden change of heart, and I’m still not sure what drove that decision (I think it had something to do with being at Yale during “deconstruction days”) – and it took me a long time to find a focus or even an epoch to study. It turned out that we actually had quite dissimilar philosophical tastes and sensibilities, and these differences increased over the years. Graeme was bemused at first, then intrigued, then slightly appalled, when I went down the Derrida rabbit hole and climbed out a couple of years later with an enormously long dissertation on Heidegger’s crossing out of the word Being. It wasn’t his cup of tea. He was skeptical, occasionally irritated, consistently unpersuaded, and unflinchingly supportive. I never felt pressured to change my tune or to change a word, although I do remember him once writing to me, perhaps only half in jest, that while my writing showed much esprit, I might want to consider cultivating a bit more deutsche Gründlichkeit, not to mention maybe a dose of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon common sense. Coming from someone else it would have felt belittling, but I knew exactly what he meant. And, in any case, Graeme himself was someone who managed to combine such exemplary scholarly rigour with such bracing common sense that I took it to be a serious question. It had nothing to do with philosophical “style” (a term often fetishized in academic philosophy). It had everything to do with what philosophy was all about, why it sometimes had to be so clumsy and laborious, what it had to do with regular life, what the point was. These are embarrassingly basic, clunky questions, but they can be unnerving for those of us who work with texts that are distant in place or time, or opaque in other ways, often requiring immense efforts of philological labour and resisting easy capture.

I was reminded of this conversation the other day, when I heard of Graeme’s death, and was thinking about how he was writing to the end of his life. His learnedness was profound and he wore it lightly — he could move from an exegetical rumination on a Greek participle to a description of someone picking up a pencil — he made everything make sense, he made everything slow down, he pulled you into the text, he put you back at the kitchen table, he made things easy and difficult all at once and for the same reason. His most recent book (I hesitate to call it his last because I suspect there may be several more still sitting on his desk) was published just two years ago, when he was 82. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of immersion in the salt mines of Heidegger scholarship – a searching, meticulously researched study of Heidegger’s 1930 address (and the later essay bearing that same title) on the essence of truth, Das Wesen der Wahrheit. There’s a thicket of philology. Graeme is sifting through the manuscript variants, the multiple revisions, commentaries, interpretations, he’s talking about Heidegger’s retrieval of the Greek sense of truth as aletheia, about truth in neo-scholasticism and neo-Kantianism, about the protocols of science and philosophy, about the politicization of thinking (this stew of writing and revision was going on during the period of Heidegger’s active engagement with the Nazis; it’s painful for all of us who are invested in Heidegger’s philosophy to have to think about this sordid matter, and it’s impossible not to keep thinking about it) — and then he’s suddenly talking about today: I mean right now. He’s talking about the discourse around free speech and self-expression, about social media, about so-called post-truth and fake news, and about how Heidegger, of all people, can help us make sense of this. He actually does mean all of us, philosophers, non-philosophers, inside or outside the university. Suddenly the most bristling technical vocabulary falls away, and we’re back at the kitchen table. There is the lovely Phaedrus book. Again, Graeme is asking the simplest question in his usual limpid manner — why did Plato write dialogues? Suddenly he’s quoting Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff at length — yes, that Wilamowitz, the guy who beat up on Nietzsche.  Suddenly Wilamowitz comes back from the dead to give such a stirring description of Plato’s need to write – which turns out to be the need to play, which turns out to be the very drive, the drivenness, of philosophy itself. And now for the first time in my life I want to go read Wilamowitz. This is such beautiful scholarship that it takes your breath away.


Professor Graeme Nicholson, u of Toronto, journal of wildculture.com 2023_.jpg

Graeme Nicholson, Emeritus Professor in Philosophy. (Courtesy of the University of Toronto archives; photographer unknown.)


When I said earlier that Graeme gave me space to write my thesis, that I felt no pressure to change my approach or my interpretations, is not to suggest that he was disengaged or inattentive, or that either of us thought a student should need permission in the first place. Graeme’s courteousness went way beyond liberalism or politeness. We often disagreed, or argued, but it never felt like sparring or even about trying to persuade one another. He would query me, we would spend hours talking about a German word, I’d press some point, he would close his eyes, his face would furrow, eventually his face would light up and he would nod, just like in the classroom, ah, I see — he remained totally unconvinced, but he saw what I meant, and why I meant — and those nods were all I needed to keep writing. (That’s not to say he always nodded or that I always knew what I meant, far from it.) We met often while I was writing my thesis, sometimes for entire afternoons. Sometimes we talked about my thesis, mostly about other things.

It’s the other things I remember most. We spent many hours talking about philosophical and literary form, about the difference between philosophy as a pedagogical practice and as a writerly discipline, the difference between speech and writing, between voice and text. We’d talk about Heidegger’s peculiar relationship to prepositions, we’d talk about hyphens, we talked about Heidegger as a writer, as a teacher, and as Freiburg University Rector during Nazism. He’d tell me stories about his years with Gadamer in Germany. We talked about Hegel and Marx, about whether there was a difference between interpreting and changing the world, about Hegel at his writing desk and at the lectern, and about whether the lectern was a pulpit. We always ended up talking about Kierkegaard’s “upbuilding discourses.” We always seemed to come back to the Phaedrus, about written and unwritten doctrine, about philosophical friendship, community, koinonia, and about the meaning of dialectic. Graeme taught me everything I know. It’s those hours in his office that I remember most about being a graduate student. I eventually came to hate my thesis, and threw it away after almost a decade of staring at pages trying to fix it — I broke a publishing contract, which was professional folly at the time, I’m not sure what I was thinking, and Graeme did try his best to talk me out of that stupidity — but I will treasure those hours forever.  They’re so much better than any dissertation.

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so kind and generous. I had a bad accident in my third year of grad school, a neck injury that left me bedridden for the better part of a year, unable to concentrate, scrambled by pain and painkillers, thesis mouldering (not for the first time) in the corner. Graeme came to my house one day to visit me. The shock of having my supervisor sitting in my living room must have unleashed a tidal wave of neurotic anxiety. I remember feeling stressed and panicky, started stammering idiocies about how I was just about to get back to writing, how I’d been doing all this reading, that I’d have a draft of something or other by the summer. I remember Graeme sitting there quietly with his head slightly tilted to the side while I kept rattling on about my progress, finally interrupting me to say that he had actually just come to bring me some green tea and a volume of Racine which he thought I might enjoy. He told me a story about his father, who had been forced for reasons of illness to take a year-long break from his regular job. During the forced pause from daily life, he realized that his true vocation was to become a pastor (I think). I can’t remember any of the details, or even if it was his father he was talking about, or what his original job was, but the point was: this person quit his job, he changed his life, he found his purpose. “He became a more serious person,” Graeme said.


Martin Heidegger, journal of wildculture.com

Martin Heidegger in front of his fabled Black Forest cabin. [o]


Those words got me. I don’t think he was advising me to find another métier, and he wasn’t just reminding me about what we today like to call the “work/life balance.” Serious was also an odd word coming from him. Graeme was completely allergic to the “spirit of seriousness” — that’s Sartre’s code word for bad faith.  Sartre detected this in intellectuals so desperate for orientation that they cling to an inflated idea of their own special mission; philosophers are often prone to this conceit. I think Graeme was talking about contingency, time, limitation, embodiment -- possibility, impossibility, mortality, death. I suddenly understood what he had been teaching us all these years about Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference, why it was so hard to get your head around it, but also why it mattered. It wasn’t a scholastic metaphysical problem – it was ultimately an ethical issue (although Graeme would have never used that kind of portentous language). The difficulty wasn’t because of some abstract metaphysical-grammatical subtlety — Sein, être, einai — but just the opposite. It was the pressing concreteness of that infinitive that was so elusive. The infinitive is actually about finitude. What does it mean to be (a philosopher, a student, a person) in the face of absolute limitation? What does it take to be a serious person? What does it take to be serious without falling into pomposity and grandiosity? Call it what you want: seriousness, authenticity, integrity, staunchness, humility, friendship, openness, joyful curiosity — such old-fashioned words, but I think Graeme was not vain enough to fuss about these things.

This was Graeme Nicholson. ō



REBECCA COMAY is a professor of philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include Hegel and 19th century German philosophy; theatricality; Marx and Marxism (including Frankfurt school); psychoanalysis; contemporary French philosophy; trauma and memory; iconoclasm and destruction of art; contemporary art and art criticism; Proust and Beckett. She lives in Toronto.

For more on Rebecca's work, visit this website.



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