Chicago Humanities Festival: Prof. Jonathan Lear analyzes Cole Porter, love

By Jon Catlin

Committee on Social Thought John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor Jonathan Lear from the philosophy department spoke Saturday on “the uncanny” in human experience as part of the annual Chicago Humanities Festival’s Karla Scherer Endowed Lecture Series, which brings UChicago faculty to the festival each year.

Relating to the festival’s theme this year, “Animal: What Makes Us Human,” Lear drew on his background in both psychoanalysis and philosophy to argue that what makes human life unique is our experience of the uncanny, which Lear described as “the familiar, namely ourselves, returning to ourselves as strange, and thereby shaking us up.” Lear traced this idea back at least to the time of Socrates.

As an example of the uncanny, Lear began by analyzing the seemingly simple lines of Cole Porter’s song “Let’s Do It”: “Birds do it/ Bees do it/ Even educated fleas do it/ Let’s do it/ Let’s fall in love.” Exploring the logic of lines, Lear unsettled Porter’s suggestion that “just doing it” could be as easy for human beings as it is for animals.

If “love” in the song is another word for sex, “We’re sort of not able to ‘just do it’ if we have to start using euphemisms for what we’re about to just do,” he said.

And even if the song refers to true love, “The self-consciousness of the ‘doing it’ plays a completely different role in ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ than, let’s say, in two birds doing it.”

Lear suggested that human love “really does require that there are two things going on: our falling in love, and our being self-conscious that we’re falling in love. Falling in love has self-consciousness as sort of internal to it, that there’s some kind of self-consciousness that we have that that’s what we’re doing.”

“If we were creatures that had sort of the same biological makeup but…absolute lack of curiosity about others… no instances of falling in love… no instances of all the categories that we have of life that matters… one would think of this such a person as human in an attenuated state,” he said. “So self-consciousness here isn’t just a sort of brute awareness of our lives, but an awareness of our living through very basic categories that mark us as human.”

Lear’s argument extended beyond which way of characterizing human nature is correct: He defended the importance of inquiry into the very question of the human, the question of the humanities themselves.

“Part of the human mind is fed by just the kind of questioning and reading we’ve been doing together over this short time, living with the words of [dead philosophers], trying to reach out, trying to explain what’s weird, what’s special, about the kind of minds we have. This isn’t just one more fact that we might or might not know about. This is the stuff that constitutes the mind, as I understand it. And it’s vulnerable. This could go out of existence,” he said.

In that extreme case, Lear said, one view to entertain is that “human beings would continue on with biological life, living less internally contested, reflective, uncanny lives than they do now….And we might say that the human went out of existence but the biological species continued.”

Lear anticipated the backlash that such a view of human existence may cause. “Well, the whole point of this talk is to raise a question about that,” he said. “And it’s not to sort of answer it finally, like I’ve got the right answer. It’s for me to throw out a challenge for you to think about it and think about how important that thinking about it is to the very creature you are.”