Scotland Voyage Blog #3: Metaphysics of MHC

Monday, June 16, 2014 - 8:30am
Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Photo by Lynn Pasquerella

Note: President Pasquerella is on an Alumnae Association-sponsored voyage, “In the Wake of the Vikings,” traveling in Scotland, Denmark, and Norway.

June 14: Aboard a ship embarking from Glasgow, Scotland, President Pasquerella blogged about Pondering the Metaphysics of Mount Holyoke.

We had a wonderful tour of Glasgow and boarded the ship just after 4:00 in the afternoon on the 14th of June. Our guide for the day was Seth, a recent philosophy graduate from University of St Andrews. I was thrilled to hear that his philosophical interests centered on questions of personal identity and persistence through time. I spent hours grappling with metaphysical puzzles in classes at Mount Holyoke with professors Lee Bowie, Meredith Michaels, and Dick Robin. When I began studying for my Ph.D. in philosophy at Brown University the fall after I graduated, I was extremely well prepared.

Since we were about to begin the embarkation process, I asked Seth what philosophical principles he appealed to in solving the ancient problem of the Ship of Theseus. The challenge involves considering a scenario in which a ship has one plank replaced every day until each of the old planks has been cast off. Since the change on any given day is slight, one might be tempted to say that the ship has retained its identity through time. But, now imagine another scenario, suggested by Thomas Hobbes. Suppose someone in desperate need of a ship takes the planks as they are cast off and reassembles them in exactly the same order? Is this ship the same one we started with? Did the old ship go out of being and come back into existence, contrary to John Locke’s contention that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence? Or, did it exist somehow as a scattered object? The most interesting question, we agreed, is what impact our answers to any of these questions might have on the persistence of persons through time.

The matter of personal identity through time was on my mind for another reason. John and I were celebrating our 34th anniversary that day. We married three weeks after my graduation from Mount Holyoke. He called unexpectedly on a weekday and asked me to meet him for dinner at the Salem Cross Inn [in W. Brookfield, MA]. It was Halloween night, and as tiny ghosts and goblins scurried through the dining room, he handed me a velvet box containing a Hershey’s Kiss! He had replaced the white strip encased by foil with one that read, “Will you marry me?” Our marriage has been as sweet and spontaneous as his gesture that evening.

After dinner, I could not wait to get back to Dickinson and South Rocky to share the news with my friends at Mount Holyoke. So, being on an alumnae cruise for our anniversary is particularly meaningful. During lunch, before our tour of Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Sally Donner ’63 raised her glass in a toast to our anniversary. As she spoke, I thought about how that sense of sisterhood we develop at Mount Holyoke grows through the years. I reflected on this phenomenon last November during the celebration of the completion of the College’s $300 million Campaign for Mount Holyoke. I asked not only what prompts alums to get on planes and travel in cars back to South Hadley, but also what draws women back to Mount Holyoke in their minds. When they are far from campus, what fleeting images surface? What moments sneak up on them in snatches and fragments for no apparent reason? As I mentioned then, it often surprises me that many of these memories are of unremarkable days. They are not the big moments such as arriving on campus for the first time or graduation day. They are ordinary days when a single view out a window or a moment where nothing much seems to happen sticks in our consciousness for reasons we don’t at first understand.

When Mount Holyoke women tell me these stories, there’s often a … “dimming of the headlights” … a look exchanged between us like oncoming cars that recognize each other’s approach in the night. It’s as though we say, “I see you.” “I understand where you are going.” “We share the same road.” I think that in that look between us, we acknowledge that those ordinary moments at Mount Holyoke are about so much more than staring out windows or sitting in the dining halls or stopping on a bridge. They are moments of restless imagining. Moments when every woman sees herself in a new light: the 17-year-old from Holyoke, the community college transfer, the first-year from Singapore, the Frances Perkins grandmother. Every woman who passes through our gate sees a glimpse of what is possible. She engages with a world where women are respected, involved, and equal. She feels the fullness of her ambition. And she experiences the power of change. The more I travel the globe, the more convinced I am that the world needs the restless imagining of women.

When I ponder the persistence of institutions like Mount Holyoke through time, I can’t help but think about how my passion for our College is like my devotion to the Red Sox. The players and managers come and go, and even the rules of the game change. Yet, in the end, there is meaning that comes from a shared experience. It is what philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen described in writing about the Jewish immigrant experience with baseball in the early part of the twentieth century as “redemption from the limitations of our petty lives,” and a “mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.” It is an experience that another philosopher of the sport, Bart Giamatti, unveils as the fostering and betrayal of the illusion that there is “something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist corrosion.” In the process, we are reminded of “how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another.” Like my marriage and my passion for baseball, I find meaning in the sisterhood with Mount Holyoke alumnae that arises from the fulfillment of sharing a collective enterprise regarding life’s meaning upon which we are embarked.

Next Post

 • On June 19, from Norway: En Route to Copenhagen

Previous Posts

• On June 12, from Edinburgh: Genetic Technology, Scotland, and Angelina Jolie

• On June 13, from Edinburgh Old Town: Liberal Learning, the Death Eaters, and the Vulgar