Before reading Drew Leder's The Soul Knows No Bars, I thought
prison to be an apt place to do philosophy--not only because of some notable
historical precedents (Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.)--but,
also, because one imagines there isn't much to do in prison. Why not read
some philosophy? Perhaps, I thought, there might be some beneficial products
of having prisoners read philosophy. Could it be that after reading different
arguments for the necessity of a civil state, one might be encouraged to
be a better member of it?
However, Leder's book is not a proposal to educate the wicked, or to
reform the rebellious. It is not a book that demonstrates that anyone can
do philosophy. The prisoners in the book are rare people; rare students
that any professor would be surprised and happy to have in class. Although,
it comes in at the edges, and was one of the more lasting traces from my
reading the book, it is also not directly a critique of the prison system.
The book is composed of prisoners discussing how the philosophical theory
they read relates to their own experience, and whether or not they find
it persuasive. In between these discussions are Leder's own vignettes on
how the experience of teaching prisoners has transformed his own self-understanding.
Because of the highly personal nature of the discussions, the book resembles
a novel with several people's lives revealed through discussions of philosophy.
Most readers will undoubtedly wonder at the end of the book "I wonder what
has happened to Tray, to Charles
Are they still in prison? Does Drew write
them letters? How old is Drew's child now?"
Some introduction, even in a review, is necessary to understand just
what the context of the book is. Leder volunteered to teach a philosophy
course at the Maryland Penitentiary. The students who took his class did
so voluntarily. Since the course was not part of a degree program, the
course was not designed to "end" at any point and continued for years with
most of the same students. The transcripts were edited for length and only
a few were chosen to be in the book. Since Leder says little (it is hard
to tell if this was the case during the actual classes or not), the conversations
usually stray from the reading that opens each chapter. Each small text
that opens the transcription brings up difficult philosophical issues.
The students are not directed to work through, break down and analyze the
texts. Simone Weil and Friedrich Nietzsche are the two authors in the first
chapter. At first, as a philosophy instructor myself, I wondered why Leder
didn't push the students to analyze the texts. For instance, why not dwell
on the obvious discrepancies, and resulting paradoxes, in the ideas of
Weil and Nietzsche? I wondered why he allowed the class to become a place
for personal narratives. (Aside from the fact the students usually fail
to understand the text, one problem with personal narratives in class is
that the students tend to only tell stories that uphold their preconceived
notions and stay away from stories that challenge them.)
Leder is upfront throughout the text with the concern that the book
and the class will be perceived as him pontificating to the unfortunate.
Since practically all of his students are black and poor, Leder's wealthy
Jewish origins stand in a sharp contrast. Allowing the students to move
the class is their own direction helps insure that Leder will not just
force his bourgeois liberal values upon them. Yet, the fact is that the
book reads more like a group therapy session than a philosophy class. One
could conclude that although Leder avoids assuming as position of the all-knowing
middle-class liberal, he ends up becoming the prisoners' therapist. He
cures them of problems with their past, their present condition and returns
them "normalized" to the general prison population. Would this reveal the
impossibility of having the "right" attitude in such a situation? Does
Leder act in bad faith?
However, one finds that Leder's own chapters in the book are no different
than the students' free-associating about the texts. He does not write
analyses of his students. Instead, he too is as engaged in the therapeutic
value of the class: working through suicides in his family, his mother's
death and the adoption of his child. The book is not about a teacher enlightening
prisoners. Rather, it is about how philosophy can initiate a common journey
among a group of diverse subjects. Thus, The Soul Knows No Bars
raises not only ethical issues about the prison system and social injustice.
It also brings different realms of thought in questioning the value of
The book reads like a Platonic dialogue minus the gadfly Socrates. Each
member of the class, Leder included, is trying to achieve some knowledge,
some light on the nature of mankind, some self-understanding, and perhaps
even some friendship, and some hope. The place of the class, the prison,
is at times spoken about as a frustrating series of incomprehensible rules
and injustices, sometimes a metaphor for man's condition and sometimes
it is even forgotten. At the end of the book, the reader isn't persuaded
of any point or issue. The obvious disparity between Leder's position and
those of the prisoners is not forgotten, nor is it resolved. Leder's life
changes, the prisoners' lives change (less happily, unfortunately), and
the class comes to end, but one is sure that the value of it as demonstrating
the real, almost tangible, value of philosophy for all these lives, remains.
© 2001 Talia Welsh
Talia Welsh is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is writing a dissertation on Merleau Ponty's psychology.