Coker’s Para-Philosophical Advice

I took John Coker’s intro to philosophy class my first semester of college and eventually took a class or directed study with him every semester for the next four years. I spent hours talking to him about music, literature, and philosophy. I still have books he gave me. I feel lucky that I was able to tell him how much he meant to me. He always shrugged this kind of thing off. John died in 2015.

A few years ago, I worked with him at a literary website. I wanted him to do a sort of Anne Landers meets philosophy column, but knowing his duties (and how long he would converse in and out of his office!) I wanted to make it as easy as possible for him. We finished three entries and they’re below.

I sent questions for a fourth column but never heard back. Later he began posting about various psychological and health issues. I understood. We still talked once in a while and shared music. 

In the columns, he answered questions about applying philosophy to life, his own intellectual interests, his mentors, and music. Enjoy!

How did you become interested in philosophy?

In undergraduate my original career plan was to become a Lutheran minister. I spent Freshman year (1974-1975) in an Honors Program at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, where I took an entire course on Aristotle. I transferred to the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA (the Hawkeyes), for my remaining three years (1975-1978). I decided to study both Philosophy and Religion, and I graduated, with Honors, as a double major in them. Iowa Philosophy was Anglo-American Analytic, but my favorite teacher in Religion was Robert Scharlemann, who had been a student of Paul Tillich (who directed his Ph.D. thesis) and who had also studied under Heidegger. From him I studied Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. All of that compounded into my love for philosophy.

What is a philosopher’s ideal day like?

Aristotle says that Philosophy requires hesuchia, leisure. I would spend morning having coffee and engaging in philosophical discussion (like Socrates), then go home and read and write the day away, and return to have dinner with excellent philosophical discussants.

What concerns are you thinking or writing about currently?

I am currently writing hybrid poetry (akin to the German Romantics) which I dub ‘para-philosophy.’

Do you have any favorite philosophical works of literature?

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Anatole France, The Garden of Epicurus.

Why is fun so popular?

This shouldn’t even be a question.  People (the populace) like fun.  Fun is enjoyable.  Also, each person is at full liberty to define what for him- or her-self counts as “fun.”  Perhaps that is why it is so popular.

Describe a mentor or mentors who changed your life. 

a) Robert Scharlemann, Prof. of Religion, University of Iowa (when I attended from 1976-1978).  He was a German immigrant who fled the Nazis, who studied and wrote his Ph.D. Thesis under the great Lutheran Theologian Paul Tillich.  He also took some courses with Heidegger.  He introduced me to the great German Philosophers (Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger, et al.) and Lutheran Theologians (Tillich, etc.) of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  He was my Honors Thesis Director.  Prof. Scharlemann left Iowa over a decade ago to take up an Endowed Chair at the University of Virginia. [University of Iowa Philosophy, in which I also graduated with honors, was Anglo-American Analytic.]

b) William (Bill) R. Schroeder, a University of Michigan Ph.D. in Philosophy.  I took my first course from Bill in Fall 1979, and continued to take courses from him every semester,  including my Ph.D. Thesis courses (he was my Ph.D. Thesis Director) until I finished.   He above all introduced me to the world of ‘Continental’ Philosophy, especially Hegel, Phenomenology, and Existentialism.  Bill became a friend while I was a graduate student, and remains my friend to this day.  I visit him whenever I make it back to Illinois, which is only in August.

c) Lawrence Schehr.  When I arrived at the University of South Alabama in 1986, three members of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature took me under their wing:  Bernie Quinn, Carol Lloyd, and Larry Schehr.  Larry spent one year as a Medical Student at Johns Hopkins University [note: one of the most highly ranked programs in the country], but got bored and shifted over to study foreign languages.  He was a genius at languages and many other things as well.  Larry taught me HOW to deconstruct.  Together we attended three conferences at the University of Alabama, two of which had both Derrida and De Man and their students, and one had Derrida along with his and De Man’s students.  Schehr introduced me into the world of what in Philosophy is called ‘French Post-Structuralism’ and its equivalent in Literary Theory.  I became addicted (much to my friend Bill Schroeder’s disgust) to deconstruction/destructuration, etc.  He left the University of South Alabama about 10 years ago to become Chair of the Department of Languages at North Carolina State, and then left to take up an Endowed Chair and become an Associate Dean at my Alma Mater, the University of Illinois.  I began losing contact with him.  He, alas, died about 1 1/2 years ago.

It’s rumored that you were seen slam dancing at several Black Flag shows in the ’80s. Is this true? What are you listening to these days?

When I landed in Fall 1978 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to attend my first year of law school, I had only heard about but never heard any punk rock.  My first day there I tuned into the University of Illinois radio station, which exclusively played punk rock and new wave.  I was wowed!

In October 1978, I saw the Ramones perform live at the older auditorium on the quad on campus, and was blown away.  I also discovered a great campus-town bar that fall, Mabels, which over the years I frequented (Fall 1978 through Spring 1986) that brought in many L.A. hardcore bands.  (Aiding and abetting this invasion of L.A. punk into Chambana was a law school classmate whose father was a record producer in Los Angeles and who had the connections.)

Slam-dancing didn’t hit full throttle until around 1980 or so (before then we pogo-ed).  I not only attended two Black Flag performances at Mabels (slam-dancing, of course), but partied with them afterwards.  I remember that the second time I saw and partied with them was when My War came out.  Among other notable punk groups I saw at Mabels were the Circle Jerks and Fear, along with more new-wavey sounding punkers like the Motels.  I can’t remember all of them.  I caught the Dead Kennedys at a dive on the north side of Chicago when In God We Trust Inc. came out:  that was the most hard-hitting slam-dancing I ever experienced.  I still consider myself a punker, albeit a geezer punker.

Nowadays, I mostly watch and listen to ballet and opera DVDs.  I have loads of classical music CDs and mp3s of which I am an aficionado (including 20th Century composers that many people find unlistenable and who never get played on WHIL).

My favorite genres in rock, of which I have giant collections, are, in historical order:

1. ’50s Rockabilly
2. ’50s Rhythm and Blues
3. British Invasion [the first 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record I ever bought was The Best of the Herman’s Hermits]
4. late-’60s-early-’70s psychedelic (a.k.a. Acid Rock) [note: the second 33 1/3 rpm vinyl album I ever bought, in 1967, was Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience:  it changed my life forever]
5. Metal [the third 33 1/3 rpm vinyl album I ever bought, in 1968, was Black Sabbath’s first album, and I continue to love all sorts of metal so long as it is high speed with lots of flashy fast guitar licks]
6. Punk Rock!!!
7. New Wave
8. Grunge Rock

The last group who I truly loved for their music and message was Rage Against the Machine.