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Su Dechao—A metaphysics lesson
Author:Li Yingdi & Yi Xinran  Date:2017-12-18  Clicks:

At 6:31pm on November 9th, the power went off, and darkness covered the entire third building in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Interesting enough, there came a burst of laughter from Classroom 312—yet the metaphysics lesson hadn’t even begun. Holding his vacuum cup in hand, Professor Su Dechao took a sip of water, cleared his throat and was about to speak. “We should end it in half an hour if the lights don’t come back on.”

Discussion moved on from the previous lesson——a murder in the desert—in which A poisoned B’s water, and C poked a hole in B’s water bag, with B dying from thirst. Who then was to be responsible for B’s death?

The classroom resounded with laughter and whispers. Immersed in the darkness, students in the back row held up their mobile phones to light up the classroom as the discussion got back on track.

This night was for metaphysics.

Su giving a lecture

Who is Prof. Su?

From his students’ perspectives, Su, in some sense, symbolizes wisdom. He likes wearing his plaid shirt and brown leather jacket. Students will always find humor when he refers to his receding hairline. However, for most people, Su is actually famous as a philosophy professor and one of the well-known “Four Scholars” in Wuhan University.

In 1994, Su was in his third year of high school. At that time, Su accidentally heard the news that an “Experimental Class of Humanities” was going to be set up in Wuhan University. Immediately, he wrote a cover letter to the Admission Office and to his great surprise, he got a two-page handwritten letter as reply. Ultimately, he was successfully admitted to this class, the second term since its establishment.

Tao Meisheng, the founder of the “Experimental Class of Humanities”, said the class was aimed at cultivating students with the spirit of humanity and a strong sense of justice, “It is an age of materialism, but traditional culture and the basic national spirit shouldn’t be overlooked.”

New teaching schemes have been put forward—such as a curriculum model called “2+2+2”. This means in the first two years, students are required to take all classes relevant to literature, history and philosophy. They will be allowed to choose one as their real major for the next two years, at the end of which two-thirds of students could get access to a postgraduate recommendation.

Study occupied most of Su’s time, “With three majors, more than 50 hours of classes per week, we even skipped P.E. classes like we did in high school and buried ourselves in the library, which finally annoyed our P.E. teacher.”

Life without phones or computers could still be full of richness and diversity, “You can imagine how active we were at that time,” Su said, “we held ‘Beer Festival’ in 1995, ‘Single’s Day’, the next year—we started the tradition of these festivals in Wuhan University.” During a debate on “whether China should be westernized completely”, Professor Zhao Lin from the School of Philosophy was invited, accompanied by Hubei Television. During the event, the main hall of the Humanities Hall was so packed that even the contestants were squeezed out.

In spite of this, Su and his classmates almost finished all the courses of literature and philosophy. While the school required 170 credits, no one was with less than 200 credits when they graduated. It was the golden age of Su's life.

Close to philosophy

Few students knew how Su Dechao initially got bonded with philosophy. During the sophomore year, Su went to the library very frequently. With all the books spread over his bed, he could hardly roll over when sleeping at night. It was then he gradually  got attracted to philosophy, “History is of stability, and literature is of sensitivity, while philosophy is of profoundness. In a way, I felt that studying philosophy may be more of a challenge for me.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the representative of analytical philosophy, plays a crucial part in inspiring Su to get started with his academic career. Su Dechao chose Wittgenstein as his research object for his PhD degree. From his perspective, Wittgenstein is a philosopher of complexity. After publishing his doctoral dissertation Philosophy, language and life——linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein, Su wrote, “Firstly I have to acknowledge my mentor, Deng Xiaomang, with the help of whom I got to know how to read philosophical works and the way to philosophize. Professer Zhu Zhifang is another person who always reminded me to concentrate on one area rather than to change my mind all the time. I was once full of pride, but now I realized that nothing could ever compare with the pure pleasure derived from reading and thinking. How precious it is to smile with confidence and dignity in a life full of difficulties and hardships.”

Su became a teacher in Wuhan university in 2005. Having experienced humanistic trend of thought in the 80 and 90’s, he confessed his disappointment but still tried to do something, “Take philosophy course for an example, what I am trying to do is to exhibit the glamour of philosophy and inspire students to reflect for themselves. This is probably where I differ from many other teachers, that I won’t use some external factors to attract students.”

Unresolved issues

All of Su’s students know a Baidu Post Bar named "Want to ask". This post bar is one of the platforms where Su and his students interact. Not only did he organize some useful philosophical websites, but he and his students would argue with each other as well.

Cao Ge, a student majoring in humanities in the class of 2003, once had a fierce dispute with Prof. Su online. She wrote a long passage questioning Su’s authority on his articles. "Dare you say that your article has not even one problem? Maybe you should judge at our level, not on the high ground with authority! I believe that the rational fears no authority!” However, Su replied calmly, "Countless exclamation marks can’t strengthen your words. Why don’t you think about where you haven’t been clear instead of just feeling that I am suppressing you with some sort of superiority?”

There are many arguments like this. Philosophical problems puzzle people all the time. Su was always surrounded by students after his metaphysical lesson. Now Su has shifted to Weibo (the Chinese version of micro blog), but the original principle to push the boundary of philosophy from classroom to practical life is still well preserved.

Eager as students were, sometimes they got anxious since Su hadn’t put up a solution. “Metaphysical issues have never been solved. Certainty can be defeated easily. The core of humanities is to reveal all the possible consequences and let you decide for yourself. Only through careful thinking will you understand the necessity of preference, belief and emotion”, replied Su.

Zhang Lvyuan, whose major was in network communication in 2013, received a perfect score in metaphysics class. She described the lesson as “ambitious”. Su led students to discuss concrete and core philosophical questions instead of conventionally teaching the history of philosophy. Every problem ought to be clearly explained within 36 lessons. Su’s class has become a beam of rational light for many students. Zhang Lvyuan said, “It is Su who makes philosophy accessible. What I have gained from his class is that metaphysics is not for advancing human progress, but for guarding every trivial and hopeless day of our life with the power of rationality.”

For Prof. Su, this class constitutes an indispensable part of his life, “My attempt is to present possible explanations and arguments instead of providing a certain answer. It’s not necessarily about whether the problem is solved. The importance is in how far we have progressed.”



Photo by Ziqiang News, Li Yuxiao

Edited by Li Minjia, Sun Jingyi, Edmund Wai Man Lai & Hu Sijia



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