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Review of "The Soul Knows No Bars"

By Drew Leder
Rowman & Littlefield, 2000
Review by Talia Welsh on Nov 5th 2001
The Soul Knows No Bars

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 philosophy.

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.