Ever since I was a small child, everyone has told me my name is Eric Gerlach. I don’t know what they’ve been telling you. I’ve always been somewhat in my head myself, focused on thought, how it works, and how it doesn’t. My family raised me to be aware of other people, their motives, minds, and human psychology. My mother is a socially conscious Catholic whose church was involved in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and my father has a deep passion for Buddhism. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a psychoanalyst, gestalt theorist and confusing person, and my uncle is a therapist for traumatized children. My family planted me and my sister in the Haight Ashbury of the 80s, a black neighborhood in the 30s and 40s where white hippies of the 60s still thrived as 80s yuppies gentrified, just over the 17th Street hill from the Castro, and they raised me to be aware of the animal we are, our culture and others who share our wonderful and the terrifying world together. I used to think that my family was crazy, but now I see that we’re all human and quite into it.
In the late 90s, I moved across the Bay to Berkeley for college, and I’ve lived there and loved it ever since. I wanted to study human thought, psychology and the social sciences, and I did, but the first week a friend insisted I join an upper division philosophy class, Philosophy of Mind with John Searle, as I was taking a lower division philosophy class, Social & Political Philosophy with Hans Sluga. It was soon clear to me that Searle and Sluga were quite different, as Searle argued truth is scientific, factual and objective and Sluga argued truth is psychological, historical and subjective. Both argued Wittgenstein’s work is a way forward, and to this day I still study and teach about objectivity and subjectivity, how truth and meaning work and don’t for us and others in all our human ways, much in the mold of late Wittgenstein and Sluga, from a psychological and historical perspective. I am also thankful I was taught by the late Barry Stroud and late Hubert Dreyfus, learned logic with Paolo Mancosu and Buddhist Psychology with Eleanor Rosch as embodied consciousness was a focus for many, the idea that thought, logic and the mind are rooted in the body and everyday experience.
When I graduated in the first years of this millennium with a BA in philosophy I knew I wanted to create and write but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or do, so I tried several jobs, working with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, at gardening and carpentry, and as an assistant third grade teacher for a year, which taught me much, including that children are brilliant but I shouldn’t have dozens of them. I wanted to study the wider history of thought, belief and doubt to understand how truth and meaning work for our species, so I decided to study the history of religion, the vehicle for much of philosophy over time. I took graduate classes and seminars at the Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley and got an MA in History and Culture of Religion in 2006 from the GTU. I am thankful I learned the history of Buddhist, Christian and Islamic thought, possibly the largest religions and cultures of thought in history, as the similarities and differences of Indian, Greek and Chinese philosophy show us much about how we think and live. Like David Kalupahana of the University of Hawaii, I think Wittgenstein can be combined with Buddhism to give us insight into how thought and logic work in daily life.
After I studied Greek Neo-Platonism for two years of seminars with Mark Delp, my thesis advisor, and studied Hegel, Marcuse and modern European intellectual history for a year of seminars with Martin Jay, I wrote my master’s thesis on the similarities between Eriugena, a Christian Neo-Platonist who lived a thousand years ago, and Hegel, the German idealist of the early 1800s who said Eriugena’s work was the first true European philosophy. I argued Eriugena’s understanding of dialectic, of thought passing back and forth from opposite positive and negative points of view, which he gets primarily from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, is similar to Hegel’s own philosophy, as Eriugena combines Augustine’s dogmatism with Dionysius’ skepticism to argue that we participate in the positive and negative modes of the mind of creation. Hegel saw himself as a resolution of Kant’s categorical dogmatism and Hume’s empirical skepticism much as Eriugena tried to join Augustine and Dionysius. These theories and arguments could have killed Eriugena if he wasn’t protected by King Charles the Bald of France. I was hoping to write a thesis about similarities between Platonism and Buddhism, which I continue to study and teach about, but the project was far too large in scope.
For the past ten years, I have been teaching Philosophy and the history of human thought at Berkeley City College.
I teach the history of human thought from a multicultural and global perspective rather than a Eurocentric perspective. While many have traditionally focused on the achievements of ancient Greece and modern Europe, we can learn much more about our own thinking and the thinking of others we agree and disagree with by looking at all cultures of human thought. This includes comparable animal and ape behavior, hunter-gatherer tribes, the city-state empires of Egypt, Sumer and the Americas, the Axial Age of Persia, India, Greece, Rome and China, the Islamic golden age, the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, and our modern diverse world. In particular, I concentrate on the similarities of Egyptian, Indian, Greek, Chinese, Islamic, and Modern German, French and American thought. We are one common race and culture, and we need to study the trunk of the tree as well as the interrelated branches. This is not only good for all of the students in a diverse student body, but particularly effective, as studies have shown, at improving the quality of education for and success rates of students from disadvantaged populations.
I teach from a multidisciplinary perspective. Philosophical, religious, political, and scientific thought are interrelated, each shedding light on the other. That way, students can relate and connect the material in my classes with all of their other classes. In particular, I focus on the connections between philosophy, art, religion, psychology, biology and mathematics. I focus on core concepts of each thinker or school of thought. Rather than focus on complete systems, concepts are tools that are not necessarily perfect for each job or situation. Because Philosophy is a dense and complex subject, and influential texts can be difficult to read and understand, I focus on the central influential ideas, explaining how they work in plain language everyone can understand, illustrating the idea with images and video using photos and diagrams. My goal is to have a short YouTube video about each of the core concepts for every class I teach.
Fourth, I believe in an open discussion & critical debate, such that at any time during lecture students can ask questions, offer examples and counterexamples, and respond to their fellow students. After each core concept, I stop and ask them if they can think of examples that support the idea or counterexamples that call the idea into question, which can include other core concepts we have covered or examples from history, current events, fiction or their own personal lives. At the end of each lecture, if there has been little discussion, I break into small groups to encourage students to dialogue about the material.
Fifth, I provide the students with a website we use in class and they can access from home, such that they are learning verbally, visually, and textually, accommodating students with different learning styles. The website has all of the lecture notes for each class, illustrated with images and videos. I project the notes on the board as I lecture and we discuss so they can see the images and read along with the lecture. This allows students to invert the classroom as much or as little as they individually like, as well as learn via lecture, reading the notes, watching the videos, and participating in discussion in class and on the website. Sixth, Philosophy, which is sometimes called “thinking about thinking”, is exercise for the mind, much as physical training is exercise for the body. We can all develop and strengthen our minds and bodies throughout our lives, and critical thinking about one’s own thinking and the thinking of others strengthens our ability to think for ourselves and dialogue with others. While some are critical of philosophy, saying that it never comes to final answers and always remains in the abstract and speculative, unlike a proper science, philosophy strengthens the mind that we use in all other fields, including the arts and sciences, just as physical exercise strengthens the body that we use both to dance and walk down the street.