“Among the great questions of the human heart, none is more central than the question, ‘Who am I?’” Jacob Needleman approaches meaningful material with frankness in the introduction of his most recent book, I Am Not I (North Atlantic Books). A professor of philosophy at SF State for more than 50 years, Needleman tackles life’s existential mysteries through a unique dialogue between his 82-year-old self and his younger counterparts at progressing ages, offering them the illuminating wisdom he has amassed over decades of pursuit.How does rejecting our certainties liberate us? What does inner consciousness truly mean? Needleman acts as guiding counselor to his young self, Jerry, who seeks answers to these questions in the author’s shortest title on profound concepts to date.
I Am Not I is a departure from Needleman’s previous tomes on philosophy due to its feasible-for-teens language and arrangement into play form. A graduate of Harvard University, Yale University and University of Freiburg, he pioneered an in-depth study on diverse, alternative faiths in his landmark text, The New Religions, published in 1970. The Harvard Bulletin called it “a vital study of a phenomenon that has dramatically altered the lives of those it has touched.” He has written 20 books on philosophy, life purpose and God, but I Am Not I is his most personal achievement yet.
“This book I wanted to be for the younger generation,” Needleman says, “so I started writing it to my students but suddenly I started writing to me. I was once young. And I started writing it as a dialogue between me, a grown man of 82, and Jerry, which was my nickname when I was 14.”
Throughout I Am Not I, Jacob eagerly incites Jerry to think less with his intellectual brain and feel more with his metaphysical mind, to reach higher levels of enlightenment. Stage and camera directions scatter the dialogue, providing an atmospheric tone.
While Needleman says some consider philosophy to be “logical, analytic, dry and reductive,” he emphasizes the ever-present need for questioning one’s beliefs and ideologies.
“You can never exhaust the ideas of philosophy,” he says. “Philosophy at its root is about how to live, not just how to think. The world is always changing; truth has to be worked for. You have to make real truth your own. Our deeper truths are never old; they’re always discovered.”
Needleman explains that his courses must attend to the appetite of the soul, “or whatever you want to call it,” he quips. Philosophy, as he proposes, should feed a “sharp, clever, analytical mind as well as a deep metaphysical heart.”
Independent thought is a tenet of his teaching ideology. One of his most memorable moments as a teacher happened when a student said, “You really want us to think for ourselves, don’t you? No one else does.” Needleman recalls the earnestness in her voice as one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard.
By bringing age-old questions into modern conversation, Needleman aims to be a catalyst for the consciousness he believes all human beings yearn to awaken at some point in their lives. For many, the hunger for greater knowledge begins as young as 14 and peaks during college. This insatiable curiosity in young people initially drew Needleman to teach at SF State in 1962. Needleman finds that the longing for deeper contemplation, and the innate struggle between the logical and metaphysical, has not waned in his students since then.
“Whatever I have to give, it’s needed. If I don’t try to transmit what [understanding] I have, what I have will be taken from me,” he says. “When I feel there’s a real need for what I’ve learned, especially within the students, I discover that, somehow, from somewhere, I am given a little bit of something like wisdom.”
But after 50 years of imparting knowledge, what have his students taught him about learning? Needleman surprises even himself with his answer. “The fundamental character trait for teaching is the ability to listen. ‘What’s behind the question?’ ‘Who are they?’ Listening is the vibration in the exchange between us.”
Needleman is technically retired, but still teaches at SF State every other semester as he considers young adults the most vital investment. He plans to teach a class this spring. He is also in early talks to adapt I Am Not I for the screen.
When asked what he looks forward to in the rest of his life, he replies, “More and more of what I have done. More and more attempts to communicate to others what I have been fortunate enough to receive. The more of that, the better.”
Photo: Jacob Needleman in his home office. Photo by Gospel Cruz.