I sit across from philosophy professor Jude Jones in Fortnum and Mason, known for its Victorian façade behind which are cases of sweets, shelves of honey and boxes of tea. Jones is wearing a grey t-shirt, on which are the animals representing the four Hogwarts houses in the Harry Potter series—a lion, a snake, an eagle and a badger. She is teaching a month-long “Harry Potter and Philosophy” class this summer at the Fordham London Centre to a small class of six students. Before meeting with me, she took a trip with her class to St Bride’s Church, where they discussed, among other things, religion as a type of modern magic. We both order tea and begin to talk.
As a young student, Jones entered Fordham University as an intended Communications major, but soon fell in love with philosophy and decided to combine her love of reading and philosophical inquiries into a Philosophy-Literature double major. “I had always been interested in reading what I would call ‘idea-based’ things,” Jones said. “When I read literature, I was always interested in the questions it was raising.” After reading her brother’s philosophy textbook for fun, she took an interest in Plato, Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey. During the philosophy class she took her freshman year as part of Fordham’s core curriculum, she became close with her professor Elizabeth Kraus, who would become her mentor throughout the remainder of her time in college.
After graduating from Fordham, Jones moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she completed her graduate education at Emory University. “This woman [Kraus] at Fordham told me when I was starting my dissertation, ‘I’m going to retire and I want you to replace me, so you have to apply for this job,’ but I had barely begun my dissertation. It was kind of like a race to the finish line, so I applied to the job and I ended up getting the job. I was ‘ABD’ – all but dissertation. That’s how I ended up here — I ended up replacing the person who kind of mentored and taught me.” A career in academia seemed to be the natural path that Jones was meant to follow. “I had an interest in writing, research and whatnot,” she said, “but I think because I had such good teachers at Fordham, I thought ‘Well this is what I want to do. These are the people who mean the most to me. I would like to do that for other people.’”
Surprisingly, for someone who teaches a continuously “at-capacity” Harry Potter course during the academic year, Professor Jones entered the enchanting world of Harry Potter quite late. “I was fortunate in that by the time I became interested in it, all but one of the books was out, so I only had to wait for one!” One of her friends had recommended for years that she read the series, certain that she would enjoy it, but it wasn’t until Jones’ mother became very ill that she accepted her friend’s suggestion. “At that point, my friend really doubled down. She said ‘You absolutely have to read these things because it’s all about parental mortality.’ So I did. The year my mother was dying, I started reading them and then after she died, the questions that the series raises about mortality—like whether or not there’s life after death or what it means to lose parents—became what [philosopher] William James would call a live question. He distinguishes between dead questions and live questions, and live questions are things that have some kind of momentousness for him.”
As Jones was reading the series, her father was diagnosed with cancer, which further pulled her into the world of Harry Potter and the philosophical questions it both provokes and answers. “Dealing with their pending deaths started me down the path. Then, I quickly came to see the books as ends in themselves beyond those issues. The narrative quickly grabbed me, some of the aesthetics of it, the fact that it seemed to be a kind of ancient way of life in the modern world, and then all the other aspects of the story.”
Though Jones came to Potter for emotional reasons, her reasons for staying—and teaching—were intellectual. “Once I got interested in the series, it became clear that there were a lot of really big themes in the series that I was already interested in that were live philosophical questions for me already—like the notion of love, as well as the notion of power alongside that, and the nature of the self. The mortality question quickly opened up into all these other questions. But really, in a sense, they overlap—love and grief. Grief has always been something that has fascinated me as a human experience.”
In the syllabus for Jones’ summer course, she compares what readers are presented with in the Potter series as another way of expressing the human need to “embrace agency,” the belief that we can make choices for ourselves, as we discover our identities and define our purpose and place within the world. She said, “The way we explain humanity is becoming more and more material. There’s really no room for this notion of being an agent. More and more it’s being questioned, even in the legal system. Alongside that, you have a complexity in the political and economic spheres where we wonder really what impact we can have. This question for me about whether or not we see ourselves as agents is going to be a really definitive question in the years to come for your generation because, the way I see it, you’re an agent if you believe you’re an agent, and if you stop believing you’re an agent, you will stop being an agent. There’s a lot at stake for what we take ourselves to be.”
Professor Jones and her class have traveled to many exciting locations during the duration of their course including King’s Cross Station (Platform 9 ¾), the British Museum, the London Science Museum, the Harry Potter Studio Tour, the house of Mina Lima, Durham Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Oxford University, St, Bride’s Church and more. Many of these locations are directly connected to the filming process of the Harry Potter movies, and all of them can, in some way, be tied to history that reflects the rich British culture present within the series. It is at Durham Cathedral that Harry first finds out that Malfoy is the new Slytherin seeker (a position in the wizarding game of Quidditch), and Malfoy insults Hermione by calling her a “mudblood.” Fans of Harry Potter can recognize the grounds of Alnwick Castle as the location of the the first year flying lessons. “We were going to these locations, but the method to the madness is that these are really significant places in British history that are associated with very important events and traditions. Magic in human history is the interface of science and religion. Both have been ways in which humans have tried to find their footing and explain the world to themselves. All the various forms of what has gone by the name of magic in human history, many of which become subjects at Hogwarts, are actual things in British history. We have been using these locations as doorways to encounter those things.”
Professor Jones and I also spoke at length about how Harry Potter has been an integral part of many of her students’ lives. The series, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has naturally been a large part of many of her students’ childhoods, as most of them are barely older than the books themselves. “When we go to these places, there’s instant recognition,” she said. “We’re at Alnwick Castle and we can figure out where to go because everyone remembers what the movie looks like. That kind of recognition is how symbols work. We’re talking about the whole history of human encounters with religious symbols, historical symbols, etc. England is saturated with symbols. You have these elements that are part of Hogwarts, but they’re actual historical symbols as well. Symbols, or even words, function as these recognition interceptions where people can see something and know something more than what they’re seeing.”
In Jones’ class, students undergo a sorting ceremony, where a special kind of “magic” (crystal beads pulled from a small velvet bag) divide them into three houses (Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin) based on the houses that Ron, Hermione and Harry might have been placed into had they not ended up in Gryffindor, the house Professor Jones represents. Within their respective houses, students have the chance to earn house points. At the end of the course, the house with the most points wins the infamous “House Cup,” which in Jones’ course translates to bragging rights. “Right now Hufflepuff is trouncing the other houses,” she said with a laugh, “but Slytherin made a big surge today, so we’ll see what the numbers are.”
Featured image by Afshin Feiz