Bernard Rhie

Bernie Rhie

Associate Professor of English

Stetson Hall Rm 608
At Williams since 2005

Many of the deepest questions that have driven and shaped my adult life have to do with the nature of the human mind. What, at bottom, do concepts like “mind,” “consciousness,” and “self” refer to? Is there such a thing as an “authentic” self? Is the self something continuous and real, or is it rather a construct, a fiction, or even an illusion? What is the relationship between the self and language? Or, taking that thought one step further, between the self and the stories (the narratives) we tell about it? How then does all this connect to everyday human experiences like love, empathy, understanding, misunderstanding, suffering, and pain?

When I was 18 years old, my deep interest in the nature of the mind (motivated, in particular, by the suffering that afflicted my own individual mind) led me to move to a Zen Buddhist temple nestled in the rolling hills of Sonoma County, California, where I spent the next three years of my life pursuing intensive Zen training while working in the temple’s kitchen as the tenzo, or head cook. I spent hours every day sitting zazen (painstakingly cultivating an awareness of how the mind works), and much of the rest of my days experimenting with recipes in the Moosewood Cookbook (when I moved to the temple, I didn’t even know how to make decent scrambled eggs; by the time I left, I was whipping up tasty stir fries and baking all kinds of yummy homemade breads). I loved temple life, and I even considered ordaining as a Zen priest, but for a variety of reasons (for one thing, I was still quite young and curious about the ways of the world), I decided to return to school instead. After leaving the temple to enroll at nearby Santa Rosa Junior College, I brought along with me my abiding interest in the mystery of the mind. I suppose I could have pursued this interest by majoring in a field like psychology or neuroscience, but I was drawn instead to literary studies. What better way to understand the complexities of the mind, I felt, than to study some of the most complex things that human minds can make: works of literature. And so, over the next decade or so, I lost myself in the study of English literature and literary theory, first at Santa Rosa Junior College and then U.C. Berkeley, and finally as a graduate student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania (where I wrote a dissertation on the philosophical and aesthetic significance of the human face). At every stage of my academic training, I continued to be obsessed with questions about mind and consciousness that (in retrospect) I can readily trace back to the many hours I spent on the meditation cushion, facing a wall, looking within. This initially led me to a deep dive into literary theory and continental philosophy (first, poststructuralism, and then phenomenology, with a special focus on the writings of the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas). Eventually, I found my way to the writings of the philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein (especially the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations) and one of Wittgenstein’s most important interpreters, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell. With Wittgenstein and Cavell, I felt that I’d found my philosophical home, and the implications of their writings for literary studies has constituted the focus of my research and writing to date. I’ve published essays about both figures, organized a major conference at Harvard on Cavell’s relevance to literary studies, and co-edited a book of essays entitled Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism.

This immersion in (Western) philosophy has been rewarding, but in recent years, I have felt myself drawn back to my Zen roots. I’ve started teaching a new course called “Zen and the Art of American Literature,” which explores the influence of Buddhism on American literature and culture, and I’ve also begun organizing sitting groups around campus and offering meditation instruction from time to time. I’m not sure where this turn back to Zen will eventually lead me: perhaps to the creation of more courses like my new one on Zen and American literature; surely to offering more meditation-related events around campus; perhaps to new career directions (chaplaincy? other forms of teaching? who knows?). For now, I’m delighted to continue to have the privilege of teaching in the English Department at Williams College, doing my little part to educate, inspire, and awaken the minds of the students I’m lucky enough to teach.


B.A. University of California, Berkeley (1997)
M.A. University of Pennsylvania, English (2001)
Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, English (2005)

Areas of Expertise

  • Stanley Cavell, Wittgenstein, Phenomenology, Literary Theory

Additional Areas of Interest

  • Contemplative Education, Buddhism in the West, Influence of Buddhism on American Literature and Culture, Asian American Literature

Scholarship/Creative Work

Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism (New York: Continuum 2011). A collection of commissioned essays that explore the relevance of Cavell’s writings for literary theorists and critics. Co-edited with Richard Eldridge (Philosophy, Swarthmore College). This volume is connected to a conference I organized with Richard Eldridge, which took place at Harvard’s Humanities Center in October 2010. More information about that conference can be found here:

Selected essays:

  • “Encountering Cavell in the College Classroom: Four Undergraduate Experiences,” co-authored with four students who took ENGL 440, “Wittgenstein and Literary Studies” (Spring 2018): Isabel Adrande (‘18), Stephanie Brown (‘20), Louisa Kania (‘20), and Nelly Lin-Schweitzer (‘21). For a special issue of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies. (Forthcoming)
  • The Philosophy of the Face,” in Garry Hagberg, ed., Wittgenstein on Aesthetic Understanding (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017): 305-327.
  • Wittgenstein on the Face of a Work of Art,” nonsite issue #3 (October 2011), a special issue based on the conference “No Quarrel: Literature and Philosophy Today” (Boston University, April 1-2, 2011).
  • Cavell, Literary Studies, and the Human Subject,” co-authored with Richard Eldridge, in Eldridge and Rhie, eds., Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism (New York: Continuum, 2011).

Digital Projects

  • Founder of OLP & Literary Studies Online, an academic blog for scholars who work at the crossroads of ordinary language philosophy and literary studies. URL: (blog active from 2009-2017)

Awards, Fellowships & Grants

  • Diane Hunter Prize for Best Dissertation, English, University of Pennsylvania, 2006 (Dissertation title: The Philosophy of the Face and 20th Century Literature and Art; Susan Stewart, dissertation advisor)
  • Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, University of Pennsylvania, 2000
  • Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education, 1997-2001
  • Benjamin Franklin Fellowship, University of Pennsylvania, 1997-2002
  • Honors Thesis Prize, English, University of California at Berkeley, May 1997 (Thesis title: “Coleridge’s Middle Passage: Associationism, Abolitionism, and Anthropology”; Stephen Best, thesis advisor)

Current Committees

  • Faculty Review Panel

Selected Service at Williams

  • Interview and Selection Committee, Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (Spring 2007, Spring 2008, Spring 2019)
  • “Breakfast Club,” Breakfast Meetings with Faculty Job Candidates, organized by the Office for Institutional Diversity and Equity, 2017-18, 2018-19
  • Organized a faculty/staff discussion of the book Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning (eds. Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush), July 11, 2018
  • Curricular Planning Committee Working Group on Asian American Studies (2018-2019)
  • Williams College Faculty Representative, C3/LADO (Liberal Arts Diversity Consortium) Visit, U.C. Berkeley, April 16-17, 2018
  • Director, English Department Honors Program (2018-2019)
  • Mindfulness Instructor, for Wellness at Williams (Spring 2018)
  • First3 Program Co-Director (2018-2019)
  • Faculty, Williams College Summer Humanities and Social Sciences Program (Summer 2018)
  • Co-organizer (with Seth Wax), Winter Study One-Day Meditation Retreats (January 2018, January 2019)
  • Co-organizer (with Jason Josephson Storm), Williams College Meditation Group (2017-)
  • Graduate Studies Advisor, English Department (2017-2018)
  • Director of the Williams College Tutorial Program (2013-2015)
  • Faculty Liaison, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) and Williams College Undergraduate Research Fellowship (WCURF) Programs (Spring 2012-Summer 2014)
  • Elected untenured Division I representative, Faculty Steering Committee (2010-2012, 2007-2008)
  • Co-organizer (with Holly Edwards, Art History), Williams College Visual Studies Initiative (2006-2007): a year-long faculty reading group and lecture series, with talks by Margaret Livingstone (Neurobiology), Mieke Bal (Literature), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Philosophy), and William Kentridge (Art)

Overview of Teaching at Williams

  • Director, English Department Honors Program and Instructor, English Department Honors Colloquium (2018-2019)
  • Independent Study on Borderlands​, Latinx, and Asian-American identities (Manami Diaz Tsuzuki)
  • Independent Study on the Influence of Buddhism on American Literature and Culture (Louisa Kania)
  • Independent Study on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (Sam Swire)
  • Photo of Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being, and the students of “Zen and the Art of American Literature” (Oct. 29, 2018)
  • Self and Subjectivity: Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology (Summer Humanities and Social Sciences Program)
  • What is a Self? Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology
  • Wittgenstein and Literary Studies
  • Teaching High School English in Independent Schools (Winter Study)
  • Introduction to the Novel
  • The Ethics of Fiction
  • The Problem of Modernity and the Modernist Imagination (Tutorial)
  • Literary Theory and Ordinary Language
  • The Human Face in the Modern Imagination
  • Beginning Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Winter Study)
  • Philosophy and Poetry: Ancient Quarrels and Modern Questions
  • Introduction to Asian American Literature
  • J.M. Coetzee
  • Time-Consciousness in Modern Literature and Philosophy

Teaching at Other Institutions

  • Berkshire School (2015-2017): 11th and 12th Grade English, Dystopian Fictions (Senior Elective), Modern Wars and Modern Literature (Senior Elective), Meditation for Beginners (Pro Vita 2016), Yoga and Mindfulness (with Stephanie Turner, Pro Vita 2017)
  • Boston University (2013): Contemporary Literature and Ordinary Language, for the BU Graduate Program in English, co-taught with Robert Chodat
  • Germantown Friends School (2003-2005): 12th Grade English, Introduction to Western Philosophy, Self + Portraiture: Modern Views of the Person (Spring Elective)
  • University of Pennsylvania (1998-2000): American Modernism in Verse, Poetry and the City: The Prelude through Howl, British Romanticism, American Literature to 1900

Selected Presentations

  • “Zen and the Art of Reading: Buddhism, Critique, and Contemplative Education” (slideshow), keynote address for the bi-annual Graduate Student Conference, Department of Comparative Thought and Literature (formerly the Humanities Center), Johns Hopkins University. Also leading a related seminar for conference participants on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Pedagogy of Buddhism.” February 22-23, 2019. By invitation.
  • “Zen and the Art of Literary Studies: Buddhism, Critique, and Contemplative Education,” a lecture sponsored by the English Department, Boston University, Fall 2019.
  • Respondent, conference related to a forthcoming volume of essays on Wittgenstein and Literary Studies, organized by the volume editors, Robert Chodat (English, Boston University) and John Gibson (Philosophy, University of Louisville). Fall 2019. By invitation.
  • “Zen and the Art of American Literature” (slideshow), Williams College Faculty Lecture Series, March 1, 2018.
  • Storyteller, Williams College StoryTime, November 12, 2017.

    StoryTime (Nov. 12, 2017)
  • “Writing is Thinking 2,” workshop presenter and leader, Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Literature, Duke University, March 1, 2013. By invitation.
  • “On the Philosophy of the Face,” a lecture for the Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, November 11, 2011. By invitation.
  • “Wittgenstein on the Face of a Work of Art,” pre-circulated paper, for “No Quarrels: Literature and Philosophy Today,” a workshop/conference at the Humanities Foundation, Boston University, April 1-2, 2011. By invitation.
  • “Writing is Thinking: Writing as a Way of Life in the Academy,” workshop presenter and leader, Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Literature, Duke University, January 28, 2011. By invitation.
  • “Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of the Face,” a lecture at the Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins University, as part of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ “Futures Seminar,” October 29, 2010. By invitation.
  • On Neuroscience and the Arts,” gallery talk associated with the exhibition, Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain, Williams College Museum of Art, February 25, 2010. 
  • “On the Philosophy of the Face,” workshop presentation at the first “Young Scholars Workshop,” Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Literature, Duke University, February 19-20, 2010. By invitation.
  • “On the Philosophy of the Face,” a lecture sponsored by the Critical Theory Emphasis, U.C. Irvine, November 10, 2009. By invitation.
  • “Philosophy and Literature: Reading across the Disciplines,” workshop participant, Mellon workshop at Wesleyan University, May 9-10, 2007. By invitation.