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Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The Harvard Department was struggling with a problem that seemed to grow worse with each passing year. Their very best students were simply not finishing the degree. Some of them, like Marshall Cohen and Bert Dreben, took the appointment to the Society of Fellows as an excuse for not actually writing a doctoral dissertation, much as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and McGeorge Bundy had done in earlier years. But this didn't always work out for others as it had for them. Stanley Cavell had gone off after his Junior Fellowship to teach at the University of California, and out there, state law required the Ph. D. for anyone promoted to a tenured position. Thompson Clark was in the same boat, and there were a number of other top students who just seemed unable to finish up. This, I realized, was what had prompted Firth's little chalk talk about rising abilities and soaring expectations. The problem was becoming an embarrassment to Quine and White, who were the dissertation directors of these non-performers, and a source of growing irritation to Williams, Aiken, and others whose best students were passed over for the coveted Junior Fellowships as well as for junior positions in the department, despite getting their degrees. Steve Barker was one case in point. He had done his work with Williams, who was not amused to see Steve passed over when Cavell and Cohen and Dreben were given the juiciest plums Harvard had to offer.

The whole matter came to a head in my second year as an Instructor - 1959-60. At long last, Tom Clark sent in a dissertation. Tom was considered by some to be one of the best students the department had ever enrolled, and the dissertation had been awaited eagerly for years. Morty White had directed it, but he was away at the Princeton Institute, so Quine and Williams were constituted as the committee. The dissertation was on perception. This is a standard topic in the empiricist theory of knowledge, but in a rather odd fashion, Tom had drawn into the text little circles colored orange with crayon as examples of the surface of an orange. Philosophy dissertations were not known by and large for full-color illustrations.

At the next meeting, Quine and Williams gave their opinions. Williams thought it had some good points, but also some problems. Quine said it was flatly unacceptable and should be rejected. We were all stunned. Everyone had simply assumed that a dissertation by Tom Clark would be an occasion for celebration. Williams remonstrated, but Quine stood firm. What to do?

It was finally decided that the entire department would read the dissertation, and sit as a committee of the whole. There were only two people let off the hook. I was excused because I was only an Instructor, and not senior enough to bear so heavy a burden. Jack Rawls was also out, because he was only visiting from M. I. T., and would not actually join the department as a professor until two years later.

By the time we met next to decide the matter, White had weighed in with a letter strongly supporting the dissertation, but he wasn't there to take part in the discussion, a fact that had the effect of side-lining him. Quine and Williams had not changed their minds, but everyone else had an opinion and wanted to express it. Clark's principal defender, in White's absence, was his good friend Marshall Cohen, now an Assistant Professor of General Education and Philosophy. As the debate proceeded, things started to look bad for Clark. Quine was very persuasive, and since he was in the position of defending the most rigorous possible standards, he had the high ground.

Finally, in a moment of inspiration born of desperation, Cohen won over the waverers by arguing that Tom's dissertation ought to be accepted out of fairness because it was not as bad as the worst dissertation the department had ever approved. This was certainly true, and enough votes were swung to give Clark the doctorate.

Stanley Cavell also finally finished up with an impressive Wittgensteinian thesis called "Must We Mean What We Say," later published by Cambridge University Press. Stanley had been a Junior Fellow also, having come to Harvard via Juilliard and UCLA, if I remember correctly. He was very much a presence during the years I knew him in Cambridge, a burly, balding man with blond hair whose aura seemed to fill a good deal more space than his mere body. All of us looked forward with a slightly malicious anticipation to the moment when he and Rogers Albritton would first meet. They were equally brilliant, equally tortured and complicated, equally incapable of adopting or stating a philosophical position straight out, without doubling back on it, viewing it from an ironic distance, undercutting it, and then reaffirming it. But it was as though Rogers was Stanley turned inside out. The more Stanley expanded to fill all the available ego space, the more Rogers shrank into himself. It was a little as though Walt Whitman were to encounter Emily Dickinson.

The actual meeting was a bit of a letdown. I think they instantaneously recognized that neither would get a superior handhold on the other, and much in the manner of two chess grandmasters who find themselves in an opening that offers little opportunity for a win, they settled quickly for a draw.

Stanley and I got along, I guess, but I didn't like him. I was very young, very enthusiastic, desperately earnest. Stanley was, or at least affected to be, world-weary, ironical, and disillusioned. Once during my first graduate year, I stayed up all Saturday night thinking about the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, which had first been articulated in that fashion by Kant and had recently been called into question by Quine. By dawn, I thought I had achieved a breakthrough, and ran down to Adams House, where Stanley was having a languid Sunday breakfast with John Hollander. I burst into the dining hall, rushed up to their table, and with barely a "hello" started laying out my ideas. Stanley put up his hand, and drawled, "Please. Not before breakfast."

My sole duties in the Department were to handle the surge of tutorials mandated by Harvard's redefinition of its undergraduates. I taught Sophomore group tutorial and Junior group tutorial, and directed senior honors theses. Alhough some of the students were very, very bright, and I have actually stayed in touch with a few up to the present day, I did not find the tutorial mode of teaching to my liking. Even then, I was something of a performer, and preferred standing in front of a full classroom.

It is worth mentioning, for the sake of the historical record, that in the academic year 1959-60, I had a slender, retiring young man in my Junior tutorial class who has gone on to achieve some prominence. David Souter was very smart, and my notes indicate that he did a quite commendable paper on C. I. Lewis' Mind and the World Order. The next year, I wrote a letter for David in support of his candidacy for a Rhodes Scholarship, which I believe he won. America was for a long time dependent on him to stand in the way of the egregious excesses of the Bush Administration and its appalling Attorney-General. I like to imagine that I had some small part in preparing him for that challenge.

Many years later, when Souter was elevated to the high court, he gave a speech in which he said, rather unexpectedly, that he would rather be lecturing on Proust. I was at that time the Director of a small humanities institute at the University of Massachusetts, so I wrote to him as his old tutor and invited him to give a lecture for us. I told him I hadn't any idea what the going honorarium was for a Supreme Court Justice, but I thought we could certainly send a cord of firewood to his Vermont home. He declined, and said mildly that a cobbler should stick to his last. Somehow, the forty years didn't seem to have changed him.


Graeme Wood said...

"Sutor" = "cobbler"


Steven said...

Enjoying these memoirs very much!

A small correction (for when you publish): Cavell's dissertation was titled "The Claim to Rationality" and led to his book _The Claim of Reason_.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Alas, graeme, it was an unintended cleverness!

Steven, I am a bit appalled that I got that wrong. Thank you for correcting it.

As for publishing, I don't think anyone will ever have any interest in publishing these memoirs. I am neither famous nor infamous.

Graeme Wood said...


So the "cobbler" line (from Pliny, citing Apelles, c. 325 BC: "ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret") is not Souter's but yours, unintentionally? A pleasant coincidence nonetheless.

Many thanks for these memoirs.


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menoeceus said...

I believe Tom's name was "Clarke" not "Clark."