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Sunday, April 18, 2010


Having spent the first sixteen years of my life in New York, and the next eleven pretty much in Cambridge, Mass, I was now a resident of yet another great American city -- the Second City, as Chicago has long been called. But cocooned in Hyde Park, I was isolated from the larger urban scene. My principal focus was on getting to know my real new home, The University of Chicago.

First stop, of course, was the Philosophy Department. Strictly speaking, it is a mistake to speak of "the" Philosophy Department. There were no fewer than five administratively independent tenure granting bodies that had some claim to the title "Philosophy Department." There was the Graduate Philosophy Department, to which part of my time as an Assistant Professor was committed. There was the Undergraduate Philosophy Department, a quite separate entity that granted tenure to people who had no seat in the graduate department. In addition, there was The Committee on Social Thought, The Committee on Organization, Method, and Principles, and yet another Committee, on Ideas and Methods. The Committee on Social Thought has become quite notorious in American politics as the home of Leo Strauss and as the incubator of what later came to be called Neo-Conservatism. It has the distinction of having wreaked more havoc on the world than any other collection of supposed philosophers since the Inquisition.

The Committee on Organization, Methods, and Principles, or OMP, as locals referred to it, was a creation of Richard McKeon, who designed it along Aristotelian lines as a consummatory synthesis of the General Education courses that constituted the corps of the Hutchins college. People had tenure in OMP. Finally, The Committee on Ideas and Methods, or IM, was rumored to have been created by McKeon to give tenure to Herbert Lamm, who had somehow failed to get tenure in OMP. By the time I arrived in Chicago, OMP and IM were nothing more than little gatherings of bedraggled survivors from the great Hutchins era, rather like Grima Wormtongue and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings after they had been stripped of their powers and reduced to wandering mountebanks.

The Philosophy Department, which is to say the Graduate Philosophy Department, was at that time going through a period of transition rather like what I had witnessed at Harvard ten years earlier. In addition to a few old-timers, most notably Richard McKeon [who was actually only 61 when I got there, but seemed a figure from an earlier age], the department consisted of a group of men in middle life -- Warner Wick, Donald Meiklejohn, Alan Gewirth, and Manley Thompson [who was Chair], and no fewer than six young Assistant Professors, several whom, like me, had just arrived. I knew three of the new hires from Harvard -- Dudley Shapere, Marshall Cohen, and Sylvain Bromberger. Vere Chappell was also there when I arrived, along with Robert Coburn. The junior ranks were rounded out by Roy Lawrence, an Instructor.

Almost immediately, I made a discovery that was quite startling to me, and taught me how insular my years at Harvard had been. Harvard, as I have explained, was an intensely inward-looking place, obsessively concerned with itself and blithely unaware of the rest of the intellectual world. When I got to Chicago, I assumed quite naturally that everyone would welcome me as a traveler from the center of the intellectual universe, and would be eager for every scrap of gossip about the Harvard Philosophy Department. Not a bit of it. They seemed not even to have heard of Rogers Albritton or Burton Dreben, and they were no more than casually aware of Morton White, Rod Firth, or Henry Aiken. Their greatest concern was what Dick McKeon said or thought. In the immortal words of George in Hard Day's Night, McKeon loomed large in their legend. Manley Thompson, who was, I assumed, someone important since he was, after all, the Chairman of the Department, spoke of McKeon in a hushed voice. At one point, when I was talking with him about some matter of departmental regulations, he said, as though quoting holy writ, "Well, before the war, McKeon said..." This was now 1962, and it took me a moment to realize that Manley was referring to something that Dick had said before 1941, more than twenty years earlier.

I have already described my difficulty in bringing myself to call my former Harvard professors by their first names, once I had joined that Department as an Instructor. Manley and the others had a similar problem treating McKeon as a colleague. But since I was new to the scene, all of these folks, young and old, were simply new colleagues, and I felt no tingle of divinity when I was in their presence. Actually, the only one of the group whom I knew about before getting to Chicago was Alan Gewirth. As part of my six-month SSRC post-doc, I had read my way through the great and not so great texts of Western Political Theory, including the Defensor Pacis of Marsilius of Padua, an extremely important fourteenth century work that argued for the independence of the Emperor from the Pope and helped to lay the foundations of the modern theory of the secular state. Alan had edited the translation I read, and I was enormously impressed by the fact that he was going to be my colleague.

Nowadays, I am a laid back, soft spoken pussycat of an old man, as my recent students will attest, but in those days, I was something of a fire breather, and it didn't take long for me to tangle with McKeon. McKeon had participated in an Italian conference on aesthetics, and had delivered there a lecture on Kant's Third Critique, the famously difficult and immensely influential Critique of Judgment. When he returned, he agreed to repeat the lecture to the Department. The talk was held in an oddly configured venue -- a seminar room with a raised platform running around the walls, so that the effect was of a mini-amphitheater. Senior members of the Department and important visitors from elsewhere in the University got to sit around the table, while the rest of us were consigned to the peanut gallery. The tone of the meeting could properly be described as celebratory and reverential, rather than exploratory and intellectual. It was pretty obvious that we were there to admire, not to question.

As I listened to McKeon speak, I became more and more dismayed. Even though his subject was Kant' Third Critique, not his First, on which I considered myself an expert, I had worked through the Third Critique very intensely with Charlie, Sam, Steve, and Bert during that wonderful Wednesday evening seminar [See Chapter Four of Volume One]. I could tell that McKeon was talking nonsense. He hadn't a clue what the text really meant. When McKeon finished speaking, the meeting was thrown open for questions. McKeon fielded a few respectful softballs, and then I was called on. In no uncertain terms, I proceeded to explain why everything McKeon had said about Kant's aesthetic theory was dead wrong.

There was a stunned silence. Apparently, it had been several decades since anyone had talked to Richard McKeon like that. He had been Dean of the College, an architect of the Hutchins revolution in education, founding father of the Committee on Organization, Methods, and Principles, and pretty much the closest thing Hyde Park had seen to a living god. McKeon was outraged. He listened to me for a while and then snapped, with more heat than light, "You argue like Virginia Woolf." I snapped right back, "And you argue like Thomas Wolfe." I have not the slightest idea what either of us meant, but the encounter was a cause celebre whose aftereffects resonated in the department.

All six of us junior members of the department felt the same irritation at McKeon's oppressive influence. We wanted to bring the department into the new era of analytic philosophy, and our older colleagues, thoroughly under McKeon's sway, clung to his antiquated notions of an Aristotelian organization of the academic disciplines, with all the dead weight that went with it. Our situation was made even more frustrating by the fact that our students revered McKeon as, in their eyes, the most important figure in American philosophy. We protested that McKeon was a nobody, an old-timer whom no one in the real world of philosophy paid any attention to. They just thought we were rebellious young men, and though they loved us for it, they didn't believe us for a minute. For two years, we labored in our classes and personal conversations to convince them that when you got more than twenty miles away from Hyde Park [something that certain senior professors had in fact never yet done], McKeon was a nonentity. We were beginning to make some headway when disaster struck. The American Philosophical Association conferred upon McKeon its highest honor -- an invitation to deliver something called The Paul Carus Lectures. "There," our students said, "you see?" We gave up, defeated.

As the years passed, and I began to give talks at colleges around the country, I found that my Chicago experience was by no means unique. There are a great number of philosophical enclaves in America in which some local hero figures prominently, even though he [almost always he, by the way] never quite makes it big on the national stage. Each of these philosophers, if I may cannibalize a famous line from Mel Brooks' wonderful remake, To Be Or Not To Be, is world famous in Poland. America is, in this way, very different from France or England, in both of which countries there is, or at least used to be, a sharp academic distinction between the Metropolis and the Provinces. The complex structure of academic philosophy in America was nicely exemplified by the annual meetings. There never actually was a single annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Instead, there were regional meetings of the Eastern, Central, and Pacific Divisions, and though the meeting of the Eastern Division has long been treated as "the" meeting of the APA, the other divisions had their own notables and traditions.


Pranay said...

The insularity you describe is pretty much standard issue wherever I've been. It is better, though, at universities that don't think of themselves as elite - that self-understanding forces people to realise that there is a world outside of the latest gnomic pronouncements of your head of department.

And out of interest: how dyou view your younger fiery self from your current pussycat perspective? Are you glad you were the way you were, or does it now strike you as a waste of energy? The sound of philosophical antlers clashing is pretty familiar to me, and I think it's mostly a distraction from the stuff that makes doing philosophy interesting.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I will be writing about the transition from one way of being to another when I get to my analysis during my Columbia years. I was being a bit tongue in cheek -- I am still pretty ferocious at times. But it was becoming a father that changed me. More of that later on.

Ryan Dischinger said...

Not to be an ass, but I believe you mean Virginia Woolf, not Virginia Wolfe.

Otherwise, this was a fantastic read.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh, God, Ryan, you are of course right. I plead age! :)

M said...

I've greatly enjoyed your memoirs, and there are many lapidary, funny, and brilliant passages that I've been quoting to friends and colleagues. I'm curious, since you wrote a book on Rawls (Princeton University Press, 1977), whether you have any stories to relate about the philosopher.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

M, I have a number of stories about Jack. A few can be found in Volume One, Chapter Six, but there are others that will come when I reach that point in my Memoirs. Stay tuned.

Aaron Preston said...

I, too, am enjoying your memoirs. I wonder if you might say something about the nature of analytic philosophy, and the "new era" it had ushered in, as you perceived it at the time. I see that in another post (Apr. 18, 2010) you describe a conversation (argument?) with Marcuse in which analytic philosophy is associated with clarity. But is there more that you can say about your perception of analytic philosophy at the time? For instance, did you take it to be committed to linguistic analysis, or conceptual analysis, or something else, and did you take particular methods to be central to the kind of clarity aimed at (e.g., the use of symbolic logic, etc.)? Were the social and institutional issues related to the analytic movement of equal significance with the meta-philosophical or methodological issues (e.g., old-guard vs. new-guard, confining custom vs. liberating novelty, etc.). This is of historical interest to me.

hmi said...

A small point, perhaps, but Leo Strauss never held an appointment at the Committee on Social Thought.
See Catherine & Michael Zuckert's, The Truth About Leo Strauss, p. 27.