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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010


As a consequence of Brian Leiter's mention on his blog, my blog has -- I think this is the proper term -- gone viral. 11,000 visits in a day, instead of the customary 150 or so. I am expecially delighted to welcome Todd Gitlin to this site. The world knows Todd as a famous Columbia professor of journalism and sociology and an important voice on the left, but I remember Todd as a bright young man in the course I taught at Harvard on The Philosophy of the Social Sciences in 1961. [In a time when the grade of A was only slightly more common than hen's teeth, Todd, it will surprise no one, scored a run of A's on the papers and quizzes and received one of the few straight A's in the course.]

Todd asks about Rogers Albritton, who was briefly my colleague during my time as a Harvard Instructor. I have already told the wonderful story of Albritton's bizarre job talk at Harvard [see my post for June 28, 2009, for a link to the earlier Chapter Four of my Memoirs], but here are three more stories that will convey something of the quality of his mind and also of his persona. [Now that the world of philosophers has become aware of my blog, courtesy of Leiter, I am taking requests].

In 1956-57, I was the Head Section Man in Philosophy 1 at Harvard, the introductory course that Raphael Demos had been teaching for so long that he still referred to it by its previous designation, Phil A. Demos was an enormously popular professor, with a heavy Greek accent and a fringe of white hair circling his bald head. He had a masterful command of Sever 11, the amphitheater in which the 200 or so students met twice a week for his lectures. Every year he brought a sterady stream of students into the department as majors, many of whom were fated to discover that the philosophy of Quine and White and Aiken and Wang was not exactly the genial encounter with Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes that Demos had led them to expect. That Fall, Demos was on sabbatical, and Albritton, as the new young Assistant Professor, was assigned to fill in for him in the first semester of Philosophy 1, which dealt with the Greeks.

Albritton was a disaster as a lecturer. In that big room, which Demos had commanded effortlessly, he was a small, inward looking forgettable figure seemingly miles away from the last row, where we Section Men sat. Rogers would stare out of the window, mumble, examine his fingertips in true Wittgensteinian fashion, as though the answer to his puzzlement was inscribed on them, and pretty much lose the vast majority of the young men and women who had been assured by their older brothers and sisters that Phil 1 with Demos was a great way to spend Monday and Wednesday mornings from 10:07 to 11:00.

Demos had assigned bits of the Crito, the Apology, and the Phaedo, of course, and his commentary on them was as conventional as could be. Albritton, unexpectedly, chose instead to assign parts of De Anima, which he engaged in a death struggle for class sessions on end. All in all, Rogers was about as bad a Phil 1 lecturer as could be imagined.

There were, however, two redeeming facts about his performance. The first was the fact that he succeeded in teaching me, for the very first time in my brief but intense philosophical career, why one should take Aristotle seriously as a living philosopher. The second requires a bit of explanation. In those days, students were sorted into groups according to their grade performance. To be Group I required scoring 7 A grades out of the 8 courses taken in a year, and B on the eighth. Group II was a slightly less stratospherical performance, and so on down to Groups V and VI. The year after Albritton's disastrous stint filling in for Demos, the number of Sophomores choosing Philosophy as a major was way down, but the number among those who were Groups I and II was dramatically increased.

The second story is just an apercui, a window into Albritton's mind. In 1959 or so, I borrowed a book from Rogers. [My recollection is that it was one of the volumes of the series of collections of original essays put out by the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society, but that may be wrong]. When I opened it to the essay I was interested in, I found that the page was covered with Rogers' pencilled comments. Now, I am an inveterate margin-writer, but this was something totally different. Albritton had crammed little essays into the margins and interstices of the text. It was an extraordinary window into a philosophical mind of an intensity and focus quite unusual even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Harvard Philosophy Department.

The third story actually has an interesting bearing on a question that has agitated the art world on occasion, namely, How can one tell, as between two apparently identical works, which one is the original and which the copy?

During my time as an Instructor, the philosopher David Sachs came to give a talk, and I went to an apartment where a group had gathered for a bit of Oxford style chat. [No scones burnt over a gas jet, I am afraid, but you get the idea.] Those of us who had come to know Albritton were stunned. Sachs looked like Rogers, he talked like Rogers, he twisted his hands into claws as Rogers did, he cocked his head to one side, stared off into the middle distance, paused for so long between the first and second halves of a sentence that we thought he had lost his train of thought -- all as Rogers did. But -- and this is the philosophically significant point -- none of us had the slightest doubt that Rogers was the original and Sachs was the copy.

Well, back to my Memoirs.


James said...

Dear Prof. Wolff--thanks for your memoirs, which I also found b/c of Leiter.
I was a grad student at UCLA after Rogers went there. I took several seminars from him, and was a section man for PHIL 1-Beginnings of Western Philosophy twice. This was about 1978. By then he had written out all his lectures in pencil on yellow legal paper. This allowed him to actually progress through the material at a reasonable pace and reliably introduce his genuinely scintillating insights. He had deleted the de Anima by then. His lectures on the Symposium, Aristotle's Ethics, and the New Testament constituted a sort of trilogy on Love, and was some of the best stuff I ever heard in an introductory course. Of course he occasionally got sidetracked by digressions, but for the most part these were brilliant performances. During that period David Sachs would teach summer school classes at UCLA occasionally, and I got to know him then as well. I agree, but he was an interesting man in his own right.
On another point, I was an undergrad at William and Mary. In 1974 I took the Kant course from Frank McDonald, who had taken it from Lewis at Harvard--probably in the 1930's. We had to do all the weekly summaries too.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is astonishing, isn't it, James, how widely the method of kant summaries radiated. I consider that a genuine tribute to C. I. Lewis.