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Friday, May 7, 2010


Charles Parsons has written his fascinating recollection of how he came to be hired at Columbia, and hass graciously agreed to let me post it. Here it is. Next installment of my Memoir tomorrow.

How I went to Columbia
Charles Parsons

Bob's account in the third installment of volume 2, chapter 2, of his offer of a tenured associate professorship at Columbia was one I was waiting for, since as he said I received a very similar offer not long before. I was not disappointed; his story was fascinating to read and had a lot of overlap with things I remembered. But there's one thing he got importantly wrong: the background and context of their offer to me. That seemed important enough for a public comment, and Bob kindly gave me the opportunity to tell a little bit of my own story.

The main point is that the Columbia department was interested in me because for several years they had been looking for someone in logic. So that's what they wanted me to "cover." I knew that they had had quite serious conversations with Burton Dreben in 1960, when his tenure at Harvard was pending. In December 1962 I had an exchange of letters with Justus Buchler's predecessor as Chairman, Robert Cumming. He began by saying that they had "for a long time been looking for a logician ... sensitive to philosophical issues." It seems I had already been invited to read a paper there, which I did the following March. His letter was not an offer but an invitation to talk about one.

Before finishing my Ph. D. at Harvard I accepted a position at Cornell and was there in 1961-62 but allowed myself to be lured back to an assistant professorship at Harvard, so that when Cumming wrote I was in my first year. I was reluctant to move again so soon and said so. I was not encouraging about the next two years, since I expected to have leave in 1964-65 and thought that Harvard would not decide about my future until the year after that. (I did, however, describe that as "more than usually uncertain.")

Although I agreed to meet with Cumming at the Eastern APA, he and his colleagues evidently took my reply as discouraging them. (I don't recall whether the meeting took place.) Sometime during 1963 they made an offer to Paul Benacerraf, who declined.

That was the background of the conversation at Arnold Koslow's wedding, which I believe was about the end of January 1964. (So it's a slip on Bob's part to say that I came down from Cornell.) I can't verify the details of the conversation, but I think the message they got was that I didn't consider that they had yet made me an offer.

I might add that Arnold and I had become friends during the year that we both spent at King's College, Cambridge, between college and graduate school. As a result I had visited Columbia a few times and got to know Sidney Morgenbesser and had met some others there, in particular Arthur Danto. But in fact my first encounter with Sidney was very similar to what Bob reports about himself. In the fall of 1948 my sister, the late Anne Parsons, was a freshman at Swarthmore College, and I went to visit her. She was taking introductory philosophy with Monroe Beardsley but said that the most interesting teacher was a Mr. Morgenbesser. I'm pretty sure I met Sidney, and I visited a class, but I don't recall if it was his or Beardsley's.

To return to the story, the department must have acted quickly, and Justus Buchler invited me to come down to talk about a job. He didn't say on the phone that they were offering tenure, but when I told Burton Dreben about the call, he remarked, "This could be a serious thing for you." I went to New York and met Justus, and early on he said thy were offering an associate professorship with tenure. I recall nothing else of the conversation, but we must have discussed the obvious things, in particular what I might teach besides logic, and I probably asked if I would have a chance to teach Kant. But I'm sure there was no suggestion that I would be their "Kant man." If they thought of anyone that way, it was probably Paul Kristeller. (In my first year I did teach an undergraduate Kant course, along with two logic courses and Philosophy of Logic.)

I surely talked with others in the department; the memorable encounter was with Richard Taylor, who had just arrived and, I came to think, was an outsider to the philosophical culture of Columbia, but who was then delighted with the place and with the chance to live and keep his bees almost across the street from the department. His enchantment seems to have been brief: he was gone when I arrived on the scene in 1965.

I'm puzzled about what was discussed with Buchler about terms (beyond rank and tenure); it seems, rather curiously, that there was nothing in writing until I sent a conditional acceptance on February 23. They agreed to what was most important to me, postponing my beginning until 1965, so that I could take my Harvard leave.

That seems remarkably quick, even though such things went somewhat faster and were more informal in those days. Was there a Harvard response? Yes, and since Bob has told you something about inner workings of the department in those days, I thought you might find that story of interest. It's curious enough.

When Harvard offered me a job in 1962, I was told that the "Graustein formula" would give the department a tenured opening in 1966, for which I would be a candidate. Graustein was a mathematician who, I think toward the end of the 1930s, designed a formula to allocate tenured slots to various departments. Appointments would not be tied to retirements or other departures, and they should be made at regular intervals. One motive was probably to avoid a skewed age distribution. But it meant that there was no such thing as a "tenure-track" junior appointment. I'm puzzled about how the formula worked, because in 1960-63 the department made four tenured appointments, promoting Albritton and Dreben and adding Rawls and Cavell.

When I got the offer from Columbia, the department did consider whether to propose me for this slot in advance. (I don't know whether they might have tried to have the appointment moved up, or they would just settle in advance who would occupy it.) That didn't make sense to me, particularly since they were already well staffed in logic. Indeed they voted against it, but there were three votes in favor. Soon afterward Rogers Albritton, who had become Chairman that year, explained this to me and said that if I should go to Columbia, I would still be a candidate for this opening. The same was said to Dagfinn Føllesdal, who had become assistant professor that year after two years as instructor but who had a chance to go back to Norway. Albritton and Dreben advised me to accept Columbia, I believe after I had some discussion with Burt about what alternatives might turn up.

I didn't think it likely that I would get the Graustein opening. That I would not was settled before I even left Harvard. One day in April I happened to notice in the department office a c.v. of Hilary Putnam, who was then at MIT. I suspected that something was up, and not long afterward Burt told me that Hilary had approached them asking if there was a possibility, and the department had moved. I thought it would have been crazy to pass up the chance of appointing Hilary because of a vague promise to Dagfinn and me, but I was a little miffed that no one had told me until it was a done deal. But it was a good thing that the possibility of an early return to Harvard was off the table before I even started at Columbia.

I'll comment on Bob's interesting remarks about the "closed loop" of leading graduate departments. I agree that he was wrong to leave out Cornell, which had been a substantial department since the 1890s. I would add that some departments, particularly Harvard and Columbia, which had probably been the top ones before the second world war, were remarkably ingrown. Of the eight senior members at Harvard in 1964, five were Harvard-trained. The exceptions were Rawls and Albritton (Princeton) and White (Columbia). I think Columbia had ten, six Columbia-trained. The exceptions were Kristeller (Heidelberg), Cumming (Chicago), Morgenbesser (Penn), and Taylor (Brown), and as noted above Taylor was only there for two years. The junior faculty at both places was almost entirely their own Ph. D.s. Bob might recall to what extent Chicago was ingrown at the same time.

Dreben was right that Justus Buchler's call might be a serious thing. I was at Columbia for 24 years.

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