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Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Tomorrow begins the new blog on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy. The link is at the end of this post. For some reason, I can no longer insert links. The URL of the new blog is

Little by little, we explored other parts of Manhattan, even venturing as far south as Chinatown. One day, in an epic run, I hit every traffic light right from Canal to 115th and ran the entire island without stopping. My analyst lived only two blocks from the Madison Delicatessen, which had potato latkes to die for, so on occasion we would drive down for a meal. New York of course is the center of America's music world, but Cindy and I had very different tastes in music, so we rarely went to a concert.
Over time, we made connections outside of the Columbia community. One of the most rewarding for me was a friendship with Robert Heilbroner, best known for his incredibly successful book, The Worldly Philosophers. Bob was a genial, round-faced man whose face wore a perpetual smile. He was a democratic socialist and a deeply decent man who managed to combine a commitment to progressive values with a complete absence of ideological fervor. Bob was heir to the Weber and Heilbroner clothing fortune, and he and his wife lived in a fabulous Park Avenue apartment. Cindy and I were invited to a soirée one evening for perhaps thirty people. After a lovely buffet dinner, we were ushered into their large living room, where seats were set up for a concert. Bob had hired a professional concert pianist for the occasion, and we were treated to what can genuinely be called a chamber music concert. It was my one peek at the way the upper crust lived in New York. Barry Moore had given me a view of what might be called Edith Wharton money, old money. Bob was, so to speak, semi-new money, one generation old. I saw what really new money looked like through our rather odd friendship with George and Nedra Robinson. I had known George and Nedra at Harvard during my undergraduate days. George was now making big bucks on Wall Street, and the two of them had set themselves up in one of those vast pre-war Central Park West apartment buildings that John Lennon got shot in front of. Their living room was so huge that Nedra had been forced to furnish it with specially made couches and upholstered chairs that looked as though they had come out of a home on Brobdingnag. I never saw anyone actually sitting in them. George had lingering academic longings, which he indulged by taking up impecunious academics like me. Cindy and I saw Amadeus and Marat/Sade from orchestra seats as their guests.
But far and away the most interesting New York sub-culture of which I was given a glimpse was the Upper West Side intellectual New York Review crowd. Bob Heilbroner knew Bob Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. Silvers, in turn, knew the people who had organized a series of symposia called The Theater for Ideas, which met in a downtown loft used during the day as a dance studio. Attendance was by invitation only, and the guest list was an A-list of New York intellectuals. I was never a regular, but I did get invited to several of the symposia, most notably one devoted to "The Hidden Philosophy of Sigmund Freud." Sidney was actually on the panel, but for once he was eclipsed by others, including Bruno Bettelheim, the famous Chicago psychoanalyst, Holocaust survivor, and controversial therapist to autistic children. I was sitting in the front row, right in front of the stage. Next to me on the right was the composer William Schuman. Next to him was Sidney Hook. Behind me were Normal Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Sander Vanocer, among others. It was that kind of night.
Bettelheim gave a brilliant talk, one which I have referred to many times over the years in my own lectures on Freud. He said that Freud did not have a "hidden philosophy." Instead, Freud's life had been an endless "quest for the unconscious." The first person to pop up at question time was Hook, pugnacious and hostile as usual. "There is nothing new in what Freud did," Hook said. "Shakespeare could do that. Dostoyevsky could do that." And he sat down, satisfied that he had destroyed Bettelheim. "You are absolutely right," Bettelheim replied. "Shakespeare could do what Freud did. And Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did. But Freud taught us how to do it." Hook grumbled that Bettelheim hadn't responded to his point, but I thought it was the most brilliant rejoinder I had ever heard at a lecture. Then Norman Mailer got up, dressed in a tight-fitting vest and holding himself like a bantam weight boxer, and unloaded a fifteen minute diatribe against his current analyst, who was not in attendance. Things went downhill after that.
Cindy made fast work of her doctoral dissertation, and finished it that first year, but she missed Harvard's deadline for a June degree, and had to be content with receiving her degree the following January. Her dissertation director was the same Harry Levin who had misconstrued Bob Tracy's project. When Cindy had a complete draft, she sent it to Levin, and several weeks later took the train up to Boston to see him. I waited anxiously at Grand Central for her return, to hear how things had gone. Levin had laboriously changed most of her "which's" to "that's" and "that's" to "which's," but he had virtually no substantive criticisms at all, so Cindy sailed through. Meanwhile, she went looking for a job. Queens College offered her an Instructorship, since she did not yet have her degree, and she accepted. Starting in the Fall, we would both be teaching full time. Fortunately, I lived so close to my office that I never needed the car, so she could take it to drive out to Queens.
That first summer, I signed up once again to teach summer school. In those days, Columbia ran two five-days-a-week sessions each summer, and I taught two courses in each session. Cindy had grown rather depressed when she finished her dissertation, and I was very concerned about her. My first thought was to get her out of the city for at least a little while. My uncle Anoch and aunt Rosabelle had a summer home in Brewster, New York, about an hour's drive north of Manhattan which they offered to us for a couple of weeks, so we moved up there with our little cairn terrier, Fergus, and I commuted into the city to teach each day. My classes were scheduled so that I had several hours between the first and the second. I had not yet begun writing the essay I owed Art Danto by the end of the summer, the advance for which had long since been spent, so each day, I would walk over to our apartment, sit down at the old standard non-electric typewriter on which I had taken to doing my writing, and start banging away. The essay was supposed to deal with what was happening at the forefronts of the field, but I didn't actually know where the forefronts of the field were, and cared even less. Since I was pretty sure no one I knew would ever read what I was writing, I decided simply to write my own political philosophy. In several weeks, I had completed an essay of 80 pages or so, which I turned in to Arthur. Five years later, that essay saw the light of day as In Defense of Anarchism.
It seemed clear that Cindy needed psychiatric help as much as I did, so I asked Dr. Rodgers for a referral, and very quickly, it was decided that come September, Cindy would begin a full scale analysis. I was going to have to tap dance pretty fast to keep us from going deeply into debt.
When I accepted the Columbia job, I thought I would teach there until I retired. I had enough self-awareness to know that I had a tendency to shoot my mouth off, and I really did not want to make a bad impression, so I told Cindy that when I went to department meetings that first year, I was going to just sit and listen and get the lay of the land. There would be plenty of occasions later on for me to speak up. I imagine newly appointed Supreme Court Justices have a similar thought. When I went along to my first department meeting, I fully intended to be seen but not heard. As I walked into the seminar room where we met, Justus greeted me warmly. "Well, Bob, it is good to see you here," he said. "Since you are new, I imagine you won't want actually to take an active part in the deliberations for a while, but it is great that you are here to listen." Well, that settled it. I didn't shut up until I left in1971.
Right away, the department was faced with the necessity of making some decision about the future of the junior members. There were three of them: Arthur Collins, Martin Golding, and David Sidorsky. I had not yet gotten to know them very well, of course, but the other senior members of the department had arrived individually or collectively at pretty clear opinions about each of them. Everyone agreed that Collins was the most promising philosopher of the three. Since Arthur was really an able man, Ernest Nagel felt himself free to judge him by the highest possible standards, and what Ernest thought would greatly influence many other votes. Ernest decided that Arthur did not quite come up to snuff for a tenured professorship at a great Ivy League university. That killed Arthur's chances, and the next year he managed to get a job at City College. Martin Golding's field was the philosophy of law, which was one of Ernest's minor sub-specialties. We all waited to hear what Ernest had to say, but was not willing actually to offer an opinion. It seemed to us pretty clear that if Ernest didn't think Arthur made the grade, then he wouldn't think that Martin did either, but Ernest was mum. So it was decided to send Martin's work out to three or four of the most eminent philosophers of law in the English speaking world. Well, you know what happened. Those distinguished gentlemen assumed that we had already decided to promote Martin and were simply going through the motions, so they wrote back puffs, and we were stuck. There was no way we could vote no if all the biggies in the field said he walked on water. Martin got tenure.
That left David. Now, about David there was complete agreement. He was a disaster. The question was not even close. Nobody in the entire department thought David deserved tenure, but David was a nice Jewish boy [well, at least he was Jewish], and there was very serious doubt that he could get another job if we dumped him. The more senior members were actually prepared to keep him around forever simply because they couldn't bring themselves to vote him out. Sidney, Arthur, Jim, and I had lunch, and we agreed that David had to go. There were four of us, and the four no's rule was still in effect. We agreed that we would all vote no when the secret ballots were handed around, and Sidorsky would be history. At the next meeting, we took a vote. When Justus counted the votes, there were three no's and one abstain. Arthur and Jim and I looked at each other and all shook our heads. We had stuck by our agreement. Then we looked at Sidney. He shrugged, with a sweet sad look on his face. That was forty-five years ago. The last I looked, Sidorsky was still a senior professor in the Columbia Philosophy Department.
The year after I joined the department, we faced a full-scale crisis. The Rockefeller Institute, a premier biological research institute founded by John D. in 1901 and situated the east side at York and 63rd, decided to become a University. The first thing it needed, of course, was a Philosophy Department. They didn't have any students or a campus to speak of, but they figured a Philosophy Department would show that they were serious. So they set out to buy themselves one. They called Ernest and offered him a professorship. Now, the year before,
Columbia had created the exalted rank of University Professor, appointing the great physicist Isidor I. Rabi as the first holder of that title. The next year, the great art historian Meyer Schapiro was also elevated to University Professor. [The story is that Schapiro got a really fat offer from Harvard and went to see the Provost, Jacques Barzun, about it. Schapiro had been one of the first Jews to get tenure at Columbia, a fact Barzun was not above playing on. When Schapiro told Barzun the terms of the offer, Barzun said, "Oh, Meyer, I am ashamed of you. How can you think about money? You are a member of the Columbia family." Barzun bought Schapiro off with a University Professorship, and Schapiro went away embarrassed.]
Ernest was a good friend of both Rabi and Schapiro, and he dearly yearned for the status that attached to the sciences. So he went to Barzun and said he wanted a University Professorship like Izzie and Meyer. Barzun said no. Why did Barzun say no? I have always thought it was because he just wasn't willing to populate the ranks of the University Professors with Jews, but I am sure that is a blood libel, so forget it. Anyway, Ernest left in a huff for the East Side.
The department was thunderstruck. Ernest had been at Columbia forever. Ernest was the Columbia Philosophy Department. What were we going to do? Obviously, the only solution was to recruit the biggest name we could find to take Nagel's place, and hope that the department was not summarily downgraded in everyone's private rankings. [What follows repeats and expands on a story I told at the very beginning of this extended Memoir. I apologize to my most faithful readers.] We met to discuss possibilities, and very quickly it became clear that Justus was not on board. Each time a name was mentioned -- Quine, Goodman, Chisholm, Sellars -- Justus objected that he was not good enough for us. After a while, I grew just a trifle exasperated. "Justus," I said, "is there anyone in American philosophy whom you would like to see us hire?" Justus thought about that seriously for a moment, and said, "No." "Okay," I said, "Is there anyone in the world you would like us to hire? Never mind whether he can speak English." "No," said Justus. Beside myself, I came back, "Never mind alive! What about Descartes?" "Too diminished a conception of experience." "Kant?" "Not adequately clear on the nature of being." "Is there anyone in the entire history of philosophy who would be good enough to join us?" Justus gave that some serious thought. Finally, he allowed, "Aristotle, and Whitehead."
But Justus was a good soldier, and if the department voted to make an offer, he was prepared as Chair to represent our collective will. We tried Quine. No soap. Chisholm, Also no. Goodman. No hope there. At one point we tried Kripke, who was then still a very young man. Justus made the call, but as it happened, it was the Sabbath, and Saul refused to come to the phone. Along about then, I began to feel real sympathy for Justus. This being before the big upheaval, there was no question of the graduate students playing any role in the proceedings, but of course they caught wind that something was up, and they came to Jim Walsh, demanding to know why we weren't hiring someone to replace Nagel. Jim called a formal meeting of the graduate students kin the seminar room, and they all crowded in. "All right," Jim said, "we are going to play a game. You tell me whom you would like us to hire, and I will tell you what he said when we called him." The students looked a bit puzzled, but they gave it a go. Every time they came up with a name, Jim would simply repeat what that potential candidate had responded. We had tried them all.
The Rockefeller was in the process of hiring themselves a pretty classy bunch of philosophers. Over the next decade, they rounded up Donald Davidson, Saul Kripke, Harry Frankfort, Margaret Wilson, and many others. But the experience of actually being at the Rockefeller was rather soul-numbing. Scientists work in groups in labs, so there is always some socializing and that goes on. But when Nagel showed up, they gave him an office, measured him for a desk, and said, "All right. Welcome. Now think." It drove Ernest nuts. After only one year, he came crawling back, asking to be rehired at Columbia. And now, Columbia made him a University Professor!


Aaron Garrett said...

That's a truly appalling tenure story.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is indeed. I am sure I am offending all sorts of people by telling it, but at the age of 76, I have decided it is better to speak the truth than to be tactful.

b.f. said...

Glad to see that you've been posting your interesting memoir onto the internet, since columbia sds activists used some of the philosophical arguments in the critique of pure tolerance book in defense of the moral right anti-war students had to stop cia recruitment on Columbia's campus in 66-68 period. Regarding Prof. Sidorsky, he used to also spend a lot of time, coincidentally, arguing in support of LBJ's escalation of the Vietnam War with anti-war students at the anti-war Independent Committee on Vietnam table in 65-66 academic year.