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Sunday, October 5, 2014


T. Gent invites me to tell stories about C. I. Lewis, a request that surely he [she?] knows I find it impossible to deny.  I shan't say "Stop me if you have heard this one," because in fact those of you who have read my Autobiography have heard most of my stories about Lewis.  Think of this as a family gathering at which Grandfather is encouraged to tell once again the old familiar stories that his children and grandchildren have heard so often.  The enjoyment is not in the stories, which everyone knows by heart, but in the evident pleasure it gives the old man to tell them.

When I arrived at Harvard in 1950, Lewis was in his last years as a professor in the Philosophy Department.  Although there were other senior professors who had either just retired [such as Ralph Barton Perry] or would retire not too long after Lewis [like Raphael Demos], Lewis was very much the grand old man of the Department, at least in our student eyes.  There were at that time a group of young, relatively newly tenured men [you understand that this was long before the Department would even consider hiring a woman, let along tenuring one] --  Willard van Orman Quine, Henry Aiken, Morton White.  I always thought, without any real confirmation, that they felt somewhat stifled by the weight of the departmental heritage and longed to break free from its burden.  We students idolized Lewis, a fact that seemed to rankle with the Young Turks [as I thought of them.]   One story, just to get ahead of myself, will serve to illustrate this.  Lewis retired in 1953, and moved with his wife, Mabel, to California.  The next year he was invited back to give a talk, and contrary to long departmental custom, the faculty as well as the students turned out for the event.  One of the bizarre traditions of the Department was that when a visiting professor came to lecture, no one from the Department would show up.  It was great for the graduate students, who got to ask questions rather than just sitting there like mushrooms, but I often thought it must have puzzled the visitors and perhaps made the more sensitive among them feel snubbed.  At any event, there we all were for Lewis' talk.  When it ended, everyone applauded, and then I stood up to give him a standing ovation.  Other students followed suit, and I saw a look of extremely displeasure on Henry Aiken's face as he was virtually dragged to his feet by some lingering sense of propriety to honor someone he thought he had finally gotten rid of.  I wonder whether that is why Aiken gave me such a hard time on my pre-doctoral oral, but that is another story.

My first encounter with Lewis was in the Fall of 1952, when I took his undergraduate course on Epistemology.  As an eighteen year old senior, I was quite full of myself, and, having taken a course on Hume's Treatise the year before [with Aiken], I wrote a final paper that picked away at some of Hume's claims about impressions and ideas in true Analytic Philosophy fashion.  Lewis treated the paper more gently than it deserved, and made a comment that has stayed with me for the intervening sixty-two years.  After remarking that "in this paper it would be out of place to ask that [the points] should 'add up' to something in conclusion," he wrote: "I should hope that this general character of the paper is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution to nothing."  I cannot imagine Quine or Aiken or White writing such a comment in those days.

Lewis was a slender man who held himself erect despite his great age [he was, at that point, perhaps ten years younger than I am now.]  He always wore brown three piece suits, and affected pince-nez.  He spoke with somewhat pursed lips [rather like Ronnie Dworkin, it occurs to me now for the first time -- he and Lewis in a way looked alike.]  He was a figure from a bygone era -- this was, after all, during the Korean War, for heaven's sake -- and I am told that not even his colleagues called him anything but Mr. Lewis [though I imagine Raphael Demos called him Clarence.]  It would never have crossed my mind to have a casual chat with him or -- God forbid -- hang out, though there were graduate students who thought nothing of going out for a beer with Henry  Aiken or Van Quine.  Perhaps I should explain, for my younger readers, that in those far-distant days one simply did not cut class or hand a paper in late.  If necessary, you stayed up all night writing it, but at the appointed hour it was handed in.  I can still recall the shocked reaction to a group of undergraduates at Columbia whom I was teaching in 1964 during my first semester there.  I assigned a paper and on the due date a third or more of the students failed to turn it in.  "It will be very hard to pass this course if you do not hand in the paper," I said, and they all sat there staring blankly.  "So those of you who did not submit a paper had better run back to your rooms and spend the next hour churning out something."  They still did not budge -- in  shock, I imagine.  Finally I yelled, "Get up and go!" and they scurried off.  They all did hand in something or other by the end of the hour, even if it was only their notes for the paper they intended sometime or other to write.  Columbia was like that.  One year, in a Department Meeting, we were discussing the lamentable fact that students were presenting themselves for the defense of their doctoral dissertations with a number of Incompletes still on their records.  I proposed that we pass a motion requiring graduate students to complete as course in the academic year in which they took it.  It was summarily voted down as entirely unworkable.

But I digress.  My next story is not really mine to tell, but since Ronnie Dworkin is no longer with us, perhaps I may.  At Harvard [and perhaps elsewhere -- I do not know] Phi Beta Kappa has the practice of admitting a select few students in their Junior Year because of their outstanding records.  [I graduated after only three years, but I would not have been one of the Junior Eight anyway -- you needed virtually all A's for that.  I did make Phi Bete at graduation.  My big sister, Barbara, who graduated summa from Swarthmore, had of course made Phi Bete also, and when I came home with my new gold key, my mother appropriated both mine and Barbara's and had a pair of earrings made from them for herself.  But I would not want you to think she was at all competitive with her sisters-in-law.]  As you might expect, Ronnie Dworkin was Junior Phi Bete.  Well, the Society had a custom of inviting some distinguished member of the faculty to address their annual meeting.  Lewis was tapped by the selection committee, and since Ronnie was a Philosophy major, he was deputized to go see the old man and invite him.  As Ronnie told the story afterward, when I asked Lewis to be the Phi Beta Kappa speaker that year, Lewis smiled sadly and declined, saying that as he had not been elected to the society, he thought it would be inappropriate.  Ronnie sais that he wanted to cry, "It's all right, Clarence.  You have made up for it!" but he simply nodded and reported back.

Since I have so often made reference to Lewis' famous Kant course, perhaps I should take a few moments to explain how he ran it.  The sole assigned reading was the Critique, in the Kemp Smith translation.  Each week, we were assigned between thirty and sixty pages of the text, seriatim, and were required to write a summary of the passage.  The summary was to be four to seven pages long, and was to reproduce every heading and sub-heading in the text.  Along the left hand margin we were to keep a running tabulation of the pages of the text we were summarizing.  [Kant published two extremely important versions of the Critique -- the First Edition in 1781 and the Second Edition in 1787.  Because the changes in the Second Edition are substantial and philosophically of the first importance, all modern editions and translations include both variants.  To keep track, the original first and second edition pagination is printed in the text, usually in the margin, and we were to follow that practice.] 

These were summaries, you understand, not interpretations or our critical opinions or allusions to other philosophers -- just summaries.  The assigned length was deliberately -- we thought maliciously -- designed to force to make a series of difficult choices about what to include and what to omit.  Fewer pages and we could simply have skated along the surface of the text;  more pages would have allowed us to include everything.  We were also compelled to master the eighteenth century philosophical terminology Kant used, along with his innovations.  One summary was due each week, and there was no question about turning one in late.  if you fell behind, you might as well drop the course!  The summaries were graded by a graduate student and handed back fast enough so that you could learn from your mistakes before the next one was due.  My year, Hugo Bedau, later my very good friend and now sadly departed, was the grader.  When I gave the course seven years later, I graded all the summaries myself, not trusting some graduate student who had never studied the Critique with me.  That first year twenty-six students took my Kant course and wrote eleven summaries each.  Two hundred and seventy-one summaries, plus the final exams.

Writing the Kant summaries was the hardest work I ever did in any course.  Each one took maybe twenty hours a week -- Basic Training of the mind.  It was far and away the greatest educational experience of my life, and as it turned out, led directly to my first, and maybe my best, book.  Several years after Lewis retired, some of us got together to pool our notes in an effort to immortalize his lectures, but to our surprise we found that there was not much in the notes.  What then had made this the best course any of us had ever taken?  For that it was the best course, indeed probably the best Philosophy course taught anywhere by anyone since Plato lectured to Aristotle we had no doubt.

Each of us who was fortunate enough to take the course must have his own my answer.  My answer, surprisingly, is moral rather than epistemological.  Lewis was, for me, the indelible image of the Philosopher committed, as a moral imperative, to a search for clarity and understanding.  Although I think he would have been rather embarrassed to hear it said, Lew is radiated the conviction that in the study of Kant anything less than our complete commitment was a sin against truth.  In the Harvard Department in those days, or so I saw it, there were morally admirable professors, like John Wild, who however could not think their way out of a paper bag, and bright men for whom Philosophy was little more than a fascinating game.  Only Lewis combined rigor and clarity [and a grasp of Logic, which was essential in those days] with a moral commitment to the enterprise of Philosophy.

Seven years after taking Philosophy 130, I found myself teaching in the same room, from the same raised podium, behind the same desk where Lewis had sat so many times over the years.  I wrote to Lewis, who was then in retirement in California, to tell him that I was teaching his old course from the same podium, using his system of Kant summaries.  He wrote back to say that it was not his method but that of his professor.  Whom could that have been, all those years earlier?  Josiah Royce?  George Santayana?  I realize that I had somehow stumbled my way into a tradition of giants.  It was a daunting thought.

The first year that I taught the Kant course almost all of my students were undergraduates, but when I repeated the course the next year, twelve graduate students enrolled, some of them no younger than I was.  Among them were Margaret Dauler, later Margaret Wilson, and of course Thomas Nagel.  Saul Kripke, then an undergraduate, showed up for two or three weeks but apparently decided there was nothing there to interest him and stopped coming.

Well, ask me for a story and get a saga.  T. Gent, I hope this suffices for the moment.

1 comment:

T Gent said...

That is exactly the spirit in which I meant my request. I love hearing stories I already know. Thank you prof! Enjoy Paris