This puts me in mind of two stories that I believe I have told elsewhere. The first, which should be filed under the heading stare decisis, concerns a delightful moment of my brief tenure as an Instructor in the Harvard Philosophy Department. During all eleven years of my stay at Harvard, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, and finally as a member of the faculty, the Philosophy Department was presided over by a wonderful woman named Ruth Allen who had, I believe, served as departmental secretary for so long that she could remember Willard van Orman Quine when he was a graduate student. During one of the very infrequent Department meetings, a procedural question arose, and someone was sent to ask Ms. Allen whether what we wanted to do comported with university regulations. She said it did. When asked for some justification of this judgment she cited a decision she herself had made many years earlier. Stare decisis.
The second story concerns a wonderful experiment in animal psychology that I heard about from someone or other and took to reporting in my lectures at UMass. According to the account, some researcher had performed the following experiment: Chimpanzees like bananas and hate cold water [or so the story goes]. The researcher took a group of chimps and withheld food from them until they were good and hungry [this was before various federal laws had been enacted concerning the treatment of laboratory animals]. She then released them from their cages into a central area where there were bunches of bananas. The chimps rushed the bananas, but as soon as they reached them they were doused with freezing water. The researcher kept this up until the chimps became adversely conditioned to the sight and smell of bananas, shrinking from what had been their favorite food. At this point, one of the conditioned chimps was replaced with a new chimp, but when he rushed for the bananas, the other chimps pulled him away, afraid of being hit with the freezing water. Eventually, the new chimp also became adversely conditioned to bananas, even though he had no idea why [never having been hit with the freezing water.] One by one, the orignal chimps were replaced by new chimps, who were conditioned in the same way, until the entire group consisted of chimps who shrank from their favorite food without knowing why. This I took as an allegory of the establishment of organized religion. One day, I received a call from a student editor at the Yale Law Journal. An author [apparently my former student] had submitted an article in which this story was told, with a footnote to me as the source, and the editors [more careful than the editors of the Journal of International Dispute Settlement] wanted to know my source for the story. I confessed that I had no source, and thought the story might be apocryphal, whereupon they edited it out of the submitted article.
What wisdom can we draw from these tales? Each of us must make his or her own judgment, of course, but what they have taught me is that if you live long enough, you can become, if not a legend in your own mind, at least an authority in your own time.