The pressure of trying to sell my apartment has absorbed virtually all of my attention and energy. Each time there is a showing, my wife and I rush about hiding all evidences that actual human beings live here, remove the latest water spots from the immaculate kitchen floor, and then leave to hang out somewhere for two hours, anxiously awaiting news from our agent. While this has been going on, a flood of comments have erupted on this blog.
This morning, it is raining, so no walk. Since I got up at five a.m. nonetheless, I found myself with some down time [even real estate agents do not call at 5:45 a.m.], so I decided to try to catch up with the comment thread. And then I found this sad comment, posted by Ed Barreras at 6:23 yesterday evening:
“I wake up to find that the wonderful, kind-hearted Hubert Dreyfus is dead and that revolting orange goblin is still president of the United States. Life sucks.”
Marx, Althusser, robots and such are interesting, but this takes precedence. Bert Dreyfus was my close friend sixty years ago when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing. I will leave it to others to write about his philosophical contributions and his long, distinguished career at Berkeley. I would like to remember him by telling some Bert Dreyfus stories in an effort to capture his unusual, not to say unique, character. In the old Reader’s Digest, there was a little feature at the bottom of the page titled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” Bert would be a favorite in that category for many of us who knew him then.
Bert was short [5’3”, 5’4”?], quite thin, with carrot colored hair. His brother Stuart looked very much like him, except that Stuart’s hair was sort of purple. Both, needless to say, were ferociously bright. Bert had a quirky smile and an ebullient manner. For reasons that the rest of us could not quite fathom, he was spectacularly successful with women. One day, I ran into him as he was on his way to a date with a new young lady. I saw him on Mass Ave the next morning, and asked him how the date had gone. “It was fine,” he said, “but afterwards she wanted to talk about philosophy and I was up all night.”
Bert was the reason why I learned to use chopsticks efficiently. Every so often a group of us [Bert, Charles Parsons, Steven Barker, Ingrid Stadler, Sam Todes, myself] would get enough money together to go out for Chinese, at what was then the newly opened Joyce Chen restaurant. By agreement, we would order a bunch of dishes and split the bill equally. Although Bert was small and thin, he ate like a Tasmanian Devil, and if you did not wield the chopsticks well enough, he would eat part of your share of the food.
Bert was also indirectly responsible for my first marriage. In 1957, I got my doctorate and went into the Army to do my six months of active duty as the first portion of a six year National Guard commitment [those were the days of the draft, and it was either that or two years in the Regular Army.] After Basic Training at Fort Dix, I was transferred to Fort Devens in Ayer, MA, about an hour’s drive west of Cambridge, for training as a Communications Specialist [nothing fancy – climbing poles to string wire and that sort of thing.] Every so often I would get a pass to go off base. Bert had gone to Paris to study with Merleau-Ponty, so I would hitch a ride into Cambridge and hang out with his girlfriend, Adair Moffat, who was a Radcliffe undergraduate living in Whitman Hall. One day, I saw a beautiful young woman sitting at the bell desk waiting for a date. I asked her out and married her five years later.
Bert and Sam Todes were members of the Kant Study Group that Charles Parsons and I organized in 1956-57 in our Mass Ave apartment. It met every Wednesday evening from 8-12 p.m. all year long, during which we plowed through the First and Third Critiques, debating the meaning of every page. Most of us had taken C. I. Lewis’ great course on the First Critique, and we shared a belief that Kant was the supreme philosopher. That Kant Group, as we called it, was the greatest educational experience of my life.
When Bert returned from Paris, he was full of news about the revolutionary things Merleau-Ponty was saying there. Sam, who seemed to have been born with a complete metaphysical system in his head, declared it old hat, having, it seems, already arrived at the same conclusions himself.
Bert eventually got a job teaching in the Philosophy Section of the Humanities Department at MIT, as did Sam. The chair in those days was a curious philosopher named Huston Smith. In ’63-’64, my wife and I returned to Cambridge from Chicago, where I was an Assistant Professor, so that I could spend a year subbing for Ingrid Stadler at Wellesley while she went on leave. Both my wife and I desperately wanted to stay in Cambridge and Bert did everything he could to promote a job for me at MIT, but it was no use. Instead, I ended up getting a tenure offer from Columbia.
Bert went off to Berkeley in ’68 [I think], and we lost touch, but as this post perhaps makes clear, he remained vividly alive in my thoughts for the next half-century, and is so today, for all that he has passed away. I shall not miss him. Instead I shall remember him for as long as I am still alive.