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Monday, April 5, 2010


My biggest academic problem that first year, far more pressing than covering two thousand years of European history, was deciding what to call my new colleagues, who had for the past eight years been my professors. I couldn't see myself addressing Quine as "Van" and Aiken as "Henry." The department secretary, Ruth Allen, who had been with the department longer than all but the oldest senior professors, was casually familiar with the faculty, but her situation was the inverse of mine. She had met them when they were graduate students, and was not about to become deferentially formal just because they had been jumped up to professor status. I solved the problem for a long while by simply not addressing them directly at all, which made for some rather abrupt conversational openers. Finally, during a year when White was at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, he asked me in a letter to call him "Morty." I never did call Demos "Raphael." He was by that time unimaginably old - indeed, he must have been ten years younger than I am now.

Even though I was now earning an actual salary, complete with medical coverage and payments into the TIAA/CREF pension plan, I still could use some extra money, so I signed up to serve as a Freshman Advisor. One of my very first advisees was a pleasant young man who had attended the same mid-western high school as the logic phenom Saul Kripke. My advisee was no trouble at all, but Saul was a handful. He was, as we would say today, socially challenged, taking up a good deal of the time of the committee of House Senior Tutors who met regularly to deal with student problems. Marshall Cohen ran into one of the Senior Tutors who told of a long meeting they had just suffered through trying to sort out Saul's difficulties with a roommate. Marshall asked whether the Senior Tutors didn't resent having to spend so much time dealing with a Freshman, but his friend replied that he had been a member of the ground crew of a B-17 during the war. Each day, he said, as the B-17 limped back to base from a bombing mission, all shot up, his crew would run out onto the field and do whatever spot repairs they could, so that the bomber could go up the next day on another raid. "That is what we are doing," he said. "Our job is to get Saul back up in the air so that he can continue flying." That remark has stayed with me through the years as the epitome of dedicated teaching.

The next summer, my advisee invited me to dinner at his apartment, where he had taken up light housekeeping with a lovely Radcliffe girl. Saul was there as well. Saul's father was a Conservative Rabbi, and Saul had had a serious Jewish upbringing. As he talked, he davaned, which is to say he rocked back and forth vigorously. As he talked and davaned he ate, gesturing spastically, and as he talked and davaned and ate and gestured, his food scattered all over the table, as if to illustrate the law of entropy. With gentle understanding, the young Radcliffe student patiently swept the peas up from the table top and put them back on Saul's plate, where they stayed for a bit before being restrewn.

I have often wondered whether Saul, brilliant though he undoubtedly was, ever understood how much slack everyone was cutting him, from Quine on down. Somehow, I think not.

For the most part, I went my own way in the department. Harvard professors don't really advance much beyond what is called in child development books "parallel play." No one attends anyone else's lectures, of course, and there is precious little socializing. When they encounter one another on campus, they resemble the dukes and counts at the medieval court of Burgundy, glorious and richly appointed and very formal. Each full professor proceeds in stately fashion, preceded like Cyrano's nose by his vita, and trailing in his wake several Assistant Professors who exhibit the appropriate submissive body language.

But every so often, when things had so piled up that it was unavoidable, we had department meetings. I attended these with great anticipation, seized by what can only be described as a sublimated academic form of primal scene scopophilia, which is the term psychoanalysts use for the obsessive desire to see one's parents making love.

At almost the first meeting I attended, a dispute broke out between Quine and Aiken. The year before, apparently, one of Quine=s doctoral student working jointly in Mathematics and Philosophy had been permitted to substitute one of the Mathematics qualifying examinations for the Preliminary Exam on Ethics. Now one of Aiken's students, working jointly in Philosophy and Art History, wanted to substitute an Art History exam for the Logic Prelim. Quine said flatly that it was out of the question. Aiken protested that by parity of reason [ordinarily a winning move in philosophical arguments] he should be allowed to make the substitution. Quine was adamant. Finally Aiken turned to Quine and said, "All right, Ledge, why not? What is the difference between Ethics and Logic." "The answer is simple," Quine replied. "Ethics is easy and Logic is hard." Aiken was apoplectic but the substitution was disallowed.


Don said...

Great story, and a wonderful irony: Quine doesn't have to argue for his assertion. He just has to make it. He is Quine.

kmosser said...

How odd a contrast between Quine and Sellars. I've heard that Sellars was know to respond, when asked why he didn't do ethics, "It's too hard."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quine was brilliant, but he was, when it came to Ethics, shall we say, challenged. I think I have told the story earlier in my Memoir of his commen t about the Nazi torture chambers. Logic, of course, is trivial, insofar as it is valid. One can quite easily build a computer to reason logically. It is a good deal more difficult to build a computer to argue about ethics!

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