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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Cindy and I really wanted to stay in Cambridge when my visiting year at Wellesley was over, and we did everything we could think of to make that happen. Bert Dreyfus was then teaching at MIT in the Humanities Department, so I asked him to see whether he could wangle a position there for me, but it was no go. B. U. was willing to give Cindy more Freshman Comp, but that was pretty much it. I had one other possible entrée to MIT. Franklin Fisher and I knew one another from undergraduate days, and Frank was then teaching in the Economics Department at MIT after a stint in the Society of Fellows. Cindy and I had fallen into the habit of playing bridge with Frank and Ellen one night a week. Frank offered to arrange for me to give a talk, and I decided to present some of the material from my unpublished manuscript on the rhetoric of deterrence. I thought I would be speaking to philosophers, but when I got to the room, I found that the audience consisted of the smartest young economists at MIT, which is to say the smartest young economists in the world. The talk was an unmitigated disaster. At that time, I did not know any of the technical jargon associated with Game Theory [lexicographic preference orders and the like], and the audience carved me up like a Christmas turkey. Some time afterward, Frank said they had been talking it over and decided that I was actually right, even though I did not know how to put my ideas in the appropriate way. So much for MIT.

During the late winter of '63-64, I was invited to give a talk to the Columbia Philosophy Department. I proposed to give my paper on the Fundamental Problem of Political Theory, which seemed fine with them, so I went down to New York and took a cab from Grand Central to Morningside Heights. It was my first time back on the campus since that summer evening in 1955 [see Volume One, Chapter Three -- Blog post June 28, 2009]. The Philosophy Department at Columbia is located in Philosophy Hall, appropriately enough, behind a reproduction of Rodin's The Thinker. The layout of the building is rather odd, with the department offices on the seventh floor, even though that is only the fifth floor up from ground level. My talk was delivered not to a general audience but to the members of the department, who had gathered in the seminar room down the hall from the office, under a watchful photograph of former department member John Dewey. I thought things went well, although Jimmy Gutman asked some rather skeptical questions about my argument. Afterward, I took the train back to Boston.

The time has come for me to tell the story of how I was hired by Columbia University. This is all going to sound very odd to younger readers, so some words of preparation and background are called for. Back when I was a student and then a young untenured professor, there were really only ten universities in America at which one could usefully study Philosophy at the doctoral level: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. When one of those departments had an opening, someone would pick up the phone or drop a line to a friend at one or another of the ten schools and ask whether they had a promising young philosopher ready to start teaching. That, you will recall, is how I got the Chicago job. There were, of course, huge numbers of colleges and universities around the country even then, and most of them, especially the less prestigious among them, would actually advertise openings and invite applications. But no one at one of the top schools would have considered trying to fill a position in that manner.

In '61, after the Harvard department declined Bundy's request that they keep me on, I had done a quick survey of the top ten schools to get some idea of the lay of the land. At that time, leaving to one side a few people who had done doctoral studies overseas, every one of the tenured professors at those ten schools had a doctorate from one of the ten schools. It was a totally closed loop. What is more, there were several binary linkages. Everyone at Columbia and Chicago had a doctorate from Chicago or Columbia. Everyone at Michigan came either from Harvard or from Michigan itself. No school on the East Coast had a tenured member who had done his work on the West Coast [they were all men, by the way].

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson pressured the Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act, Title VII of which mandated the appointment of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or, as it quickly came to be known, E. E. O. C. Over time, hiring in the Academy was totally transformed. All schools, even Harvard, began to publish announcements of open positions, and job descriptions routinely described the hiring university or college as an EEOC institution. The annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association ceased to be a clubby gathering of old boys and young wannabes chatting, back-slapping, and idly listening to talks, and became a job market flooded with anxious young job seekers waiting to be called up to hotel rooms for preliminary interviews. In the old days, when a philosophy student reached the job stage, he or she [there were even then a few women, although of course virtually no one of color] would be taken in tow by the dissertation director at the Convention smoker. Circulating around the room, the professor would grab a colleague from another school by the elbow and introduce him to the student, who would then be left to make as good an impression as possible while shifting from foot to foot.

I didn't think anything of the Columbia talk -- just another speaking gig -- until suddenly one day, I was called by the Chairman, Justus Buchler, who told me he would like me to come down to discuss becoming a senior member of the department. So there it was! All the stories were true. Write a book, get it published, and land a top job. I was beside myself with delight. I was, as they say in professional baseball, moving up to the Show. As I have said, Cindy and I wanted to stay in Boston, but neither of us had had any success in generating job offers there, and we really did not want to go back to Chicago, so I told Justus that I would be right there, and took the train down again. When I got to Justus' office in Philosophy Hall, he told me that the department would like me to join them so that I could "cover ethics." Ethics? I had never taught ethics in my life. I had just published a book on Kant's First Critique. "Cover ethics?" There is in Animal Husbandry a usage for the verb "to cover," meaning roughly what a stallion does when it mounts a mare. I did not know whether Columbia wanted me to teach ethics, keep it out of sight, or impregnate it. But my employment experiences to this point had taught me that no matter what someone wanted me to teach, my only response must be, "Oh, yes sir. Thank you sir. I have always wanted to teach that, sir, but thus far no one has given me the opportunity." I did the proper thing and said I would have to think about the offer and discuss it with my wife, but I had not the slightest doubt that I was going to accept.

Once it was settled that I had been offered a senior professorship in the Columbia Philosophy Department, starting on 1 July, 1964, I delicately broached the subject of my teaching duties. "Would it be all right," I asked, "if I were to teach a course on the Critique of Pure Reason?" "Well," Justus replied, "We have hired Charles Parsons to teach Kant, but you can discuss it with him." I knew then that I had stumbled onto a funny farm. Columbia had given a senior position to a philosopher of mathematics to teach Kant, and they now had offered a senior position to a Kant scholar to teach Ethics. It took me a while to find out what was really going on.

It seems that some years earlier, there had been a terrible fight in the department over who would get a name chair that had come open. Things got so bad that the Provost stepped in and put the department in receivership, appointing the great literary scholar Marjorie Nicholson as Chair until people had simmered down. Everyone was so mortified by this that an agreement was struck among the senior members of the department. If as many as four people opposed an appointment, it would not go through. The department had been looking for an ethicist for some time, and had settled on Joel Feinberg -- hardly surprising, since Joel was one of the leading young ethicists in the country. But four people said no, and that left them without a candidate. Apparently, after my talk, at the next department meeting, Sidney Morgenbesser looked around the room and asked, in his broad, nasal New York accent, "Why don't we hire Bob?" Nobody could think of a good reason why they shouldn't hire me, so they told Justus to make the call.

O.k., that explained me. But why hire Charlie to teach Kant? That turns out to have been a consequence of the fact that Arnold Koslo got married. He and Charlie were friends, so Charlie came down from Cornell for the wedding. As I heard the story, after the ceremony, Charlie, Sidney, and Arthur Danto were standing around, when Sidney asked Charlie, "Charlie, how come you never came to teach for us?" Charlie, who had a nice appreciation of the proprieties in such matters, answered, "You never asked me." Sidney then turned to Arthur and said, "Arthur, why didn't we ever ask Charlie to teach at Columbia?" Arthur, whose wall eye made him seem somewhat North by Northwest, gazed off into the distance and said, "I don't know." Sure enough, at the next department meeting, Sidney asked his assembled colleagues, "How come we never asked Charlie to teach at Columbia?" Nobody could remember why they hadn't, or indeed whether they had ever thought about it, so they decided maybe they should. Justus made the call. Since Charlie was at that time teaching Kant, they apparently figured he might as well do that at Columbia.

All of this is, to put it mildly, outrageous, and we can be glad that Lyndon Johnson put an end to it. Still and all, Charlie was probably the smartest young philosopher in America at that time, Saul Kripke notwithstanding, so if they had had a race blind gender neutral open competition for the job, Charlie would probably have gotten it. If he thought to apply, of course.


Matt said...

Back when I was a student and then a young untenured professor, there were really only ten universities in America at which one could usefully study Philosophy at the doctoral level: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA.

Interesting. When did Cornell join the group? After Max Black and Malcolm came, obviously, but that seems to have been in the late 40's. Should it have been included in the list, or did it take longer to establish itself?

Unknown said...

Agreed with Matt at least from what I have always heard (which may not count for much). The word on this stuff 1960-1968 at least, was the three best phil. departments were (not necessary in this order): Cornell, Princeton, Harvard.

Penn/Stan/Berkeley/and UCLA/ UM??? not until later, no?

Of course what constitutes what is "best" has always sort of bothered me. It strikes me if someone really applied themselves and the department has standards (that would be most in the time period discussed here) the student could (and many did) learn much.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I knew I would get into trouble with that line. Suffice it to say that is how it looked to me as a young Instructor looking for another job.

Brian Leiter said...

Cornell clearly should be on the list, and probably also Brown (Ducasse, a young Chisolm). Michigan was a safe inclusion: Frankena, Stevenson, C.H. Langford, as well as young Alston and R. Cartwright, among others. Reichenbach was at UCLA throughout the 1950s, and then Carnap moved there, after getting disgusted with Chicago, for some of the reasons Bob noted in a prior installment. If there had been a PGR in 1955, I do wonder whether Chicago and Penn would have been so high up, but, frankly, Bob's gestalt sense corresponds roughly with what I've always heard.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks, Brian. Let me emphasize a point that Brian has also made on his blog. The question is not merely where one could in thoswe days learn philosophy. The question is, which departments were capable of launching a good student on a successful career. One of the biggest chnges in the profession has been the expansion of the number of places from which professionally successful philosophers have started their careers.

Brian Leiter said...

Slight correction: Reichenbach wasn't at UCLA through the 1950s, since he died in 1953! But he was there long enough to train philosophers like Hilary Putnam and Wesley Salmon. And then, of course, Carnap came. And Richard Montague, etc.

Unknown said...

Great stories. But for me the most telling was the reminder that, before the days of Affirmative Action the academic job market had an astounding amount of randomness built into it that wasn't a lot of fun for a whole lot of people.

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