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Sunday, October 27, 2013


Through Brian Leiter's blog, I have just learned of the passing of my old Columbia colleague Arthur Danto.  Arthur is surely one of the most important philosophers of art of the twentieth century, perhaps the most important in America, and there will be many obituaries and appreciations.  Since he was directly responsible for my writing the extended essay that became In Defense of Anarchism, perhaps I can best add a small personal remembrance by telling that story.

When I arrived at Columbia in 1964 as a newly appointed Associate Professor, I was only thirty.  Arthur was forty, one of a group of young turks [the others included Sidney Morgenbesser and Richard Kuhns] who were attempting to remake the Columbia Philosophy Department.  The most important problem confronting me as I assumed my professorial duties was financial, not philosophical.  I was about to enter a full-scale four times a week psychoanalysis, and with an annual salary of nineteen thousand dollars, it was obvious that I was going to have to tap dance pretty fast to pay the bills.  No sooner had I settled into my Columbia owned rent-controlled slum apartment on West 115th street than Arthur offered me a way to cover some analyst bills.

Harper and Row publishers had launched a project called Harper Guides.  These were to be large volumes, handsomely bound in half-calf, written by collections of academics, purporting to give the latest news in an academic field.  There was to be a Harper Guide to History, a Harper Guide to Art, a Harper Guide to Politics ... and a Harper Guide to Philosophy, edited by Arthur.  [When I asked the General Editor at Harper, Fred Wieck, who on earth would ever read these monstrosities, Fred responded, "Well, we are aiming more at the book-buying than the book-reading public."]

Arthur had rounded up a splendid collection of hotshots to produce the various essays in the volume:  Bernard Williams on Ethics, Norwood Hanson on the Philosophy of Science, Richard Wollheim on the Philosophy of Art, among others.  But Isaiah Berlin had just turned him down for the Political Philosophy chapter and Arthur was desperate, so he offered it to me.  "What is the advance?" I asked.  "Five hundred on signing," Arthur answered.  "I'll do it," I said, "when do you need it?"  "Next September."  [This was October.]  I took the money, used it to pay my analyst for five weeks, [$25 a session], and filed away the information that in eleven months Arthur would need an eighty page essay describing the forefronts of the field of Political Philosophy.

I finally got around to tackling the essay the following summer, when I was teaching both sessions of Columbia's Summer School.  I did not actually know what was going on in the forefronts of Political Philosophy, since even then I was not "keeping up with the field," but Fred Wieck had made it pretty clear that no one would ever read the damned thing, so I figured I would just write my political philosophy and be done with it.  Building on a paper I had been reading here and there, originally called "The Fundamental Problem of Political Philosophy," I banged out an essay in three weeks and sent it off to Harper and Row, thereby fulfilling my contract.  I doubt Arthur ever read it.

Time passed, and the project languished, passing from Wieck to Al Prettyman and finally ending up on the desk of Hugh van Dusen, the Editor of Harper Torchbooks, a very successful classy paperback line.  By now years had gone by, and I had been referring to my essay in footnotes of other things I was publishing as "forthcoming" even though it never seemed to come forth.  Finally, in the Spring of 1970, I called van Dusen and asked whether it would be all right for me to quote lengthy sections of the essay.  Hugh was rather embarrassed, and said of course.  Then, I had a stroke of genius.  "Why not publish it as a little book?" I asked.  Van Dusen, who was always looking for short paperbacks to bring out, jumped at the idea.  "We could publish all ten of them as series!  But your title, 'Political Philosophy,' isn't very good.  Do you have an alternative?"

When I was a boy, my parents had, stored in the attic of our little row house, an ugly green-bound set of the complete works of Mark Twain.  I had spent some happy hours up there reading through many of them, including a volume of "Literary Essays."  Among the lesser known of the essays was Twain's marvelous resurrection of the much maligned wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harriet.  The essay is entitled "In Defense of Harriet Shelley."  For some reason, that essay popped into my mind, and I said to van Dusen, "How about in Defense of Anarchism"?  "Great," Hugh replied, and several months later the little book appeared, to be followed by all the other essays for the ill-fated Harper Guide to Philosophy.

Arthur was one of a kind.  He will be missed.


Acastos said...

What a lovely remembrance! (You had more to say about Danto and Morgenbesser in your memoirs, if I recall correctly...) Danto was a fertile source of philosophical ideas, and seems to have single-handedly resurrected the Philosophy of Art as a going concern. He was a wonderfully witty writer, too, and the deeper tribute you pay him is your own witty writing on this memorial occasion ("I had been referring to my essay in footnotes of other things I was publishing as "forthcoming" even though it never seemed to come forth"...). Thank you!

Matt said...

A nice story. Was Williams' little book _Morality_ supposed to be his contribution to this volume? I've found that a useful volume for teaching undergads.

I've probably read more of Danto's art criticism in _The Nation_ than his strictly philosophical work, but always enjoyed that and felt like I learned something. (I remember thinking his account of the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Art Museum, the one that got Rudy Giuliani in such a bundle, being especially good.) But I'll always especially remember his for inspiring the "Arthurdantist"

arthurdantist, n. One who straightens the teeth of exotic dogmas. "Little Friedrich used to say the most wonderful things before we took him to the arthurdantist!" - Frau Nietzsche

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, it was. A lovely little book. I had never heard the term arthurdantist. I love it.

David Auerbach said...

The remembrance here:
is very nice.

George Berger said...

Arthur Danto was my first teacher in analytical philosophy, when I became a graduate student at Columbia. It was in the weekly seminar on Russell's Logical Atomism. Much of my time was spent in the now defunct philosophy library, where I met many people. Were it not for Professor Danto's constant friendliness and help, I might not have made it through graduate school. We kept in touch for many years after that.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, all, for the responses to my brief remembrance of Arthur Danto.