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Monday, November 25, 2013


The knowledgeable comments of Magpie and Professor Auerbach reminded me yet again of the extraordinary power and reach of the world wide web.  It seems that one cannot make a comment on any subject, however obscure, without flushing out one or two people who know all about it.  The phenomenon puts me in mind of one of my happiest memories from the early eighties, when I was living in Boston and my first marriage was coming to an end.  At Boston University in those days were two fine philosophers, Marx Wartofsky and Robert Cohen, who together ran something called the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science.  Many times each academic year the Colloquium held public sessions at which invited speakers appeared.  There was a large and very faithful following of Boston area folks drawn from every corner of the Academy who attended regularly.  Some of us regulars were fortunate enough to be invited to the dinners held before the talks, events that were often the highlight of the evening.

Marx and Bob had a rather expansive notion of what counted as "Philosophy of Science," with the result that the talks ranged as widely as one could imagine, well beyond the narrow confines of that subject as it is customarily conceived.  But the truly remarkable thing was that no matter how arcane and obscure the topic, there always seemed to be at least one person in the audience who was an expert on the subject and could be counted on to ask penetrating questions.

I recall one Colloquium session at which the renowned M. I. T. neurophysiologist Jerry Lettvin gave a talk on Newton's theory of vision.  This was not as much of a reach as it might sound inasmuch as Lettvin's research was on the optic nerve of the frog.  Lettvin was one of a kind, a large, fat, rumpled man married to a svelte, beautiful woman, Maggie, who ran a popular Public Television exercise show called "Maggie and the Beautiful Body."  I was once sitting in Tulla's, an early coffee house in Cambridge where I hung out as a graduate student, arguing about Plato or some such topic, when Lettvin, who was sitting at the next table and overheard us, thrust himself into the conversation without so much as an introduction and became part of the argument.  The talk at the Colloquium was impressive but hopelessly obscure.  I mean, none of us knew anything about Newton's theory of vision.  What would we ask when the question period started?  Not to worry.  Sure enough, sitting in the front row was an inoffensive little man, maybe a third of Lettvin's weight, who turned out to be the world's leading expert on Newton's theory of vision!

But the greatest example of the Colloquium's magical powers came on the evening that a member of the University of Massachusetts Medical School gave a truly horrifying lecture on the bloody human sacrifice rituals of the ancient Aztecs.  It goes without saying that we were utterly ignorant of the subject, but by the end of the talk, we were all in a state of shock at the vivid descriptions of flayings, beheadings, disembowelings, and the like.  [A touch of this tradition made its way into one of the Harrison Ford Indiana Jones movies.]  As soon as the Chair called for questions, an impassioned young man jumped to his feet at the back of the room and said, in a loud, clear, belligerent voice, "I am a descendant of the ancient Aztecs, and you have it all wrong!"  I thought the Boston Colloquium earned its chops that night.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

I loved the Boston Colloquium. When I was an undergraduate at SMU, Southeastern Massachusetts University, in North Dartmouth, I took a course in the philosophy of science, and the professor, Kalikow, I think, mentioned it. She posted the schedule and I found something that I thought was interesting. It was an opportunity to hitchhike to Boston and check it out. Your memory of the audience is spot on. I've to been to several talks and there was never an occasion on which some audience member didn't stand up knowing some unbelievably arcane piece of information like the difference between the 3rd and 7th editions of a 1930s Russian biology textbook. Wartofsky and Cohen were an amazing team. By the way, have you ever read Wartofsky's book on Feuerbach?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andrew, thank you for the memory. No, I have not, but Susie and I once had a splendid dinner at a one-start restaurant on the Right Bank with Marx and his wife Carol Gould. Ah, those were the days.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I remember, as a young child, watching Maggie Lettvin's exercise program on WGBH TV. This was before the value of exercise and physical fitness became widely known -- before Jane Fonda's series of popular workout videos. She was ahead of her time.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think she and Julia Child really launched a certain kind of PBS show. Watching the two of them walk into a party, as I once did, was a hoot. He was so fat and sloppy and scraggly, and she was so svelte and beautiful and tall. For a long time, I jyst assumed that he went to the old University of Chicago. he was a typical Hyde Park type. But Wikipedia says he actually went to the University of Illinois. But he was a fixture at MIT for a long time. I never actually met Maggie.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Carol Gould? Did she write a book on Marx? Conversations around their breakfast table must have been high powered. What sorts of things interested them?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

When we had the dinner, their attention was totally focussed on their little son, who was at that point crawling about. Marx was a rather urbane and jovial type, not intense. Carol is much more focussed on philosophical issues. Yes, she did indeed write a book on Marx, among other things.