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Monday, April 24, 2017


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.


Jordan said...

Thank you for these stories. I was sad to hear of his passing, though only because I had learned so much from his work. It's nice to have a peek at the more human side, too.

Chris said...

Sorry for your loss professor

Chris said...

I remember watching a lovely interview between Dreyfus and Harry Keisler (conversations on history), and I was stunned that Dreyfus confided that he was dyslexic, and it took him ten minutes to get through a single page of Kant! What a brilliant and disciplined guy to have mastered Kant and Heidegger under such conditions.

s. wallerstein said...

My condolences, although being perhaps the slowest eater I've ever met, I would have had problems sharing a Chinese meal with Professor Dreyfus.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My God, Chris, I never knew Bert was dyslexic! Extraordinary.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wolff, my condolences for the your loss.

I know how time consuming a real estate sales/transaction takes... especially more so fo foreign real estate. Regarding your apartment have you considered a transaction like "en viager"?

Guy Tennenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...

I'm sorry to have been the one to break the news, especially with my intemperate outburst that mentioned you-know-who. In any case this was a lovely tribute to a generous and buoyant spirit.

I was surprised to hear that Dreyfus was 87 years old. That means that the first time I sat for one of his lectures -- a packed-to-the-rafters course on existentialism in literature and film -- he would have been 73, which doesn't seem that old to me now. But here we are, a decade-and-a-half later; we're all older, and Professor Dreyfus is dead at what I'm pretty sure qualifies as an advanced age. And yet weirdly, it doesn't seem to me like much has changed in that time, fundamentally.

I'll let David Young express the poetic sentiment for me. Here's hoping Professor Dreyfus is happily transparently coping in some future AI afterworld.

Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets

It’s summer, 1956, in Maine, a camp resort
on Belgrade Lakes, and I am cleaning fish,
part of my job, along with luggage, firewood,
Sunday ice cream, waking everyone
by jogging around the island every morning
swinging a rattle I hold in front of me
to break the nightly spider threads.
Adlai Stevenson is being nominated,
but won’t, again, beat Eisenhower,
sad fact I’m half aware of, steeped as I am
in Russian novels, bathing in the tea-
brown lake, startling a deer and chasing it by canoe
as it swims from the island to the mainland.
I’m good at cleaning fish: lake trout,
those beautiful deep swimmers, brown trout,
I can fillet them and take them to the cook
and the grateful fisherman may send a piece
back from his table to mine, a salute.
I clean in a swarm of yellow jackets,
sure they won’t sting me, so they don’t,
though they can’t resist the fish, the slime,
the guts that drop into the bucket, they’re mad
for meat, fresh death, they swarm around
whenever I work at this outdoor sink
with somebody’s loving catch.
Later this summer we’ll find their nest
and burn it one night with a blowtorch
applied to the entrance, the paper hotel
glowing with fire and smoke like a lantern,
full of the death-bees, hornets, whatever they are,
that drop like little coals
and an oily smoke that rolls through the trees
into the night of the last American summer
next to this one, 36 years away, to show me
time is a pomegranate, many-chambered,
nothing like what I thought.

DML said...

His expository books on Foucault and Heidegger were invaluable for me in getting my head around these thinkers while I was a grad student. I found his writings on AI exhilarating as they were an example of what I like to think of as "applied Heidegger".

Tom Cathcart said...

My wife Eloise's mentor was, and is, a nursing theorist named Patricia Benner, who taught for many years at UCSF and wrote several internationally influential books. Patricia studied with Dreyfus and made extensive use of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and the Dreyfus brothers' Model of Skill Acquisition in her work. We went to California a few years back to Patricia's festschrift. Bert Dreyfus was one of the speakers. He seemed like a humble man and a bit incredulous that she had made him famous in nursing circles.

Charles Parsons said...

Thanks, Bob, for your lovely appreciation of Bert. You can find another, by his student Sean Kelly, on the philosophy web site Daily Nous.
Bert was one of my longest-running philosophical friends, and he had significant influence on me as a philosopher, in getting me to pay attention to the Continental figures who engaged him. A difference between us, however, is that I found more that bore on my own concerns in Husserl than in Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty. He was a wonderful teacher, and he may have done more than anyone else to lead mainstream philosophers in America to pay attention to these figures.
You mention his success with women. While we were both in Cambridge, he was a sort of advisor to me in that sphere, and maybe he played that role for others.
There's one error in your post: The Kant group began in 1955-56 (my first year as a graduate student), and it was in that year that it was most intense.
Charles Parsons