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Thursday, April 5, 2018


In the Fall of 1951, as a first semester sophomore, I took Henry Aiken’s course on Hume’s Treatise at Harvard.  The next year, as a first semester senior, I took Clarence Irving Lewis’ course on Epistemology.  For my final paper in Lewis’ course, I wrote a slashing attack on Hume, very sharp and, or so I thought, clever.  Lewis, then in his final year of a long and enormously distinguished career, wrote a comment on the paper that has stayed with me over the intervening sixty-six years as the defining statement of how one ought to approach the study of the field I had chosen for myself.  For a long time, I simply kept the term paper on the last page of which the comment was written, but as the pages darkened and began to crumble, I carefully cut off the comment and placed it gently in an envelope.  As I continue the sorting of my papers, I came across the envelope this morning.  Here is Lewis’ gentle rebuke, preserved from two thirds of a century ago. In my defense, all I can say is that I was at the time eighteen.

“The points made are individually acute.  In this paper, it would be out of place to ask that they should “add up” to something in conclusion.  However, I should hope that the general character of the paper – which is in no way a shortcoming in this case – is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution of nothing.”

Today, when I am fifteen years older than he was then, I can only hope that my life has to some degree been a fulfilment of Lewis’ hope for me.


s. wallerstein said...

As someone who at age 72 "has the type of mind which can find the objection to everything but can advance the solution of nothing", I fail to see what is wrong with that.

And it may be that nothing complex enough to matter to human well-being or flourishing has a solution.

Michael said...

Interesting - I'm not totally sure what to make of this! Although I didn't think of it initially, S. Wallerstein reminds that there is another way to look at Lewis's remark - which by the way I find to a great extent applicable to Hume himself, who says something in the Dialogues in praise of the philosopher who has no city to defend, but is always on the attack against others'. Compare also Thrasymachus on Socrates, in The Republic: "He gives no answer himself, and then, when someone else does give one, he takes up the argument and refutes it."

On the subject of severe flaws one might have as a younger student of philosophy, the best example (and by no means the only example) I have from my own experience is one I can't quite find a single word for - but "contempt" comes close; that was the word used by a professor of mine in reference to some insults I had parroted against Hegel, whom I had no intention to actually read. I may have gone too far in the opposite direction since then - I remember describing to another professor, from later, my newfound sense that there "has to be" something interesting, insightful, or otherwise worthy of consideration to be found in all of the great philosophers - what incredible arrogance, as a semi-literate 20- or 30-something (and beyond), to presume to know better than the dozens or hundreds of scholars who had dedicated their careers to studying their work! - to which my professor responded: "...Even Derrida? There are lots of fish in the sea."

Carl said...

Sounds anti-Semitic to me.

LFC said...

For a young student to be critical, even severely so, of a canonical figure seems to me both entirely unsurprising and also a sign that the student is actually thinking. As a 19-year-old, I wrote a paper called "Some Theoretical Problems in Marx." Talk about presumption! But I worked v. hard on it, and the reader, while making numerous critical comments in the margins, gave it an A (which for me and in those days, when grade inflation was well underway but perhaps not yet in completely full flower, counted as a real accomplishment).

As for C.I. Lewis's comment, considering the context, it seems to me unobjectionable. Presumably one wants philosophers to advance or propose solutions, at least occasionally.

P.s. Though I managed to read some philosophy in other courses (and I'd previously read some in high school), I only took one actual philosophy course in college (as a freshman). It was taught by a young instructor, I didn't esp. like it, and I never took another philosophy course. (And since this was at a time and place where I could have taken courses with Rawls, Nozick or Putnam, among others, that might have been a pretty dumb decision. But whatever. I've regretted a lot of decisions I've made, but not majoring in philosophy or becoming a philosopher is not one of them.)

s. wallerstein said...


I believe that I've explained this previously here, but like you, I only took one philosophy course in college, an introduction and disliked it. First of all, it did not go into the political and ethical issues which are the only philosophical questions which interest me. Second and probably most important, philosophy as I saw it in that course seemed driven by the same macho intellectual arm-wrestling ethos which I always found and still find distasteful and even frightening in my father and in people in general.

Like you, I read some philosophy in other courses, generally humanities survey courses and I had two semesters of political theory in the government (aka political science) department where we even read some Marx and Lenin as well as the other classics of political thought from Plato on.

Anonymous said...

I wish I studied philosophy when I was young, if only to give my 18 year old self a more interesting way to pick a fight.

Stephen said...

In 2006, I studied Hume with Henry Aiken's son, David.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Whenever you relate your educational history, Prof, I can only sigh and wish that my undergrad Philosophy program had been half as rigorous as your studies.

Of course, just because I didn't read the entirety of Hume's Treatise in uni doesn't mean I couldn't read it now, but there are just so many things to watch on Netflix and YouTube! I have become such a philistine.

LFC said...

@s wallerstein

Purely for my own consumption for lack of a better word (well, I showed it to one other person), I wrote a brief memoir of my undergrad academic experience some time ago and that sufficed to get the subject pretty much out of my system, so to speak. So, despite being tempted by your comment, I won't go into it further here (plus it's of limited general interest).

Matt said...

One professor of mine from when I was an undergrad liked to use Nietzsche's Camel/Lion/Baby metaphor in relation to studying philosophy. Everyone, he'd say, wanted to be like a lion, getting their claws out and tearing things up. But, before that, if we wanted to make real progress, we needed to be like camels - beasts of burden - and take on the task of studying and learning the views of the people we were reading, not just trying to find mistakes. Why did these people, presumably smarter than us (or why else study them?) think these things? Did we, novice thinkers, think they were making _obvious_ errors? Shouldn't we try to understand what they were thinking? Once we'd made the effort to really understand, we could then bring out the claws, and perhaps eventually, like a baby, bring something fresh and new into the world. It's a model I've tried hard to present to my own students as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like something worthy of scanning that scrap of paper and posting online as part of your blog.

Unknown said...

Professor, your writings are a treasure for those of us who love philosophy. May you write for many more years.