Posted by: captainfalcon | April 9, 2010

Wolff this down

I recommend the Philosopher’s Stone and its proprietor’s memoirs:

One of my very first advisees was a pleasant young man who had attended the same mid-western high school as the logic phenom Saul Kripke. My advisee was no trouble at all, but Saul was a handful. He was, as we would say today, socially challenged, taking up a good deal of the time of the committee of House Senior Tutors who met regularly to deal with student problems. Marshall Cohen ran into one of the Senior Tutors who told of a long meeting they had just suffered through trying to sort out Saul’s difficulties with a roommate. Marshall asked whether the Senior Tutors didn’t resent having to spend so much time dealing with a Freshman, but his friend replied that he had been a member of the ground crew of a B-17 during the war. Each day, he said, as the B-17 limped back to base from a bombing mission, all shot up, his crew would run out onto the field and do whatever spot repairs they could, so that the bomber could go up the next day on another raid. “That is what we are doing,” he said. “Our job is to get Saul back up in the air so that he can continue flying.” That remark has stayed with me through the years as the epitome of dedicated teaching.

The next summer, my advisee invited me to dinner at his apartment, where he had taken up light housekeeping with a lovely Radcliffe girl. Saul was there as well. Saul’s father was a Conservative Rabbi, and Saul had had a serious Jewish upbringing. As he talked, he davaned, which is to say he rocked back and forth vigorously. As he talked and davaned he ate, gesturing spastically, and as he talked and davaned and ate and gestured, his food scattered all over the table, as if to illustrate the law of entropy. With gentle understanding, the young Radcliffe student patiently swept the peas up from the table top and put them back on Saul’s plate, where they stayed for a bit before being restrewn.

I have often wondered whether Saul, brilliant though he undoubtedly was, ever understood how much slack everyone was cutting him, from Quine on down.


[E]very so often, when things had so piled up that it was unavoidable, we had department meetings. I attended these with great anticipation, seized by what can only be described as a sublimated academic form of primal scene scopophilia, which is the term psychoanalysts use for the obsessive desire to see one’s parents making love.

At almost the first meeting I attended, a dispute broke out between Quine and Aiken. The year before, apparently, one of Quine’s doctoral student working jointly in Mathematics and Philosophy had been permitted to substitute one of the Mathematics qualifying examinations for the Preliminary Exam on Ethics. Now one of Aiken’s students, working jointly in Philosophy and Art History, wanted to substitute an Art History exam for the Logic Prelim. Quine said flatly that it was out of the question. Aiken protested that by parity of reason [ordinarily a winning move in philosophical arguments] he should be allowed to make the substitution. Quine was adamant. Finally Aiken turned to Quine and said, “All right, Ledge, why not? What is the difference between Ethics and Logic.” “The answer is simple,” Quine replied. “Ethics is easy and Logic is hard.” Aiken was apoplectic but the substitution was disallowed.


Charlie very kindly invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner at their colonial Belmont home. When we arrived, we found that the party was to consist of his father, his mother, his older sister, Ann, an anthropologist who tragically committed suicide some years later, and his younger sister, Susan. Also present was his aunt. Before the meal, we sat in the living room and drank little glasses of elderberry wine that the family had made on their New Hampshire farm. This was in the days before yuppie rustication, and the farm was genuinely primitive, with no electricity and an outside privy.

A topic was proposed for discussion during the taking of the wine, and we entered into a lively debate, while papa sat in a corner with a pad and pen and wrote another book, nodding into the conversation from time to time without actually joining it. At issue was whether it would be immoral for the aunt to buy a new car before her present vehicle had entirely worn out. Strong views were offered pro and con, but in the end, a consensus was reached that this would indeed be immoral. At no time, I am happy to say, did the discussion descend to the level of considerations of prudence. It was all on a high moral plane.

Finally dinner was served. After we had seated ourselves around the table, Mrs. Parsons, who was herself a social scientist, turned to Ann and said, “Ann, would you bring in the potatoes, please?” She then explained to me, as the guest, “It is traditional in our family for the older daughter to bring in the potatoes.” Next, she turned to Susan, and said, “Susan, would you bring in the vegetables?” Once again, she explained, “In our family, it is traditional for the younger daughter to bring in the vegetables.” Finally, she turned to her husband, and said, “Talcott, would you carve the turkey?” Yet again, “It is traditional in our family for the father to carve the turkey.”

At first, I was utterly mystified by these elaborate explanations, until, with a flash of methodological insight, I realized what was going on. This was a collection of intellectuals who had read in books that one of the latent functions of social rituals was to preserve the unity of kin structures. So they were deliberately, by the numbers as it were, reenacting a social ritual that they had self-consciously created in an effort to reinforce the ties that bound them. It was a textbook exercise, complete in every way save for any vestige of spontaneous feeling or manifest pleasure.


Our tutorial group met each Wednesday in my Winthrop House suite, F-25, from four to five in the afternoon. This was not tutorial for credit; each student was taking four regular courses. But Barry and I took no heed of such niceties. The reading for the first week was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith – all of it!

One young man in the group came to see me after we had distributed the reading list, rather troubled. “How do you want us to read the Smith?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “that is up to you, but if I were you, I would read it starting at the beginning and continuing to the end.” “No, no,” he went on, puzzled, “are we reading this for a test, or are we reading it for background?” “You are reading it because it is a brilliant and very influential book, and we think you will find it interesting.” “But should I take notes?” “If you come across something interesting, and you think you might not remember it, you might make some notes. That is up to you.” He went away very perturbed. I felt a certain sympathy for him. He had pretty obviously worked his head off to get into Harvard, making his parents very proud. He was prepared to do anything we asked, no matter how difficult. If I had told him to memorize the book while standing on his head, he would have had a go at it. The one thing his entire eighteen years of life had not prepared him for was a genuine educational experience of the sort that only a very rich school like Harvard could provide. In effect, the struggle to win admission to Harvard had ruined him for what it had to offer. The last time I looked, he was a defense intellectual, working at a think tank, which somehow seems appropriate.



  1. captainfalcon,
    i’d like to know your take on whom Obama will chose for Stevens’ post on the SCOTUS.i think pam karlan or merrick garland would be awesome.

  2. […] response to northernlights Northernlights asked for my opinion on who’s going to be nominated to Justice Stevens’s seat. I, quite […]

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