Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Student of Philosophy
[p.129] When you began doctoral work, why did you choose the University of Southern California rather than your undergraduate school, UCLA? It also had a fine philosophy department.
That was a tough decision, but I chose USC for two reasons. First, it had a highly competent School of Religion, and it would be possible for me to take a degree in philosophy with a minor in religion. Second, Edgar Sheffield Brightman was a visiting professor for the summer of 1938. I’d never met him, but I’d read a little of his stuff. He was a leading philosopher in personalistic idealism and the head of philosophy at Boston University.
These were still Depression years at first, then war years. Was your choice of a Los Angeles university made for economic reasons?
Yes. We couldn’t have done it without my parents. We lived with them in Los Angeles, at their invitation. My fellowship paid some of my university expenses. Natalie studied for a master’s degree in Spanish and worked as a nursing assistant at a hospital. After a while she got a good job at a Sears Roebuck store within walking distance of my parents’ home. Natalie really financed my Ph.D.—or, better, “our” Ph.D.
To put your entire doctoral program in focus at once, let’s place a bookend at the conclusion too. When did you pass your exams, and when did you defend your dissertation?
I finished my course work in the summer of 1943, passed my qualifying examinations in December that year, and defended my dissertation in the spring of 1946. I was awarded the Ph.D. at commencement exercises in June that year.
Ten years after your B.A. at Utah.
That’s right. Now Ph.D. candidates sometimes whiz through in three or four years and think there’s something the matter with them if they don’t. But this ten years was an excellent arrangement for me. I must confess that I matured very slowly in my thinking—perhaps I [p. 130] haven’t entirely matured yet. This pattern gave me a chance to do a great deal of study in the field and it gave things a chance to soak in. I have encountered many of these fast-degree scholars, you know. Unquestionably, they’re bright and excellent technicians but they don’t seem to be very wise. I don’t know, of course, how wise I seemed to my professors or my students. Maturity in philosophy calls for wisdom as well as knowledge.
Another advantage of this drawn-out arrangement was that USC’s philosophy school brought in top-flight people every summer from around the country and from Europe.
Yes. This made it possible for me to have contacts with a number of major figures who were at the university only during the summer. The subject that had interested me most aside from the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion had always been the philosophy of history. I pursued that line of study as far as possible at USC with highly competent professors, including Heinrich Gomperz, Walter Muelder, and Ralph Tyler Flewelling.
Professor Heinrich Gomperz, who was originally at the University of Vienna, once remarked of another German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, that he philosophized “with his fist on the table.” I’ve always thought that description applied to Flewelling as well. He made a profound impression on me. He could be as dogmatic as hell, yet at the same time rational. He was a real philosopher, a man of wisdom and intellectual stature who took philosophy seriously. He wasn’t playing around. His main interest was the development of a personalistically oriented philosophy of history. He was the founder and editor of The Personalist, a journal that stresses the metaphysical centrality of the person in defining reality.
Flewelling and you became very close friends too?
We certainly did. A remarkable man, Flewelling had raised the money for the philosophy building and his own son was the architect, so he pretty much had things his own way. It’s too small now, but that building was ideal then and won several architectural prizes. It was built on the model of a medieval Italian monastery and was an artistic triumph.
So Flewelling became something of a mentor to you?
To be frank with you, Flewelling was very unhappy about my leaving the faculty when I joined the University of Utah faculty in 1948. When I first became a USC faculty member, he asked me to serve as managing editor of The Personalist. But Paul Helsel, who had been managing editor for a number of years, warned me: “It’s an awful lot of [p.131] work, and I’d advise you against it.”
That put you in something of a bind, didn’t it? He put a lot of pressure on you.
Yes, it was very hard for me, but I told Flewelling no. I simply wanted to concentrate on my academic work at that point. He didn’t give up, though, and later when I left for Utah he asked me to have the journal transferred to the University of Utah. I’m sorry to say that Flewelling was a person who liked to have disciples, and I’m afraid I disappointed him. He let me know that he looked on me as his successor in advancing personalistic idealism. After he retired and I moved to Utah, I gravitated away from his philosophy.
Personalism was primarily an American and French manifestation of idealism, wasn’t it?
Yes. Idealism is a term in both metaphysics—the theory of reality—and epistemology—the theory of knowledge. A more accurate term would probably be “idea-ism,” but that’s hard to say.
The point is that idealism is a philosophical system that deals with ideas, not with ideals as we usually think of them.
That’s right. In metaphysics, idealism means that reality is of the nature of mind or the product of mind. And in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, idealism has to do with the relationship between the subject—the mind which knows—and the object—whatever it is that is known. What is known may be a sensory object, such as a stone, or a universal or concept, such as love or justice. The idealist position is that the object that is known is, either partially or entirely, a product of its being known. In idealistic philosophy, the mind is creative. It partially constructs what it knows.
That’s classical idealism. What about personalism?
Well, American idealism sometimes took the form of personalism. The leading American idealist, Josiah Royce, was an absolute idealist of the Hegelian school who had done his graduate work in Germany. In his metaphysics, set forth in his The World and the Individual, Royce made an effort, as a good American, to preserve the reality of the individual while still accepting the position of much Hegelian idealism that reality is ultimately an absolute. Royce’s chief opposition came from his friend and colleague William James, whose philosophy was thoroughly pluralistic. James was allergic to the Absolute, insisting that reality resides in the individual. The chief personalistic idealist was Borden Parker Bowne, a contemporary of Royce and William James. Flewelling and Brightman were his students. Bowne’s position was that, ultimately, [p.132] reality must be seen in terms of the concept of the person because some of the paradoxes that are fundamental to our experience of reality cannot be explained except through personalistic categories.
What are the paradoxes in human experience that submit to personalistic idealism?
One is the problem of change and identity. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers asked how a thing can continue to be itself if it is changing. The problem is based on the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction—that a thing is what it is and is not what it is not. Then how can something change, because to change it has to become what it is not? It becomes a question of whether to believe the evidence of the senses or the dictates of reason. The personalistic argument is that some of the basic metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and even logical problems such as this cannot be resolved apart from personalistic categories.
What do you mean by personalistic categories?
According to the personalists, there is no possibility of rationally explaining the appearance of change in the world unless you think of it as having basically a personal foundation, which Bowne called the World Ground—the equivalent of God in his system. The world could not be the kind of thing that it appears to be without this grounding in a reality that is both identical with itself and in process. The point is simple: individuals maintain their identity while they are constantly changing. Personal identity is not an identity of substance but rather of thought, memory, and self-awareness or consciousness. For the personalist, personality is the foundation or world ground of our reality. Otherwise, the word of our experience could not be what it obviously is.
To take another example—the question of unity and plurality, another problem in metaphysics dating from the pre-Socratics. The world considered rationally seems to be a unity, but the experience of our senses tells us it is a plurality, made up of many particular things. Parmenides, the most thoroughgoing rationalist, denied the testimony of the senses and held that the world is a unity without plurality and a unity in which there is only a changeless identity. He held that the plurality of the word, the diversity of phenomena, change, and process are really a kind of illusion. He held that the world must rationally be seen as a single, processless entity.
But the opposite could also be logically true, couldn’t it?
That was the position of some pre-Socratics. They had a pluralistic metaphysics which held that the unity of the word is the illusion and [p.133] that multiplicity and process are real. This position appears, for instance, in the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus.
Now, back to the contemporary personalistic idealists!
Well, the position of the personalists is that if you want to be faithful to both reason and sensory experience or what we would simply call the empirical claim on knowledge—you can reconcile the two by recognizing that your personal experience provides evidence of both unity and plurality. If the ground of the world is personal, reality is both one and many, as well as identical and changing. Personality is an organic unity of conscious states, but it is also a plurality as a collection of conscious states. Everything that exists, Jack, is either this chair I’m sitting on or it’s not this particular chair—there’s nothing in between. So it’s a logical principle, you see.
The law of the excluded middle.
Yes. Another name for it is identity and contradiction. The thing is what it is—that’s its identity.
And the contradiction is, “a thing is not what it is not.”
Yes. Terrifically important, because this principle was the ground of logic right down into the nineteenth century. But of course, as I have said, the problem is how can there be any change, process, or movement if a thing is what it is and is not what it is not, because, presumably, in any kind of change it becomes something else.
This coherence theory of truth, based on a small set of universal principles, is a logical system that appears to defy reality.
That’s the problem. We can observe change, even though, by a strict rationalistic logic, change is impossible. Well, that’s been a basic problem in metaphysics along with the issue of unity and plurality right down to the present. The development of Hegelian logic and metaphysics was an attempt to handle it through the dialectic. Friedrich Hegel saw the universe fundamentally as a process, an ongoing process of dialogue between thesis and antithesis, which produced a synthesis, which in turn became the new thesis and generated a new antithesis, and so on. He denied the traditional logic and held that a thing is what it is and what it is not, which accounts for all change and process.
So it’s possible to argue that Hegel has been the chief philosophical influence on the world since his time because he was the first to postulate a system that countered Aristotelian logic?
Yes. Thinking of fundamental reality in terms of process is a remarkably productive idea. I’ve always thought the tremendous [p.134] upsurge in great historical research and writing among nineteenth-century Germans was due in a very considerable degree to Hegel’s influence, because reality, for him, is the history of the Absolute and the Absolute is the logical unfolding of the world.
Change superseded the static Absolute and became the basic description of reality. And today neo-Marxists and post-modernists embrace relativism with the same fanatic zeal as the fundamentalist religionists embrace their absolutes.
Not only that but Karl Marx was a Hegelian philosopher who used the Hegelian dialectic and identified logic with metaphysics. So even though Marx was a materialist where Hegel was an idealist, you can see how far Hegelian influence went with this double impetus. Hegel’s philosophy was religious in character but had a pantheistic quality to it. Personalism is not pantheistic. The personalists have made an effort to distinguish God from the multiplicity of the world. Hegelianism had a tremendous influence on the rise of British idealism, then American idealism. And—I’ll bet you didn’t know this—the center of American idealism after the Civil War was St. Louis, Missouri.
There on the banks of the timeless Mississippi River, which is constantly changing its course?
It’s also because of the German colonies near there. A lot of Germans immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, and the Germans who had a philosophical interest were most likely to be Hegelians during the 1860s. There was the problem of making some kind of sense of the Civil War, finding historical meaning in it; and the Hegelian dialectic seemed to provide that meaning. And to prove my point, the first philosophical periodical published in English appeared in St. Louis in 1864 or 1865—The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Josiah Royce and many leading philosophers contributed articles to it. W. T. Harris, the first editor of the Journal, later became the United States Commissioner of Education.
Do you mean to say that no philosophical journal had been published in England before that date?
That’s right, as far as I know. Astonishing, isn’t it? Idealism had become a very strong movement in America. It was a powerful reaction against the growing nineteenth-century materialism. If you adopt the notion that reality, taken as a whole, is compatible with mind, you can see that it has a sort of compatibility with religion. So it gave great support to the philosophically minded who were religious.
[p. 135] So personalism, being an offshoot of idealism, was also congenial to religion?
Oh, very much so. In fact, personalism can be partially explained as an attempt to overcome both materialism and the pantheistic tendencies of idealism in favor of a more traditional form of theism that preserves the identity and freedom of the individual.
Sterling, do you find personalism personally congenial?
Well, not entirely. In my youth as a student at the University of Utah under the tutelage of Ericksen and Read, I was a rather faithful pragmatist. Royce was long gone and the great British idealists such as Francis Herbert Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet had died in the 1920s. But when I went to USC, I found that personalistic idealism was very much alive. I found personalism appealing to my philosophical interests and religious sensibilities. Personalists define person primarily in terms of the capacity for thought and will. That’s how the traditional theologians defined person, including the divine Person, so the World Ground or foundation of reality is personal in the sense that it is thought and will. Of course, there is also feeling or passion, which theologians haven’t liked but which the personalists were more amenable to.
So in speaking of the World Ground, it’s a problem of whether you’re talking about a being in the sense that most people think of God as a being or something which is simply the substructure of reality.
Yes. Patti Tillich held that God is not a being but rather is the ground of being. Tillich was one of my teachers at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Once when I was in conversation with him, I asked Tillich if he regarded himself as an existential philosopher, and he said, “No, I don’t,” which shocked me because he’s clearly an existentialist. Then he added, “I’m an existential theologian,” and I was unshocked.
But my point is that Tillich said that if God were a being, he would be an idol, a thing alongside other things. You shouldn’t call God a thing, even though the word “thing” is the most general in our language. Everything is a thing and “nothing” is a thing. D. C. Williams, a logician at Harvard University some years ago, claimed quite seriously that nothing is something, because, if it weren’t so, Old Mother Hubbard couldn’t have gone to the cupboard and found nothing there. The German existentialist Martin Heidegger dealt with the ontological status of nothingness. It’s sort of a philosophical counterpart of the physicist’s black hole theory.
Well, the personalists have a religious form of idealistic philosophy. Idealism has always appealed to the religious temperament. That’s why Platonism has always been so strong in Christianity, because of its [p.136] emphasis on the mental, the human mind, and ideas.
How about you personally, Sterling?
Idealism, when I began to seriously encounter it, made a very strong appeal to me, and I wanted in the worst way to be a convert and a good convert to Flewelling’s idea that the moral and religious personality is the key to understanding reality. Interestingly enough, when I was first in Russia in 1958, I had a long session with three professors of philosophy at the University of Moscow who regarded Flewelling as their chief enemy because he represented religiously oriented idealism as opposed to Marxism’s atheistic materialism. This pleased Flewelling when I reported it to him.
Are there other philosophers or teachers who were influential on your development during this period?
I should certainly mention Walter Muelder, later dean of the School of Religion at Boston University. He was professor of theology in the religion school at USC. A brilliant scholar, a brilliant teacher. If I were to line up the six or seven teachers who had the greatest influence on me, Muelder would certainly be one of them. I studied Hegelian and Marxist philosophy with him, particularly their impact on the philosophy of history.
I studied German philosophy and the philosophy of history with Heinrich Gomperz, who also gave considerable attention to Hegelianism and Marxism. Gomperz was a scholar of phenomenal proportions. He was a son of Theodor Gomperz, regarded by many as the foremost scholar in ancient Greek philosophy; and Heinrich Gomperz was regarded by many to be even superior to his father. He was professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, where he led the movement against Hitler. Fortunately, he was teaching at Oxford University when Hitler invaded Austria and came to USC from there. He was in his seventies then and died while I was his student.
Gomperz was a man of remarkable intellectual capacity.
They used to say that if the entire corpus of Plato and Aristotle were lost, Gomperz could reproduce it from memory in Greek and give you the English translation as he went along. He never brought books or notes to a seminar, a man of amazing erudition. He always learned the language of a country before he went there, even on a vacation. When Gomperz would come into the seminar, the students would all stand— I’ve never seen this before or since and someone would hold a chair for him while he sat down at the seminar table.
At his last session with students, Gomperz came into the room but [p.137] couldn’t make it to the table; so he just sat down in a chair near the door. We all just moved over and sat by him. We’d known he was ill but hadn’t realized it was serious. After talking with us, he went to the hospital and died a short time later. I gave him blood when he needed transfusions, and I have always been pleased that I did.
Mrs. Gomperz was an interesting character. She smoked cigars and took quite a liking to Natalie and me. Gomperz and his wife put me in their wills for two or three of his own books and a classical Greek typewriter. The typewriter was to be mine if one of Gomperz’s students from Vienna, who was a professor at Claremont College, didn’t want it. I’m sorry to say that he did. Gomperz had a magnificent private library in Vienna, widely known as the largest and most important private philosophical library in Europe and—no doubt—in the world.
The story of his library and its surviving the Second World War is remarkable.
It was based on a collection he had inherited from his own father. Theodor Gomperz was a close friend of John Stuart Mill. Between the father and son, they had created a magnificent collection of some 40,000 volumes of the most important philosophical writings, many of them first editions, autographed, and so on. I asked Mrs. Gomperz once, “Did Professor Gomperz have all of those books at home?” and she said, “Mr. McMurrin, we did not have a home. We lived in a library.” It was literally true. Theodor Gomperz had built a separate library in Vienna for his books; when Professor and Mrs. Gomperz married, they moved into the library—just added a bed in one room of the library, remodeled one section into a kitchen, and so forth.
When Gomperz came to the United States to avoid Hitler, he left this tremendously valuable library in Vienna under the control of his librarian, an extremely resourceful woman. As soon as the Germans occupied Vienna, they came for the Gomperz library, to ship the books to Germany. The librarian claimed that Gomperz had sold the library to an American university and that it was no longer Austrian property. This was before the United States had entered the war against Germany, so the Germans left the library alone. Then she had the books crated and hid them some place in Vienna at great personal risk. She watched over them faithfully until the war ended. After the war Gomperz sold about 30,000 of his most important volumes to the University of Southern California. While I was on the faculty at USC, dozens of enormous crates were delivered to the Philosophy Building. It was a long process, and Gomperz died before they all reached USC. Flewelling raised as much money as he could to buy the library, but it was worth many times what [p.138] the university actually paid for it. Fortunately, in the basement of the Philosophy Building below the library, there was a big room with safes where various incunabula and rare books were kept. Gomperz’s student from Claremont—the one who got the Greek typewriter—worked for a long time with the collection, cataloging and setting it up as a separate Gomperz library.
Gomperz was affiliated loosely with the Vienna Circle during the 1920s and 1930s, wasn’t he?
Under the leadership of Moritz Schlick, a group of philosophically minded physicists and mathematicians made Vienna the chief center for the development of logical positivism. But despite his connections with the Vienna Circle, Gomperz did not regard himself as a positivist. His largest influence on me was simply as a philosophical scholar. His immense knowledge was a great inspiration.
You also studied with a number of remarkable visiting professors at USC, didn’t you?
Yes, F. C. S. Schiller was the leading figure in British pragmatism, a professor at Oxford, and H. Wildon Carr, a leading British idealist, both ended their careers there. This was before my time. Even though I was at USC, I took a seminar at UCLA with William Pepperell Montague, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, who was one of the creators of the New Realism.
His work, The Ways of Knowing, is a philosophical classic.
It certainly is. Montague was a delightful person with an astounding sense of humor, tremendously interesting. Another of his books, written with others, The New Realism, was an historic volume, in part a response to pragmatism by those who could not go along with the Peirce/James/Dewey pragmatic philosophy. It was also a response to the strong development of absolute idealism and the idealistic epistemology that was then taking place in England and America. Montague and I became friends, in a way. He had a strong influence on me. My inclinations, you see, had been toward pragmatism and then toward idealism, but I always had strong realistic inclinations, and Gomperz and Montague pretty well finalized that for me.
Let me see if I’ve got your philosophical journey straight, Sterling. You started out as a pragmatist, thanks largely to the influence of Ericksen and Read, then went on to idealism, when you were a student of Flewelling, Brightman, and Muelder. Third came realism, where you were influenced by Gomperz and Montague; and, fourth, came positivism. Were any [p. 139] teachers especially influential in your reaching this last stage?
No, not really in the same way that I had strongly identifiable mentors in the three earlier stages.
Well, let’s go back. I think we may have slighted realism in our discussion to this point.
Realism has the general, commonplace meaning that we all use a great deal, but it also has technical meanings in epistemology and metaphysics. It has flourished primarily in England and the United States since the beginning of this century. Metaphysically, realism is the view that the objects of our knowledge, whether they are universals which we think or objects which we actually experience through the senses, have a genuine reality independent of their being thought or sensed. Now here you have a combination of metaphysics and epistemology because epistemology is fundamentally the theory of the relationship between the knowing subject and the known object, and metaphysics is the theory of the nature of reality.
In the branch of realism that has developed, especially in America since early in this century, there is the commonsense idea that what we know is not dependent on our knowing it.
That is epistemological realism; and since the objects of knowledge are real in themselves, they have ontological status in the very nature of being, and that’s metaphysical realism. The interesting thing is that if you consider Plato, for instance, from whom many of the problems of philosophy have stemmed, you have a person who is both an idealist and a realist.
Plato can be considered in some senses an idealist in metaphysics because of his emphasis on mind and mental realities, but he is a realist in epistemology because he holds that the objects of knowledge, even abstract universals, have reality independently of their being known.
One of the main creators of idealism in modern thought is the philosopher George Berkeley. In his great essay “The Principles of Human Knowledge,” he argued that “to be is to be perceived,” but he didn’t hold that the being of the things we perceive depends on our perception. Though he was of the opinion that things were not real independently of their being perceived, his argument was intended to defend the existence of God—because the reality of the objects of our knowledge depends not on our perception but rather on a cosmic divine perception. The American realists hold that even if things did not depend for their reality on being perceived, they still could not be known to be real independently of our process of knowing. So the process of knowing [p.140] them is not in itself a proof that they depend upon perception. What most people believe, of course, is a kind of commonsense realism, sometimes referred to as naive realism.
Berkeley’s proof for God derived from his idealism, and there is a pair of limericks about him that has always helped me define idealism and realism in graphic clarity.
The first limerick developed at Oxford goes like this:
There was a young man who said, “God
must think it exceedingly odd
That this tree
Which we see
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
Well, that expresses the idealist’s position. Then another character wrote a response to it which goes:
Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd,
For I’m always about in the quad.
And that’s why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by yours faithfully, God.
Berkeley’s argument is that if this table and these books depend for their being upon their being perceived, and if you and I go out of the room—along with all the ants, bookworms, and other sentient creatures that can see or smell—and if we believe the books and table are still here, as Berkeley did, then some mind must still perceive them. And that someone can only be God.
What influence did Montague have on your thinking?
Montague and John Dewey were good friends as well as colleagues at Columbia, but Dewey was a pragmatist, of course, and Montague was a realist. He didn’t care at all for Dewey’s educational philosophy. In fact, he once told me, “My great and good friend John Dewey has deprived my granddaughter of her intellectual birthright.” That’s an exact quote. It struck me very deeply at the time.
Well, Montague was one of the first to hold the Flint Professorship at UCLA, and he gave me permission to attend his seminar on the theory of knowledge. Montague was a chain smoker, and smoking was not allowed in the seminar room, so he moved the class to his office. There was also a young faculty member in the seminar from UCLA, Richard Hocking, the son of Harvard’s great idealist philosopher, [p.141] William Ernest Hocking.
How was the seminar? And did your relationship continue outside it?
The seminar was absolutely brilliant. Epistemology was Montague’s specialty, along with methodology. He invited me to have lunch with him at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills one day and two cocktails immediately appeared on our table. Montague said, “Mr. McMurrin, am I correctly informed that you Mormons are not supposed to drink alcoholic beverages?” I said, “That’s right.” He said, “I thought so,” and reached over and took mine. Montague was well known for his taste for strong drink.
Did he seem to know much else about Mormonism?
Yes. In that seminar one day he said, “Mr. McMurrin, all I know about Mormons is what I have learned from my great and good friend and colleague Professor John Dewey, who informs me that when you Mormons die, you don’t go to heaven and play on harps. Now is that true?” He had a real twinkle in his eye, and I answered, “That’s true. Professor Dewey is absolutely right.” “And as I understand it,” he said, “you get yourself a job and continue to work, maybe along the lines that you were following in this world?” I said again, “That’s right.” Then he said, “That’s wonderful. I like that. I was never partial to string music.” I’m sure Montague was gracious to everyone, but I certainly enjoyed our association. I attended several faculty evenings with him that were part social events and part discussions, we drove around town on two or three occasions, and we corresponded afterward. I later wrote an article on Montague’s finitistic philosophical viewpoint which was published in The Personalist. It pleased him very much. The last time I saw Montague was in 1953 in the faculty club of Columbia University.
Did you consult him while you were writing the paper on his philosophy?
No, but I’d studied his stuff carefully and it was a pretty good essay. Montague laid a good deal of stress on the possibility of intuitive knowledge. He was neither an extreme rationalist nor an extreme empiricist. I recall that one of his essays related an experience he’d had walking across the campus at Berkeley where he was teaching in his early days. He was crossing a stream and paused to look into the water when he had a strange mystic experience—that’s his word. He seemed to have immediate access to the whole problem of the relation of the mind and body, and it had a great effect on his conception of the mind.
Such a mystical experience is rarely acknowledged by twentieth-century philosophers. Have you ever felt anything like that, Sterling?
No I haven’t, but as I said, Montague was a very interesting man. [p.142] He gave an Ingersoll lecture at Yale published under the title The Chances of Surviving Death. He’d worked out the chances that your soul survives death, and they’re higher than you might think. He was a student of William James, and James’s finitism shows up in Montague as a very temperate and cautious theism.
Another of my teachers, John Elof Boodin, was also a student of James. I had classes with him at UCLA but got better acquainted with him when I was on the faculty at USC. He had retired by then. Boodin made the interesting claim that he was probably more responsible than any other person for James’s writing his famous essay, “The Will to Believe.” Boodin was a graduate student, involved in some kind of philosophical club at Harvard. They invited James to come and address them; the paper he wrote for that meeting eventually turned into “The Will to Believe.” James was sorry in later years that he had taken such an extreme position and said he didn’t even like the expression “will to believe.”
You had quite a few once-removed contacts with James through mutual friends.
Montague told me some good stories about James. When Montague was an undergraduate at Harvard, he was taking a psychology course from James. James took the students on a field trip to a nearby mental hospital, giving them an orientation lecture first. He cautioned them not to create any problems, to be sociable and agreeable with the inmates, and not to argue, no matter how strange the patients’ ideas seemed. Well, while Montague was there, a man suddenly came over and said to him, “I’m Julius Caesar.” Montague, anxious to be agreeable, asked him how things were in Rome and they had a pleasant conversation. Later, just as they were about to leave, this same man came over again and said, “You know, I’m Napoleon.” Now Montague wasn’t anxious to start an argument, but he couldn’t resist commenting, “You know, you told me earlier today that you were Julius Caesar. How can you be Julius Caesar and also Napoleon? That’s the point,” said this fellow. “Not by the same mother.”
Sounds as if Montague had an engaging sense of humor.
Oh, he did. He used unforgettable examples in his teaching. For instance, in dealing with the status of the objects of knowledge and the extent to which they were genuinely real or somewhat subjective—I recall him saying, “You wake up in the morning and you can see serpents twining around your bedpost. What kind of an experience is that?” Or when he talked about the tendency in our culture to give priority to the [p.143] physical over the mental, he’d use the Missouri “show-me” motto as an example of giving priority to the sense of sight. He insisted that we should actually give the tactile sense priority. “Those ghosts you can see but can’t touch,” he said, “don’t frighten you half as much as those you can touch but can’t see.” This made the point in a very unmistakable way.
Want to say something else about William James?
William James for me is a great philosophical saint—not that he was terribly saintly. He was not the main creator of pragmatism, but he was its chief luminary. James was somewhat loose and got himself into difficulties because of his ambiguities. For example, he said, “If you analyze verify, it comes from the two Latin words—truth and make. To verify,” said James, “doesn’t mean to find out whether something is true. It means to make it come true.” Well that was a rather extreme position which I think he regretted in his later years. Montague formulated a simple maxim to express the adventurous nature of philosophers: “Philosophy proposes, science disposes.”
Montague also said that of the great Harvard philosophy faculty at the turn of the century, Palmer and Santayana were both better lecturers than James, who was actually rather jerky in his presentation. But the students loved James because of his wonderful generosity. He was always giving students credit for his own ideas. If a student asked a question or made a comment, in a few minutes James would suddenly say, “Mr. Jones, the very profound truth of the statement you made a few minutes ago has just occurred to me that what you meant was such and such—” and he would weave it into his own lecture in ways that Mr. Jones had not, of course, intended or imagined. But the other students were always pleased because their turn would come.
That’s a good strategy for any fine teacher, to encourage students to think for themselves and become full partners in the creative process. To do this, a teacher must be both profoundly committed and brashly irreverent.
It’s probably one of the reasons I was so drawn to Montague, besides the realism for which I have a natural affinity. He was a kind of agnostic believer, if there could be such a thing—that is, he hoped there is a God but suspected that there isn’t. He didn’t believe that you can prove the existence of God, but he hoped that theism is true.
He was very anti-church, I understand, but a brilliant theologian in his own right?
Yes. He was born and reared in New England and rebelled violently against the puritanical nature of the religion he encountered there. He [p.144] told me once, “A church is just an organized effort to deny human beings the pleasures of life.” Contempt isn’t too strong a word for his feelings about churches and traditional absolutistic theology. T. V. Smith included him in his book Creative Skeptics. Montague was attracted to William James’s finitism because he felt that any theology must come to terms with the problem of suffering and evil, and the only basis upon which you can come to such terms within the framework of theism is through a finitistic conception of God in which there are realities external to God which he or she does not fully control. In this connection he produced one of the most delightful books that I have ever read, Belief Unbound.
In Belief Unbound he deals primarily with the problem of evil within the framework of finitistic theism. It’s extremely readable, a first-rate piece of work, beautifully done. I’ll have to confess that one of the reasons I like Montague’s stuff so much is that he agrees with me on a position I held before I ever had any contact with his work, partly because I’m a Mormon and partly because of James’s influence.
The idea of a finite God certainly is compatible with Mormon thought and theology, but most Mormon writers use the language of absolutism and confuse the issue.
Let me give you an example, Jack. In 1951 I was involved in a long conversation, two or three hours, with Heber C. Snell, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Harold B. Lee. They were grilling Snell on his book on the Old Testament. Snell raised a very fine question with Elder Smith, in essence, how could he argue that God was totally omnipotent, totally omniscient, and so forth, yet simultaneously hold that God used to be a man or was like a man. Joseph Fielding Smith’s reply was very clear but completely ridiculous. He said, “God was a finite being until he became God. When he became God, from then on he was absolute.” I remember thinking, “Now, how can you argue with a man who thinks like that?” I mean, there’s no possibility, of any common ground upon which an exchange of ideas can occur.
Well, perhaps that’s enough about Montague and his ideas. He was a very remarkable person and had considerable influence on me.
What about your dissertation, Sterling? When did you choose logical positivism as your topic?
I came by the topic late during 1942-43, when I was at USC. I had been very interested in epistemology since my undergraduate days. My master’s thesis dealt with the relation of knowledge and faith in medieval philosophy, which is historically a very important problem in the theory [p.145] of knowledge. During 1942-43 I became very interested in the positivistic critique of metaphysics.
The positivist position, as held by the logical positivists or logical empiricists, can be defined as the view that scientific knowledge exhausts the totality of knowledge.
That’s the positive definition of positivism. The negative definition is that metaphysics is meaningless, that any knowledge claim that is not empirically based, or is not in principle logic or mathematics, is cognitively meaningless. That is, the statement does not communicate knowledge. I remember Montague, who was intensely opposed to logical positivism, referring to “this negativism called positivism.”
I was reading vast quantities of things on the problem of knowledge, cognitive meaning, and meaningfulness. You see, the Nazi pressures had brought to America philosophers who were associated with logical positivism, whether they were strictly in that school or not. Gomperz’s famous essay “The Meanings of Meaning” fascinated me. Logical positivists were very concerned with the problem of meaning, primarily the distinction between formal and factual meaning. A. J. Ayer at Oxford did more than any other person to put logical positivism in terms accessible to the lay person in his book Language, Truth, and Logic.
So this was a very exciting movement precisely at the moment you were looking for a dissertation topic?
It certainly was. I became much involved in the whole question. If the logical positivists were correct, then the propositions of metaphysics—including those of theology—were cognitively meaningless—also the sentences of normative ethics.
I can see why a young Mormon philosopher would want to sink his teeth into that topic. Who was your adviser?
Herbert Searles was the person with whom I had the most involvement. He was on the USC philosophy faculty and very interested in my subject. I took seminars with Searles and wrote several papers for him. Walter Muelder, who was on my committee, was also interested in logical positivism, but he was quite negative about it while Searles was more or less neutral. I didn’t really have associates who were, strictly speaking, logical positivists until after I had my degree.
Most of those contacts came during 1952-53 when you were in New York on leave from the University of Utah?
Yes. A seminar at Princeton with Carl Hempel from the University of Berlin, a major figure among positivists, on the nature of scientific theory, was very useful, but this was long after I had written my [p.146] dissertation. I also visited with Rudolf Carnap at the Institute for Advanced Study and discussed some positivist problems with him. He was flat on his back with back trouble, but he had me come to his cottage. He was very generous with his time. He was the chief positivist whom I had dealt with in the dissertation, so I was very interested in what he had to say.
Who constituted your committee?
Searles chaired it. Gomperz might have, but he died before I got that far. Flewelling, Wilbur Long, brilliant in ethics and the history of philosophy, and Paul Helsel, a scholar in Greek philosophy and a defender of metaphysics, were on the committee. Also Matilla Ghyka, a Romanian logician. I had a minor in religion, so Walter Muelder and Floyd Ross represented the School of Religion. Ross was a specialist in oriental religion. None of them was a logical positivist. Flewelling retired and Muelder left for Boston University.
After I began writing my dissertation, I had no contact at all with members of my committee. I wrote it in absentia over a period of more than two years when I was at the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Arizona. I finished it two or three months before I was to join the USC faculty and sent the draft to Searles. I heard nothing from him until I encountered him the first day I began teaching at USC. He then told me that everyone had approved it. They accepted it without suggesting the change of a single word. Helsel told me that Mrs. Helsel had read it and hoped that I would get rid of my split infinitives, but I like split infinitives, so I let them stand.
But there was a hitch…
When I received the draft of the dissertation, I discovered a new name on the committee, Whitchurch. And Whitchurch insisted that I junk the entire affair and write on a different subject. I had never heard of the man before. While I was away, he was brought in as dean of the School of Religion. He simply put himself on the committee. When the dean of the Graduate School learned of this, he raised ten kinds of hell. Before the end of the year, his first year, the university fired Whitchurch by buying up his contract. He had been a menace from the day he hit the campus.
All that for criticizing your dissertation, I’ll bet! You dealt with the problem of normative value judgments—”ought/ought not” sentences?
The title was “Positivism and the Logical Meaning of Normative Value Judgments.” From the standpoint of positivism, sentences in metaphysics are cognitively meaningless because they are neither true [p. 147] nor false. Such sentences look like genuine propositions because of their syntax and symbolism, but they lack a semantic reference and are not genuine propositions. Now normative value judgments of “ought/ought not” are also meaningless. The usual position of positivists is that such sentences, being noncognitive, function simply as expressions of emotion or as directives.
Take the sentence, “Killing is evil.”
This looks like a meaningful proposition, but it can’t be discussed as either true or false. What it really conveys, according to the positivists, is your emotional reaction to killing or a directive, which could be expressed as “don’t kill.” It’s not true, it’s not false, it’s just a sentence that appears, because of its syntactical structure, to be a genuine factual proposition, true or false.
I started out to establish that the positivists were wrong, and I think I came up with some pretty good arguments. But in the process, I was almost converted to positivism and still have a strong positivistic streak in my thinking. For example, I have concluded that most metaphysics is nonsense, just as the positivists hold. But I don’t agree that it’s impossible to construct a cognitively meaningful metaphysical or theological sentence. I’d like to remain open on that question, and here I take a position which is closer to that of the realists like Bertrand Russell. Russell was pretty hard on most theologies, but he certainly didn’t take the position that metaphysics is meaningless. The key sentences of theology, of course, are metaphysical sentences.
During the fifties, when I participated frequently in philosophical society meetings of one kind or another, I often defended the positivistic position, sometimes for the purposes of argument, sometimes with the clear intention of agreeing with the positivists. My colleagues generally regarded me as a logical positivist, although I’ve never actually felt that I belonged with that crowd.
You know, Sterling, you communicate a real sense of pleasure when you talk about your dissertation. The problem still absorbs you. It seems that you got right to the heart of your own philosophical interests while you were still a graduate student. How do you explain your forty-year love affair with the idea that “the conduct of people and nations should be brought under the dominion of a moral ideal”?
I think I had a twofold interest then, and I still do today. I wondered whether there was any possibility of reliable religious knowledge, and I wondered whether the propositions of morality might be put on a genuinely scientific basis so that it might be possible to establish [p. 148] normative values on a factual foundation. My dissertation was a logical extension of the question of nonnative judgments of a moral and aesthetic nature. I still have considerable interest in these problems; but I must say, I don’t lose any sleep over them.
What conclusions did you reach about religious knowledge and value judgments?
I’m essentially agnostic when it comes to religious knowledge. I think that with very careful definition, the sentence, “There is a God,” can be made cognitively meaningful. But I am of the opinion that there is no way of establishing whether it is true or false. On the question of normative value judgments, I simply hold that they must be distinguished from factual propositions. Statements of fact such as “This table is round” are fundamentally different from normative judgments such as “Brotherly love is good” or “You ought to love your neighbor.”
Have recent developments and controversies in the field of philosophy, which have tended to place less importance on logical positivism, or challenged it, had an influence on your own thinking?
Well, I certainly hold the very definite view at present that there cannot be any genuine normative moral, aesthetic, or artistic science, for the reasons I’ve already indicated. But I’ve also been very interested in the work being done by the Scandinavian logicians in the logic of imperatives, the most important of whom was probably Jøergen Jøergensen. But a logic of imperatives still isn’t a ground for a genuine moral science.
John Dewey, as a pragmatist, developed what may be regarded as a hypothetical moral science or, to use his terms, an instrumental moral science.
But his position isn’t genuinely normative. His field was social psychology, of course, and he was analyzing what must happen to achieve certain moral ends. Well, no one questions the fact that you can have this hypothetical type of moral science, that is, certain things must be done to achieve certain ends. So a sentence like “killing produces disharmony in society” is a meaningful sentence and can be translated as “don’t kill if you want harmony.” But the big issue is how we can determine moral ends—intrinsic values. What are the goals we should seek?
Certainly the whole question of individual morality is one of great concern to our society as a whole.
And certainly the fact that normative statements are fundamentally different from factual statements—except for the illusion created by the fact that they can be cast in the same syntax—doesn’t mean that [p. 149] normative value judgments have no relevance to facts. That’s a different matter. We should and do make our normative judgments on the basis of facts, scientific knowledge, the results of activities we label good or bad—but that doesn’t make the judgments factual. They’re still normative. The best morality obviously is the morality which has a profound respect for the facts and for scientific knowledge relating to values and conduct.
What we actually got in the more extreme form of positivism back in the heyday of the whole movement was physicalism, largely developed by refugees from Hitler’s Germany. How would you define physicalism?
Physicalism asserts that in order for a sentence to be factual, it has to designate a space-time location in the predicate of whatever is indicated by the subject. Physicalists tend to hold that there is only one science—physics, which has a relationship with biology through biophysics or organic chemistry, while biology has a relationship to sociology, and so forth because the fundamental propositions are propositions having to do with the physical world.
Carnap, Dewey, and Gomperz were all focusing on this idea that science is a single body of knowledge …
Carnap and Otto Neurath were the chief physicalists. Another of their tenets was the sharp distinction between formal and factual propositions. Formal propositions are those of logic and mathematics; factual propositions are those of physics and other sciences that are in principle reducible to physics. The propositions of logic and mathematics are statements of formal relationships and have nothing to do with matters of fact. In contrast, John Stuart Mill held that arithmetic was empirical while most logicians today would regard all branches of mathematics as being formal and nonempirical. In Whitehead and Russell’s great three-volume work, Principia Mathematica, done way back in 1910-13, the content of mathematics in all its branches is reduced to a few propositions in logic.
But again these have nothing to do with matters of fact.
Not at all. You have basically one formal science, logic—or mathematics, if you prefer—and one factual science for the more extreme positivists—or four if you’re not so extreme: physics, biology, psychology, and sociology.
Now, if I read your dissertation correctly, you were concerned that our moral reasoning had not kept pace with the power conferred upon us by our technology. It seems to me that you’re asking a fundamental question here: [p. 150] Are we morally capable of controlling our science, our new-found power?
This, of course, is the major problem. There’s no question that morally we haven’t been able to keep up with our technology. The positivists would not disagree with that. They’d say, “Well, get busy and get up-to-date morally.” The positivist position, despite their popular image, isn’t at all anti-moral or amoral. It’s just that they don’t regard moral attitudes and sentiments as yielding factual knowledge. I think it’s interesting but not at all anomalous that Moritz Schlick, head of the Vienna Circle, wrote an important book on problems of ethics, while John Dewey, whom I’d be inclined to regard as the greatest moral philosopher of our era, wrote one of his last treatises on ethics with a strong positivist flavor. His Theory of Valuation appeared in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science.
There’s no question that the relationship between knowledge and ethics is a crucial area of inquiry.
I should say so. I think one of Dewey’s greatest contributions is his position that you can’t divorce ends from means. This is fundamental to both his moral philosophy and his education theory, as you know—the ends, or the normative judgments of what is good or bad, right or wrong, have to be tied to the means for reaching or avoiding those ends; you can’t entirely divorce them. In one of Dewey’s greatest works, his Gifford Lectures, Quest for Certainty, he argues persuasively that the root of much of society’s ills stems from our tendency to divorce ends from means and absolutize the ends. I think that may be the most important idea in Dewey’s whole philosophy.
Dewey held that “if something is to be achieved, certain things must be done.” This ties morality to the factual sciences.
Yes. Ericksen was a Deweyite. So was Read. Not that either one had been a student of Dewey’s—he’d gone to Columbia in 1905, I believe, which was before Ericksen ever went to Chicago—but they were much influenced by the Dewey school. William M. Stewart, the educator for whom the old lab school at the University of Utah was named, was, I believe, a friend of Dewey. Dewey was the guest of some people in Logan Canyon during the summer of 1937, as I recall, and he delivered a lecture in the Greek amphitheater on the Utah State campus. Ericksen invited me to go with him and Mrs. Ericksen to Logan for Dewey’s lecture. That was the only time I ever met Dewey.
How was the lecture?
It was brilliant. All extemporaneous. There was a very good crowd—mainly school teachers interested in the subject, but even more [p. 151] in Dewey. He dealt with the positive relationship between the cultural achievement of a species and the length of time the maturing individual of the species is dependent on its parent or parents. I recall Dewey describing birds in Africa that would pause and lay their eggs on the ground—not even stopping to build a nest—and then just keep going. When the young hatched, they’d just get up and run along like the parents. No dependence, no culture. From there, of course, he worked up to human beings, who have the longest period of dependency on their parents and the most advanced culture.
Here’s something rather comical. The young man who had escorted Dewey to the lecture was standing off to the side. I think he was the son of the people who were hosting Dewey in Logan Canyon—wealthy family named Budge, if I’m not mistaken. He stepped over to me after I’d had a conversation with Dewey and asked, “Who is this man? What has he done?” Well, the first time I ever heard of Dewey in a class, I thought they were referring to Admiral George Dewey, who captured Manila. Now this guy had been Dewey’s host for a week without knowing who he was, except that his parents had arranged for Dewey to vacation at their place in Logan Canyon!
As an early convert to pragmatism, though one who has partially abandoned it, what aspects of it do you carry with you today?
I’m not sure that there’s a personal impact as much as a cultural impact. Many historians regard pragmatism as an expression of the practical nature of American culture. In its academic development, of course, it’s the American philosophy par excellence even today. Pragmatism has never made much headway in Europe except with such people as F. C. S. Schiller of Oxford, who ended his academic career as professor at the University of Southern California. He called his philosophy humanism and tried to convince James to use that term—emphasizing human beings, human experience, human effort—instead of pragmatism, which refers to practice.
That’s something of a digression. The point I want to make is that pragmatism is not only an outgrowth of the basic characteristics of American culture, but it has, in turn, influenced American thought. The key concept, developed loosely by James but tightly by Dewey, is that truth has to do with practical consequences. According to Dewey’s concept of truth as “warranted assertibility,” you’re warranted in making an assertion only if it functions effectively in the symbolic structure of the development of a scientific theory.
Dewey asserted that we must abandon the traditional ideas of truth, the [p. 152] so-called coherence concept of truth—that a proposition is true if it logically coheres with the accepted body of propositions—and the correspondence concept that statements correspond with observable facts.
But you obviously can have two or more systems of propositions that are internally consistent but contradictory to each other. That’s the problem with the coherence concept of truth.
Two sets of truth that contradict each other.
The concept that a proposition is true if it corresponds with the facts is intriguing because it seems to make good sense. It is the commonsense idea of truth and falsity that most of us take for granted, at least until we are corrupted by philosophy.
The correspondence theory of truth is often referred to as the semantic theory of truth. Semantics is a term that gets misused mercilessly in settings having anything to do with language, but its technical meaning has to do with the relationship of the sign or symbol to what is signified or symbolized.
The coherence theory, on the other hand, is often referred to as the syntactic theory of truth because syntax refers to the relation of symbols to each other, rather than to what they symbolize. One of my students at the University of Southern California, George Watson, wrote a dissertation on Carnap under my chairmanship. He wrote Carnap and showed me the letter in which he demanded, “How could you be so dogmatic as you were earlier in saying that truth is a matter of coherence, and now in your Introduction to Semantics you talk about correspondence?” Carnap wrote back a wonderful one-sentence response: “Dear Mr. Watson: I write after the manner of philosophers—in the indicative mood. Rudolf Carnap.”
You mentioned that Eph Ericksen was disappointed to discover when you joined the faculty at the University of Utah that you had abandoned at least part of your earlier pragmatic philosophy?
Yes, and that’s an interesting story. Ericksen published Social Ethics, as I’ve already mentioned, giving considerable attention to the philosophy of religion. Waldemer Read and I were both involved with Ericksen in the later stages of his writing that book. In it he defined religion as being, on its inner or spiritual side, faith in the purposive control of life. On its external or moral side, he defined it as active participation in the cultivation of human values. I’d quoted this definition in my 1946 commencement address at Utah State University. Ericksen had come to Logan for the occasion and was pleased that I quoted him on this—although I would have quoted him whether he had been there or not.
[p. 153] But a few years later I remember that some of us who were Ericksen’s former students and our wives were having a potluck dinner at Ericksen’s, and we had a warm discussion of my Reynolds Lecture. In that lecture I dealt with what religion is about and I not only didn’t use Ericksen’s definition but I also didn’t follow Ericksen’s pragmatic line. He kind of gritted his teeth and said, “Sterling, it seems to me you have gone off on some questionable tangent.”
How did you take that?
Well, I had to laugh, of course, but I could tell that he was a bit disappointed. Ericksen was a genuine philosopher, and I don’t think a philosopher should have disciples. It’s all right for religious leaders, I guess, but a philosopher should not have disciples. He would have liked to have seen “his boys”—that’s how he saw us—go out and disseminate his word. Actually all of us were much influenced by him. I think Ericksen’s definition of religion neglects the mystical element in it. He used to say, “Religion is a crusade, not a consolation.” But I regard religion as a sentiment that may give consolation. To me religion is the faith that the things that matter most are not ultimately at the mercy of the things that matter least. You can see the influence of Montague on my thinking.
Ericksen and Read were very staunch advocates of pragmatism, and they gave their students the impression that it was the only respectable philosophy.
Yes. I remember a Baptist minister I knew in New York, who said, “I’m from Tennessee. And if you meet someone in Tennessee who isn’t a Baptist, you know he’s been tampered with.” Well, Ericksen and Read felt that if you weren’t a pragmatist, you’d been tampered with. I think it was especially hard on Ericksen because it was his retirement that created the vacancy I was appointed to fill. I think he had a dream of how the department would be. Actually he had decided that I had become an idealist because of my involvements at Southern California.
We’ve slighted one of the major philosophical movements of the twentieth century—existentialism.
Well, existentialism is a kind of strange philosophy that approaches the problems of philosophy quite differently from any of the others we’ve mentioned. It tries to get at things from the standpoint of the living human being. Existentialism is really a modern philosophy, although the existentialists find existential facets in St. Augustine, even the Bible, and they also claim Pascal. And of course the nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, the German philosophical poet Friedrich [p. 154] Nietzsche, and then, in more recent times, German philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, the philosophical theologian Paul Tillich, the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and the French humanist Jean-Paul Sartre are all representatives of existentialism. Existentialism has had some influence in this country but has not been strong here. The main thing about existentialism is that you get at things in terms of genuine existence.
For an existentialist, the only things that exist are things that are aware of their existence, and this means they are the things that know they’re going to die—only human beings.
Yes. Heidegger, for instance, said, “Man is the animal that knows he is going to die,” and it is in facing death that one finds the key to the meaning of existence. Nothing else genuinely exists. The other things are real, but they don’t exist. It’s only human beings that exist.
Existentialists can be seen in two camps: Christian existentialists like Marcel or Tillich, and secular existentialists like Sartre and perhaps Karl Jaspers.
The most important thing about existentialism, I think, is that it lays a tremendous emphasis upon freedom.
That is its main contribution. Because of that freedom, a human being creates himself. Existence is ontologically prior to essence. The individual human creates his or her own moral standards—so you get a considerable reaction against traditional morality with its social grounding.
Existentialism ties itself to free will in the same way that idealism ties itself to idea. Another of its impacts is its pessimistic quality, a kind of sadness that almost verges on morbidity because of its emphasis on decline and death. An existentialist can say to a typical theist, “You say that things are moving upward and onward. That’s because you’re thinking of society or mankind as a universal; but society doesn’t exist and the universal man in the platonic sense doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is the individual, and the individual isn’t moving onward and upward. The individual doesn’t have a bright future. The individual is the animal that suffers, bleeds, and dies.
Existentialism’s emphasis on the individual is both its weakness and its strength.
Yes. Its weakness is that in its constant emphasis on the creative individual, it doesn’t recognize the fundamental importance of the social foundations of personality and what you might call moral solidarity. As you know, existentialism has been expressed probably most effectively [p. 155] through literature, through fiction, drama, and poetry. Its strength is that same individualism and its insistent concern with freedom.
Doesn’t existentialism, then, take us full circle back to idealism—that the ideas we hold in our minds create the reality of ourselves?
Well, it does have an idealistic character about it. None of these philosophical schools, if you want to call them that, are capable of standing by themselves. I mean, there’s always interlacing and overlapping. They all connect, so much so that today it’s not uncommon for philosophers to adhere to two or more schools simultaneously or refuse to be identified with any philosophical school whatsoever. The three Marxist philosophers at the University of Moscow I mentioned earlier were just appalled that in an American university we would tolerate more than one school of thought. I suspect that the only place you can find one school of thought trying to stand on its own feet without involvement with others is in the Marxist institutions of North Korea and maybe China. The Soviet men acted very shocked when I told them that a really good university philosophy department would try to have the various schools of thought represented, including Marxism. They thought that was terrible.
Now having been around this circle, which of these schools of thought do you identify with most yourself?
Well, if you get down to fundamental problems in metaphysics and epistemology, my identification is with some form of realism. But I also have strong positivist leanings, strong pragmatic leanings, strong idealist leanings…
And strong existentialist leanings?
Yes, existentialist leanings too. I don’t want to be catalogued in a philosophical school. I have studied the history of philosophy and religion, and the unfettered quest for understanding remains the important thing to me.