Dr. Frederick Sontag was a much beloved figure at Pomona College where he taught philosophy for over fifty years. His 27 books include Elements of Philosophy, Uncertain Truth, The Future of Theology, A Kierkegaard Handbook and The Mysterious Presence. I met with Dr. Sontag in his office at Pomona College in Claremont California on a day during the school's Spring break.
Richard Whittaker: You were saying your students have many insights into the material you're studying, but that it's difficult for them to come up with the next step, so to speak.
Frederick Sontag: Well, they see the critical points, for instance in Marx. Finally you get them to see that it's a magnificent vision, and amazing that he should have seen it in his time. And if you ask any one of them, "Are you interested in liberation and freedom?" They'd all say, "Yes." But then how do we achieve it? They don't even get the point that America's revolution had force and violence in it. All of them, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky say violence is necessary to create the better world. The students see some of the problems, but what are we going to do?
RW: The way you say that might lead one to believe that you're for the violence.
FS: [laughs] No, but I see why it was necessary. There comes a time in every nation when this can not be allowed. Then you have to get ready to use violence if necessary. But any day you care to pick it up, reading the morning newspaper can't make you happy about the violence in the world.
RW: I didn't expect we would be talking about violence, but I must say that the history of mankind, as we know, is replete with violence and this, in itself, it hardly seems any kind of solution.
FS: Well that's what these kids see about Marx and Lenin, their idea of destroy and change, and then we get the ideal, the perfect society and the perfect happy person. The kids now see that violence is self-destructive so many times. They very clearly get the idea that when you take away the subjugation of the workers on the factory line that it doesn't necessarily mean the workers are not going to want power, or that they're all going to agree to let everything be equal.
RW: In other words, what we are up against is really far more difficult.
FS: And you see that Marx and Lenin thought they really had an answer how to change that. Even Freud did. It was the great era for that. They had scientific ability finally, whereas they had just been the victims before. Now they had the power for change in their hands! Prometheus seizing the power from the Gods. These kids really don't believe that anymore.
RW: One of the deepest questions a person could face, I would think, is what is really required? Because when you look at the history of mankind, you see a long history of the inadequacy of such ideas.
FS: We created a new society, a great society, but we decided to compromise with slavery, which was totally against the American founding ideals. The founders knew it, but they just didn't think they could found the nation unless they accepted it. Then the things that they agreed to accept later became intolerable and caused the greatest destruction in American history, the Civil War.
RW: How do you regard the problems of liberation and freedom? What are your thoughts in relation to the course you're teaching? What was the title again?
FS: Philosophies of Liberation and Revolution. We start with Marx and go through the women's revolution, which I've written a book on. Then South American Liberation Theology—which is amazing because the Catholic Church in South America has never been liberal. It's always been identified with the regimes and somehow they managed to get a liberation movement going in South America, which was just incredible.
We had a policy of isolationism in America earlier because we thought we could isolate ourselves. There was a point in that, but now, ever since September 11 we know we can not isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, period.
My father came from persecution and wanted us to know nothing of it, and never spoke of his childhood in Russia.
RW: What was his experience?
FS: He was Jewish and went into one of the pogroms in Russian. His parents bought his release and they were all destroyed, as far as he knows. He never spoke about it, because we were Americans. This was left behind.
RW: Your father was Jewish and you became Baptist?
FS: Because when he came to New York in 1903 he was told there was no work for him there and "you must go west." So they got him on a train going out west in a deal that had to do with selling real estate. He was met in Los Angeles with a bus where he was taken to Long Beach with a whole group of people. They were going to try to sell them land there. The real estate guy running the show discovered my father spoke hardly any English and offered him a job and took him in.
There was no Jewish synagogue in Long Beach in 1903, so he went to the Baptist church with his mentor. He was sent to the local high school and as he began to understand English, he listened to the Baptist preacher and decided that Jesus was the messiah for whom his people had waited. But he never spoke of it. We never knew a word of it. He thought he could keep all this away from all of that.
We know this now, that there's no way to separate ourselves from the world's problems. Even Bush probably partly recognizes this, not fully, but partly.
Want to go back to philosophy?
RW: You mean in this conversation?
FS: Yes. Philosophy went through the same thing—thinking they had final answers. Remember, Hegel thought he had the ultimate system. All of the contradictions would lead to progress. He thought he could bring all the world's religions together.
RW: People in general can have some mental ideas about The Good, but what few seem to take into account—especially for themselves—is what I would refer to as the role of the unconscious. You could call it the "presence of evil," or "the shadow side." I wonder what your thoughts are in relation to dynamic forces at work of which people are not really conscious?
FS: Well, of course, Freud is part of this because he thought he had the secret of the unconscious and could understand and change all its destructive powers. We don't really believe that anymore. Jung certainly didn't. Wittgenstein thought he could make philosophy whole and finalized. We could finalize Truth in literal words. And Marx understood Hegel. Hegel was the ultimate, with his system of the dialectic. All that Marx did was to say it was the material that drove the dialectic and not the spiritual. Therefore you had to control the material forces. It's a great insight, if you can do it.
But all of them thought people would no longer be selfish or destructive. That's the problem. I'm doing a book, called Life as a Christian. The last section is going to be called "Love and Evil"—because Christians tend to ignore this. They want to use love, and this is successful in some cases. What they don't understand are the forces of evil working against them. You see, they wouldn't have all the fuss in the Roman Catholic Church, if they understood that. To be a priest doesn't necessarily mean you have no negative side. That's just crazy!
The early Americans understood the forces of evil. They're sometimes thought to be very idealistic, but the reason they were was because they thought they had found a way to control the evil sources in human personality.
RW: You're talking about the tri-partite structure of the new government, I take it. The balance of powers—this was their strategy to thwart the forces of these darker elements gaining control over the whole system.
FS: Yes. The only problem is that when you get a balance of power, then you have a very difficult time getting things done because you need to get agreement from widely different sides. That's why you get the dictatorships, and some of them are very effective. They won't allow that kind of discussion because it's not easy or efficient. Then the problem is they use their power not to improve the nation but end up using it simply for themselves. Look what happened in Argentina, or the Philippines with Marcos.
RW: Do you have any reflections on a promising way of taking into account these darker forces?
FS: It seems to me we're back to our friend, Socrates. Socrates said that philosophy's job was to continue to ask the questions. To discuss the questions, but not to try to provide answers. I think philosophy left that. It seems to me that what we're back to needing people who simply don't accept doctrines as final, and who recognize that there are many questions, and that we need to discuss the questions without demanding the answers.
America was really fairly close to that, in a sense, because they didn't want doctrines to gain absolute authority. You see, they managed to tolerate religions that they didn't agree with. The Mormons are an illustration. The Quakers are an example. Someone comes up with a new idea, and we discuss that. But we don't demand absolute certainty. Can we learn to get along without that certainty?
We have to teach the president some of that, because Texans like a degree of certainty. They think they have it, and they want to stand for it. That's a very nice thing, but if it gets you so you can't be co-operative, you can't stand to compromise with ideas that are different from yours, then you've got a problem. It's always been a problem in the U.S., but we have managed pretty well. We have tolerated a lot. Seems to me we need to get back more to that.
The Capitalists—Capitalism is not terrible—but it can't be taken as an absolute fixed doctrine, which requires of anybody who believes himself to be an American complete support and no criticism. It seems to me we need to go back to the place where Americans are searching for the answers and want to discuss them without necessarily believing they are going arrive at a final conclusion.
RW: You bring up Socrates and, of course, the first thing I think of in relation to Socrates is "know thyself."
FS: It is true. The other thing about Socrates, of course, is that he challenged the existing opinions of Athens in his day. When I was beginning my course on women's questions and the new literature, which was coming out, the women took me on and said I should be fired because I was incompetent. They were convinced they wouldn't like my ideas because in that era no man should be speaking about women's issues. Today it's a little different. I finally wrote a little reply to them and at the end I wrote, "Now will someone please pass me the hemlock."
You've got to be aware that if you don't agree there will be people who will find you and who will want to remove you. They will want you to agree, or else you're out.
That's why I've never been able to be a Catholic, although I admire the church in many ways. When we taught in Rome in '66 and '67 for the Benedictines, our Dutch-nun friends arranged a family audience with the Pope. He had learned some English sentences for us and said, "You have come to teach for us?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "What do you teach?" and I said, "Philosophy." He said, Philosophy?—then we greet you as a friend!"
I thought to myself, "Now wait a minute, Pope Paul. Philosophers don't accept doctrine, and they don't accept absolute statements. We don't allow ourselves to be told what to think." But it didn't seem to be the right occasion to raise these objections.
You're not always approved of if you're constantly raising questions. I've had more people argue with me and have had more problems, but in the long run I think I'm happy with what I've done. It doesn't make you the popular guy.
RW: I was going to ask you about the controversy around the course. What was it called? Did you go ahead and teach it?
FS: Yes. “Feminist Philosophy.” Then I changed it to “Feminist Liberation Movement,” and now I include parts of it. I don't do a whole course on it anymore.
RW: I know you're an exemplar of thinking for one’s self, not buckling under to the prevailing forces of fashion—in thought, or in other ways.
FS: I didn't decide on this, but I discovered in undergraduate and graduate school that I'm just not a person to follow popular doctrines. I've never been able to follow movements. I teach Existentialism, but when it was popular, I almost avoided it for a while. I've just never been a follower. I would do a lot better if I were, because there are lots of people who join popular movements and they can become very successful.
RW: I suspect that academic philosophy is probably no freer from fashion than most other areas of life.
FS: Oh, there's no question. One of the things I like to do in my "Liberation" course is to take a piece out of Sartre in which he tried to show that Existentialism, as he defined it, was compatible with Marxism, because Marxism was very prominent, fashionable in France, you know. And it’s almost funny the way he works and works to say that Existentialism is compatible. He wants to join the mob. Well, if anything isn't compatible with Marxism, it's Existentialism! [laughs] So there's great pressure to join movements. I'm glad I haven't, but it hasn't made it easy.
RW: I know you've looked into some things that were not popular—fashion be damned! You're not probably a best seller, or people aren't quoting you that often, I suppose.
FS: No, but I do all right. My 27th book comes out this year!
RW: Forgive me if I didn't put that very well. I'm just saying that because of some of these courageous choices you've made, like your book on the Moonies, perhaps you've paid a price. You're not in the position of a Wittgenstein, for instance.
FS: Oh no. That's true. Wittgenstein hit a trend, and he did a very good job. Lots of people thought he belonged to the Vienna Circle, for instance, and he was very clear he didn't. One reason he didn't was because they had a kind of doctrine. He wanted to say he had a method. He was different.
RW: I'm not a student of his work, exactly, although I'm somewhat familiar with it. He wrote, "I've solved all the problems in philosophy, but none of them are really very important." And he says, "I've saved all of the important things by saying nothing about them." Pretty interesting and surprising claims.
FS: He changed later in his life. I once thought of doing a course on Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard because you can show some similarities. He said, in the end, that many things—he became a mystic of a type—he said that some of the things that wanted to be said and needed to be said could not be said clearly and finally, these were some of the most important things. Many people miss that. He thought he had a way of removing the obscurity from many philosophers, which is correct. But he never thought it was a kind of final philosophy. He thought this more in his later work and the unpublished writings.
RW: He said that certain things couldn’t be said, but that they might be shown.
FS: That's right. That's one of his famous statements.
RW: It's a very interesting statement, don't you think?
FS: Yes. He said, that whatever could be said, should be said clearly and he moderated away from that as you indicated. He began to see that everything didn't lend itself to that.
RW: If it can't be said, but it can be shown, then this opens a whole window through seeing. That strikes me as a very interesting point.
FS: It is. And Wittgenstein said something a little like "God has been felt present to numerous people, but there is no finality to it. The presence, which God has, is mysterious, yet it has been seen, or shown, or felt. It can not be finalized, and yet it's important."
Religion went through the same ways of thinking it was going to finalize itself and get final doctrine. I think we're moving away from that as we see the hard theological lines disappearing.
RW: We have the appearance of phrases like "the end of history, "the end of science, "the end of metaphysics, "the end of philosophy" and there are people who have written well about such statements.
FS: Take the "end of history," which is the best example. Hegel thought he was writing “the end” of history. There were years to come certainly, but he had understood the entire operation of history: the dialectic. This was the key and the secret. Events and movements would be worked out, but the principle would not change.
So the end of history is really saying, we no longer have the ultimate way in which we can understand the entire world, its progress and how it moves. It is the end of being able to write final history, you might say.
It was the philosophers copying scientists who thought they were going to finalize philosophy. This was the modern period, Descartes and so on. They thought they were taking a leap, and now philosophy would follow science. That was very popular. That was the Vienna Circle, but now science is not finalizing itself.
There's a man who teaches theoretical physics and creative writing at MIT and he did a book in which he and his graduate students interviewed all the people who worked in evolutionary theory and what were their theories about the origins of the universe. Well they were as separate as novels written by playwrights! They all understand each other, but no one of them thinks that his or anyone's views are going to be final. Scientists are learning to live with uncertainty, in some ways, better than many philosophers are who are still back following the older scientific model of finality in theory.
RW: I'd be tempted to speculate that the culture of science, where certainty has really disappeared, will take many years, decades perhaps, before that influence is really absorbed fully in popular culture. I think we're still very much under the influence of an older scientific understanding. By that I mean the tendency to understand everything in such a way that it is flattened into the horizontal. Rational empiricism. Perhaps the re-emergence of not knowing will eventually allow the re-emergence of three-dimensionality, so to speak.
FS: I understand what you're saying and I think it's true, and I think it's quite possible. In modern philosophy, I mean Berkeley, Hume and all the rest of them—although Hume was right in not thinking that empiricism would finalize anything—Leibniz thought we lived in "the best of possible worlds," while Spinoza thought philosophy would be finalized by following a geometric method.
But I think there is something moving that is going to change even philosophy, and oddly it's coming again from science where the early urge was to finalize everything and move away from airy discussions of problems. I think it's coming again from scientists, some of them, who have moved away more quickly from that old model.
I did a book called 2001, A Spiritual Odyssey and without knowing it, the opening section is entitled "The End of Utopia." I didn't realize how close I could come to what others might see. I think the notion of building utopias is gone because there's no way to isolate and finalize a utopia and get final agreement out of violence. Lenin says you've got to use violence to get agreement. It's going to be a beautiful society, but you've got to wipe out those who don't agree with you. I think we've moved beyond that.
RW: That dream of control.
FS: Rational control. The emotions all under control. I'll give you an example. I do a course called "Philosophical Psychology," and I started it because the kids around here discovered that the psychology department around here didn't pay any attention to Freud. I did a reading course in Freud and decided to add Jung. In the early days the kids loved Freud because it was finalizing psychology. They were going to understand human nature and be able to deal with it! Control it, and deal with all of its problems. They thought that Jung, as he is, was rather romantic and idealistic, and also mystical.
Now it's the other way around. The kids are amazed that Freud could think he had finally come to the ultimate way of understanding the depths of human psychology and motivation, and that it could be controlled by rational thought. They find Jung's mysticism more appealing. It's also multi-cultural, and I think the kids are more inspired by that these days.
We had that vision of control and a number of people represented this. America carried some of those notions itself. The Civil War, in a sense put an end to that. The old notions that some held in the northeast of the United States relating to utopias and ideal societies were dispelled because they saw the problems which the Civil War raised. The South certainly saw that its own utopian dreams were gone. And so America, I think, ought to be over its utopianism.
Now it can still do good things. But utopianism means you've got the ultimate answer and the ultimate power of control, and can bring your utopia into existence. Certainly Marx and Lenin and many of the early feminists had such notions.
RW: You've written about feminist thought, right?
FS: My book is entitled The Descent of Women, and some of the women didn't like that title at all. A woman in Cambridge, prominent in feminist studies, asked me, "Have you read Darwin? The Descent of Man?" and I said "No." The “Descent of Man” meaning “The Rise of Man” shows that anytime you succeed and move up, you're going to get challenges, opposition. So the women were fussing about all the pressure they were getting in trying to do this. This woman at Oxford was saying this is simply what happens.
RW: So people hear the word “descent” and think, "going down," a direction the culture has nothing good to say about.
FS: That's why the women didn't like the title of my book. But if you read The Descent of Man you'll see that it's about the ascent of man, how he grew to a higher status. I found this book actually more interesting in many ways than The Origin of Species.
RW: There's an automatic struggle in the processes of life, and certainly the Darwinian analysis shows this to be pretty mechanical, the random appearances of favoring mutations etc.…
FS: Yes, but this woman wanted me to see is that The Descent of Man had a different theme to it than what Darwin is usually associated with. It had to do with the inevitable struggle to rise to another position. It isn't automatic, she would say. Any progress begets its opposition, and you'll have to face that.
RW: But any good businessman or woman would understand this. Struggle. Persistence. Eventually maybe I'll make a million dollars. So one could say a lot of people understand the necessity for struggle, of obstacles to be overcome.
RW: I'm wondering, is there some other form of development? I have my ego-based desires and I may understand that effort, work, and struggle are required. But is there something else? Or is that the whole story?
FS: I think there is something else, in that you have to keep working until you find the right avenue for your own potential, your own talents. Because it isn't just the first thing you see. You have to watch the response. It isn't just automatic. It has to be kind of intuitive. I see this between two friends, one who became quite well known and the other who didn't.
One said, I worked and worked and I made myself into a writer. He became quite well known, and hadn't seen himself as a movie scriptwriter getting academy awards. But he just kept following something. The other kid had more response to his talents, but he couldn't make up his mind where to commit himself. You have to commit yourself, but constantly looking for feedback and moving as things happen. And you've got to be willing to take chances.
You can't turn yourself into an international athlete if you don't have much talent, but you can— I'll give you an example: Kris Kristofferson was here at Pomona, and he played football and rugby and was a golden gloves boxer. I asked the coach, why is Kris such a good athlete? The coach said, "Well, let's think about it. Kris isn't really very tall; he's not very heavy; he's not really very strong or very fast. Let's face it, Kris is a football player by the will of Kris Kristofferson, not by the will of God."
He's ruined his career sixteen times and he's always found a way to come back in a new way. You can't do it just by will, but you have to move. He never intended to be a songwriter, but he found himself in London listening to songs while he was there instead of being at Oxford working on his Ph.D. thesis. He got an idea and he went to Nashville with no background whatsoever. He found himself a niche no one could have predicted for him. He doesn't have a great voice and he's not really an immensely talented actor, but he's had a tremendous acting career. He just keeps looking until he finds a door that opens for his talent. It isn't that he knows the talent and has to find the door, the opening of the door tells him: this may be something for you! The people who are really doing well are not doing what they thought they'd be doing when they were here at Pomona, but they've kept moving.
We have a better generation now for that. Not so many who say, "Oh, I know, I'm going to be a lawyer." They really sense the uncertainties. And they don't move on to graduate school as quickly as they used to. They go out and do other things for a while. I think it's better. They have a feeling that the old natural lines of what you can do are just not there. Medicine is in chaos in many ways. American education is in terrible trouble in many, many ways. It's never been more difficult than it is now. There's more uncertainty in the road ahead, and I think students see that. They take that a little more for granted these days.
I've argued for students in my class to come up with more of their own ideas, and it's amazing that they don't. They're very intelligent. It's because they see the difficulty of coming up with an idea and a proposal that is sort of obviously true and ready to go. They are more likely to see the negatives. It fits the era they're in.
RW: I think that the hardest thing of all today is to propose the good in some form that is compelling. There are people who propose the good in doctrinaire and shallow ways, but that is not what I'm talking about.
FS: I understand. It's one thing you get more in the Black community. You have to go to some Black evangelical services. The emotion they raise, and the vision they give the people, are really quite amazing. Have you ever read The Souls of Black Folk? [No] It's by W.E.B. Dubois, I think. He sees the virtue that the Black spirit has for America. Of course, we wouldn't have the religious tradition we have if it weren't for the Black and the southern population. The southern population wasn't religious the way it is now. It became so through Revivalism. At a time when the South's old traditions—Church of England and Episcopal more than anything else—were going, the Revivalists came through and were amazing in sweeping up the people.
America's has gone through odysseys. They've gone trough trials of tribulation and wandering, and I think we're onto one of those times again. I don't think it's necessarily bad if we can put up with the odyssey until we can find a new direction.
RW: I don't think I was ever aware of it when I was taking classes from you, but aren't you an ordained minister?
FS: I am. Congregational, but I didn't go to seminary.
RW: You teach in the Philosophy department, have been the head of the department, but also stand somewhere in theology, right?
FS: I think what I do is as widely known in religious circles as in philosophical circles. I thought I would go to seminary, but decided against it when I found philosophy. I thought I would go back, but I never did. That's why I went to Union Seminary for my first sabbatical. I thought I would finish a seminary degree and become a minister. But I decided it wasn't for me. I was made to be a teacher.
The Congregational Church said we don't require a seminary degree and we don't demand that you be on the staff of a church. They said, "We regard teaching as a ministry." And I said, "So do I." I found that what I had been seeking when I thought I wanted to become a minister is what I now see as teaching.
Students of mine began to ask me, would I do their marriage? There was a boy marrying a very prominent and very wealthy Jewish girl from Austria, and he came from a little country background of evangelical kids from the San Joaquin Valley. We had the service and afterwards we had a punch and cookies celebration in the social hall. Then the Jewish crowd and the rest of us went to the Ritz Carlton, to the Viennese Room, and had the traditional Jewish blast. I try to do a service that brings a couple together, and that means I do a different service for every one of the marriages.
I'm going to Boston tomorrow to do one for a kid who graduated from here. I've done a hundred, a hundred and fifty weddings. It's more useful now because the kids don't come from standard backgrounds. And yet, amazingly, they want something like a more traditional service.
RW: I find I want to ask you this very fundamental question. What do you feel in the face of this life we've been given? Is there a place for God? How is this for you?
FS: Well, there's my ms. standing there. It's entitled, The Mysterious Presence, 340 pages. It's on the main question which has concerned me.
I think we're living in a time of silence now. There are other times that have been like this. Can you live through a period of the silence of God? The Jews have done this. They'd be glad to tell you about it. I think I'm going back to say that the presence of God has been real, but it's never been uniform. [Reaches for a copy of his ms. Looking up the table of contents] “Gods, Past and Future” “Knowing an Unknown God” “Is God Really in History?” “God as a Source of Peace and Conflict” Why Language about God Can Not Be Final” “We, It Is Always ‘We’ Who Speak for God” “The Puzzle with the Missing Piece” “Does God Have Many Voices?” “The Laughing God” “The Dangerous Game” “Does God Play Games?” “The Arguments Against God” [setting the ms. down]
A thousand questions! And most people who look to God don't expect that. They expect answers. Take the Jews, they got an answer, but believe me, they didn't go to the Promised Land. This business that's going on in the church in Bethlehem is just amazing when you stop to think about it. Have you been to Israel? [No] Well, you should go there. There's this little piece of ground. People who grew up in the United States don't understand how small it is. There's the piece of ground with the ancient ruins of the old Jewish Temple, and on top of it is the sacred most mosque in Islam where Mohammed was said to have ascended unto God. There are three religions and a dozen nationalities all fighting for the same tiny piece of ground. It's incredible!
RW: Last night I was listening to the news. Leading off was stuff about the Roman Catholic Church's problems, the pedophilia. Then immediately, the anchor cuts to another story: "There's a fire in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Palestinians holed up inside." Gunfire, etc. The whole thing presented in a hyperventilated way and, all of the sudden, it was getting to me—the foundations of the West crumbling. And the whole thing being pedaled as entertainment, really. Surreal.
FS: That's why I said "the end of utopia." We're going to have to learn to live with it without totally giving up.
RW: You seem to have a deep-seated faith in the potential goodness of people. I suppose it's easy to support a certain kind of student, the one who is obviously going to do well, and I'm sure you are happy for that student too, but I know you've been a great mentor and supporter of other students, the ones who really could use some help. For the record, I should say that I was one of those students myself. And most recently there is the story about a student you had taken under your wing who actually stabbed you! And then your extraordinary response to that. I wondered if you wanted to say anything about this great helping vision for individuals that I know you have.
FS: I'm not always immensely optimistic, but I did learn early on that it's just my disposition not to think badly or suspect a person the second one walks in. You look for the good side and take them for what they are. It's not that I'm an optimist. That would be the wrong word. It's just that I always try to see the better side and what's needed in the person, and to speak to that. To speak to their needs. It's nothing I decided to do. It's just my nature, in some way. It's true. I just always have done that.
When I came to Pomona I didn't think I wanted to be here because I thought people would bother me. Like you! [laughs] I wanted to do my work, you know. I thought they would bother me, and they did "bother" me! They would wander in the door, and this and that, but you respond to them. You really do! I discovered that I work better when I'm involved. Something about being involved with people and the life going on around here keeps my mind more focused. Instead of being simply absorbed in abstractions, I've got a real world in my background. I'm not “sitting in the library,” so to speak. I found this situation was a very valuable place for me.
When I first came here, I said I would never stay. I came back to California and planned to move on to some big place where someone else would handle my students for me. I would sit in the library and write things.
I was amazed to find that I enjoyed the atmosphere. You know my friends, the KD's; if you think I ever thought I'd become the advisor to a fraternity like that, you're crazy! They told me they took it as their job "to educate me" and believe me, they have! [laughs]
I just learned that I respond. People send me things, they ask me things. Someone asked me to do the book on Moon. I said, "Sure." It got me in more trouble. You have no idea how many people were furious! I'd been invited to Korea to lecture at the Seoul National. The offer was withdrawn when they found out I was doing a book on Sun Myung Moon. I asked, "Why?" The cultural affairs officer said, it has nothing to do with what you're going to say. It's the mere fact that you would consider doing something like that!
I do what comes across my path. I never considered teaching to begin with. I was going to be a lawyer. I found out I couldn't start law school at Stanford, They didn't have a pre-law curriculum but they had two courses in psychology and two in philosophy. I thought, well the psychology will teach me how to sway juries; and well, I'll do the philosophy, too. I got interested in philosophy. I found out that was what I wanted to do. I never guessed it.
RW: You were suggesting earlier that today we need to learn to live with questions. Some people might say that the real philosophizing is now taking place outside the world of academia. How do you see this?
FS: We used to think we could go through and teach the doctrines, and that's it! I think it isn't as obvious a field as it used to be. It's harder to know what to do to present it to people. I think philosophy is more interesting to lots of people than it was. It's coming up in some high schools now, you know. You get more kids coming in with it. They respond to it naturally because they are very aware that they don't have all the answers.
In a sense, the world, the American population, is becoming more philosophical because fewer and fewer people see the things ahead as absolute answers. They see their kids developing differently than they thought. I think America is on a spiritual odyssey, a searching time, looking for something. New movements don't come in calm times. They come in disturbed times. We have yet to see what will emerge. I won't be surprised if certain new religious movements, or at least new movements within certain traditional ones, begin to develop.
I think America is going to have to find a new place for itself in the world. A lot of the old ways are just impossible. The questions and the searching are going to become more prominent, and the feeling of having the answers is not going to be as common as it used to be. Whether people study philosophy or not, I think it's a very philosophical time. It's going to be a time of searching.
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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