April 20, 2010

Syracuse is taking over

I am a native of Syracuse, NY, born and raised. I think my accent is "downstate" thanks to my parents. Our family was part of the Great Brooklyn Diaspora. But I grew up extremely familiar with what I considered a "Syracuse accent," characterized by distinctive vowels. Given the generally friendly culture of the place, the accent is best illustrated with phrases like, "Heeave a nice day!" Or "Keean you believe it, Sairacuse is in the Cheeampionship!"

As an adult, I have made Midwestern friends with similar accents, especially people from northern Illinois and urban Wisconsin. It turns out that something called the "northern cities vowel shift" began in the vicinity of Syracuse and has been spreading west, like acid rain but in the opposite direction.

On our western frontier, Nordic Minnesotans with their elongated o's. To our southeast, impregnable New Yuwalk City with all those extra w's. Canadians to the North, flinty New Englanders to the east (stingy with their "r's"), and Apallachia not so far southward across Pennsylvania and Ohio. But if nobody minds, we vowel-shifters will be heeyapy to keep on spreadin' out.

Prof. William Labov is the expert on the vowel shift, and he thinks it may have begun during the construction of the Erie Canal. I personally find the Chicago version just a little different, although I lack the technical training to know how to represent the distinction. Many European-Americans from Cleveland, Madison (that's Meeadison"), and Michigan sound to me strikingly like their counterparts from Syracuse. It's not only the vowels: if you grew up in Syracuse, there is something ineffably familiar about a row of double-decker wooden houses on a wintry side street in Madison. Maybe it all comes from living on drumlins or shoveling snow in May.

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December 4, 2009

my past from the air

(In DC for the Everyday Democracy board meeting): We landed through clouds that ripped open just as we passed above the Kennedy Center, revealing Northwest DC spread out over the airplane wing. It was my seventh landing in DC this fall and probably my twentieth since we moved away from the city in July 2008. Before that, I had spent two decades there. For me, the panorama of Northwest represents the place where our children were born, I was married, unforgettable good and bad news arrived, and the ordinary rhythm of commuting and shopping played through my twenties and thirties. When I see that view disappearing on northward flights, I feel that my youth is also falling behind in a great chunk.

The view is of "DC," the vernacular city of Metro trains, DC Public Schools, Safeways, summer evening concerts at the Zoo, and the dreaded DMV--not "Washington," the federal city of power and glamor, nor "Washington," the tourist destination with its museums and monuments. But the three cities intersect. If you live in bourgeois Northwest, you probably know people who know powerful and glamorous people, and you occasionally visit those museums and monuments by the Mall.

Today, while on a conference call by cell phone, I strolled through Oak Hill Cemetery, where lie Dean Acheson, Jefferson Davis' infant son, Myrtilla Miner (an abolitionist who founded the DC Normal School for Colored Girls), dozens of congressmen, several descendants of Martha Washington, a man who was "promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer, DC Fire Department," and a recently interred man with an Arab name and a quote from Khalil Gibran on his grave. They and many diverse others built the city that becomes one studded reliquary as you view it from the air.

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June 22, 2009

in-flight nostalgia

(On a plane from Boston to San Francisco) I spent every childhood summer in England--in a different home almost each year--and have returned there repeatedly in adulthood. Whenever a long time passes without a visit, I feel subtle nostalgia growing. Here's the kind of thing I miss:

A summer morning, cool enough to require a sweater and jacket outside. The sky has been light since 4 am. The bathroom window is almost always a frosted pane of glass on a hinge, set in a thick stone wall. There's no screen, because there are hardly any mosquitoes. Open the hinge and damp air flows in, carrying strong smells of pollen, rich soil, and new growth--even in the heart of London, although there you can detect engine exhaust as well.

The hot and cold water flow from separate taps, the hot coming directly from a gas heater overhead. It steams in the sink. There's never a shower, just an elaborate coil of metal pipes that hangs on the side of the tub along with a steel basket for the soap. Because of the high voltage, the electrical outlets are big plastic boxes with on/off switches. Layers of paint cover old wallpaper; wires are tacked to the baseboards. Cleansers give the room an ineffably British smell.

The staircase is long and narrow. Bacon is thick and intensely salty. Tea is strong. The insides of the mugs are tea-stained. The grass is luxuriously thick and green. Cumin wafts from restaurant doors, and the glittering cement pavements are sticky from last night's spilled beer. An unmarked white delivery van rushes past, pinning you against a bowed stucco wall. Tattered music billboards, surveillance cameras, Oxfam and Barclay's Bank on the High Street, black fences topped with spears, zebra crossings, beds of lavender and rosemary bushes.

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November 21, 2008

losing one's past

I have a different problem. I feel my past shifting from personal memory into objective history and thereby ceasing to be fully mine.

When I was a little boy, the 1940s seemed an entirely different epoch. It was the lost world of my parents' youth, of FDR on the radio, genocide, jazz, Marines on Iwo Jima. It was black-and-white, sad, and dignified. But now the decade of my childhood, the 1970s, is closer to the Roosevelt Administration than it is to the present.

I presume that when I walked down the streets of London or Syracuse, NY, holding a parent's hand, I did not especially notice the wide lapels, mutton-chop sideburns, punk graffiti, decaying American downtowns, and leftover Blitz bomb-sites that characterized that era. I probably focused on the perennials of childhood: cracks in the sidewalk, low walls for walking on, crunchy leaves or splashy puddles, food smells and parents' voices. But now I can remember hardly anything from a first-person perspective. Instead, I see myself from the outside, a representative of the period, shot in lurid Kodachrome like a used album cover. The image is historical, long-gone, much more like the newsreel footage of 1945 than the real world of today.

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October 14, 2008

Washington memories

I spent this morning in DC (speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center) and was back in my new home of Boston by mid-afternoon. It was a two metro-system day. DC is where I lived from age 22 until last July, and it's where I experienced most of the "transition to adulthood": my last graduation, first full-time job, first apartment, first mortgage, first publications, marriage, kids, and even one kid's graduation from high school. Needless to say, it is full of nostalgia for me. Here are some of today's experiences that triggered memories: fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, African American voices and faces (relatively very scarce in Middlesex County, MA), the "Style" section of the Washington Post, Southern accents, huge expanses of sidewalk, knots of people in suits with government ID's hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, the Metro coasting quietly between stations, and commuters on their way from places I have been--exurban subdivisions in Loudoun County, million-dollar cottages in Chevy Chase, condos in Silver Spring, and row houses in Shaw.

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May 29, 2008

"the buzzy philosophy element"

I'm spending occasional moments cleaning out my office after 15 years. It's an excavation into the forgotten past. For example, I had no recollection of this letter from a British editor. The subject is Something to Hide, my novel that was later published by St. Martin's in the US:

This started off quite well--or intriguingly at least--with the themes of philosophy and conspiracy nicely built, the characters of Zach and Kate making slow but steady progress and the plot structure being established. Somewhere, though, Levine fucked up and from halfway through this winds down into a rather dull trudge through overly familiar political-thriller scenes, tedious shoot-outs and not nearly enough about the historical conspiracy so nicely hinted at in the early stages. It ends up as dull and routine which was a shame after the promising start.

I can imagine that this might do something in the US all the same--it has certain parochial characteristics which would normally prevent it being done in the UK but which America seems to like. The buzzy philosophy element would certainly provide an angle in marketing terms and even though it's dull, the book has a certain charm. I don't really fancy this for Arrow at all, but I wouldn't be very surprised if it sold for a quite a lot in the US.

For the record: there are no shoot-outs, it sold for very little in the US, and I'll take "dull" but with "a certain charm" as a compliment. It's better than "dull and charmless."

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March 31, 2008

a strange journey

I had an invitation to attend a conference at Ditchley, a Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire, early last December. On my way to Dulles Airport, I learned that my father was in some danger; a cancer that we thought had been removed might have spread to his lungs. But the lab results were not expected for several days, my trip was short, and I decided to proceed. I arrived at Heathrow early the next morning, worried but not in panic.

The journey from the airport to Oxfordshire was familiar; I had taken the same early-morning ride every time I arrived for terms of graduate school at Oxford. That morning, the views from the van were exceptionally beautiful: the landscape miraculously green compared to Maryland in late fall, and perfectly trimmed and manicured. Some of the villages northwest of Oxford--clusters of limestone buildings behind ancient walls--are so picturesque that they have been purchased by international billionaires as vacation homes. One that we drove through apparently belongs to a Saudi prince.

And then there was Ditchley. Some sentences from Brideshead Revisited just happen to describe it, down to the details: "We came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. ... The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green ... ; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide-open green spaces ... and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water's edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs."

The house itself (the real Ditchley, not the imaginary Brideshead) was a great stone rectangle, its stern lines broken by cheerful statuary on the roof and curved symmetrical glass passageways leading to the wings. We sat, still dressed in clothes worn overnight, in a Louis Quinze "saloon" beneath an elaborate ceiling of plaster and fresco. There were antlers on the walls among the stucco pilasters and a misty view of the folly through the grand French doors.

It was hard to communicate with the States: no cell phone coverage and only two cranky computers in the basement. But news of my Dad was beginning to trickle in and it was looking very worrisome. Still, there didn't seem to be anything to do but participate in the reception, the first "debate" (as the English call a plenary discussion), and a fine dinner.

The next morning, there was still no definitive information from home. After the morning sessions, I went along for a visit to Broughton Castle in the afternoon. Broughton was four centuries older than Ditchley. Apparently, Henry James called it "perfection, what with moat, gatehouse, church, and gorgeous orange and buff stone." We drove over the moat and into the front court to park beneath the gothic windows of the great hall. The door was opened by none other than Lord Say and Sele, resident of the house, as all his ancestors have been since 1306. He and Lady Say and Sele collected small admissions charges from each of us and then took us on a tour of their home. (Broughton has a castle blog, by the way.)

They were a completely charming elderly couple, unpretentious, humorous, and apparently interested in the opinions and backgrounds of their visitors. Lord Say and Sele took particular delight in the fake stones and synthetic carpeting that Hollywood film crews had left behind after using his house as a set. The moat, he told us, had no military purpose; it was just one of those things you had to have (in the fourteenth century) to impress your neighbors. One fireplace upstairs was carved by the same continental artisans who decorated Henry VIII's palace of Nonesuch, which later burned to the ground. Thus the Broughton fireplace is one of a tiny number of truly sophisticated Mannerist works that survive in England, where it looks two centuries ahead of its time. The kitchen, built in the middle ages beneath Gothic arches, is still the best place to prepare food, so now it has a refrigerator with art by grandchildren, hanging cabinets, and a range.

Not long after we had returned to Ditchley, I spoke to my mother and learned that my father's cancer was aggressive and untreatable. He had only a short time to live. I made arrangements for an early return but could not get out of Oxfordshire until the next day at the earliest. So there was nothing to do but attend another reception and then the formal dinner. It was a black-tie affair, although I had forgotten to pack mine. We spoke of the differences between US and British social policy. A countess sat opposite me and a retired British Army officer to my right.

I like to think I am blasé about stately homes. Not only did I grow up partly in England, but my father was an authority on some aspects of English historical culture. He wrote, for instance, a whole book about neoclassicism; and Ditchley is a neoclassical house. I was not to the manner born, but I was to many manors dragged from a tender age, and I know a thing or two about places like Ditchley--even a bit about its architect, James Gibbs. But it was hard not to be impressed by the candle-lit dinner scene.

Not too many hours later, I was sitting with my father in his hospital room, showing him brochures of Broughton that he managed to enjoy. He was being quite amazingly brave. Less than two months later, he was dead.

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February 21, 2008

chamber music

Last Saturday in Syracuse, my Mom and I heard the Rossetti String Quartet play works by Mozart, Dvorak, and Debussey. Such events always provoke nostalgia for me, because chamber music used to play a very important role in my life. In my young adult years in New Haven, Oxford, and Washington, I used to attend concerts at least once a week. I usually went by myself. In childhood, however, I usually attended with my father, who died just weeks ago. He and I often had tickets to the very same concert series, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. In London, we went to many venues, but I especially remember the rather drab hall of the Ethical Culture Society, in which we heard fine performances. And other locations occur to me as stray thoughts--for instance, a basement in Lucca, Italy, where we once heard the Chilingarian Quartet. To tell the truth (at last), I really went along because I liked Dad's attention on the trips to and from the concert halls. I used to count the minutes until each recital ended; but a habit formed.

I had other reasons to be nostalgic last Saturday. The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has moved from the University to a public middle school. It's not a school that I attended, but it's part of the same district, and the students' art and official warning notices on the walls were timelessly familiar. The concert program contained a memorial notice for my own music teacher, who recently died. I recognized many subscribers to the notice; some were parents of my childhood friends. And I knew members of the audience. They were almost uniformly white-haired. The median age must have been 75. These were the same people, indeed, who belonged to the Friends of Chamber Music 35 years ago. They were much the same kind of people who filled Wigmore Hall or Alice Tulley Hall in 1970 and who still predominate at the Phillips Collection or the Library of Congress recitals in Washington.

When we consider why the audience for chamber music has aged and shrunk, it's tempting to revive the usual explanations: inadequate musical education, limited funds, the kids today. But I suspect a deeper reason, which makes me even more nostalgic or elegiac. If the heart of the chamber music tradition is the string quartet, the piano sonata, the art song, and the trio, then it really lived from about 1750 to 1950. When the audience at last Saturday's concert was young, Shostakovich and Bartok were still writing chamber works in that tradition. The latest works of that era commented on the classic ones in the repertoire. To be sure, there are still composers today, and they still produce quartets and sonatas. But as far as I know, their style is abruptly different from that of the nineteenth-century masters. They are too hard for almost anyone to perform, and rather difficult to enjoy. They have an audience, but it is small and highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, the tradition of Mozart and Brahms is no longer alive. It is an antiquarian or historical interest. I doubt it will ever die off completely; in the age of Amazon.com, even the most obscure tastes can find markets. But I don't think it will fully revive unless contemporary music itself reconnects with the classical background--which may not be a natural or even a desirable development.

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January 26, 2008

Joseph M. Levine

(Syracuse, NY) My Dad, Joe Levine, died at 6:50 am today after a long struggle with cancer that gave him many trials and indignities. I have some misgivings about using a blog to write about his death. Even the word "blog" seems unworthy of the occasion, which should be observed privately by those who knew and loved him or else in some serious professional setting such as an obituary or an academic memorial service. Indeed, we hope to achieve all of those things, but I cannot resist using this space for at least for a few quick notes.

Dad was best as a husband and father. Those were the roles he cared about most and performed with the most commitment and distinction, especially for a man of his generation. He took advantage of the flexibility of an academic career to spend immense amounts of time with his family. I think he almost always preferred to be with all of us, or--if his children were unavailable--at least to be alone with Mom, his partner of 52 years. We gamely accompanied him to chamber music concerts, used bookstores, and auctions, and he came along with us to playgrounds and shopping malls. He also walked us to school when we didn't want to go (a feeling he remembered from his own childhood) and sat up with us when we couldn't sleep. He was a peaceful, gentle man and he shed peace on his family and friends.

As Joseph M. Levine, Dad was Distinguished Professor of History at Syracuse University, where he taught from 1966 until a few weeks ago. He was "distinguished" in more than title, having built an international reputation as a historian of ideas and a cultural historian. Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton and vir eruditissimus, has called him "one of the most distinguished intellectual historians in the English-speaking world." Indeed, he was the world's leading authority on how the British understood and practiced history from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. I need hardly say that this is an important topic because a culture's understanding of history is fundamental to its development.


Dad published six books and many articles. In Doctor Woodward's Shield (1977; second edition, 1991), he recovered the spirit of English intellectual life around 1700 by telling the story of a controversy that involved many of the leading wits, scholars, and scientists of the era. (The controversy concerned a shield that was thought to have belonged to Achilles himself, but ultimately turned out to be a forgery). The London Review of Books called Dr. Woodward's Shield "one of the most imaginative contributions to the history of ideas written in the last fifty years." In The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (1991) and in Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England (1999), Dad described the dispute about whether ancient culture was always superior to modern culture: an argument that profoundly influenced writers, scholars, scientists, and artists for several centuries. In The Autonomy of History: Truth and Method from Erasmus to Gibbon (1999), and in other writing throughout his career, Dad described the development of historical thinking and methodology. He was a passionate defender and teacher of the modern methods and craft of history, even though he was most widely read in departments of English and art history.

It is a paradox about Dad that he relished arguments and disputes, which provided the material for all his writing and which always piqued his interest, yet everyone who knew him would describe him as gentle. He argued against ideas, not against people. He was especially good, in fact, at seeing why people might adopt ideas with which he disagreed. That is a great asset for a cultural or intellectual historian.

Throughout his career, Dad was concerned with such questions as: How did history separate itself from fiction? Why was the imitation of classical models so popular and successful for several centuries of European history, and then what reduced the impulse to imitate Rome and Greece? How and why did modern methods of historical research develop? When and why did Europeans begin to understand ancient culture as profoundly different from their own? He always approached such questions by identifying particular people who had thought and written about historical issues (usually in disputes with others). He sought to recover their original motives and reasons through meticulous research, based on primary sources. This was the historical method whose development he traced back to the Renaissance.

Although he was an historian of ideas, Dad was profoundly an empiricist. He believed that ideas arose more or less the same way that other events occurred: because of the choices people made for particular purposes in local circumstances. His empiricism was a high principle that he defended, for instance, in a significant critique of the political theorist Quentin Skinner. But I think Dad was an empiricist in a much more fundamental and instinctive sense. He simply loved to poke around, to explore, to uncover unexpected facts even if they disrupted his own theories. The same man who haunted bookstores, snapped photos of sculptures in obscure European cities, drove around Upstate New York looking for antiques, and tried one minor Baroque composer after another was also a man who made his scholarly career by browsing. He browsed through the tangled narratives of forgotten disputes because he loved to be lost in facts.

Dad was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1933 and grew up near Ebbetts Field. He was very much a Brooklyn Jew: unobservant (indeed, unbelieving), but proud of his heritage and very much a product of it. He was perhaps a little unusual for a Brooklynite in that he became quite an Anglophile. Our family always took its bearings from early-modern English culture, and more broadly, from the Christian civilizations of the Atlantic nations of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe, from which Dad's family had come, were in his distant periphery; Israel mostly exasperated him. He knew French and Italian but basically no German or Hebrew. Nevertheless, I think Dad took a dose of Germanic culture from the emigré scholars who had transformed American universities during and after the War. They believed that one could gain spiritual or moral freedom by appreciating very fine works of culture; and that one could best appreciate a cultural object by understanding its social context, which required scholarship. The classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf, who epitomized the German academy around 1900, wrote, "aesthetic evaluation is possible only from the perspective of the time in which the artwork was situated, out of the spirit of the people which brought it forth." Add to that doctrine the Kantian idea that aesthetic evaluation develops character and freedom, and you can see why a person might study and collect books, prints, and records and write and teach about subjects like humanism and classicism. You can also see why Dad treated scholars like Arnaldo Momigliano, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach with such profound respect.

But to mention such influences is to overlook Dad's passionate connection to the United States. He chose to spend years in England and elsewhere in Western Europe, but there was no question that he was an American. In fact, he was interested in English intellectual history up to the 18th century as the main precursor of American thought. Dad rooted for the Jets, the Mets, and the Democrats through thick and thin. He appreciated the dynamism of the United States and some (but by no means all) of its latest trends. I connect him especially to the everyday culture of New York City from the thirties to the sixties: the mix of people on the streets, the accents, the Subway, the bookstores on Fourth Avenue, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the bars in Morningside Heights, racks of used classical LPs, hot dogs from stands, the ideals and public institutions of La Guardia and FDR.

Dad graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and then from Cornell University. He received a PhD in history from Columbia in 1965 after quite a long period as a part-time professor and active New Yorker. (He and Mom even worked on turning Ellis Island into a college; they were always, in my jargon, "civically engaged.") After some short stints at other institutions, Dad moved to Syracuse University and soon rented--later owned--the house where I grew up and where he died.

Although they were based in Syracuse, my parents spent more than 35 summers and several full years in England, where Dad used the historical archives and acquired most of his 30,000 books, especially the old ones. One year, he shipped home an actual ton of books. At first, my parents rented a different home in England on almost every annual visit. Recently, they have owned a tiny house in Camden Town from which they could walk together to the British Library. Although they cherish some English friends, their main social circle over there consists of American academics (mainly, Jewish New York academics) who use the British archives.

Disease made the last years hard for Dad, but they were definitely not without compensations. He especially enjoyed his grandchildren and had some time for teaching and travel even after he was diagnosed with cancer. Near the end, the disease struck hard at his mind and dignity. However, I recall one moment from recent weeks that was still very characteristic of him. We were visiting a cancer-care facility that offered a high-tech treatment. It was a very commercial place; we ultimately found we couldn't afford the technology they pushed. The first person who spoke to us was the "patient advocate"--a corporate euphemism for the official who tried to sign us up as clients. She said that she had studied some history but had dropped it when it turned out there were no teaching jobs in her local school district. Dad could have been put off by the whole experience. Instead, he remarked, "What a great country, that it throws up so many confident young women like that. Not long ago, all those jobs were filled by men." I thought that remark perfectly captured Dad's humane and liberal generosity. The same spirit also determined his views on race, class, education, and civil liberties.

One dark recent night as Dad (delirious) and I (despairing) sat together in his study, which is lined with books about historians, I found and silently read the following text. The great historian Marc Bloch joined the French Resistance and was tortured and killed by the Gestapo. He left this testament (translated by Gerard Hopkins):

When death comes to me, whether in France or abroad, I leave it to my dear wife or, failing her, to my children, to arrange for such burial as may seem best to them. I wish the burial to be a civil one only. The members of my family know that I could accept no other kind. But when the moment comes I should like some friend to take upon himself the task of reading the following words ...:

I have not asked to have read above my body those Jewish prayers to the cadence of which so many of my ancestors, including my father, were laid to rest. All my life I have striven to achieve complete sincerity in word and thought. I hold that any compromise with untruth, no matter what the pretext, is the mark of a human soul's ultimate corruption. Following in this a much greater man than I could ever hope to be [I think the reference is to Ernest Renan], I wish for no better epitaph than these simple words:--DILEXIT VERITATEM [he loved the truth]. That is why I find it impossible, at this moment of my last farewell, when, if ever, a man should be true to himself, to authorize any use of those formulae of an orthodoxy to the beliefs of which I have ever refused to subscribe.

But I should hate to think that anyone might read into this statement of personal integrity even the remotest approximation to a coward's denial. I am prepared therefore, if necessary, to affirm here, in the face of death, that I was born a Jew: that I have never denied it, nor ever been tempted to do so. In a world assailed by the most appalling barbarism, is not that generous tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, which Christianity at its highest and noblest took over and expanded, one of the best justifications we can have for living, believing, and fighting? A stranger to all credal dogmas, as to all pretended community of life and spirit based on race, I have, through life, felt that I was above all, and quite simply, a Frenchman. A family tradition, already of long date, has bound me firmly to my country. I have found nourishment in her spiritual heritage and in her history. I can, indeed, think of no other land in which I could have breathed with such air and freedom. I have loved her greatly and served her with all my strength. I have never found that the fact of being a Jew has at all hindered these sentiments. Though I have fought in two wars, it has not fallen to my lot to die for France. But I can, at least, in all sincerity, declare that I die now, as I have lived, a good Frenchman.

If we substitute "America" for "France," add gentleness and tact to Bloch's cardinal virtue of sincerity, and delete the sentence about serving in two wars, these words would beautifully and precisely describe my father.

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December 3, 2007

German memories

Last winter, we took a quick family vacation to a small town in Bavaria. This was my first serious stay in Germany, although I'd been to Austria before. Specifically, we chose to visit a town in Franconia, a province famous for walled cities, vineyards on rolling hills, carved altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider, and the Nazi Gauleiter Julius Streicher.

Our hotel was built into the medieval walls. Its cultural atmosphere was, I suppose, a mix of the pre-modern and the contemporary. The food, the appliances, and the free computer terminals were all up-to-date, but the structure belonged to the old free Imperial city of traders and guilds. That city, incidentally, incorporated a large Jewish community with a famous scholarly tradition, until the Jews were expelled in 1520.

The family that owned the hotel could not possibly have been friendlier, warmer, or kinder to us. Near the end of our stay, we had to move--as previously arranged--to a suite in their private house. This turned out to be a spacious and comfortable home with all the modern conveniences, reminiscent (to me) of suburban houses in Surrey. It was, in fact, a newer building than any in which I have lived in the United States. A stone plaque over the main door identified the date of construction. I believe it said "1937."

I do not pretend to know the details of life in a small Franconian town in 1937, but I suspect that no one built handsome houses right outside the city walls without being friendly to the totalitarian Nazi regime, which was deeply rooted in the region. Our host had grown up in the house and seemed old enough to remember its construction. You flipped on a light switch and thought to yourself that that very same switch had still been new on Kristallnacht in 1938. Evil felt close and recent.

And yet, the family's private library included serious, scholarly books on the holocaust, anti-Nazi classics by Mann and Grass, and pacifist volumes by the likes of Tolstoy. How do I know that there was a medieval Jewish community in town? Because of the fine and prominent municipal monument to the expelled, which is inscribed with Hebrew poetry translated into German. I know from an equally excellent Holocaust memorial that the 17 Jews who resided in town in 1938 were driven away and lost to history.

It wasn't our host's fault that he was born in Franconia around 1930. Nor do I deserve one ounce of moral credit for having been born of Jewish heritage in America decades later. I don't see what anyone in his position could do, beyond reading the books that he owns and contributing to the decent contemporary state that is the Federal Republic of Germany. There are countless citizens of guilty countries who have never stopped to think about such matters.

Our host's wife was in the hospital. On the day we had to leave, he insisted on driving his little car all the way to the Autobahn so that we could follow him and get safely on our way to Frankfurt. I picture him waving goodbye to us and then driving back to his 1937 house to wait for news from the hospital. I only hope that the news was good.

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November 26, 2007

digital nativism

(Wisconsin) I am not a "digital native," someone who grew up with computers from infancy. Instead, I am an immigrant to the land of the digital--but I arrived here early. In mid-elementary school, my Mom took me and a friend to the Syracuse University computer lab, where we played around with a mainframe machine that used punch cards. Around the same period, one of my aunts had a friend who owned a store in New York City that sold robots and home computers. I visited the store and probably had some contact with a desktop computer.

By seventh grade, some of my friends knew a bit about how to use our middle-school's work stations, which were networked with the downtown machine by way of old-fashioned modems. (You put the phone receiver in a velvet-lined box, closed the latch, and then dialed.) That year, I remember a friend telling me about computer viruses. By ninth grade, I owned a Commodore 64 for playing video games and programming a little in BASIC.

I arrived at college with a portable, manual (non-electric typewriter) which served me through freshman year. By the time I graduated, I was composing all my papers on one of the college's shared Apple Macs.

As an immigrant to the land of the digital, I can still remember the Old Country and probably speak computerese with a slight offline accent. But I function well. I would be highly uncomfortable in a pre-digital world, and I have more experience with computers than the young digital natives whom I meet in high schools and colleges.

You can tell those who immigrated much later in life and who still long for the old country--the digital exiles. They may, for example, work from a single Word file, which they erase and rewrite every time they need a new document. That way, they don't have to save and quit, which they have never quite learned to do. Another telltale sign: keeping all of one's email in the inbox (forever) and only writing to people by replying to old emails. Using the email subject line "From [your name]" is also a mark of the digital exile.

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August 27, 2007

portrait of a library

Last April, I posted a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote about the home in which I was raised--a home most remarkable for the 30,000 books that my Dad has collected and used for his scholarship. People liked the post, presumably because of Dunn's fine poem rather than my short commentary; and several readers requested pictures. On our latest visit to Syracuse, I took some photos and turned them into a short movie segment (below). It starts outside, works its way through the house to the attic, and ends in the basement, where most of the books are kept in library stacks.

I'm not satisfied with the aesthetics. You're looking at the house under a pretty harsh direct flash, which turns dark-blue walls pale-blue, whitens the pine shelves, and reveals the wood behind the books. But at least I've documented the objects that Dunn wrote about, including the chairs that his ghosts sat on and the "startling print" upstairs.

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July 19, 2007

perspectives

Here's our mapping class, a bunch of kids between the ages of 13 and 15 who are interviewing a former chair of the County Council about how to improve their public school system. (I show a photo because we are taking lots of pictures to build a multimedia website.) They have come to the campus of the University of Maryland for the interview. An hour earlier, I was in the adjacent building for a dissertation defense. The (successful) candidate, a philosophy PhD student, had written her thesis on empowerment in international development, drawing on the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

Despite tremendous differences in vocabulary and methodology, there were some common themes in the two discussions. Both the middle-schoolers and the professors wanted to know how to reform institutions to enhance human development.

I have plenty of insecurities as an academic. I don't do technically complex work; I don't have field position within a major discipline. I don't publish in distinguished venues, and I haven't synthesized whatever I've learned in original, ambitious ways. I don't know whether I'll ever make substantial progress on those fronts. But on days like this, I am deeply grateful for the richness and diversity of the conversations I have the privilege to join.

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April 9, 2007

my home as described by Stephen Dunn

(Syracuse, NY) We're visiting my parents in the house where I grew up. It's a cottage on the top of a steep hill. The back yard leads into a large urban park: nicely landscaped with meadows and stands of cypress trees, but always somewhat dangerous. Inside, as I've noted before, there are almost 30,000 books. Wherever there are spaces over bookcases or on the stairwells, my parents have hung prints. These are mostly rather sedate works--but on the steps to the attic hangs a Kathe Kollwitz engraving of Death or the Devil dragging a mother away from her baby. The furniture in the living room was once upholstered in white leather.

All this is background to a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote when his family rented the house from us. I think this must have been 1973-4, when Dunn was a visiting professor at Syracuse University and we were in London. The poem, typed on a real typewriter that bit into the paper, reads:

Letter to a Distant Landlord

This is the 20th century and you
are invisible, across the Atlantic,
beyond reach. We sleep in your bed,
we make love where
you made love and it's strange
we've not met.
This house, though, does speak
of you; all the books, the good
junk in the attic, that
startling print in the upstairs hall.
You've brought the past forward
to mingle like a fine, old grandfather
with the appliances and dust.
And we approve.
Even the ghosts here are intelligent.
They wait til the children are asleep
then sit in the white chairs
in the livingroom. Some nights
it's Nietzsche, last night it was
Marx. They are all timbre
and smoke, all they want is
for me to get off my ass, to break
my spririt's sleep.
But they don't insist. They've seen
so much their rancor has turned
to sighs. We do not learn
is what they've learned.
Yet we are comfortable in your house.
It is what we wanted.
The park nearby is beautiful
and dangerous, a 20th century park,
the kind we must walk through. Our small
belligerent dog picks fights there
with Shepherds. They pick fights with him.
Sometimes though they're all tails and tongues,
like us, and the air smells good
and the grass is freshly cut.
And so we send our checks
and try to imagine your hands,
your face, the way you discuss
the things you must discuss.
Some day after you're back,
smelling our smells and rearranging
your lives, maybe we'll appear
at your door disguised as ourselves.
We'll say we're looking for a house
(that'll be our only hint), sneak
the glimpses we want, and move on
like strangers who brushed by
on their way somewhere else
and don't know why, in this century,
they cannot stop.

I love this poem as an evocation of my home, Dunn's private life, and the 20th century. I'd only quarrel with one aspect (and even on this point I grant Dunn his license). I doubt that the ghosts in our house talk about Nieztsche and Marx very often. There are shelves of books by those authors that might conjure their spirits once in a while, but I'm sure they don't reign over the house. The local spirits are English, bewigged, dusty, and interested in facts rather than theories.

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March 26, 2007

Joseph M. Levine

(Flying to Albuquerque, NM) I was in Atlanta over the weekend. A panel discussion at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was devoted to my father's work. It seemed fairly miraculous that he could attend the session, since he has had major surgery five times within the last year and was still in the hospital only one month ago. But the prognosis is good, and he was able to participate actively in the discussion. Seven peers and former students gave short papers about aspects of his work.

My dad's colleagues and students described an empirical historian, a painstaking scholar with a very concrete, pragmatic bent. His field is intellectual history (also known as the "history of ideas"), with a focus on the history of historical thought in England. His job is to interpret books, letters, speeches, and works of art. Many of his readers are literary critics and art historians who are interested in these texts and objects. Dad treats the works that he studies as events--akin to battles, expeditions, trials, or legislation. In other words, he understands cultural products as intentional human acts, occurring for specific, traceable reasons in particular contexts. That assumption drives him to consider local and specific historical circumstances. Unlike the "new historicists,' who often understand books as examples of periods, "discourses," cultures, or traditions, my father tends to see texts as acts performed for specific purposes under specific conditions--for example, to counter something that another author has said. That was how he was taught to practice history even before he decided to specialize in the history of ideas.

Often, great authors were not merely influenced by canonical figures who still interest us today because of their intrinsic merits. Most of the famous authors were also involved in debates with allies or adversaries who were not geniuses and who are mostly forgotten today. Books like Utopia, The Prince, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were written for, against, or in response to much more ordinary contemporary works. An empirical intellectual historian reads those other works and uses them to reconstruct the intentions of the authors of the classics.

An empiricist is someone without strong ideological or philosophical motives, one who merely describes some external reality and follows the evidence where it leads. My dad is not a positivist, because he is a narrative historian, and a narrative is a form of interpretation. But his colleagues and students described him as someone who has no agenda other than to recover past thinking and to make it coherent through narrative.

I think in this respect they may have overlooked a certain political purpose. After all, even a pure empiricist must choose which topics to study. Dad’s work reconstructs the origins of some of our contemporary institutions, such as academic history and intellectual freedom. He studies them because he values them. A particular kind of skeptical but humane liberalism is also implicit in his effort to recover the intentions of past human beings without quickly imposing grand ideas on them. Even my father’s method, which encourages him to study quarrels, controversies, and debates, reflects an enthusiasm for free speech and the marketplace of ideas.

Liberalism is an ideology, to be sure. The very idea that individual human beings' intentions are important rests on metaphysical and moral assumptions. Still, there is a skeptical form of liberalism (well developed in our time by Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty) that makes minimal presuppositions and that shuns abstractions in favor of deep respect for varied human individuals in their particular contexts. That kind of liberalism is not only implicit in my father’s method; it is also the subject of his work. One of the main sources of such liberalism was the skeptical, empirical, pragmatic, human-centered, literal, narrative form of history that arose with Renaissance humanism.

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January 8, 2007

five things about me

Russell Arben Fox has tagged me in a game that is going around the blogosphere. I'm supposed to write "five things you don't know about me." Here goes:

1. I used to live with Marcel. Marcel was once a beloved baby elephant at the Paris Zoo. During the Prussian siege of 1870-1871, the famished Parisians were forced, much to their sorrow, to eat Marcel. They retained his skin, which was stuffed with a beer barrel and straw. After some years of posthumous service in a Paris bar (beer came out of his trunk), Marcel was moved to London. He belonged to the owners of an apartment near Victoria Station that my family rented in 1979-81.

2. My 7-year-old daughter and I have constructed what we call our "mosque." It is about 14 inches high. It isn't really a mosque, because it lacks a mihrab (to orient people for prayer) or a minbar (the Islamic equivalent of a pulpit). That's probably just as well; it might seem disrespectful for two unbelievers to build a mosque for play. Our motives were the opposite of disrespectful. We (or at least I) love Islamic architecture and wanted to figure out how to construct a public building--which could be a bath, a school, or a library--in the 16th-century Ottoman style.

3. In the 1990s, I used to play the clavichord. It is one of the two quietest instruments I know, the other one being the lute. If an air-conditioner is running in the same room with our clavichord, you can't hear a note from more than three feet away. Its low volume was an attraction for me, because we live in a small apartment. So was the fact that J.S. Bach would have used a clavichord in his home. Tuning it, however, is so time-consuming that I have mostly given it up. (I did receive a didgeridoo for Christmas last year, but that's mostly for looking at.)

4. I basically identify as a Jewish American, a grandchild of immigrants. But it turns out that my oldest American ancestor, by way of my mother, was one Isaac Learnard, who died in Chelmsford, Mass. anno domini 1657.

5. I am color-blind and can hardly sing a note. (Or, even worse, I can only sing one note.) Yet I love music and painting. Would I enjoy these arts less if I could actually perceive them?

I tap phronesisaical.

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November 27, 2006

growing up in a library

(Syracuse, NY): We're stuck in my hometown after Thanksgiving weekend because of a delayed flight. Over the weekend, my wife Laura and I measured the bookshelves in the house where I grew up. We estimate that my Dad has filled 2,663 linear feet of shelving with his books, which he has collected over fifty years in several countries. We were interested in the aggregate length of his shelving because all of us want to know how much space the books would occupy if we had to move them. Apparently, we would need about 110 standard-size, eight-shelf bookcases--but since Dad really packs the books in tightly, I think we might need 125. We didn't count volumes, but a rough estimate would be 27,000-30,000.

Sometimes an increase in quantity causes a change in quality. To grow up in a smallish house that contains that many books is to grow up in a different kind of place: a library rather than a standard home. The books were unusual, too. Most were published before 1900 and some are as old as the late 1500s. They are musty, worn, crumbly, well-traveled, and well used.

Social scientists often ask children how many books are in their homes, because this is a proxy for socio-economic status (SES). Kids can estimate numbers of books better than they can guess their own parents' incomes and educational credentials. By that measure, I was enormously privileged--far better off than any billionaire's kid. In reality, there may have been some diminishing returns after the first, say, 20,000 volumes arrived in our home. But it was a privilege to grow up amid so much vellum and parchment and so many carefully written words.

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April 21, 2006

national essence

If you've spent substantial time in a second country, you probably recognize certain qualities of everyday life that distinguish that nation from your own: for example, the smell of common cleaning products, the items on menus of cheap eateries, the uniforms of bus drivers and janitors, the cadences of conversations that you cannot quite hear, the shape of electrical outlets, the most common building materials, whether or not packs of teenage girls hold hands as they walk down the street, the layout of sidewalks, the taste of popular candy bars and soft drinks, the typography of signs, and the color of light from streetlamps.

Having been a kid in both England and upstate New York, I always felt I could recognize the essential texture of Englishness--which is most concentrated in places that tourists never go, like school lunchrooms, suburban playgrounds, and doctors' offices ("surgeries"). Lately, however, on trips to the Low Countries and Scandinavia, I have begun to wonder whether what I thought was English, or perhaps British, is actually the shared vernacular culture of Europe north of France. For instance:

1. A sandwich shop where I ate in Antwerp could have been in London, save for the language. The daily menu on the chalk board standing on the sidewalk, the food itself, the clientele--businessmen in a certain kind of suit--all could be found in Soho.

2. The snack bar outside the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo resembled innumerable such shops outside of "stately homes," public gardens, and archaeological sites in England, ca. 1980. There was something about the list of ice cream novelties, the typography of the sign, the summer sunlight at that northern latitude, and the line of expectant schoolchildren with pocket-money that I would have considered essentially British.

3. At the Nordbrabantsmuseum in 's-Hertogensbosch, the Netherlands, a reconstructed kitchen from the 1930s reminded me of similar displays in South Kensington and in provincial British museums--not only because the kitchen and its supplies looked English, but also because a certain nostalgia had caused it to be rebuilt in a museum.

I'm starting to think that there's a Northern-European vernacular that stops at the French border. Did it originate in Victorian England and spread across the north of the continent in the age of English dominance? Or does it reflect some profound commonality among the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Norsemen who settled modern England?

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December 20, 2005

city of dreaming spires

Oxford--the city, not the university--figures in my memories from all stages of my life. In fact, my connection to the town predates my memory. When I was a colicky baby, my parents rented a house in Oxford one summer that came with its own punt--one of the flat, polled boats that are common on Oxford's two placid rivers. Apparently, I was happy only when lying on my stomach at the bottom of the punt.

When I was between seven and ten, we lived for several long periods in London. My father, a British historian, could make good use of the books and papers in Oxford's Bodleian Library. We took family day-trips to Oxford that developed certain routines. We would go to a pet store in Oxford's Victorian covered market, buy dry food appropriate for deer, and feed them in the park of Magdalen (pronounced "Maudlin") College. The Magdalen park is stocked with short English roe deer and surrounded by a bend in the Cherwell River along which Joseph Addison liked to walk in the 18th century. The gothic towers of Madgalen (ancient and quaint even in Addison's day) rise above the grass and water.

I also remember that we would buy tea in Brown's cafe, which remained remarkably unchanged 15 years later--the same man still made tea by pouring hot water through what appeared to be the same nylon mesh sack. This is where the city's "meter maids" and market vendors met around formica tables to talk in their thick, West-Country accents, straight out of Thomas Hardy.

And it was in the Minoan and Cycladic room of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum that we learned I was color-blind, because I could not distinguish the regions on the map. From the same period, I remember the children's book room upstairs at Blackwell's book shop. It represented a certain style--affluent but bohemian: we would now call it "yuppie"--that was new in England and had not yet reached my home town of Syracuse.

Later, when I was eleven or twelve, my father and I sometimes used to go to Oxford alone. We would meet about every two hours in the anteroom of the New Bodeleian, so that he could check up on me. Between our meetings, I would visit the Pitt-Rivers museum, which I now know to be an extremely eccentric Victorian collection of ethnographic artefacts; or I would buy stamps in a musty stamp shop east of the Cherwell or model train supplies on Broad Street.

Still later, in my teens, we spent two whole summers in or near Oxford. We'd often rent a punt and I'd pole my family along the Cherwell, which seems to run through deep wooded countryside even close to the University. I took a lot of pictures in those days (I had a darkroom back in Syracuse). I'd go in and out of Oxford's colleges looking for good shots of old buildings.

And then, because I won a scholarship that was tenable only at Oxford, I attended graduate school there. I always felt like an outsider to the University, perhaps because I was a graduate student working alone on a dissertation at an institution that revolves around the undergraduate tutorial, or perhaps because I was uncharacteristically shy during that period. Or perhaps almost no one is an insider to Oxford, divided as it is among dozens of colleges and separate academic faculties. In any case, I knew and loved the physical environment, the ancient academic buildings, the bustling modern shopping districts, the old workers' districts, and the farmland of the upper Thames Valley. Needing to take breaks from my writing, I used to walk several times a day. Sometimes I'd just stretch my legs around Addison's Walk or Christ Church Meadow, whose miscellaneous cows munching before a medieval townscape looked like figures in a 17th century Dutch painting. Other days, I'd hike as far as Blenheim or at least to Iffley, where the Norman church still shows its primitive zigzagged carvings

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October 25, 2005

walking backwards

Ever since I was about eight years old, my routine has always included frequent walks. Even now, my daily commute involves about 50 minutes of walking as well as a Metro ride. The time that I spend alone on the sidewalks of Washington and Maryland seems continuous with the walks that I started as early as 1975. Personal identity is nothing but a story we tell ourselves; we select a few instances from the countless events of our past and make them definitive of an "I" that is, in reality, less distinctive, consistent, and separate from its context than we like to believe. As I tell myself a story about my self, I can find no deeper continuity than the series of walks I have taken since childhood and the meandering thoughts that have accompanied them.

As I grew up, my family mainly alternated between Syracuse, NY and London. I think I first walked alone frequently in Syracuse, going to school (often with friends but sometimes on my own) or strolling in the neighborhood. And what did I think about as I walked on those steep sidewalks cracked by old roots, past hippy group houses or the Arts-and-Crafts bungalows of faculty families--or between high heaps of dog-stained Syracuse snow? Mostly fantasies of adventure, I think. I also puzzled through questions of history and politics, addressing that silent inner student whom I suspect we all use as our primary audience.

One of our periods London began in June 1975 and ended in August 1976, if my calculations are correct. I turned nine that winter, and we lived in a Regency row house in South Kensington (which would now be as far out of my family's reach as Buckingham Palace; rents have risen). I was allowed to take excursions on my own to certain approved destinations. For instance, I could walk to South Kensington Station, descend into an old tunnel that connects it to the Natural History Museum, emerge in the Museum, and spend hours looking at musty specimens and obeying a self-imposed rule to read every label. Or I could walk to an Indian gift shop that smelled of incense and stocked objects like fans and candles that I could afford for family birthday presents.

We were back in London frequently; I especially recall the long walks I used to take through Westminster when I was 12 and 13, and the days during graduate school when I would ride the bus from Oxford to London's West End and then make my way on foot all the way to the Docklands of the east. Once, in Jack-the-Ripper's old neighborhood--subsequently flattened to build Stalinist public housing and recently gentrified--an ancient Cockney lady with a beard stopped me and said, "Enjoy yer life, son. You're still young."

Although nowadays few middle class parents would allow their kids to go far alone in New York City, back in the more dangerous 1970s I used to spend vacation days wandering from my great-aunt's apartment in Greenwich Village to midtown to meet a parent at a museum or book store.

In the spring of 1984, when I was finishing high school, my family spent the semester in Florence and I enrolled in the Syracuse University Program there. Since the city is magnificent--and since I had a limited social life as the only high-school student in a program for college juniors--I used to walk constantly. I got to know the narrow stone streets intimately. My favorite walk wound from our neighborhood north of Santa Croce across the Arno and then up the steep hill to San Minato al Monte, from which there is a sweeping view. For my courses, I was reading and thinking about Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Erwin Panofsky, and Jan Huizinga; they all remain extremely interesting to me today.

Later, as a young adult in Washington, I used to walk occasionally across the Potomac and up into Arlington Cemetery. Although the souls of Washington and Florence are vastly different, there is a strange similarity in their basic layouts: the Capitol stands in for the Duomo, the Washington Monument for the Bargello, and the Old Post Office for the Palazzo Vecchio. Certainly, my unconscious mind has confused them; I frequently dream that I am walking across Florence and find myself in Arlington, or vice-versa.

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October 6, 2005

philosophy, the profession

On Crooked Timber recently, Harry Brighouse observed that graduate students in philosophy are wise not to publish too much. If they do choose to publish, they should reserve their work for prestigious journals. He wasn't too sure about the hierarchy of prestige, but Ethics and Philosophy & Public Affairs were clearly top venues in his field (which is also, nominally, mine).

This whole discussion fills me with a vague anxiety that I rarely feel at my current stage of life. It transports me back 10 or 15 years to my days as a grad student and aspiring professor. I was extremely fortunate in some ways: for example, my doctorate was free. However, studying abroad and very much on my own, I received absolutely no tactical advice about how to play the academic game. So the idea that you shouldn't publish would never have occurred to me.

Brighouse's post provoked some discussion of the major journals. I admire the work that appears in venues like Ethics and Philosophy & Public Affairs. I must have read 50 articles from those publications in my life. Most have been difficult, challenging, and rigorous. But I don't read the journals regularly or keep up with the overall discipline of philosophy in any organized way.

The comments on Crooked Timber describe strengths, weaknesses, and trends in various journals. I lack the experience to join in this conversation. Already in graduate school, I read to investigate certain themes that lay far outside contemporary philosophy. For instance, for my dissertation, I constructed an argument about historical thought in Nietzsche's time. For that purpose, I read a great deal of nineteenth-century German history. For secondary sources on Nietzsche, I was as likely to consult authors from the 1800s as those from the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, I spend more time with developmental psychology. Whatever my interests, I have always found articles in Ethics and PPA as the result of subject searches, not by reading those publications regularly.

None of this would cause me any anxiety or regret if I disparaged contemporary ethics and political theory. Then I would simply be glad that I landed in a job that allowed me to wander far afield. It is because I recognize the excellence of Brighouse's profession that I wonder whether I have been wise to drift away from it.

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August 31, 2005

pining for the fjords

For the most part, this is supposed to be a professional blog about civic renewal, moral philosophy, and related subjects. However, today I cannot resist recording some of the memories that still fill my mind after two weeks in Scandinavia.


rainbow over Geysir, Iceland

Iceland: I especially recall the southern coast road, two hours of driving on gravel without ever seeing a house, lava fields coated in thin moss on one side of us and the gray Atlantic on the other ... Swimming outdoors on a cold, rainy day, because that's what Icelanders do. A municipal pool, heated by geothermal energy, is a model of Nordic design and a place where people meet to conduct business, steam rising above their bare flesh into the rain. ... A nineteenth-century farmhouse (now preserved as a museum). The respectable front parlor is decorated with wainscotting, severe photographic portraits, and a sofa. The parlor door leads to a dirt tunnel that winds past an open fire pit to a kind of bunker where the animals once sheltered in the long winter: a facade of European gentility concealing extreme hardship.


the fjord at Balestrand, Norway

Norway (the best country to live in): The University quarter in Oslo, with its elegant Regency-style buildings and the healthy, energetic, youthful, and stylish crowds on the streets. ... The rail lines between Oslo and Bergen, which are what every model railroad enthusiast has ever dreamed of creating in his basement: little trains puffing across bridges, through tunnels, around spectacular wooded mountains. ... The view across the fjords from our pension in Balestrand: the sky, the tendrils of fog, the forests, the snow, and the water each form huge swaths of changing color.

Stockholm: This is a fabulous city with a great variety of neighborhoods and sights that we enjoyed for three packed days. But now what I constantly recall is a variation on the following scene: a large expanse of blue-green waves (the city is built on islands and one-third is under water); a horizontal band of stone and stucco buildings, spires, and Mansard roofs behind some moored pleasure boats; and then a great blue sky with fluffy, scuttling clouds, as in a Dutch maritime painting.

On our way back from Stockholm, we flew over snow-capped Norwegian mountains and the fjords, then landed in Reykjavik after seeing a good view of the geysers at the "Blue Lagoon." On the second leg, we noticed the Greenland coast below, dotted with huge icebergs. A few hours later, the pilot noted that Manhattan was clearly visible out of the right windows. And then we landed in a steamy Baltimore summer evening. Everyone says that the Internet has shrunk our world, but to me nothing makes it seem as small as a long airplane ride.

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July 20, 2005

empathy

I was talking to my doctor today (I'm fine, thank you--a routine visit), and he happened to ask whether I had ever fainted. I told him that I had--twice, as a matter of fact, at about age 9 and age 12. The first time, the teacher was explaining about an addict's heroin-withdrawal symptoms. The second time, a different teacher was telling us about the torture of a political prisoner. In both cases, crash!--I fell off my chair unconscious.

My doctor said, "I guess you're not the kind of guy they use to apply pressure down in Guantanamo." I replied, "I don't think there's any connection between my kind of empathy and real morality. But you're probably right; I'm not suited for Gitmo."

(It seems to me, by the way, that morality takes guts, judgment, and principle as well as softness of heart.)

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July 11, 2005

books I read as a teenager that I'd like to read again

On the blog "Balloon Juice," John Cole lists five books that he read as a teen or young adult and that he considers worth re-reading today. He asks some other bloggers to compile similar lists, picking them out by name. By way of Laura at 11D, the game reached Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res, who passed it on to me. I'm flattered to be "tagged." Besides, nostalgia is one of my most pervasive and favorite emotions. So here goes ...

When I turned 12 and 13, I attended a very scary English school, then for boys only, physically resembling Hogwarts but much more concerned with corporal punishment and personal neatness. To get there, I rode British Rail by myself and often read the newspaper on the way. (The headlines must have been about recession, oil shortages, racial conflict in London, terrorist bombings, and revolution in Iran. The details change, but the wheel keeps turning.) Most of my books came either from the school's library or from the public library branch behind Victoria Station, where I would walk on my own.

I mention all this because it's only by thinking of physical places that I can conjure up titles of books from that era. Among the ones that I would like to read again were Rudyard Kipling's Kim and William McFee's Casuals of the Sea (1916). I thought Kim was a great adventure (no parents, espionage, mysticism, the Empire--what more could a boy want?). Later in life, I would have assumed that it was sheer imperial propaganda. But Pankraj Mishra's recent essay in the New York Review of Books has made me want to look at it again (although I'd rather read Mishra himself). As for Casuals of the Sea--it was some kind of fictional biography, beginning with the hero's conception in an extramarital sex scene that I shouldn't have read when I was 12 (although I suspect it was tame). The protagonist then lived in London and worked on ships, but I remember little else.

During those years, I read a series of Napoleonic sea novels that traced the hero's career from midshipman to admiral. It wasn't the "Horatio Hornblower" series, because I had read that earlier. I vaguely remember that the author's name was Irish. Could I have been reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien? It seems unlikely, especially since I read Post Captain in 2004 and had no recollection of it whatsoever.

For the next five years, we lived in Syracuse, New York, making frequent, long visits to New York City and spending the summers in England, with two separate months in Paris. I believe a read a lot of history and archaeology in those years. The one book that I recall well enough to want to re-read is Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, which is basically the history of the idea that human nature is highly changeable. I would call that idea "historicism," and it became my main intellectual interest right through graduate school. Wilson brilliantly combines intellectual history with portraits of major political figures: above all, Lenin.

In about tenth grade, I read a series of anti-totalitarian novels from the 1930s, cementing my liberalism. They included Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four (which I was assigned to read, with millions of others, in 1984), Malraux's Man's Fate, and Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The 1930s seemed much closer then than they do today, partly because another 20 years have elapsed, and partly because the Soviet Union still existed.

I also read lots of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and adventure, ranging from Ivanhoe to John le Carre. I fondly remember Ursula Le Guin as well as Tolkien. I have no idea whether I would find the Earthsea trilogy fascinating or sheer hokum today, but I'm looking forward to trying it with my little daughter in a few years.

One summer in my later teens, I went each day to the National Art Library inside the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is open to the public as a nineteenth-century venture in democratic education. There I read Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion with great interest. Gombrich was deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper; he saw the history of art as a series of scientific experiments in representing the world realistically. Since the stone age, people have found or randomly created objects that happen to resemble the world. They notice the resemblance and so learn to imitate nature. But each imitation is wrong in some ways; later artists learn to correct it. One of Gombrich's aphorisms is "Making comes before matching."

By the way, Gombrich's account of art history is intended to answer the following question: "Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?" He replies that art has always had a single purpose--representation--and it has proceeded by trial and error. This theory contradicts a historicist account, according to which each "culture" has its own fundamental conception of art. In my late teens, I wanted somehow to put those two ideas together.

So whom do I "tag" to continue this game? How about: Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Brett Marston, Ciarn O'Kelly, "Imshin", Anjali Taneja, and Eli.

permanent link | comments (4) | category: fine arts , memoir

April 5, 2005

New York's aesthetic

I went back to New York yesterday, to hear former Governor Jim Hunt, Federal Judge (and Pennsylvania First Lady) Midge Rendell, Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, and others speak in support of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

As a child and a young adult, I spent a lot of time in New York City, and it left a powerful imprint. However, I don't get there much these days. With the benefit of distance, I decided yesterday that the city's distinctive aesthetic can be captured by three simple concepts.

First, it is a strongly rectangular place, on account of the famous Manhattan street grid and the vertical rectangles of the buildings. Second, everything seems to be covered with fine, intricate patterns. That's because you can see a long way in Manhattan: far along the straight streets and up the sides of the buildings (or down them, if you're inside). In a city like Washington, you can't get far enough away from a window or a car to see it as a shiny point in a pattern. If you do get a distant view of a building, it lies low on the horizon, so that most of your visual field is sky and trees: lumps of color. But in New York, the distant windows and balconies etch regular patterns on the massive rectangles all around you, patterns that are complicated by tree limbs, wires, cornices, fire-escapes, and signs. The rows of buildings make thin vertical stripes as they recede toward the vanishing point; and the cars on Park Avenue or the FDR Drive are numerous enough to form their own mosaics. Even human crowds turn into patterns.

Third, New York is huge. Even if youre moving quickly in a car down a long avenue, you're conscious that there's much, much more of the central city than what you can see. In this respect, it's different from the densest and tallest sections of Chicago or Philadelphia.

Rectangularity, delicate pattern, and vast scale: these three concepts combine to give New York (and especially Manhattan) its distinctive look. Within this structure, more concrete and idiosyncratic aspects of the city awaken my oldest memories: the quick double-taps on car horns, the smell of chestnuts and hotdog-water from vending carts, the deadened roar of traffic heard from 20 or 40 stories up; the surge of pedestrians jay-walking at the first break in traffic.

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March 4, 2005

W.B. Yeats and me

Last fall, I spent nearly a whole Saturday in the playground of my younger daughter's school. It was the day of a block party, and she wanted to stay for hours. From time to time, I saw and talked to adults I knew, but mostly I just watched the scene. I kept thinking of Yeats' "Among Schoolchildren." I don't know the poem by heart, unfortunately, but I remembered the structure and several of the lines. It struck me that I am a perfect opposite of Yeats, and not only because he was a genius of a writer and I am not.

The narrator of "Among School Children" is an old and very distinguished "public man"--presumably the Irish Senator and Nobel Laureate that Yeats himself was in 1928. He is paying an official visit to a modern, efficient school whose lessons in neatness perhaps stifle the more romantic spirits of the children. He recalls an unrequited love from his lost youth. He sees this beautiful and inspired young girl at a moment when she was being harshly reproved by an adult.

The children remind him of his love, "And thereupon my heart is driven wild: / She stands before me as a living child." Perhaps his face shows his emotion, so he covers it up--"Better to smile on all that smile, and show / There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow." Meanwhile, as he walks between the twin rows of desks, he considers the contrast between his earthly, aging body and the idea his mother had of him in his infancy; and then reflects more generally on the gap between the real and the ideal. A lost and unrequited love is a hint of that perfect world that art and religion also strive for. Yet, says the narrator in the final stanza, it is best not to seek after an ineffable perfection, but rather to unite the real with the ideal--just as the poem "Among School Children" actually does. "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dance from the dance?"

I am no "sixty-year-old smiling public man." I am a 38-year-old citizen, anonymous except among my friends and colleagues. Yet I have always had the habit of imagining I'm some authoritative observer whose opinion might be of general interest. (Do we all think that way?) In this vein, standing on the playground last fall, I silently approved of the diverse population and the adults' efforts to interact respectfully. One parent said that her neighborhood school was also a homeless shelter, which is why she had sent her child "out of bounds" to Cleveland Park. Her interlocutor, White and prosperous-looking, found common ground with her as a parent. I looked "upon one child or t'other there" and thought that our community exemplified "the best modern way."

Unlike Yeats, I have no lost, unrequited love, no urge to transcend the corporeal or the mortal, no "dream of a Ledaean / body." I'm quite satisfied with the actual love of my living family, the actual sight of a humane modern schoolyard with my kindergartener in it. Yet I'm bifurcated almost as Yeats was (as perhaps everyone is). He was old, famous, and influential, yearning for his passionate youth. I am a youngish bystander, fantasizing a more statesmanlike role. Few of us live fully in our own time like "bodies swayed to music."

And then a mob of little ones ran by, splitting into two streams to pass me, and I remembered just what it was like to face such helter-skelter packs on a playground when I was only three-feet tall. Turn and run with them? Stand aside? -- Is this fun? Is it scary? Where are we going?

And suddenly there was my own little girl in the crowd, flushed, unsure, a perfect vision of myself thirty years ago--or so I thought. From my perspective,

it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell ...

but she could race on with them and I could only stop behind to watch.

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December 27, 2004

stones of London

I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography, a 750-page book with one dominant theme. Fire, riot, real-estate speculation, bombs, and state planning have caused constant and brutal change throughout London's 2000 years. But despite all this disruption, many streets and districts mysteriously retain consistent functions and characters over very long periods. Sometimes a place will have a modern use (and name) that evokes the same site before the Romans arrived.

I think Ackroyd sometimes stretches a point and is not perfectly reliable. However, his theme has personal resonance for me. I partly grew up in London, spending five school years there, plus every summer (save one) until I was nineteen. We usually rented a new home each year, so we lived all over the city. Now I return with my own family almost annually. Thus I have seen London's evolution since the 1970s in a kind of freeze-frame--skyscrapers sprouting; cockney cafes giving way to Starbucks; Bangladeshis following Ugandan Indians and Jamaicans; bowler hats, Mohawks, and backwards baseball caps in procession. In my lifetime, London has extended its ancient pattern of destruction, immigration, and reconstruction.

As a child, I was deeply interested in London's history. This interest came from two main sources, my parents and my school. My mother took us down to the muddy banks of the tidal Thames to dig up clay pipe stems from pre-industrial times and helped me find chalk fossil shells deposited eons earlier. We also went on guided walking tours. I especially recall a geologist's tour of the stone used in West End buildings; a walk along the remains of the Roman wall (which now runs through the glass blocks of the financial center); and nighttime visits to the Tower of London, led by a Beefeater. We went to the theater often, and such plays as Bartholomew's Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle evoked old London for me.

For three years, I attended the only state primary school within the City of London, Prior Weston. The imaginative, progressive faculty emphasized local history. They made their mix of cockney and yuppie students feel citizens of the old London "commune," with its guilds, monastic orders, councils, traditions, and civic privileges. The city was being torn up then, as usual, huge towers rising from bomb sites. Ugly and anonymous as the new buildings were, they followed ancient roads and their foundations laid bare the remnants of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, and Victorian London. I was especially possessive of the bomb site next to our school, which we viewed as a "nature preserve," since it had sprouted wild flowers and sheltered hardy urban birds. We agitated to preserve it, but a massive building soon appeared in its place. Meanwhile, outside the school's main door, vegetables were still sold from wooden barrows as they had been for a thousand years.

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October 12, 2004

memories of high school

I graduated from high school two years after A Nation at Risk (1983). Although my friends and I had some fine teachers, the curriculum and standards were pretty slack back then. As I recall, we rarely had to bring homework home; it could be done during the lunch break. However, there were two good things about my schools in Syracuse, NY. First, the population was split almost exactly 50/50 between African Americans and Whites. That was fairly unusual in those days, and extremely rare today. Last year, I helped some students in Maryland to conduct an oral history of race in their high school, and they found that the late-70s was the high point of integration.

Secondly, I had several friends and classmates who were intensely intellectual, and specifically interested in the moral aspects of politics and public policy. In addition to me, three others are philosophy professors today, one is an economist who teaches public policy, and one is a lawyer who writes about American history. We wasted plenty of time back then, but we also spent some of the hours that today we'd have to devote to homework reading good books for fun and arguing about what we'd read.

We mostly read different things, of course. But philosophy of science was popular, and most of us read Thomas Kuhn and Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach and The Mind's I). I think the most popular fiction included Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and anti-totalitarian political novels by Koestler, Malraux, and Orwell. More than one of us read Solzhenitsyn, although I certainly didn't finish any of his novels. Mid-twentieth century American fiction was still influential: Faulkner and Hemmingway, especially. I read a lot of Freud's case studies. I didn't read much political commentary, but others subscribed to The New Republic and everyone read the New York Times, although I cannot remember how regularly.

Five years later, I enrolled at Oxford for a doctorate and discovered that the University offered very few graduate seminars, no qualifying papers, and no exams. However, there were many intense graduate students, and we organized ourselves in informal seminars. Once again, I missed the benefits of a rigorous and demanding curriculum, but found that free time can be deeply educational if your fellow students push you.

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September 2, 2004

before Amazon

My father owns about 20,000 books. They line virtually every wall in my parents' house and fill library-style stacks in the basement, often two rows deep or piled horizontally on the shelves for greater efficiency. There are university press books without dustcovers, paperback classics, coffee-table art books, and many leather-bound volumes, some 450 years old. As a child, I often went along while Dad browsed and shopped. Thus I remember ...

A grimy stretch of Farringdon Road in the City of London, between the headquarters of the then-Communist Daily Star and some open Underground lines. As the last vestige of a Saturday-morning book market, there were five or six "barrows" (the wooden carts used for selling produce) filled with books. George Jeffries, the last of the Farringdon Road wholesalers, would buy his stock during the previous week at estate sales. His goal was to get rid of books as quickly as possible, to avoid storage costs. Each barrow was covered with a mound of books under a canvass. Shop owners and a few hardy collectors would surround the pile, jostling for position. George would pull the canvass off and they would tear through the tattered paperbacks, magazines, instructional manuals, catalogs, and old Latin volumes. They would rush their prizes to the wall along the rail lines, where each shopper�s pile was off-limits to his rivals, and then elbow their way back to the main action. Meanwhile, I would sit on my Dad�s pile reading Enid Blyton books, or stroll up and down along the wall daydreaming about adventures of my own, or browse through magazines and children�s books that I had found on the barrows once the grim professionals had moved on.

George was himself a Communist with wild hair and terrible teeth who vacationed on the Soviet Black Sea, yet he was a ruthless entrepreneur. And apparently a chauvinist: he took his sons to the Crimean beaches, but not his wife and daughter. Among his regular customers was a lady who wore a motorcycle helmet into the scrimmage around the barrows. But I also remember ...

The last of the Fourth Avenue used bookstores in New York, of which the Strand is the monopolistic survivor. Once there were many little stores, jammed with paperbacks and battered hardcovers, lit with bare electric bulbs, enlivened by jazz l.p.'s, and frequented by graduate students, professors, and seedy independent intellectuals who might argue in loud New York accents. Again, I'd sit on stacks of books, reading Hardy Boys mysteries or Landmark biographies of Thomas Edison or Geronimo. And in those same years, I remember ...

Lilies, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire: a rambling old mansion in a substantial park. Its parlors with overstuffed chintz furniture, its creaky attic hallways--all were lined with books for sale. Dad and I would walk from Aylesbury along the side of the highway. He would work his way from room to room while I read Gerald Durrell or Roald Dahl or walked through the woods. Tea would be served in the late afternoon, usually to three or four customers. There was supposed to be a ghost, but he waited until after closing time to haunt. And then I remember ...

Book-filled barns in upstate New York, with cats and maybe chickens, NPR in the background, and country smells competing with the books' must ... the antiquarian books of Paris, each wrapped in translucent paper, sold from wooden boxes that were locked to the embankment walls of the Seine ... half-timbered houses in quaint English country towns with bookshelves nailed to every available space, even under the winding staircases ... Second Story's warehouse in suburban Rockville, MD, where books were once priced at $1 per full cardboard box ... Bryn Mawr alumnae bookshops in several American cities, staffed by tweedy volunteers from the class of '55 ... and sweaty high school gyms with books on the tables at 25 cents each.

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February 23, 2004

Lord Mayor Peter Levine

I admit it--I "ego-surf" now and then. Searching for my own name last week, I discovered that the Lord Mayor of London is none other than Peter Levine. This eminent person (no relation) gave a speech in California entitled "We Reinvented Government Before You Did." When English youths looted a McDonalds, he remarked, "These people, many with sincere points to make, allied themselves to a mob. The whole point they were trying to make has been lost." As Yoggi Berra exclaimed when he found out that the Lord Mayor of Dublin was Jewish, "Only in America!"

The City of London, by the way, is the single square mile within Greater London that was originally settled by the Romans and then walled during the Middle Ages. The Lord Mayor is an honorary leader of this district, which has no real political autonomy. During the school year when I turned 7, and again when I turned 10, I attended the Prior Weston School, which was one of the very few state schools inside the City of London. In fact, it was almost underneath the Barbican, the huge (and terribly ugly) residential/arts complex that they were building in those years. Immediately next to the school was a bomb site, still left over from WWII, which we students wanted to turn into a nature sanctuary. (In the spring, it buzzed with life: bees, weedy flowers, centipedes, snails.) In the street outside the school, there was an old-fashioned vegetable market with produce on wheeled wooden "barrows" and grizzled old gents shouting their prices. We used to pick leftover lettuce and carrots out of the gutters to feed the school's pet rabbits.

This was the seventies, and Prior Weston was a progressive school run by a Christian socialist named Henry Pluckrose. The student body was part genuine Cockney: working class kids born within the sound of Bow Bells. There were also yuppie families from Islington, which was then gentrifying.

I mention all this because we were taught a lot of local social history at Prior Weston, which made us feel like citizens of the ancient City. We went to see the new Lord Mayor in his gilded coach-and-six, but we also studied the more plebeian past of Celts and Romans, medieval guilds and town criers, friars and Knights of St. John, Dick Whittington and his cat, puritans and actors, plagues and fires, bells and town criers. So it doesn't seem so very strange that my namesake is now the Lord Mayor.

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December 21, 2003

finding an old essay

In between work on youth civic engagement, I'm writing a book about moral philosophy, using Dante as the main text. I recently remembered a relevant but unpublished article that I had written about 1991--when I was approximately 24 and finishing graduate school. Although I couldn't find an electronic copy of the essay, I did manage to dig up an old dot-matrix printout of it, with corrections pasted over the mistakes to save printer paper. I remembered nothing about the content, so reading it was like reading someone else's work, except that I happened to own the intellectual property rights. I'm not sure that I want to reuse any of it in my current work, because the argument is now rather unfamiliar to me, and I haven't decided what I think of it. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that I cannot do philosophical work that's much (or any?) better than that article today. This is disturbing, to say the least, because I don't think of myself as being much of a scholar ca. 1991. I certainly had difficulties getting things published in those days, and probably for good reason. Yet I have no confidence that my current book-in-progress is any better than that old article. At any rate, it starts with a good quote (from the preface to Dewey's Philosophy and Civilization, 1931):

philosophy, like politics, literature and the plastic arts, is itself a phenomenon of human culture. Its connection with social history, with civilization, is intrinsic. There is current among those who philosophize the conviction that, while past thinkers have reflected in their systems the conditions and perplexities of their own day, present-day philosophy in general, and one's own philosophy in particular, is emancipated from the influence of that complex of institutions which forms a culture. Bacon, Descartes, Kant each though with fervor that he was founding it anew philosophy because he was placing it securely upon an exclusive intellectual basis, exclusive, that is, of everything but intellect. The movement of time has revealed the illusion. ... Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement; creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past.

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