Berkeley Years


Berkeley days


Shades of blue

My first, overwhelming impression was that of the color Blue. I had just stepped off the plane that had brought me from London to San Francisco and everything I saw was bathed in an incredible, sharp, bright, magical blue. Outside the airport, gusts of wind carried a whiff of the ocean we had seen when our plane descended. The air felt prickly and cold, but the intense sun light made up for it. A typical Bay Area morning, I was to find out. The flight had been full of English holidaymakers decked out in Hawaiian shirts. They had obviously seen too many Hollywood movies, imagined themselves splashing in the ocean surf, and didn’t know the difference between Southern California and the North. When the captain announced that the temperature in San Francisco was a brisk 59 degrees, a shudder went down the spine of the plane. Tarski had prepared me, though, by saying that the weather in Berkeley was like an eternal spring; but he hadn’t forewarned me that it could also be like the first, coldest day in spring.

One of my new colleagues was waiting to take me back to Berkeley. I was to stay at the Durant Hotel till I could move into my new apartment. We crossed the Bay Bridge and drove up University Avenue. As I looked out of the car, my first sense of elation gave way to second thoughts. I saw giant billboards, shabby motels, dusty parking lots along an uninspiring street. My European sense of public order was being shattered. Where had I come to? After London, Berkeley looked unappealing.

But the hotel proved a comforting place. From my room on the seventh floor I could see the whole San Francisco Bay and beyond it a glimpse of the ocean. Soon, low clouds rolled in from the West, split open by shafts of golden light from the sinking sun. Perhaps I had come to the right place after all. But I had to admit to myself that it was different from what I knew. At the door to the old-fashioned dining room a sign read: “Gentlemen are expected to dress formally for dinner (jacket and tie).”  Even formality seemed to have a new meaning in California. I was soon to find out that everything else had, too.

The next morning, I went to visit my new department. I did not have far to go to find Moses Hall on the well-tended campus. Built in the early 20th century, the structure had the re-assuring look of a minor Oxford or Cambridge college. Ahead to one side stood a red-brick French mansion, the University’s oldest building. On the other, Berkeley’s landmark, a proud replica of a Venetian campanile. The mixing of styles, I soon came to appreciate, was part of California culture. Later on, my future (and past) colleague Richard Wollheim drew my attention to the ubiquitous restaurant sign announcing: “Breakfast served 24 hours a day.” This is the story of American cooking, he said. To an Englishman, used to teatime sharply between 3:30 and 5, such a confusion of categories would seem bewildering. It was certainly American and Californian but also curiously liberating.

The department of philosophy was ready to sign me up with a slew of forms. Academic bureaucracy had been minimal in England. At Balliol it had consisted of an old lady and a half-time help. In America it was in full bloom and growing more massive by the day. The land of the free, I learned, was also the land of endless forms and rules – all designed in the name of efficiency and fairness. Having checked in, I sought the way to my new office. The building was a warren of corridors and no one was there to ask. The staircase gave off that odor of quiet boredom that seems to haunt every philosophy department.  Someone had been cooking soup in the basement. I finally found my room looking out pleasantly over a wooded creek. Not bad, I thought. In London I had looked into the trees of Gordon Square; now I was right in the greenery.

On the Avenue

My next turn was, inevitably, a walk down Telegraph Avenue. I found the street alive with visitors from all over the world and, on this very first day, ran unexpectedly into one of my students from London. The Avenue had become famous as a hang-out for hippies, long haired in their tie-dyed shirts and flouncy, flowery dresses, luxuriating in the sweet smell of marijuana. Hare Krishna disciples were snaking through the crowd singing and dancing to their god. This was the epicenter of the world-wide counter-culture together with the Haight-Asbury across the Bay – the place where one experimented with exotic life-styles, exotic faiths, and equally exotic drugs.

I knew of Berkeley also as a place of political agitation and didn’t have far to go to find it. Almost every day demonstrations filled the plaza in front of Sproul Hall on the campus, often disrupted by the police wheeling their rubber truncheons. Clouds of tear gas would occasionally drift into class rooms. But at 5 pm the demonstrators would usually disperse. Everybody would rush home to see whether they were on the evening news. This was California, after all, where media mattered. The “community” was also being informed by a weekly rag called “The Berkeley Barb” whose headlines ran from “Kops Krack Kurfew Kids” to “Oodles of Love and Grass.” Inside, the paper advised on the safe use of illegal substances, reviewed classes in witchcraft, and provided telephone numbers of lawyers in case of arrest.

Campus life was like nothing I had known in Oxford or London. Herds of abandoned dogs chased each other across the campus and sometimes invaded lecture halls. Try to keep going in front of 100 students while a German shepherd is busy undoing your shoe laces. A “post-modern” philosopher came to speak on the difficulty of lecturing while eating an ice-cream cone – while eating said ice cream cone. Someone threatened to blow up Moses Hall and the building was flooded. One of my graduate students was shot to death while working in a second-hand bookstore. My colleague Paul Feyerabend promised every student an A in his class. 700 enrolled, including the entire Athletics team. It felt at times, as if I had landed in an alternative universe.

Drugs were difficult to escape. I was happy to experiment but remained cautious. My brain was, after all, my major asset and I did not intend to ruin it.  One day, Alison, who worked in our office at the time,  talked me into a drive to the sea at Point Reyes, some forty miles away, in order to spend an afternoon on mescaline. The beach was inviting at first but then the fog came in and the icy wind forced us to return to Berkeley. I had never before noticed the extraordinary beauty of changing traffic lights. Back home I lay exhausted on the floor listening to music. The ceiling in my modern apartment consisted of embossed plastic tiles which would sometimes start rotating to the sound of the music. When the movement finally stopped, I realized that the effect of the mescaline was wearing off. The next morning, I woke up and discovered to my surprise a smooth ceiling above me. No tiles, no embossed decorations, just smooth, white plaster.  I had learned a lesson about the distinction between appearance and reality. You may think that you know what is real and what is not, but the reality may turn out to be just another illusion.

One of our graduate students financed his studies by traveling to Asia to return with Buddhist statues stuffed with all kinds of forbidden marerials. At the time, we began our fall semesters by taking the graduate students to a three-day retreat at Asilomar, 100 miles down the coast. On the first visit, our in-house dealer plied everyone who wanted with LSD. At the end of a long afternoon on the beach, the scheduled evening discussion was disrupted by inexplicable gusts of laughter. My conservative colleagues found it bewildering. They had never imagined the free will problem to be so hilarious. The following year, our students decided they only wanted to smoke marijuana. The third year we were reduced to beer. And then no one wanted to go anymore.

Things began to simmer down. Berkeley became more normal. Meanwhile, it had begun to change me, though in ways I still find difficult to assess. I had arrived as a low-level assistant professor; but my Berkeley salary was three times what it had been in London. I felt suddenly rich, bought sunglasses and my first car, and became instantly a Californian. To be precise, I became a “Bay Arean.” What did I know of California and what did I care for the rest of the United States? The Berkeley Hills were behind us and behind them were the Sierras. Our view was to the Pacific Ocean. Far ahead were Japan and China. I was living on the edge of the Western world. That realization has, perhaps, changed me more than anything else.

I have lived in Berkeley now longer than in any other location. I have accommodated myself to the local culture. I have got used to dressing in jeans and t-shirts. I have become more relaxed in the ways I think and behave. I have become a vegetarian. I buy organic produce at our farmers’ market. Practice yoga. Go out hiking in the wilderness. I have become an environmentalist. I gave up on my earlier uninformed conservatism. My political views became radicalized. Also more American? Perhaps not. I still hold my German passport and still think of myself as a European. The longer I live in America, the more I have become aware of the subtle differences that separate me from those who were born and grew up here.

Normal philosophy

In those early days, it was difficult to keep one’s head above water in the daily turmoil of Berkeley. But Moses Hall was a refuge. Inside, philosophy was churning away along its slow, long-suffering tracks. There was plenty of talk about metaphysics and Stoic logic, about numbers and cylindrical algebras, about skepticism and what it is to see a tomato, about the variety of speech acts and the types of implicatures. Politics I heard of only in the quiet words of praise for Ronald Reagan when my senior colleagues spoke to each other. Even Feyerabend, who liked to see himself as a radical outsider and epistemological anarchist, was politically disengaged. I was no different from them in closing my ears to the sounds of the revolution outside.

Only occasionally would our students raise their voice to challenge the political relevance of what we were doing. Shortly before I arrived in Berkeley, the department had denied tenure to Richard Lichtman, a Marxist philosopher with a large student following. My colleagues argued that they could find someone more qualified, but, of course, made no effort to do so once Lichtman was gone. Most of my colleagues thought of philosophy as akin to science and as such entirely unpolitical. There was no place for Marx nor for the rest of 19th century philosophy with all its political entanglements. The history of philosophy ended with Kant and contemporary philosophy began with Frege and Russell. What had come in-between could be safely ignored.

I still do not think that everyone has to join in during moments of political agitation. There should be nooks and crannies where the usual affairs continue unhindered. A place for monks to copy manuscripts which no one else cares for. My colleagues were surely right in thinking that not every important philosophical problem is political in nature. But a colleague from the English department told me one day that our problem was not that we were detached from the events in the street. It was, rather, that the model of philosophy on which we were operating had run its course We were doing normal philosophy, a learned endeavor carried out, admittedly, by smart people – but to what end? I was shocked but had to admit that in other departments philosophical ideas were examined and philosophical texts were read that we were neglecting. An alternative kind of philosophical engagement was taking shape in these places. At some point, I joined colleagues from other departments who were gathering around  Leo Loewenthal, an exile from Frankfurt and a venerable representative of critical theory, in wide-reaching, exhilarating discussions.

The philosophy department at the time was full of logicians. They were all eager to teach our  standard in that area. One of them said to me that teaching the same logic class over and over again allowed him to do so without having to think about it. That was not what I wanted to do. I had taught logic continuously in London and was happy to leave that task behind. My enthusiasm for technical work in that field had definitely faded. I felt drawn to broader, more philosophical topics. Tarski, who had sponsored my move to Berkeley, was, no doubt, disappointed. But he still kept inviting me to his Polish Thanksgivings where his home-made vodka sometimes made us forget the turkey.

I had given up on work in technical logic but continued to occupy myself with the philosophical aspects of Frege’s work. His discovery of a new logic after two thousand years of Aristotelian syllogisms was a decisive break in the history of philosophy. But what had brought it about and what did it signify? I turned to the study of the history of logic, to the 19th century development of mathematics, to the Leibnizian and Kantian roots of Frege’s thinking. Years went by before I finished my book.  For a long time after that I came to be thought of as a Frege scholar and specialist. But that was, in reality, only one side of my philosophical interests.

I was becoming more deeply drawn into Wittgenstein’s work and concern with language in Wittgensteinian terms. More than anything else that would irritate my old teacher, Michael Dummett, who had once assured me that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics was worthless. I also renewed my early acquaintance with Heidegger. I was little worried over the supposed incompatibility of analytic and continental philosophy. What kind of distinction was this anyway in which one term referred to a methodology and the other to geography? There was good and bad thinking to be found on both sides of that shaky divide, I thought, and the issues often overlapped. My colleague Barry Stroud encouraged my study of Wittgenstein, and my colleague Hubert Dreyfus that of Heidegger. I talked much with them, attended their seminars, and co-taught classes with them. I also rediscovered my interest in epistemology and the philosophy of science. Paul Feyerabend was both an inspiring and a disruptive presence in Berkeley. His concern with the actual history of science disabused me of the narrowly structuralist view of I had learned from Stegmüller in Munich and his rejection of the idea of a universal scientific method appealed to my Wittgensteinian instincts. But he could be harsh in his judgments, telling me at times that I and the rest of the Berkeley philosophers were like rodents gnawing away on moldering bones.

How we got to where we were

The Berkeley department had a curious history but which had been largely forgotten.  But I cam to realize eventually it was still at work in the routines that we were taking for granted.

The first professor had been George Holmes Howison who had come to Berkeley on the recommendation of William James. At the time the connection between Harvard and Berkeley was strong and the Berkeley faculty often referred to the place as “Harvard-by-the-sea.” Howison had made it a condition for accepting the job that the University would supply him with his own private lecture room, furnished according to his precise instructions. Astonishingly, the request was granted. The lecture room had a fire place and a raised stage with a chair and a writing desk. Late in the afternoon, with the students waiting, Howison, tall, bearded, and dressed in a long cloak, would sweep into the room carrying a lapdog. His first task was to answer his mail, while the students were watching. Finally, as darkness fell, he would rise, stir the flames in the fire place and begin to speak about there being no material world, only spirits, Leibnizian monads in space. His students – presumably offspring of California gold diggers – were duly impressed by this ennobling message. Howison became a sought-after public speaker. Even today, the department benefits from an endowment built on his lecture fees.

Not that everything went well for him. Every summer Howison would make a pilgrimage to Göttingen where the great Hermann Lotze had taught whom some considered the new Leibniz. But when the First World War broke out, everything German became taboo. German Americans anglicized their names. The German community in San Francisco renamed their meeting place California Hall. The English broke their Faber pencils and killed their dachshunds. American professors put their German philosophy books away and Howison died heart-broken in 1916.

After Howison, the department settled into humdrum solidity. I had to look for the names of those who came after him and still do not know what they stood for.  We imagine the history of philosophy to be a parade of great thinkers and memorable writings but the truth is that most of that history is forgotten. Only one of the second generation of Berkeley philosophers came to stick in my mind. A man by the name of Jacob Loewenberg– not because of his philosophical work, which I still do not know, but because of his remarkable life recorded in an autobiography he called Thrice-Born. His first birth, Loewenberg wrote, had been in Latvia, the second at Harvard, and the third when he came to Berkeley.  Loewenberg was born into a modest Jewish family in rural Latvia but managed to move on to study philosophy first in Berlin and then at Harvard. He arrived in Berkeley in 1915 as a disciple of Josiah Royce who had persuaded him to devote himself to the study of Hegel. In Berkeley, Howison took his young protégé aside and said: “They tell me that you have a deep interest in Hegel and Royce. You must not allow them too strong an influence. At another time I will show you the error of their ways.” The battle between Howison’s personal idealism and Harvard-style Hegelianism never happened because of Howison’s death the following year. So, Loewenberg stuck to Hegel for the rest of his life and retired from Berkeley fifty years later. What astonished me in the story is that my department has a history of idealist philosophizing of almost a century which had, however, entirely disappeared except for some unread volumes in the department’s library. At faculty meetings, my colleague Benson Mates would sometimes object to a job candidate by saying: “But we don’t even have anybody to teach Hegel.” His tone of voice always made clear that a Hegelian  was, in fact, someone he was least interested in.

Loewenberg had come to America with an idealized vision of its liberal and democratic credentials. Harvard had fully lived up to those expectations and so, it appears, had Berkeley. But his vision would eventually be shattered when the president of the University of California, Robert Gordon Sproul, in 1949 decided to root out “Communists” from the faculty. A loyalty oath required professors to declare that they had never been members of the Communist party or sympathetic to it. At first, there was loud resistance. But after some wrangling, most of the UC faculty decided to provide their signature. This was no big deal for the conservatives and the few genuine radicals considered the document, in any case, worthless. In the end only 16 well-meaning liberals refused to sign up. One of them was Loewenberg. The refuseniks were duly dismissed and Loewenberg spent some years in exile at various Eastern colleges teaching his usual course on Hegel. Eventually, the State Supreme Court re-instituted him and the other dismissed professors. Loewenberg retired, sobered but resigned to the realities of American life. His autobiography describes how he spent his last years sitting in the plaza in front of Dwinelle Hall, contentedly watching the students pass by and looking with sympathy at their new found political activism.

Loewenberg was at peace with himself also as far as the changing philosophical scene was concerned. “Nothing in his life impressed Berg so much as the mutability of philosophical trends and allegiances,” he wrote of himself in the third person. William James, Dewey, and Bergson had come and gone. Pragmatism had flourished and disappeared. The new realists and the critical realists had had their day. “And who could have predicted that logical positivists, so robust and so strident only yesterday, would find themselves so soon moribund?” Loewenberg‘s long experience allowed him to look with equanimity and tolerance at the current idols of the philosophical theater. He was sure that they too would pass.

When Hannah Arendt visited Berkeley in this period, she observed acidly that the philosophy department was “all philosophy of language, and second-rate at that.” Both Loewenberg’s and Arendt’s assessment of the state of philosophy in Berkeley were, in fact, not quite right. Logical positivism was by no means dead and the department was by no means entirely dedicated to the philosophy of language. In the post-Second World War period it had been dominated by Paul Marhenke who had breathed the positivist spirit. Marhenke was known to cite passages from classical philosophy in his classes, beating his forehead while groaning: “I don’t know why we even teach such nonsense.” In his logic class he used Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica as his textbook – surely an impossible undertaking – but with no interest in its philosophical underpinnings. His one purpose was to find shortcuts for proofs. Marhenke was long gone by the time I arrived but some of the positivist spirit sill lingered on.

Philosophers among themselves

But the department was definitely changing. It was not the residue of positivism that struck me, when I arrived, but the pervasive influence of Wittgenstein. Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, and Stanley Cavell had all begun their careers in Berkeley and had brought Wittgenstein with them from the east Coast. By the time I arrived, all three had moved back to the East, but the Wittgensteinian seeds they had sown had kept growing. Kuhn had gone to MIT after the Berkeley department had denied him tenure. My senior colleagues had judged his Structure of Scientific Revolutions to be insufficiently philosophical. The misjudgment was, perhaps, another sign of the lingering spirit of positivism with its characteristic blindness to the history of science. But Nagel, Kuhn, and Cavell had certainly left a Wittgensteinian aura behind. Those who arrived after them were all, in one way or other, indebted to Wittgenstein. That was evidently so, in different ways, of Tom Clarke, Paul Feyerabend, John Searle and Barry Stroud; but it was equally true of Hubert Dreyfus whose Heidegger sounded at times like Wittgenstein’s nephew.

Another sign of change was that the Americans were becoming a minority in the department. Up till then it had been sturdily American with Loewenberg the single exception.  The newcomers were Barry Stroud a Canadian, Paul Grice from England, and Frits Staal, the Indologist. from the Netherlands. Our specialists in Greek philosophy were both foreigners. Michael Frede a German and Gregory Vlastos a Greek. The same held for our two philosophers of science, Feyerabend was an Austrian and Michael Scriven an Australian. Searle was an American by birth but he had spent years at Oxford ad brought with him an international philosophical outlook. Somewhat later, two more Englishmen, Richard Wollheim and Bernard Williams arrived, not to forget Kwong-loi Shun, originally from Hong Kong, and Paolo Mancosu from Italy, who came both via graduate work at Stanford. Finally, there was myself from Germany, Oxford, and London.

That we came from so many different places contributed, probably, to the fact that we were not much of an intellectual community. Most of us went our own ways. In London I had been used to a different environment. We had met regularly to talk about our work and thus developed a sense of sympathy for what each of us was doing. In Berkeley, one saw many colleagues only at faculty meetings where we bickered over the usual administrative matters. Some of my colleagues traveled incessantly from one continent to the other. This was true not only in our department. Someone joked that the Berkeley faculty was like the US strategic bomber command. At every moment one third was airborne. I had got to know Feyerabend while I was still in London. In the first half of that year he taught at both Berkeley and Yale; in the second in London and Berlin. He was flying back and forth between all these places and it turned out that he was losing money on this deal. Later, in Berkeley, I sometimes thought that Howison had been right and that we were all like monads in space.

To make up for this, there was the seminar given by Paul Grice. I knew him from Oxford and had attended one of his classes which he often suspended when he was playing cricket. His Berkeley seminars had a character of their own. They drew scores of graduate students as well as colleagues from philosophy and other disciplines. Grice spoke in a free-wheeling manner on a wide range of topics. He was not much interested in what other people had written. His goal was to be entirely spontaneous in his thinking. Philosophy, he said, was “thinking on one’s feet” or, at other times, that it was a competitive game. Like cricket? I wondered occasionally. The result could be brilliant but on other days excruciatingly slow. One time, Grice set out to invent a new logic. Afterwards, Richard Grandy and I told him that this logic already existed and was known as combinatory logic and that his version had already been shown to be inconsistent. Grice responded that he would rather discover this for himself. That was heroic but not necessarily productive.

Grice had left Oxford because he felt he deserved the professorship that was given to his colleague Strawson. I don’t know how good the shift to Berkeley was for him philosophically. Grice was a remarkably intuitive thinker. His distinction between natural and non-natural meaning had been an eye-opener. And so was his recognition of the phenomenon he called implicature, the fact that we convey meanings with our utterances that are not literally contained in our words. Only someone English could have seen the importance of this phenomenon. Conversations in England were always laced with implicatures. In Berkeley, Grice began to think that he needed to systematize and formalize his insights. He saw himself in competition with our resident logicians. But doing this was not his personal strength. For this kind of work one needs to attend to the small technical details. Grice assumed that there were “little men,” as he put it laughingly, who could do that work for him.

Grice was a Falstaffian figure; a man with a belly, wild strands of white hair, irregular teeth and an endless appetite for the pleasures of life. What made his face unforgettable were his sharp blue eyes with their intensely intelligent look. He usually dressed in old pair of pants held up precariously with a tie and a blue sweater with holes at the elbows. One of our incoming graduate students had been fascinated by the street life of Berkeley and, in particular, by one street bum whose remarkable face had impressed him – only to discover, once he was enrolled in our program, that the bum in question was his new faculty advisor.

One attraction of Paul’s seminar was the social gathering that followed it. We would go out to eat and drink till late, talking philosophy till we were hoarse. Paul’s favorite spot was an Italian restaurant all the way out on Telegraph Avenue which was mostly deserted except for some sinister looking Italians in the back room. Paul was known there as “il professore” and they would give him second helpings on anything he would ask for, the minestrone, the pasta, the cheap red wine. Paul amused himself with the thought that the place was a local Mafia hangout.

Barry Stroud was one of the colleagues who would usually come along. His family was also of English extraction but he was a very different type of Englishman. Cool, reserved, and fastidious, his work in philosophy was always precise and controlled. Later in life he discovered Italy and spent his sabbaticals in Venice and Rome. The experience gave him a sheen he had previously lacked. Barry’s first book had been on Hume. I had been brought up on the German prejudice that one could safely ignore the English philosophical tradition – quite in contrast to contemporary English thought. It was through Barry’s book that I came to a different view. But I could never decide whether his later concern with Wittgenstein was colored by that bok on Hume, or whether the Hume book had already been written under the influence of Wittgenstein. Like both these philosophers, Stroud was a skeptic at heart but one who felt skeptical even about skepticism. My other friend, Dreyfus, had, of course, nothing to do with the circle around Grice. His thinking revolved entirely around Heidegger and he had no interest in the analytic tradition. I have never known another philosopher so dedicated to one single figure. He once said jokingly that he had never found a single philosophical statement in Heidegger to disagree with. He certainly judged all other philosophers in that light. His real ambition was to apply Heidegger’s philosophy to extra-philosophical problems, which he had done in a provocative book on the limits of computer technology. I liked Bert particularly for the way he taught. There was nothing authoritarian in his style. Instead, he asked his students to help him with some confusion he had got himself into. His courses drew hundreds of them  to the study of Heidegger. His graduate students became a generation of Heidegger scholars. Stroud’s classes were different and attracted a different type of student. They were probing,  meticulous, with intricate arguments on fundamental, though abstract philosophical questions often arising out of Wittgenstein’s writings.

When I arrived in Berkeley, John Searle’s Speech Acts was a philosophical bestseller. Searle was at the time at the height of his powers. In philosophical discussion he was impressively quick, imaginative, and to the point. He could instantly identify the weak spot in someone’s argument and attack it with well-aimed blows. His great contribution to philosophy was to have worked out J.L. Austin’s informal reflections on performative uses of language. Searle had been Austin’s student at Oxford. At some point, the Berkeley department had sought to hire Austin away from Oxford. But when Austin had died suddenly, the department hired Searle instead.  Searle took it into his head to teach me the local customs, He invited me to the winery in which had a stake to acquaint me with the secrets of California wines. He also thought that I needed to know about Baseball and American Football. How could I understand America otherwise? Indeed, how could I understand the examples he used to illustrate his theory? So we went to the games together. But I can’t say that I have kept it up. Was that why, eventually, we gave up on each other? He thought I was reading too many books. I thought that he was increasingly caught up in his own theories.

But where do I fit into this story?

The question kept nagging where I fitted in. Reading was one of my ways to avoid the issue. I had always enjoyed that activity and continued to do so. It was like an addiction. Not that I had a program of what to read. I worked myself forward from one text to another. Later on, I came across Foucault’s description of what he called the warm brotherhood of useless erudition of which he considered himself a member. I recognized myself in this and that was probably one of the reasons for my subsequent interest in Foucault’s work.

After a couple of years in Berkeley, I decided that I wanted to live once again in a real city and so moved to San Francisco.  Th city was still affordable at the time and not as yet crowded with high-rises and corporate headquarters. I found an apartment in the Duboce Triangle at the foot of the Buena Vista hill. The neighborhood had once been the center of Swedish life in the city. There were still a Swedish Seaman’s Mission, a Swedish delicatessen; and a Swedish real estate office. The house in which I lived belonged to people of Swedish extraction. Their grandfather had built many of the neighborhood houses with their elaborate woodwork facades. An Italian grocery store, an Armenian bakery, and a Greek cakeshop rounded things out.

I lived in San Francisco for ten years and enjoyed its amenities. It was a place where people of different origins and different ethnicities had found a way of living harmoniously together. Or so it appeared to me. I told my American students that they should try to live for some time in the city. Many of them were familiar only with the blandness of suburban life and needed to learn of riches of urban existence.

Eventually I left San Francisco and moved back to Berkeley because I was tired of the increasingly difficult journey to the campus. The Bay Bridge was becoming more crowded with cars and public transportation was not always convenient. In order to get to the BART underground train to Berkeley, I had to catch the local tram which was often so full in the morning that it would slide by without stopping. When it did stop, the driver often turned out to be one of my former undergraduate students who would welcome me loudly over the public address system: “Good morning, Professor Sluga.” Even today I often think of San Francisco as my home city.

Was it only the yearning for city life that had brought me there or had I been looking also for some daylight between me and my department? I was becoming increasingly politicized at the time and felt alienated from my department where politics was, at best, a marginal concern. That did not mean that I felt ready now to join the protesters in Sproul Plaza. My demons were different from theirs. I was, in fact, wary of the ongoing agitation. The chanting crowds reminded me of the German students would had helped to bring Hitler to power and of the Chinese students in the Cultural Revolution. I shied away from the irrational energy of such crowds. I was not attracted to messianic political speakers, to flags, uniforms, political conformity. I still feel uncomfortable in a large crowd. I don’t want to march for any cause. I dislike the uniformity of academic robes; I even resist the name tags one is given at conferences. I don’t like to sign public statements. I have never been a member of any party. I don’t like political labels.  I am most skeptical of politicizing philosophers.

What then did it mean that I myself was become more political? What kind of “anti-political” politics was I getting into? Was I an anarchist or libertarian? Those labels did also not fit me. I was sure that there had to be a political order. But I was at the same time suspicious of its realization. I had come of age after the Second World War and like other Germans of my generation I was scarred by the Nazi regime, the war, and the holocaust. I could not extirpate the images of human suffering and wholesale destruction from my brain.

I was certainly not politically detached. On the contrary: with the German history of the first half of the last century before me, I could think of nothing more important. The question was rather: if it’s so easy to go politically wrong, what other, better way is there?

This was the question I came to think about more and more, even as I was working on Frege, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. The matter came to a head for me when I learned that Frege had kept a political diary after the First World War in which he had expressed his admiration for Hitler and had reflected on how one could identify Jews more easily with the help of an appropriate label. I found it all nauseating. In his diary, Frege wrote that he had previously been a liberal. The war and its aftermath seem to have turned him around. I thought that it had, perhaps, been a good that he died in 1924. Otherwise, he would most likely have become an eager camp follower of the Führer in 1933. The discovery made me look anew at Frege’s surrounding. My attention was drawn to Bruno Bauch, one of Frege’s colleagues at the University of Jena, where Frege had spent his career. Bach was a Neo-Kantian philosopher, but also an organizer of rightwing intellectuals, a nationalist extremist and radical anti-Semite who had founded a philosophical society and a journal to promote those causes. Frege, it turned out, had been an early member of that society and had published his late work in its journal. A third figure at Jena was the philosopher Max Wundt, the son of the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who was an idealist in the mold of Fichte and even more virulent in his nationalism and anti-Semitism than Bauch. So, I said to myself, you can be rational thinker and a great logician and still hold abominable political views. You can be dedicated to Kant’s philosophy with its ethical principles and still be a Nazi. You can be an idealist and still subscribe to the crude Darwinism of Nazi ideology.

I had known, of course, for along time of the controversies that have swirled around Heidegger’s political past. Some of his critics believed that every word he ever uttered was tainted by his Nazi engagement. At the other extreme were those who denied any connection between the philosophy and Heidegger’s politics. My colleague Dreyfus argued that he could always distinguish between Heidegger’s philosophical statements and the political ones and that he was not interested in Heidegger’s politics. But hadn’t Heidegger insisted that his Nazi engagement was rooted in his philosophy? Dreyfus’ response was straightforward. “That,” he said, “is a political statement and I am not interested in it.” This seemed too simple a solution but what then was the connection? Could it be found somewhere in the intricacies of his philosophy? In is existentialism? His critique of reason? His view of history? His notion of community? But since Frege, Bauch, and, Wundt – such different thinkers – had taken the same political route, one had, perhaps, to look more broadly at the philosophical profession to see whether there existed perhaps not common attitudes and beliefs that drew them all in the same direction. Further exploration of this question made me realize that there had been still other German philosophers with yet other different philosophical commitments who had equally joined the Nazi cause. Not all of them had, of course, been drawn into this quagmire. There had been those who had left Germany and Europe for racial or political reasons or both. Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Carnap, Horkheimer and Adorno come to mind. And a few had been able to stay in a state of inner emigration such as, in particular, Carl Jaspers. But the majority of German philosophers had fully conformed themselves to the Nazi regime. Was there perhaps a problem with the entire profession or, at least, a prevailing way of thinking about the relation of philosophy and politics? This, then, was my next philosophical project, my next book, to try to determine what had made it so easy for all of those philosophers, differently as they were, to accommodate themselves to that forsaken regime.

Taking turns

The department and, in fact, the entire University operated in a more democratic than I had been used to from England. There was no permanent head of the department who could make all the major decisions, but a rotating office with relatively few powers. The important decisions were made at faculty meetings where everybody had a vote. There were numerous committees and subcommittees, some permanent and some ad hoc which wrote and submitted reports. The chair was often merely a channel between the department and the higher levels of the administration – the one who had to pass on the good or bad news coming down from the top.

And the same pattern repeated itself in the Berkeley faculty a large. In theory, at least, the campus was a self-governing academic community with a Senate, an elected leadership, Senate committees and subcommittees, and, of course, Senate meetings and Senate reports. In reality, the bureaucratic machinery of the administration, set up by the “Board of Regents of the University of California,” had the final say since they held the purse strings. We were slowly turning into “employees” of a professionally run and bureaucratically organized corporation.

In the natural course of things, Paul Grice one day became chair of the department. It was felt that we needed with his international stature to represent us to the administration. Paul was not exactly born to that task. He was as careless with paper work as he was with his own appearance. When he finally retired, I helped to clear out his office. There were boxes of unopened letters from pleading deans and desperate publishers. Paul asked me to serve as vice-chair to take some of the burdens of his shoulders. We certainly made an odd pair. Neither of us were familiar with American bureaucracy, its demands, deadlines, and forms. Eventually our administrative assistant blew up and refused to have any more contact with Grice. I had to serve as conduit moving back and forth between their offices. I still had no tenure at the time and when I was finally promoted our Dean of Humanities, a distinguished classicist, said to me: “You know that tenure is there to protect you from your colleagues.” I took the message to heart. Not that I needed to be protected from Grice but I took the remark as an invitation that I should be going my own intellectual way.

One day when I complained to Feyerabend about my administrative work, he said to me: “You have done this all wrong. The first time they asked you, you should have proven complete incompetence and unreliability. They would never have asked you again. That’s what I did.” I could only respond jokingly that he, of course, was a Viennese who was understood to take life easy, but I was a German burdened with an unbearable sense of duty. Feyerabend: “Ach. ‘duty’ is a misprint for beauty.” In other words, I should be doing some beautiful rather than worry about duties.

My vice-chairing of the department did not really prepare me for the moment, a few years later when became department chair. I was certainly not willing to abandon my work in philosophy for this job and so was, probably, less effective in it than I should have been. One of my objectives was to push our offerings in ethics in a new direction by appointing a female candidate who worked on feminism and medical ethics. Some of my colleagues, unfortunately, never accepted her and she moved on after a few years. In addition, I had to deal with a tenure case of a colleague who was both a minority and a woman. The case dragged on for years as it became more and more obvious that she had failed to live up to her initial promise. Even so, her case remained hard-contested. One of the most insistent voices in this drawn-out debate was a colleague who had once said in an all-male faculty meeting that we all really knew that women had no brains. On the other side was a colleague who came one day to my office to tell me: “I don’t think she deserves tenure. She is no good at all. But I will vote for her anyway. And if you should quote me on this, I will deny everything.” The final decision to recommend against her promotion to tenure left a bad after-taste.

One morning I walked into Moses Hall and saw a big poster announcing a new course dedicated to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. I had never heard of any such course and didn’t recognize the names of its two advertised instructors. It turned out that they were from the Ayn Rand Institute in New York; the course was supposed to consist of recorded lectures from the Institute, and course papers were to be sent to New York to be graded there. It was all very strange and completely in conflict with University regulations. On my enquiry, I discovered that the course had been sponsored by one of our colleagues. I called him in and told him that I could not approve it in its current form and that if he wanted to continue with it, he would have to take charge. His response was to write an open-letter accusing me of “German Panzer-mentality.” Fortunately, my other colleagues backed me up. But that was not the end of the story. After a few weeks into the semester, my colleague sent out another blast. I had completely failed in my job and should never have allowed him to take on this course. He had just discovered that the two Ayn Randians from New York were complete idiots. They had actually claimed that Mark Twain was the greatest American author. While he could agree on everything else with them, this was clearly over the top. I survived this one without sleepless nights.

Michel Foucault comes to town

My one achievement as chair was of a different kind. Leo Bersani, the chair of the French department called me one day to ask whether we were interested in co-sponsoring a half-semester visit from Michel Foucault. Foucault had been to Berkeley for individual lectures but was interested in establishing a regular relationship with us. I jumped at the possibility without even asking my colleagues and committed us to such an agreement. Fortunately, I didn’t hear any protests afterwards. Foucault was at that moment at the height of his fame and career and we were always keen to add to the department’s luster. The possibility that he would be coming once a year to teach a seminar was an exciting idea. Foucault’s sudden death the following year made this unfortunately a single occasion.

One of Foucault’s conditions had been that he would be teaching only a small, select group of students. We managed to keep it at that. But otherwise it was difficult to keep his crowds of admirers away. I asked him to give a colloquium talk to the philosophy graduate students and faculty. We kept the time and place secret but without success. When I took him into the lecture room, his face fell. The place was packed to the rafters.

We had also arranged or Foucault to give the Howison lecture that year – the philosophy department’s single public annual lecture. We were sure that it would attract a large audience. So we booked Zellerbach Hall, the campus theater with some 800 seats. An hour before the lecture, the place was crammed full and doors had to be locked. Still, there were masses of people outside. At short notice, we managed to establish an audio link to the Wheeler Hall lecture room which had an additional few hundred seats. Even so, not everybody got in. I knew already that Foucault had an ambivalent attitude to his own fame and was concerned about his possible rection. But he knew how to handle the event. Speaking with his usual charm, he  devoted his lecture to a painstaking examination of Stoic ethics, peppering it with plenty of Greek quotations. After the lecture, I overheard two students who had just come from the event. “What did you think of the lecture,” the first one asked. “Oh, I liked it alright,” was the reply. “Did you understand anything?” “No,” was the answer, “but I loved his voice.” Foucault’s French accent had carried the day.

Foucault spent much time in the main library. I would often seem him on the way there dressed nattily dressed in his tweed jacket, with brief case loaded with papers. For the semester he had rented an apartment in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco from one of the French professors: a wonderfully Victorian area but the commute from there to the campus was terrible. I was still living in the city at the time and not too far from his place. So, I would occasionally offer him a ride back in my car. Stuck in the rush hour traffic on the Bay Bridge we talked about philosophy, America, and AIDS. I had discovered some affinities between him and Wittgenstein – for instance, in their rejection of the Cartesian conception of the self but more generally also in their freely experimental attitude to philosophy. Foucault said that he did now know much about Wittgenstein and so I tried to convince him that he should take a look. As Europeans we were agreed in our wary view of the US and our attraction to California. I warned him of the dangers of the new HIV virus which didn’t even have a name at the time. Foucault would hear nothing of it and insisted that it was all part of what he called “American anti-sexual hysteria.” It was the year before he died of the disease. He was just discovering the liberating world of San Francisco’s gay subculture. One Sunday afternoon I opened my front door and there was Foucault walking down my street dressed from head to toe in black leather. I invited him in and we talked for a while till he excused himself saying he was just on his way to the gay leather bars South of Market.

Foucault’s visit made a deep impact on the Berkeley faculty. My colleagues Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow from Anthropology talked extensively with him as they were preparing the first comprehensive book on his work in English. Professors from French, English literature, and History interacted with him. I was also becoming intrigued with his work. I had first come across it in a faculty reading group where we studied The Order of Things. Ian Hacking was one of its participants and so were my colleagues Dreyfus and Searle. Hacking made sense for us of the book by pointing out its parallels to Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But the details of the book still remained impenetrable for many of us at the time. I certainly didn’t realize yet how much Foucault’s thinking would come to mean to me later on.


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  1. I attended some of Foucault’s lectures in Berkeley and the association of his name with “charm” strikes me as absurd. I have not in my entire life heard anyone so utterly dry and dull.

    I have also to confess that it was a derisory comment about Husserl I heard from you that attracted my attention to this philosopher, whom I now believe to be the greatest of the 20th. century. Thanks!

  2. This is a marvelous look back to a time of semi-radical experimentation from the point of view of an open-minded yet well grounded philosopher who vividly conveys the intellectual excitement of the sixties and seventies in Berkeley( I assume from the remarks that it deals primarily with those decades). I was a graduate student in another discipline during that period, but shared that era’s attraction to experimenting with alternative states of consciousness, as well as to the various philosophical ideas circulating during that time, though without Sluga’s professional expertise. I remember reading over and over again Kierkegaard’s writings, attempting to insert myself, a secular atheist, into his description of stages of consciousness. Never made the final religious leap, though I did later try to embrace the wilds of continental philosophy. Thank you, Hans Sluga, for this beautifully written and stimulating re-collection.

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