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by Thomas H. Thompson

1. Introduction

This paper is autobiographical even when it may appear not to be. I have drawn on my student years, more particularly my graduate student years, in order to explore the topic of metaphilosophy––however circuitously and obtusely. Why I chose to major in philosophy, how events conspired to shape my undergraduate major in and subsequent graduate work in philosophy, is the ubiquitous subtext of everything else in this paper. However, and somewhat paradoxically, the interest––if any––of this essay is what it claims to say about philosophy, not what it incidentally says about me.

This memoir will be––I hasten to say––fragmentary and a little defensive. It is rather long for a colloquium paper, but by way of compensation it is a very easy read. I will be conscientiously suspicious of the motives of others while less suspicious of my own. Like all autobiographies, this one is heavily larded with errors of recollection and incorrigible errors of fact. While I do not do not own up to conscious lies, still I have to assume that I have not escaped the fragilities of my recovered memories of forty years ago. I have to admit that the possibility of such delusions is particularly likely when I attempt, as I will, to illuminate some of my experience as a student––particularly as a graduate student––with the help of Freudian analysis.

There are good reasons why such analysis will be faulty. I have no clinical experience in psychoanalysis and no credentials in psychoanalysis. My use of psychoanalytic techniques in what follows is altogether literary and speculative. The closer I come to challenging my cherished defenses, in other words, the less likely am I to be descriptively accurate. Nonetheless, flawed as this brand of analysis is, I have at hand no better method for self–understanding, nor, in the context of my own academic experience, for understanding of the subject––metaphilosophy. For I will be contending that the social construction of reality, so to speak, in graduate school effectively determined the meaning and content of "philosophy" as then and subsequently understood by me. Aside from the peculiarities of my graduate school experience, it seems tome likely that my sojourn at Iowa City in the fifties was not unique, that graduate work in philosophy produces a "professional" philosopher whose philosophical convictions never fully free themselves from that formative apprenticeship.

Still, a fair question at the outset would be this: Why should anyone else want to read these vignettes from an academic autobiography? While they may function as catharsis, what significance have they beyond my own psychic chimney–sweeping?

I have three observations:

First, I address an audience whose experience as graduate students, some in philosophy, should have resonances with my own, even though my experiences date back some forty–odd years. Such an audience is well situated to apply corrections and suggest reinterpretations which certainly may include the deflation of my inflation of stock orthodox Freudian explanations. Then, there is the question to what extent my experiences, seen from the perspective of these recovered memories, is still somewhat typical of what happens to most or many graduate students in philosophy. It could be, for all I know, that the tribal rites of passage have been reformed and refined out of all recognition. I doubt that. There is a compulsion for repetition in graduate education, almost as if those who apprentice the young to scholarship must subject their clients to the same academic rigors that made them such ideal exemplars.

Second, aside from covert personal subtexts, I will offer some reflections on that tired–sounding question, What is philosophy? It is a weaselly question to say the least. Giving an answer to the question already assumes a previous answer and a suppressed system. Hence one responds in bad faith. One of my graduate school mentors, in fact, declared with the perfect conviction he was known for, that even to entertain such questions as "What is philosophy?" shows a wimpy philosophical taste and, additionally, signifies weak philosophical talent. The macho philosopher just does philosophy, sweeping away the nitpickers and lesser breeds outside his law with the sheer force of his oracular pronouncements. There was a second mentor, however, who took such questions rather seriously, having produced a short book on thesubject1.

Unfortunately, I am not only in rebellion against the first mentor by dealing sympathetically with metaphilosophy, but also in rebellion against the second. The way I approach metaphilosophy would cause him real grief and in more than one dimension. He would be especially upset at my unabashedly psychologistic posture, since, if I should have learned anything from him, it would be that philosophical questions need to be carefully separated from their psychological, social and historical context in order to deal with them on their own abstracted terms. You might suppose that at my advanced age the weight of the fantasied disapprovals of these two deceased master spirits of the Department of Philosophy at Iowa City would be slim or none.

The truth is that I feel considerable guilt in even entertaining the question of abstracting from context. I feel even more shame for failing to perform an act of high–flying abstraction that situates the problem safely out of the reach of the unnecessary messiness of psycho–social facticity. Though these two imperfect mentors of mine have gone on to their reward, it will become apparent in the sequel that the Oedipal problematic they bequeathed to me still lingers on––unresolved. Here are two internalized philosophical "consciences," each claiming to speak in the name of the father, each resisted, each incorporated ambivalently even while resisted. The combination of the two splits the superego while relaying contradictory messages witnessing partly–failed/partly–successful identifications.

For as the cover–page caricature of a dictionary definition of the term "metaphilosophy" is meant to suggest, I will be a metaphilosopher doggedly and devotedly pursuing Freudian explanations.

Moreover, the Freudian perspective I bring to this essay is uncritically orthodox. In this essay, I am not concerned with Freudian–inspired alternative psychologies, their derivatives, and their possible merits. I do not deny those possible merits. I merely warn the reader that the Freudian epigones will simply not appear and that my "Freudianism" will function here as acrude "science," enabling me to provide explanatory generalizations about my life as a student of philosophy.

Freudianism will be further extended to construction of the content of my graduate philosophical education, a claim that goes well beyond merely illuminating the psychology of the participants in the process. It will not escape the notice of the reader that my use of Freudianism is at all times exculpatory in spite of my efforts to the contrary.

Third, and finally, as a metaphilosopher, I will be mentioning and briefly describing philosophical systems without the qualifications and the particulars that would be required for a just treatment of any of them. I have heard it said that God is in the details. I think I have also heard that the Devil is in the details. I agree with both statements. Here I sidestep both divinities by positioning myself high enough over the philosophical terrain to blur most detail in the interest of commenting upon selected prominent features.

2. Majoring in Music and Philosophy

I turn now to an account of how I came to declare a major in philosophy and how, subsequently, I found myself a graduate student in philosophy.

When I arrived in Iowa City in January of 1942 as a music major, the Department of Philosophy was in process of being built and expanded. Everett Hall had recently been recruited as department head and there were to be several upgraded faculty budget lines added. Still, at this time, there were few or no majors. When I arrived in Iowa City for the first time around, this was unknown to me. Had I known it I would have dismissed it as of no importance or interest.

I had begun my program at the University of Iowa as an instrumental music major with the unlikely project of becoming a legitimate performer on the saxophone. This was in the forties, remember, and, as opposed to the present atmosphere of acceptance, the saxophone was regarded as a bastard offspring of the legitimate reed instruments. Its study and performance was discouraged in respectable schools of music.

My introduction to the UI School of Music was inauspicious to say the least. PhilipGreeley Clapp, Director of the School of Music, and the person for whom its performing auditorium is named, had the habit of personally accompanying scholarship applicants at the piano and afterward presiding over their evaluation in concert with the leading lights of the School of Music. I performed at the audition at a time when I had not yet graduated from high school. I was both awed and thoroughly frightened. Not only was I performing before these impressive professorial types, but I was playing a despised instrument!

Clapp was an enormous man, known for his ever–present cigarette that dribbled ashes over his balloon of a vest. He was also notorious for his ability to sight–read any orchestral or operatic score (including vocal parts) at the piano. I performed one of the few then–extant legitimate saxophone concertos with Clapp, a short piece intended to be played with a chamber orchestra. Clapp did the honors––missing many handfuls of notes as he proceeded to bang out the accompaniment. But he did live up to his genius reputation in one important respect; he did not get lost while turning the pages of the score––which took almost as much effort as the playing itself.

To my amazement, I was awarded a partial scholarship to the School of Music––but with an important proviso. Since I had played oboe in high school I was required to take oboe lessons rather than saxophone lessons and the lessons were to be taken from Professor Himie Voxman2. Voxman was a sour and grainy person who was a clarinetist, not an oboist. His undergraduate degree was in either chemical or electrical engineering. I thought his clarinet sound was consistent with his undergraduate major (but, of course, I never revealed that opinion to anyone). Voxman and I did not generate good chemistry as teacher and student. But, then, given a clarinet teacher providing oboe lessons for a scholarship student on oboe who desired to study the saxophone is not a prescription for musical harmony. Here, as often the case, what the student may learn in the course of formal education has relatively little relation to what the teacher intended to teach.

Upon Professor Clapp's demise, Himie Voxman became the Director of the School ofMusic, which, naturally, meant that he could no longer teach oboe. Transfer of some persons to the status of administrator can clearly have a beneficent effect on student learning––however unintended.

There was another requirement of the music major at this time. I had to perform in the university band. This time the preferred instrument was clarinet. I did not resist the requirement; the alternate was Military Science and Tactics. "Military" involved wearing a uniform a couple of days a week and parading around the fieldhouse with a wooden gun. Professor Charles Righter was the musical director of the University of Iowa bands. (This meant that he got to have an assistant whose job it was to design the intricate patterns the band marched in for the amusement of half–time football spectators.) Professor Righter got wind of the fact that I was a saxophonist and assigned to me a solo clarinet part that contained a long glissando that was supposed to "wail" in an ersatz jazzy mode. I played it, but I resented Righter's condescending attitude toward jazz and––eventually––told the good Professor precisely where he could stuff his marching band. This fracas ended my career in UNI marching bands. The same event, unhappily, began my enforced career in Military Science and Tactics. I reached the rank of sergeant.

My stint as a music major clearly was not going well. Music majors were required to take the core courses in music (General Education courses, that is) along with the whole student population. The courses were quite basic, promulgating information on the order of "This is a major third" and "This is the circle of fifths." Trouble was I had joined some like–minded fellow students in high school for a class in harmony and four–part writing. This effort was deliberately undertaken to prepare for the challenge of university work. I was furious when I discovered I was supposed to retrace basics that were by then a waste of time. The undergraduate music major struck me as a Mickey Mouse enterprise.

The larger historical context of these personal adventures in university education was a world war. The war interrupted my faltering curriculum. Ruled ineligible for military service, I sampled life on the outside from various perspectives––spending time as a dance–band musician full–time and part–time and exploring the world of work in low–skilled jobs in various departments of the meat–packing industry. The dead–end character of these occupations and alife–long habit of omnivorous reading brought me back to Iowa City to register as an undergraduate major in philosophy. Why?

The atmosphere toward saxophonists in the School of Music was still very chilly. While I wanted to pursue a musical career, I thought it would be respectable also to have a B. A. in something bookish, given that the School of Music had no place for a person of my perverse musical orientation. One of the books I had read during my long sabbatical from college was a piece of popular esoterica from the pen of P. D. Ouspensky3, a Russian mystic who blended science and mysticism in a fashion attractive to a person of my age and situation. I thought to myself, I want to go back to college; this is interesting stuff; I'll major in philosophy! Bear in mind that I had no idea of what the character of the department by that name at the University of Iowa was. If anything, I must have supposed that "philosophy" was a matter of reading yet more of this far–out speculation.

Thus when I arrived in Iowa City for my second go–round at a college education, I went straight off to the department head's office to declare a major in philosophy. I reemphasize that I did so without the least notion of what "philosophy" might mean in this department or, for that matter, in any other. The department head, Dr. Everett W. Hall, counseled me carefully to consider the decision to major in philosophy. He warned me of the occupational uselessness of a B. A. in philosophy and inquired, gently, about my financial resources. I persevered on the basis of a few dance jobs in the offing and a board job at Currier Hall dormitory, plus the hope of summer jobs in the packing industry. That should be sufficient to get me by until I took up a career in the big band business. This, bear in mind, was 1946 or thereabouts. Big bands had flourished in the mid–forties and would still exist in the early fifties, but their days were numbered. My occupational choice was destined, unknown to me at the time, to vanish as a viable job opportunity.

Everett Hall signed me up for Gustav Bergmannn's undergraduate course in Philosophy of Science for my first semester back. This was to be the surrogate for a usual Introduction toPhilosophy. I recall his saying it would be a test of my seriousness about the philosophy major. He was right. Bergmann used the undergraduate Philosophy of Science course as a bully pulpit for the Vienna Circle religion. I found Bergmann himself rather scary and daunting. But I also found myself intrigued with the hard–edge economy of logical positivism coupled with the centrality of science in creating an all–encompassing frame of reference that, for someone intellectually naive, seemed like a revelatory experience.

I did well in the course and became known to Bergmann, the first person of professorial–grade intellect that I had ever genuinely encountered.

Professor Bergmann was depicted in many anecdotes among the students. Some of them were probably true. Bergmann was an Austrian Jew, a graduate of the University of Vienna, an "associate" member of the Vienna Circle, and reputed to be a holy terror. He had arrived in Iowa City from New York City to work in the Child Welfare Research Station as a technician. But he quite soon found a way to become aligned with the behavioristically–oriented Department of Psychology at Iowa and later with the Department of Philosophy. Kenneth Spence was then head of Psychology and was a thorough and unwavering behaviorist. Bergmannn's logical positivism seemed to be a perfect philosophical complement for that behaviorism. They eventually collaborated on a number of methodological publications.

Bergmannn never found it easy to adjust to the Midwest. Hitler's advance into Austria and the accompanying anti–Semitism was the only reason that Bergmannn was not partaking of European cosmopolitanism. Iowa City, Iowa in the forties was a far, far cry from Vienna and Berlin, his old stamping grounds. His take on the civilization of a Midwestern university town is well illustrated by his first act upon arriving in Iowa City. He joined the Unitarian church near the campus. While I doubt that Dr. Bergmannn had even the slightest hint of a religious sentiment in his whole body, he was plainly taking out social insurance in case the locals might find him actionably irreligious. After all, as a Jew, he knew at first hand how dangerous it could be to seem culturally unassimilated. At the same time, I suspect, he could stomach only the most diluted religious organization around––the Unitarians. Once he had reconnoitered the territory, so I understand, Bergmannn unceremoniously dropped his "religious" affiliation.

It was never clear to me that Bergmannn had ever actually taken a degree in philosophy. He had advanced degrees in both mathematics (his specialty was topology) and in law. He had, while in Vienna, been associated, though marginally, with Der Weiner Kreis. However, he did not compare in repute to towering figures like Rudolph Carnap4 or even with some of the lesser lights of that group. Nevertheless, I think he felt himself unfairly exiled in the Midwest while some of his Vienna colleagues found themselves in more prestigious positions in Berkeley, Chicago or even Minnesota.

He was rather stocky, a little reminiscent of a humanoid primate, or so some of us students speculated. Balding prematurely, he walked in a shuffle, his arms a shade longer than normal. Invidious comparisons certain students made between Professor Bergmann and an actual Neanderthal were, I thought, strained. His limpid and penetrating brown eyes, for example, gave evidence of the sharp intelligence that lay behind the allegedly primitive exterior.5

Bergmannn could be charming and accommodating when he wanted to be, but, to my eye, that charm was always a "veneer" personality that could disappear in a flash. I witnessedthat fairly often. Bergmannn did not suffer fools gladly. His definition of that category was sufficiently broad to subsume most of the undergraduate population, those graduate students not beholden to him personally, and the majority of his colleagues both on and off–campus.

Everett Hall was the other leading intellectual light of the department. Hall and Bergmannn were, in retrospect, interestingly diverse. Hall was an American through and through just as Bergmannn was a European. Their philosophical differences and their personality differences negatively reinforced each other and made their mutual Wittgensteinianism6 a matter on which interpersonal communication foundered and animosity festered. If there ever was an glaring example of the ironic psychology of small differences this was it.

I was at last finished with undergraduate work and had a double major in philosophy and psychology to show for it. By then it was 1948 and I had no job prospects. Therefore I decided to take on graduate study and attempt to get an assistantship. I had no ready money to finance any other alternative.

I ended up with an assistantship in philosophy even though my first choice was psychology. The short reason was the lack of assistantships in psychology. Psychology was a very popular graduate major and its assistantships were competitive and very difficult to obtain. Since, for a variety of personal as well as financial reasons, I needed to stay in Iowa City, I applied for an assistantship in philosophy. The competition was much less stringent. I was launched on my career as a graduate student––still supposing that when the time was ripe I would end up in the reed section of some dance band.

The graduate program in philosophy at Iowa was quite new and very small. Everett Hall had no doctoral students for whom he was dissertation adviser before two of us signed up with him. There were just the three of us going for Ph. D.'s. We were from time to time joined by other graduate students, but this group of three were the reliables who persevered to the end and were awarded the degree.

The classes were intimate, particularly the graduate seminars presided over by either Hall or Bergmannn. Almost all the courses were saturated by the then pervasive Midwestern emphasis on analysis. While Bergmannn in those days was a "logical positivist" (he did not ever accept that label without protest, preferring "syntactical positivist"), Hall was probably best described as a linguistic realist. If Bergmannn in traditional terms was a phenomenalist––Berkeley without God or Hume without the corrosive scepticism––then Hall was John Locke. They acted out the roles of Hylas and Philonous, not with the mock–courteous interplay of the Berkleian dialogues, but in a social context wherein philosophical differences were commingled with personality, vicious internecine warfare and bitter ad hominem attacks.

The agreements between Bergmannn and Hall, from the vantage point of an outsider to philosophical disputes, were numerous. Both were post–Wittgensteinian foes of philosophical speculation, both believed that the analysis of language was the key to "dissolving" the traditional philosophical puzzles, both were ardent foes of confusing philosophy in its abstracted purity with psycho–social contexts of occurrence of any sort.

Their disagreements were epistemological and ontological. Bergmannn, from the standpoint of the phenomenalism he could not straightforwardly express, saw every competitor as stupid, perverse, and probably both. Epistemological and ontological realism, even decked out in its linguistic apparatus, struck Bergmannn as a silly reinstitution of a pseudo–problem already dissolved by ideal language philosophy. In old–fashioned language, Bergmann was a Humean faced by an opponent who insisted on talking about unknowable material substances while Bergmannn knew very well that ideas arose in the soul as a result of impressions generated from an unknown source.

To a beginning graduate student, however, the dispute between Hall and Bergmannn was, at the outset, simply mystifying. Undergraduate work at Iowa had included some introductory logic and history of philosophy, but the background I possessed on the threshold of graduate education was woefully inadequate for a grasp of the entire field. Ironically enough, while linguistic philosophy needed the mutilated corpses of traditional philosophies as grist for its critical mill, we students were drenched in half–understood analysis without having been first fed a solid background in the tradition.

Central as the notion of an ideal language was to the systematic positions both of Bergmann and Hall, instead of lucid explanations of linguistic systems, we graduate students were more likely to learn of the stupidity of the mainline historical forbears of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle illuminati. There was much "answering" of questions that had never been defined and "dissolutions" of problems that had never occurred to us students. We were weak enough in the history of philosophy that we heard the indignation of our teachers without their sense of the outrageous errors of their predecessors. I do very well remember Gustav Bergmann bellowing, with sincere passion, that "Hegel is a great ass." While I cannot recall the same volume of preachment, John Dewey was also pilloried because of his scientistic redaction of the bestial Hegelianism. He was thought to be an even greater ass than Hegel for his failure to embrace the logic of Principia Mathematica. Dewey was, according to my mentors, so stupid that he was even incapable of understanding induction.

When I reflect on graduate work in philosophy in Iowa City as a whole, one small incident stands out. Were there to be a single event that encapsulated and epitomized the ambiance of graduate work in philosophy at Iowa, this was it.

One of my graduate student colleagues, a fellow student in Gustav's Saturday morning seminar on the Gödel Theorem, once spoke to me as follows:

"Every Saturday, after class, I go home and vomit in the bathroom."

At the time, while I sympathized and empathized, I did not set out to rehearse the etiology of the symptom. Of course, it was perfectly evident that the experience of Bergmannn's posturing and preening before us graduate students was the proximate cause. But what lay behind it?

3. A Band of Brothers.

Though there were six people in the Iowa City Department of Philosophy, those thatmattered for graduate students were only two. The department was a duarchy. Professor Everett W. Hall was the department head (he had come to Iowa after taking the Ph. D. at the Sage School at Cornell and a stint at the University of Chicago). Professor Bergmann was, when I first arrived in Iowa City as an undergraduate, not a full professor. I can vividly recall the semester he received his promotion. Everett Hall remarked in my hearing that perhaps the promotion would reduce his appetite for departmental vendettas.

How wrong he was! The promotion encouraged Bergmann to even more daring exploits of departmental engineering. However, his position among his colleagues transcended any official rank. He aspired to dominate the department faculty and curriculum, to capture the graduate students as fawning sycophants, and to render impotent the putative head of the department, Dr. Hall. He was both feared and respected and occasionally (but privately) held in outraged contempt.

Dr. Hall, on the other hand, was a kindly professorial figure whose very demeanor and dress suggested a kindly Anglican cleric. Hall had in fact been a seminarian and had reached the threshold of ordination in his preparation for the ministry when he suddenly changed course. There were two reasons (according to my recollection of his own statements): One was that he could not agree with the Articles which required his signature in order for him to be ordained. The bishop advised this neophyte just to sign––after all, this was a formality–– without worrying about the substance. Hall demurred and converted to philosophy. There, he must have assumed, he could be as principled as he liked without incurring opprobrium. The other reason was a course in geology. While the course did not arouse that much interest in geology, it did spur his interest in taxonomy and classification of all sorts––which, again, led him toward philosophy.

Hall had categorically forsworn his previous religious convictions upon taking up the mantle of philosophy. His despisal of religion was so intense that it led to my suspecting reaction–formation; to my mind, he was holding those religious sensibilities in strict repression for fear of suddenly reverting to his former religious sensibilities which he had sacrificed on thealtar of a (foolish?) integrity7. If ever there were a "cultured despiser of religion," Everett Hall was its personification.

At any rate, if Bergmannn was the Machiavellian eminence grise, Hall was the straightforward, calm, quiet embodiment of a secular religionist, a person whose integrity is unquestioned but whose lifestyle might be perceived as terminally boring in its high–flown but utterly banal moral rectitude. A Bergmannite could be quite gleeful in judging Professor Hall a nerd lacking fire and passion and without much philosophical acumen either! Bergmann himself was heard to say that whatever Hall's understanding of psychology might be it was totally by inference.8

Relations between Hall and Bergmannn were never easy and friendly. They began with stiffness and strained correctness and progressed with a tragic inevitability9 toward more–or–lessopen warfare. By contrast, relations among us graduate students were cordial enough. For one thing, we shared the necessity to cope with our status as helots struggling to tunnel through the academic maze in order to reach the degree and face the rigors of the job market. In our relations with Hall and Bergmann we did not provide succor to each other; we were on our own.

In fact, as I shall argue, the circumstances of our lives as graduate students closely paralleled Freud's description in Totem and Taboo of the vicissitudes of a "band of brothers."

Borrowing from Darwin's speculation, Freud conjectured that, like the higher primates, early men lived in small social groups or "hordes" within which "the jealousy of the oldest and strongest male prevented sexual promiscuity." (SE, XIII, p. 125)

Freud's account of the band of brothers proceeds as follows:

. . . when the young male grows up, a contest takes place for mastery, and the strongest, by killing and driving out the others, establishes himself as head of the community. (Ibid.)

Further, and most significantly:

One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do . . . what would have been impossible for them individually. . . . Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers; and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal . . . would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable andcriminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things––of social organization, of moral restrictions, and of religion. (emphases mine) (SE, XIII, p. 141)

This account summarizes the central claim of Totem and Taboo. It has received a large volume of merited criticism from all sides. It has been pointed out convincingly that both Darwin and Freud lack credible anthropological evidence to support the claim that such an event ever actually occurred. Freud himself in a long footnote is reticent about claiming factual accuracy for the account.10

I accept the familiar criticisms of the anthropological flimsiness of the Freudian tale of the band of brothers. That is not where its significance lies––as an historical contribution. It is, rather, an instructive myth11 that retains its capacity to explain, in this case the psychology of a special "band of brothers," quite independent of its contested anthropological accuracy.

Some of the analogical parallels are superficially obvious. The situation of the small group of graduate students was a regressive one. Influential graduate school professors like Bergmann and Hall were unconsciously perceived as surrogate "fathers" and we students were, to a degree, infantilized. These "fathers" held power of (academic) life and death. They were the possessors of the amulet that would, once initiatory rituals were undergone, give us the status required and the necessary permission to imitate the fathers' potent niche in the academic world.

The education we received was, in fact, almost exclusively indoctrination. While Halland Bergmannn would most certainly have embraced just the opposite view of the nature of their instruction, the reality as perceived by us was that we had to learn the vocabulary of linguistic philosophy well enough to "pass," that is to satisfy our mentors that we exhibited the signs and symbols (I almost wrote "body paint") that marked us as a members of the proper philosophical tribe. There was no freedom of thought––except at the price of eventual separation from the tribe and the loss of license to practice the occupation of the fathers. So, while, like all resentful prisoners, we scoffed privately at our jailers, we also behaved properly in the presence of authority. We were too obsequious to be believed.

But the tacit resistance to authority in the group was only a part of the story. We students admired our teachers at the same time that we resented them. And it was true that the overbearing ways of the fathers did not wholly extinguish philosophical curiosity. While there was relatively poor comprehension of the inner detail of either Bergmann's or Hall's systems (at least to begin with), there was an urge to acquire the gloss required to make all this effort pay off.

We students did still desire to penetrate the philosophical mysteries. I never did completely lose my penchant for the romantic, the evolutionary and the esoteric even while acting out as best I could the role of an analytic philosopher–in–training. Such roles are rarely acted out to perfection. And my posture as a graduate student was marked from time to time with the same kind of nascent rebellion and disrespect that I showed in earlier portions of my academic career. I remember, for example, talking to Bergmannn about a possible dissertation on Nietzsche and Freud. Nothing came of it of course. My conversation with Gustav may not sound adventurous or rebellious, but, given the atmosphere of East Hall, it was about as close to flying off the edge of a cliff as a student seriously interested in getting a Ph. D. would dare go.

Actually, the rebellion that almost did me in was to choose Everett Hall both as masters thesis adviser and dissertation chair. And I chose topics in value theory (ethics and aesthetics) that practically constituted an announcement to Bergmannn that I was not a serious student of philosophy. It set up a grainy dissertation defense from which I escaped with my academic life only because the defense deteriorated into a sparring match between the two "fathers" during which the purpose of the exercise was temporarily forgotten. I can still break a sweat when Ithink how close I came to death in the afternoon.

So, like those brothers in the horde, I found myself imitating my teacher–fathers, bitterly resenting them, and, at the same time, admiring their way with words and their intellectual prowess. In some respects, I was recapitulating (quite unconsciously) my relation to my biological father for whom I had extravagantly ambivalent feelings.

Moreover, it seemed like (in retrospect) these surrogate fathers had a priestly command of a mystery that could only be revealed at some cost and with the passage of time to these acolytes. And here, as I suspect, the mystery, the philosophical wonder that survived in this situation, was a curiosity about the primal scene––deeply sublimated for the most part. And if I am correct in tracing my feelings to the usual murder/incest wishes of the Oedipus complex, then, the fear felt (not getting the degree and rendered thereby academically "impotent") was a repressed awareness of a castration punishment for that very primal scene which was both the object of heterodoxical "philosophical" curiosity and the loyalty demanded by the father––the loyalty to the version of philosophy which was as it were the orthodoxy of the group. To put it otherwise, heresy was the temptation forever threatening to erupt. But this heresy was the ultimate challenge to the fathers' possession of the primal secret. Heretical impulses must be kept out of sight by an appropriate emphasis in thought and deed on the virtues of philosophical analysis.

Such repression and conformity took its toll. That is why Romane Clark had to vomit every Saturday morning in order to continue as a graduate student in philosophy. It was an oral–anal scenario, a protest statement in body–language. Clark was saying that he could not consume and digest without spitting out the scatological content of the seminar.

Few fathers actually perish under attack by their students12. The mysterious entities they claimed to preside over, their philosophical harem so to speak, was not to be handed over in all its potency to any competitive band of brothers. Meanwhile, the fantasy life of the graduateschool was a reality that remained to haunt the maturity of its students.

We students eventually received our Ph. D.s and soon thereafter followed the law of exogamy. We were driven out of the group and charged with the responsibility of establishing hordes of our own. The luxuries of ambivalent studentship came to a conventional end and the sins of the fathers were about to be visited on another set of sons.

4. A Freudian Critique of Philosophical Analysis

A philosophical system purports to be a total explanation. To put it otherwise, a philosophical system contains itself, refers to itself. Such language is seriously misleading, since a system is not a container in any literal sense. Still the self–referring character of a system is an implicit embarrassment, often dealt with by simply ignoring the problem. To speak about a system seems to imply a further system within which the system is the object language and utterances about it in a metalanguage. This creates a dizzying array of infinitely regressing metasystems, since in referring to a system I imply another system and if I refer to that still another and so on. The theory of types offers no final solution.

One is tempted to retreat to "ordinary language," a system–free lingua franca, in order to immunize the root system in order to talk about it without being swallowed up by the ascending flurry of metasystems. But this "solution" is redolent of an ad hoc solution fashioned precisely to get around a particularly sticky problem.

While the question of "What is ordinary language?" is too complex to be dealt with here, it suffices to say that "ordinariness" is deserted the moment one essays to speak ordinary language about complex philosophical issues. The language gets "tainted," so to speak, with philosophy and the exemption from philosophy that is sought disappears. It could be argued of course that "ordinary language" is already tainted with philosophy. The notion that it is not seems to me to suggest the condescension of the Oxford don with respect to the language of lesser breeds. Moreover, even if the retreat to ordinary language should be thought to do the job, there is a circularity involved. Wishing to say the philosophical thing, in all its presumed clarity, one is reduced after all that effort to ordinary speech. That speech, after all, is the veryitem which was to have been distilled and clarified.

In the fifties, in Iowa City, whose halls reverberated with such discussions, philosophy tended to be a series of more or less respectful footnotes to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The Tractatus, you will recall, ended on a disturbing note. On the last page, after all that philosophizing, Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy as such in favor of mysticism. The ladder by which one had climbed up to understanding was now cast aside with the comment that those who understood him would see that the preceding pages were "nonsense," but that these pseudo–propositions could nevertheless be counted on for generating a mystical vision of a totalizing system, an apercu or rather a collected series of them.

Both my philosophical mentors were Wittgensteinians, though I would assume that neither would welcome such a unqualified attribution. Both were partisans of the ideal language. Much effort was devoted to correcting misinterpretations of the ideal language, with the conviction, that, in the end, clarifications all in order, the ideal language system would succeed in working around the necessity alleged by Wittgenstein to adopt a kind of Trappist silence when trying to speak philosophy.

Professor Bergmannn's version of the ideal language in those days was a peculiar creature. If one presumed, in principle, a unified science in which all had been reduced to physics, then one could also presume a set of undefined descriptive predicates, which predicates when treated with an appropriate syntax, would constitute a complete description of the world. The ideal language supplied that syntax, roughly the logical language of Principia Mathematica. Once Principia was melded with the full complement of undefined descriptive predicates, philosophy was over. The sciences were to do the heavy lifting, while analytic philosophy cleaned up any unclarities which might result from scientists' lack of philosophical sophistication.

The semantic dimension of the ideal language, therefore, was no business of the philosopher. This alone was thought to be sufficient to nip in the bud any rogue tendencies of philosophers to speculate about matters which by rights belonged to some department of scientific inquiry.

But the ideal language had other virtues. Once the elementary propositions built fromthose undefined descriptive predicates were in place, the rules of definition, transformation and combination were also established––in principle. The ideal language was ideal in that it was quite impossible to create an ill–formed sentence within it or, otherwise, within it, to ask a question that looked toward an answer that violated the integrity of those same undefined descriptive predicates. Such alleged questions and such responses, it turned out, nicely overlapped the territory of traditional philosophy. Seeing that such alleged "questions" could not be answered since they were not truly "questions" in the first place enabled the exposure of the futility of philosophical speculation. At the same time, philosophical analysis did have a reason for being––precisely to dissolve the major questions which were given systematic answers by the tradition. We were priestly philosophical morticians embalming the corpses of our speculative forebears, discarding the mummies that resulted.

But the undertakers were also voyeurs. The syntax of the ideal language revealed the structure of the world. An astounding claim, perhaps. But it was the precisely philosophical portion of the function of the ideal language. Unfortunately, the mysticism of Wittgenstein's conclusion was reflected in certain characteristics of the ideal language. That language was not an actual language; it was not a language to be spoken; it was not a replacement for ordinary language. Rather by reference to it, or to portions of it, it was possible to reveal something of the world's structure without resorting to the despised speculation of traditional systems which asked silly questions and presumed to usurp the proper work of science. Not only could the ideal language not be spoken. It could not be spoken about either. Hence, as it was said, the ideal language shows the structure of the world in its syntax––but this cannot be said. Of course, I just did say so, but I spoke incorrectly.

So the ideal language was a kind of ghost, a phantom. One could speak about the ideal language in ordinary language––representing a portion of the ideal language in Principia–style prose while talking about its clarifying function in what Professor Bergmannn, giving mock courtesy to that paragon of ordinariness, G. E. Moore, called "Boorish–Moorish." The status this gives to "ordinary language," as earlier observed, creates a problem that was never solved. Somehow or other the "ordinariness" of such common language remains innocent of inbred philosophical assumptions that would spoil the mix.

Thus, the ideal language revealed, if one understood it, the truth of phenomenalism along with substitution of the clarified grammar of Russell and Whitehead for the messy structure of the actual language. Unlike James' despised notion of the "flow" of sense experience, the ideal language accurately encumbered the Humean elementaristic "bits" of awareness (although one must not use the term "awareness," because of its psychologistic implications). The problem of the reference of language was "solved" also. There was no mystery since reference was merely the relation of word to word, a matter of syntax, not some peculiar engine that reached out beyond the phenomena to grasp and enclose some noumenal object or, worse yet, a generalized Substance. The referential pointer of an undefined descriptive predicate pointed to the word not the particular. This may be enough to suggest in outline the basis of what Professor Bergmannn proudly called "syntactical positivism."

Professor Hall had a different take on the ideal language. In some ways as stout a Wittgensteinian as Bergmannn, Hall was not nearly so scientistic though he was sometimes as anti–metaphysical. Hall was a realist. Hall believed in the objectivity of moral values. Hence, he insisted on the extension of the syntax of the ideal language to include the grammar of moral normatives or "ought" statements. Furthermore, he rejected the syntactical account of reference and insisted that words referred to facts out there in the world. While wrestling with the problem of reference in this sense, he despaired of ever asserting this connection in "correct language," for quite obvious self–referential reasons, he was bold to say, in "incorrect language" that the word did, indeed, have the power to reach out and enclose the "thing," leaving the extra–linguistic reference of language a kind of unexplainable surd––but a surd he could not sacrifice without sacrificing his realism and his belief in real values "out there" in the world.

It was these disagreeing accounts of the reference of language that brought on the terrifying disputes between these two. Bergmannn, for his part, saw Hall as simply incapable of seeing the clarifying virtue of the syntactical account which simply made philosophical nonsense of epistemological and ontological realism. Hall, for his part, was unwilling to give up what he considered a vital part of (clarified) commonsense––the notion that words directly referred to experienced fact.

And it was not merely the "real" external world that Hall was unwilling to jettison, butthe reality "out there," in parallel fashion, of genuine moral values. In a book–length treatment of the issues, Hall suggested an ingenious device to argue for moral objectivism. Just as the components of fact are bound together by a special tie, represented in Principia language as A , so too were "oughts" out there even though they did not exist in the same venue as facts existed. "Oughting something to exist" even though it did not (it were good that it should exist) was represented thus: A .13

Bergmann applied his syntactical positivism to demonstrate that such a so–called grammar of ought was not statable in an ideal language. There was no way to incorporate such a weird notion of reference, let alone the non–factual character of those "oughts" that subsisted in a world containing fact bereft of values.

How much is philosophical discussion and disagreement driven by the psychological needs of the discussants and how much is driven by the disingenuous search for the truth? While probably a bad question as stated, it suggests that philosophical system building and the competitive strife between systems is multi–motived. It is certainly not unusual for the unconscious personality needs of the battlers to overcome the sublimated curiosity that is the overt psychological basis for philosophical inquiry. I take these commonplaces to be anecdotal support for the position that the construction of and commitment to a philosophical system is based on a psycho–social construct of reality.

A central aspect of Freudianism, the suspicion of the text, is of some interest here. Freudianism should be as suspicious of its own texts to the very same extent that it is suspicious of the texts of the civilians. Freud, in his better moments, seemed to realize this. Later in life, the adulation of his sycophants and the pressure of his own need to dominate those in the psychoanalytic tribe around him led him to forget the fragility of his own statements. It is certainly ironic that the Freudians, like the religionists whose creed they analyze, have as great or greater need for the father. The superficial text of a dream, yielding the latent dream thoughts, distorted by the censor, and protected by resistance, is endlessly open to analysis and reanalysis.

The text of the ideal language, purified, purged and cleansed as it may have been lacks the dimension of suspicion. The ideal language is a kind of Archimedean point for philosophy––an ontological skyhook. Buttressed by all those atomic sentences and the prestige of an eventual unified science, it seemed that the world had been reduced, finally, from mystery to rational clarity. The ideal language was seen as an Ur–Text, a final text by which all others would be judged and brought to submission, all confusion, unclarity, vagueness and actual nonsense purged into oblivion. One of the unconscious motives at work here is plainly the loathing of the messy and disordered. The ideal language has a strong anal characteral component.

In a rough and ready way, this suspicion of texts based on Freud is similar to the related tenets of post–modernism. Just as the dream is never fully analyzed, there is no Ur–Text to be discovered by successive interpretations that lead nearer and nearer to True Content. Put otherwise, there is no Platonic Text that transcends the "appearances" of given textual interpretations and historical manifestations of said Text. (Note that this very statement seems to imply that there is such a text. "Appearances" seem to imply a "reality" standing apart. Please dismiss these implications.)

So the ideal language, since it is a text, falls under the hermeneutics of suspicion and takes its place amongst other psycho–social constructions. Instead of a Platonic Text capable of taking on the task of reforming the nonsense of traditional philosophical systems, it can only hover impotently in its gaseous half–existence testifying to the psychological needs of a clan of scientistic philosophical critics.

Perhaps the ideal language is coprophilic and anal, but such analysis hardly suffices for its main psychological description. There are deeper motives. Well, you may say, it wants to slay the dragons of nonsense generated by speculative philosophy and help out the scientists who are misled by their naive notions of their own scientific procedures.

I am suspicious of these answers, of these texts of justification.

Rudolph Otto's classic The Idea of the Holy can lead toward the underlying unconscious motivation for the ideal language philosophy. Otto is justly famous for his concept of the Mysterium Tremendum and Fascinans. If I understand it, this force is something like the reality of God that Job encountered and which rendered him (temporarily) speechless before suchterrible Might and Potency. It is more than Thanatos and the fear provoked by it. It is an unearthly realization––not mediated by language––of the unspeakable and awesome quite unnameable Reality that lies beyond, below and above. It is morally neutral, at least in human terms. It is terminally scary and unmanageable. It is akin in a much more modest way to the mysticism invoked by Wittgenstein as he concludes the Tractatus. It is not akin to the Wittgensteinian breed of mysticism in that it does not produce understanding even as it provokes an end to speech, to talking. It stands beyond language. Beyond texts. It is like looking into the blank eyes of a lizard.

In the end, the ideal language philosophy is an unconscious mode of denial. The ideal language philosophy, subliminally aware of this Terror, defends against it by erecting a thoroughly rational analysis of the world that renders the puzzles it presents without the force to mislead. In this the ideal language utterly fails, except in revealing the emptiness of the attempt to impose its clarification upon the resistant mass of the Tremendum.

5. A Personal Coda.

My decision to major in philosophy clearly put in train a host of unintended consequences. What I thought I was majoring in was not in the least resemblent to what I was required to learn as I progressed toward the degree. I went to college to become a musician and finished as an scarily unemployed, newly–minted Ph. D. in a high–risk job market. Not only had the big dance–band business faded away, but my appetite for that kind of life had disappeared after a taste of it. I had supposed I would not finish the Ph. D. and I came breathtakingly close to realizing my own prediction. The unprofessional behavior of the examining professor in Ph. D. German was just an unexpected bonus.

I had not the least intention until late summer of actually receiving a Ph. D. and embarking on an academic career. When, in 1952, it appeared that the only job in the country that I could land was at Iowa State Teachers College, I was less that overjoyed. If I had learned anything in graduate school, it was that a decent liberal arts person should have a deep and unwavering contempt for Departments of Education. I duly internalized this maxim. I lookedforward to working at Iowa State Teachers College as a protracted sacrifice of intellect for the sake of money in a bloated Department of Education masquerading as a college.

While always bookish, I was, also, from the beginning, a rebellious student. My first reading of Freud, in the questionable translation of Brill in the Modern Library Giant was in junior high Latin class. I wanted to show my less sophisticated student colleagues something of my intellectual superiority at the same time that I read about matters that, at the time, I considered to be disapproved by the Establishment. I understood very little of the Freud I read, I assure you. The arrogance was underlain by a fear––fear of my actual ignorance being found out. Hence, exhibiting all the classic symptoms of reaction–formation, I toggled ambivalently between a superficially intense respect for academic authority and the most reckless disregard and disrespect for it. I considered myself intellectually superior to my teachers and, at the same time, I occasionally struggled mightily to win their approbation. Having won it though, I dismissed it as insufficient; I claimed to myself to have higher standards of accomplishment than they. In a junior high Latin class, to my present embarrassment, I succeeded. I got an A in Latin along with a P (for "poor") in attitude.

I describe this approach to academe in my early years because I continued, in a much more repressed style, the same confrontation with academic authority as an undergraduate and graduate student thanks to the personalizing of instruction characteristic of that level.

Bergmannn and Hall played the role of two very different "fathers." Not only did the dynamic of the group of graduate students and professors play out like Totem and Taboo, but the role of the father was divided into two incompatible and contesting images. In this situation that I allege to be Oedipal, therefore, the internalization of the father as a solution of the Oedipus problem was a defective solution. The "solution" internalized such different figures that the superego's attitude, as it were, toward the ego was constantly contradictory. How to satisfy the demand of the father? Would it be by embracing syntactical positivism? Hardly. I never did believe it. And I was constantly apprehensive that my performance as a respectful auditor of the theory would collapse into rebellion against it.

Would it be by embracing Hall's analytical version of Scottish realism? That is what I tried. When I did, it was apparent that I was abandoning Bergmannn and incurring the legitimatewrath of the thwarted and confused superego. At the same time, if my Totem and Taboo analogy holds any water, I was still in rebellion against both father figures––and against the philosophical positions that were commingled and intertwined with my perception of their surrogate–parental status. Doing philosophy was like killing the father, trying to figure out the identity of the father, while simultaneously coping with their ambivalent internalized representatives in the form of an ego ideal that was flat–out unsatisfiable.

Still, with the music business a goner, the philosophy I had learned as a graduate student was my only marketable skill. And I needed work. I had no employment and a sheaf of bills to be paid in Iowa City––from the gas station to the dissertation typist. In 1952, that brought me on a sunny summer day in August to H. W. Reninger's office in the Aud (now Lang Hall). I found myself a member of the Department of Languages and Literature. The rest is a modest page in institutional history. Except for this one predictable autobiographical note. When I began to teach philosophy at the Iowa State Teachers College, you may be sure that I introduced the subject as analysis, diluted and pedagogically pushed, in futile pursuit of a good conscience. I can even recall traversing those splintery floors of the Aud toward a classroom while trying to recreate for fifty minutes the inner persona of Gustav Bergmann.

Freudianism is attractive to me, not merely for its explanatory merits, but because the Freudian mode is founded both on speculative evolutionary biology and upon the teasing of hidden meaning from texts, arriving at conclusions that lambaste conventional social expectations and attitudes, which turn out to be a veneer of unconscious concealments of the underlying reality of human life. But, curiously, I must admit that Freud's attack on social hypocrisy is non–threatening. He maintains the respectability of an outwardly conventional Victorian. That is attractive to me for reasons I must decline to elaborate. The radical Freudianism of the Reichians, the Kleinians, of Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse just never caught my fancy.

My take on Freud seems to be this: Freud parts the veil. Freud permits one to see things "as they really are." But let's not upset the usual social expectations and bitter lies by letting that untameable Id have its way with the Ego.

The expression "parts the veil," besides some immediately unwelcome Freudianassociations, also reverberates in my mind with the aforementioned Mysterium Tremendum and Fascinans of Otto. The differences between philosophy and religion fade away. The force of the unknown and unknowable seems to render childish and tawdry all attempts to somehow reduce the nouminous thing to the organizing categories of language14. If I am right, positivism unseeingly moves to defend itself against the unconscious presence of this "attractive" and horrifying abyss by making a virtue of limiting inquiry to a rational system that banishes woolly–headed speculation by showing it up as "nonsense."

I was and am loath to accept such limitation. On the other hand, the emphasis on Tremendum seems to silence me (except for literary and "incorrect" analogies about the nature of the unknowable out there) and lands me struggling with the flip side of scepticism––a far–out mystical reverie.

It is akin, though the reasons are not the same, of the state of mind of that rogue Pythagorean, Anesidemus, who refused to speak to anyone about philosophy, restricting his commerce with all questioners by faintly wiggling one finger.

And I blush to admit that the above statements support an analysis of their underlying motivation in terms of the primal scene. I emphasize, too, what may be obvious, that the sense of excitement in penetrating the secrets of the unconscious, particularly as these involve the forbidden sexual components of the Id, both point to the excited curiosity of a young person raised in a social setting that retained many, many residues of the Victorian repressions of the Freudian era. Times are different now. Popularized attributions of psychosexual development and the unconscious motivation are a dime a dozen. The primal scene is not what it used to be. Its sublimated and repressed components live on, however, in the soul of those who were schooled to society in the thirties and forties.

My attraction to Freudianism is a return of the repressed. My interest in Ouspensky early on was a part of that adolescent rebellion cum "philosophical" curiosity that has not, to this day, been surgically removed from my UCS, in spite of all the effort of the experts in Iowa City.

While (I thought) I was skillfully simulating the behavior of a student of analytic philosophy, I never really surrendered the urge to indulge in the irresponsibly speculative and Romantic style of cosmology. Thus my recollection goes back to Ouspensky by means of regression and reappropriation. But it happens with a load of guilt and shame for deserting the vision bequeathed by those two demonized/idealized fathers. At this very moment, I have the sense that I should make all this prose respectable, give it some rigor, by folding in a statement or two in the logic of Russell and Whitehead.

So, What is philosophy?

Philosophy, psychoanalytically15, is the sublimated remnant of a powerful Oedipalimpulse focusing on the primal scene and the realization of the Oedipal fantasy and the consummation of that desire. Its basis is to kill the father and take possession of the mother. This is a horrifying thought––even today. It is powerfully repressed, "forgotten," disowned but not destroyed. The repressed reluctantly returns in a roundabout, highly civilized, much disguised and highly complex form. As Aristotle says: "Philosophy begins in wonder." The sublimation that is philosophy is acted out as a caricature of an incredibly extended foreplay.16

On the wall of Everett Hall's office in East Hall, there was a framed quotation. It read: "Not philosophy, but to philosophize." Dr. Hall most certainly meant to embrace the sentiment that it is the process of philosophizing that is the highest calling, not the product that results from this process. The Freudian implications of the wall's sentiment are obvious.

Goethe's Faust expresses something similar in the famous phrase addressed to the passing moment. "Stay, so fair thou art." When one succumbs to the temptation, one is lost. The quest is perpetual. Applied to philosophy, it says the same thing that Hall's framed quotation says. It seeks satisfaction for a desire that cannot be consummated.

Dante's following Beatrice after deserting Virgil, while it may have resulted in a very fleeting and imperfect glimpse of God in the Paradiso, is the same sort of perversely impossible and endless quest––psychoanalytically considered. Wittgenstein, too, thought he had glimpsed a vision of the truth, but later saw that it was a phantasm even though he found a way to continue talking.

I intend to do the same.


Carnap, R. 1931. The Logical Syntax of Language. New York: The Humanities Press.

Freud, S. 1955, 1991. The Standard Edition of the Complete Pyschological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

________. 1913. Totem and Taboo. SE, XIII, 1–100.

Hall, E. W. 1960. Philosophical Systems. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hall, E. W. 1952. What Is Value: An Essay in Philosophical Analysis. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Otto, R. 1923, 1958. The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ouspensky [Uspenskii], P. W. 1934. Tertium Organum: The Third Canon of Thought: A Key to the Enigmas of the World. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Wittgenstein, L. 1922, 1949. Tractaus Logico–Philosophicus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Thomas H. Thompson

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Cedar Falls, IA 50613-4721




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