Richard A. Wollheim was a philosopher of art and mind who died in 2003. There are several good obituaries of him, particularly this one, by Arthur Danto, but I haven’t seen anything from the point of view of his students and advisees. That, and the fact that I often think about him led me to write this. Wollheim arrived at my department at the University of California, Davis, in the Fall of 1990, when I was a graduate student there, beginning work on my dissertation. He had agreed to teach at Davis part time and also part time at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a bit of an odd fit, since the department at Davis had recently been taken over by younger analytic philosophers, after having a focus in the history of philosophy.
Wollheim was an exception to the generality that philosophers working in the analytic tradition are not interested in larger questions about how one should live one’s life. He pursued that question and his other questions about art, the emotions, Freud, and the mind, seriously and constantly. He provided an example that was a perfect counterpoint to the example being provided by some of the younger analytic philosophers, who appeared to believe that philosophy was a sort of speech game, in which one tries to cleverly contradict something someone has said. We all disagree often enough that artificially creating disagreement makes things much more difficult if not impossible. On one occasion, one of these young philosphers invited a guest speaker who read a paper that was supposed to be funny, that included such quips as “I drove to a supervenience mart” (instead of a convenience mart), i.e., the sort of humor that students create by making fun of systems or teachings they have to learn, but feel alienated from. In contrast with this, Wollheim was at home philosophizing and he gave the impression that he was always doing it.
He wrote out lecture notes or worked on papers or book chapters by writing on yellow legal pads. The notes were often minimal, and mere cues to the complexes of ideas circulating in his mind. His handwriting itself was a kind of calligraphy, a cursive style of his own invention, perhaps a remnant of early dyslexia. He made an ‘o’ by first drawing a left semicircle, then a matching right one. In the classroom, he was very deliberate, carefully posing hypotheses on the board, for the benefit of those note takers who only write down what goes up on the board, and working through them by talking to us, then asking for questions. Questions were always treated with devout attention and consideration. The classroom was also a place to discuss pressing world events, again consistent with Wollheim’s treating philosophy as something real, to direct one’s life. When the United States initiated the massive bombing campaign against Iraq in the first Gulf War, he diverted us from the class’s assigned topic to give several reasons for why the bombing was a bad idea. Watching Wollheim respond to questions was also rewarding since it gave one a chance to observe his skills of analysis. Large parts of my philosphical knowledge come from his teaching, and I often quickly remember him when recalling them.
His patience was not unlimited however. A graduate student friend related the following incident. After driving into Berkeley with Wollheim for a conference on his work, on the way back they were discussing the different papers that had been presented. Apparently all but one of the papers had been basically positive, and when asked about the one paper that had been rather negative, Wollheim said, “Either he doesn’t understand my work, or I don’t understand my work.” On another occasion, although I don’t remember exactly what was said, at one colloquium meeting, at which I believe Wollheim was discussing his own work, one of the young professors, in that I’m-smarter-than-you style that bad philosophers love, went at him rather agressively during the post-talk questions, and that Wollheim gave him the zinger he needed. He tended to skewer anyone who thought they were dealing with an out-of-it oldster, although he didn’t really seem old once you got to know him. I remember a balding head, a nose that was hawklike in profile, supporting thick-rimmed tortoise-shell glasses, and expressive lips, that often gave away his opinion of the speaker. He retained a kind of youthfulness that corresponded to his openness and flexibility of thought. I also recall being surprised at how completely “up” he was on recent important books or papers in philosophy—philosophy and a large number of other fields, in the way that all really intelligent people seem to be interested in everything.
Wollheim related two stories about the ordinary language philosopher John Austin that bear repeating, lest they be lost. During World War II, Austin was employed in intelligence (MI6 according to Wikipedia), and was tasked with studying the sand on the Normandy beaches, to determine how far up the landing craft could go, or whether certain vehicles would be able to get traction in it, etc. In typical austinian fashion, he learned everything there was to know about the sand, e.g., the average thickness of the grains, their viscosity, and so on. During a pre-invasion briefing to the top brass, he was in the process of carefully going through all this step by step, when one of the generals interrupted him with something like, “Look, can a halftrack drive in this stuff or not”, to which Austin replied, “The trouble with you generals is, you want to walk before you can crawl, and you want to run before you can walk.” In the second story, Austin was at a conference designed to bring continental and analytic philosophers together. At some point in the proceedings, in response to one of the continental philosphers stringing together a bit too much jargon, Austin asked the speaker, “Are you Heidegger? Are you Husserl?” I interpret this to mean that Austin would allow geniuses like Heidegger and Husserl to coin new terms, but when all those terms become a jargon, and are combined in ways that make them incomprehensible, we have a problem.
I think what was most memorable about Wollheim was something socratic. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and practiced that teaching until his last day. I’m sure that Wollheim did too. I think what made Wollheim a good philospher was a combination of openness and ability to analyze. These are two opposing forces, in that analysis attacks ideas, dissassembles them, strips them naked, while openness is passive and appreciates and admires ideas without interfering with them, and helps them run their course. Wollheim had developed the abilty to control these two forces, while keeping them both strong. Another socratic feature of Wollheim was that, as was clear to us even as graduate students, he had principles that were far above the typical academic squabbling, empty competitiveness, and turf-wars. My overwhelming personal impression when remembering him is of his tremendous patience toward me. He read and commented on every word of my dissertation, and I wince when I think about how many times the poor man went over it. I think this patience, and the openness, coupled with a sense that he genuinely enjoyed teaching and working with us graduate students, was why he was so successful and so universally loved during his time in northern California.