Chisholm Banquet Talk

Fred Feldman


The poet Shelly tells the story of Ozymandias, who was a powerful tyrant in an ancient kingdom in the desert. He ruled with an iron hand, and dominated a large kingdom. He had a huge statue of himself erected near the palace. He was depicted with a haughty sneer, and the inscription read, ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works ye mighty, and despair!’ That was long ago. And now, if a traveler should pass through that part of the world, he would find almost nothing to remind him of the once mighty Ozymandias. All the buildings and monuments have been swept away and the once awesome statue is smashed. The remaining bits are almost buried in the sand. Shelley says:

‘Beside nothing remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That’s how it is with some monarchs. In their primes, they may appear to be almost immortal. Yet, once they are gone, their influence wanes. Eventually they are forgotten. We remember Ozymandias, but only because Shelley decided to make him the subject of a poem about people we don’t remember. How the mighty can sometimes fall into paradoxical oblivion!

And something like this can happen with philosophers, too. In his prime, a great figure in philosophy may have power and glory and a named chair and droves of adoring and terrified followers. Special issues may be devoted to his thoughts. Dissertations may be written in which the trembling authors attempt to explore the question whether the great one was influenced by Schleiermacher, or whether Schleiermacher was influenced by him. Or whether perhaps he and Schleiermacher were both influenced by the later Webelweiss. Students heatedly discuss even the most trivial details of the great one's personal life. “Does he go to bed so early? Did he once have dinner with Dewey? On which side does he butter his toast?” And then after the famed philosopher is no longer present, his influence declines. New heroes emerge. Books are sold off at tag sales. Course descriptions are rewritten. The great one, like Ozymandias, is forgotten in the sands of time.

Is it Chisholm’s fate thus to be forgotten?

The natural approach to this question is through his works. Just as one might have thought that Ozymandias would be remembered by the great stone monuments he erected, so one might think that Chisholm will be remembered by the great paper monuments he erected. What are these monuments, and how likely is it that they will remain upright? Let us consider some of these works.

Some of Chisholm’s most important works are in epistemology. His first book was Perceiving, which was written in the mid-fifties, before Gettier had set pen to paper napkin. It’s a wonderful book, and contains early formulations of several views to which Chisholm would return again and again. Anyone wanting to trace out the development of Chisholm’s thought will have to read this book. But our question is whether there will be any such people.

Another work in epistemology is Chisholm’s Theory of Knowledge, first written in 1966. In that work, Chisholm gave a balanced exposition of various views concerning the objects of perception, the foundations of knowledge, the possibility of a priori knowledge, the analysis of the concept of knowledge, and several other central questions. The book has gone through many editions and an extraordinary number of printings. It is a classic.

A critic might say that some of the issues and doctrines discussed in that book are beginning to lose some of their luster. Other topics are currently “hotter”. Thus, for example, you will not find any mention of epistemic internalism and externalism, nor a discussion of contextualist theories of knowledge. So it is conceivable that someone – perhaps someone in this room tonight -- will produce a new epistemology text that will supercede Chisholm’s.

Some of us think of Chisholm primarily as a metaphysician. He wrote dozens of papers and several books in metaphysics. In these works Chisholm persistently Chisholmed away at a collection of metaphysical issues: the nature of the person, the possibility of any sort of meaningful metaphysical freedom, the nature of the psychological, problems of intentionality, the existence and nature of properties, propositions, and other abstract objects, identity through time, mereological essentialism, the analysis of the counterfactual conditional.

These are important works that deserve to be studied by any serious metaphysician. However, in some cases the works have a slight tinge of “snapshotishness”. Some great philosophers consistently maintained certain distinctive views. But Chisholm is a moving target. He steadily refined and revised his views. Sometimes he came to adopt (perhaps tentatively) a view that he had previously rejected. For example, what shall we say about the view that the self is a microscopic physical object located somewhere in the innards of the brain? In some places he seems to defend this view. But in other places he seems to reject it in favor of a more soulful alternative. As a result, it may be that there is no such thing as “the Chisholmian view about the self”. Rather, at different times he has defended different views. Similar things happened with respect to a number of other central metaphysical doctrines.

So, though Chisholm wrote important works in metaphysics, it is possible that the time will come when those works are no longer viewed in quite the way they were viewed around the time of their publication. Perhaps they will come to be thought of primarily as expressions of views tentatively and temporarily held.

Some of us have focussed on Chisholm’s work in ethics. He wrote quite a few important papers and edited a book in ethics. However, he wrote only one real book – Brentano and Intrinsic Value – that is centrally in ethics. I think BIV is a great book. A person could construct a pleasant-enough career mainly by commenting upon, criticizing, and expanding the views and arguments expressed there. (Come to think of it, I believe I know someone who has done approximately that.) But the book has an odd feature: throughout Chisholm keeps himself in the background. He persists in telling us what Brentano thought, or might have thought, about various issues in ethics and metaethics. Commentators sometimes treat the work as a statement of Chisholmian ethics, but it’s hard to find a passage in which Chisholm says, ‘this is my official view’. Instead, we find Chisholm saying that Brentano would say a certain thing, or that even though Brentano never discussed a certain question, a certain answer would be “in the spirit of his view” (BIV, 65)

So though Chisholm made valuable contributions to ethics, future historians of philosophy may debate whether he deserves a prominent place in the history of philosophy primarily in virtue of the original doctrines he defended in moral philosophy.

We of course think of Chisholm primarily as a philosopher, he was at the same time quite an accomplished amateur artist. His best known works are drawings, some of which have been displayed and published. Here we see a slide of Chisholm’s justly praised ‘Eight Conceptions of Mind and Body”.



The drawing is impressive and moving in its own right, and is fully deserving of our admiring contemplation. Let us therefore take a moment to admiringly contemplate it.

I think that reflection on some of the history behind the drawing may also be enlightening in other ways. Let us see what insight we may glean.

On the advice of John Dewey, Dr. Barnes had originally invited Bertrand Russell to be the philosopher in residence at the Barnes Foundation. After a very short period, Barnes and Russell came into conflict and Russell was fired. Barnes asked Dewey if Chisholm would be a satisfactory replacement for Russell. Dewey then interviewed Chisholm. Dewey began the interview by asking Chisholm whether he agrees with Dewey's view that art is experience. Chisholm expresses bewilderment. Dewey then asked what Chisholm thought about the idea knowledge is freedom? Chisholm replies by asking for clarification of the question. His exact words apparently were, 'Ahh, Professor Dewey, could you, ahhh, perhaps rephrase your, ahhh, question?.' Dewey concludes the interview by enquiring whether Chisholm would agree that education is truth, and that time is money. Chisholm seems uneasy with the notion that education is truth, but he indicates that there might be something to the claim that time is money. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘that view would definitely be in the spirit of Brentano.’ In any case, Dewey was satisfied with Chisholm's answers. He promptly told Barnes that Chisholm was a fine candidate for the job -- at least as well suited as Bertrand Russell. Barnes then offered Chisholm the job that would change his life and perhaps the course of western art. Chisholm became the Barnes Foundation Professor of Philosophy.

Chisholm went down to Merion to take up his responsibilities. He began work on his lectures in aesthetics. Then Dr. Barnes promptly fired him, too.

Before Barnes fired Chisholm, Chisholm had unlimited access to all the artwork at the Barnes Foundation. He studied the drawings with tremendous interest, and even took the opportunity to work on some drawings of his own. Unfortunately, when Dr. Barnes fired Chisholm, he confiscated and subsequently destroyed all of Chisholm’s drawings. Thus, nothing remains of the artwork Chisholm produced during this important formative phase.

As we all know, Chisholm later travelled many times to Europe. It is widely believed that he spent quite a bit of time in Austria. It is not known whether he spent a lot of time in Spain. However, I have uncovered some remarkable evidence that strongly suggests a Spanish connection. I'd like to discuss this.

Here we have a slide showing Picasso's "Guernica" – also a very good work of art.



Connoisseurs of art are well aware of the fact that many of the images in the painting have secret symbolic meaning. Many think that the painting also contains quite a few "hidden messages" that come into view only if you view the painting through 3-D eyeglasses like the ones available at the Seekonk Drive-in Theatre.

As I was studying Picasso's "Guernica" with a magnifying glass, I noticed a tiny section just above the neighing horse. I have taken the liberty of enlarging that section; the enlargement appears on this slide.



Anyone familiar with Chisholm's "Eight Conceptions..." will be struck by the astonishing resemblance between Picasso's miniature two headed figure, and Chisholm's "Spirit of Double Aspects".



Of course you will all recognize the similarity. But I think I hear some of you muttering, 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc' under your breath. I formerly shared your skepticism. I thought it might be nothing more than an amazing coincidence. However, further investigation with a more powerful magnifying glass revealed astonishing and conclusive evidence of a connection. The next slide shows an enlarged detail of the section of "Guernica" we have been studying.



Obviously, it would be rash of me to claim that Chisholm is the mysterious 'RMC'. It could be one of Picasso's girlfriends for all I know. But some facts we do know -- Chisholm visited Europe many times, Spain is in Europe, Chisholm's "Spirit of Double Aspects" is strikingly similar to the two headed figure in "Guernica", Chisholm's initials are 'RMC'. In light of these undisputed facts, one must admit that it is at least epistemically acceptable, or perhaps beyond reasonable doubt, that there is some connection between Chisholm's work and Picasso's. If so, Chisholm had a profound influence on the development of modern art in Europe. In itself, this would be sufficient to show that Chisholm is no Ozymandias.

Chisholm exerted another influence on modern art. Chisholm met G. E. Moore during the early 40's when Moore came to Harvard to give some talks. Chisholm – then a graduate student -- had been given the job of serving as tourguide for Moore. The pair spent several days strolling in Cambridge. It is almost certain that Chisholm brought Moore to Providence to dine at the Ming Gardens. Furthermore, it is definitely beyond reasonable doubt that it is possible that Chisholm drew some pictures on the paper napkins they used in those days at many Chinese restaurants.

Moore subsequently returned to England and resumed his duties at Cambridge. He also resumed his friendship with Wittgenstein. Moore and Wittgenstein sometimes lunched together at a little pub called "The Duck and Rabbit" in Cambridge. In those days -- the late 40's -- paper napkins were often used in British pubs. And thus the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the conclusion that it is entirely possible that Moore drew some pictures on paper napkins and gave them to Wittgenstein. Then in 1951, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was published. Here is a slide showing page 194 of that work:



This is Wittgenstein's famous "Duck-Rabbit". One needs only to take a mirror image of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, as we will see if I turn over the slide: and then add a ring around the eye, as I have done in this slide:



and then convert the double bill to a single bill as I have done in this slide:



Then a comparison to Chisholm's "Spirit of Materialism" as shown in this slide:



reveals the amazing fact. Wittgenstein's artwork is directly based upon Chisholm’s! Thus, though Wittgenstein is not often counted among Chisholm's philosophical proteges, it is evident, or at any rate more reasonable to accept than deny, that he was one of Chisholm's artistic proteges.

It is clear then, that Chisholm left a number of great paper monuments. Most of these are of course in philosophy. Some are in art. And as I have demonstrated, he played an important role in the development of modern art in Europe and in Great Britain. It might be thought that Chisholm, unlike Ozymandias, has left monuments so impressive that no amount of sand would be sufficient to cover them up.

While I agree that Chisholm left some very impressive paper monuments both philosophical and aesthetic, I suspect that his enduring legacy will not be based mainly upon the fact that he created these works. Instead, I think that Chisholm will be remembered more in virtue of certain features of his intellect and personality, and the way these directly influenced those who knew him. It will be through his impact upon people like us and through us to our students and their students that he will find his immortality.

Another look at Chisholm's artwork may provide a useful background for a consideration of certain of his traits of character. Here again is the slide of "Eight Conceptions..."



a. I recall times, now about 35 years ago, when we gathered in Maxcy Hall for Chisholm's seminar. At some point in each seminar, Chisholm would dig into his well-worn leather briefcase and pull out a bundle of handouts. These generally contained a series of numbered definitions and principles. But often they also contained quotations from philosophers of the past. Chisholm had an astonishing capacity to locate passages in which these philosophers said something relevant to Chisholm's current concern. Plato, Aristotle, the stoics and skeptics, Aquinas, the rationalists, the empiricists, the positivists, any number of then-obscure Austrian philosophers, British and American philosophers of an earlier era, and so on.

This familiarity with the history of philosophy can be discerned as well in "Eight Conceptions...". Notice the allusions to Locke, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Malebranche, and others such that I know he is alluding to them, but I don’t know who they are.

Chisholm's knowledge of the history of philosophy was, as we all know, extensive. But Chisholm was no mere memorizer of names and dates. He never cited these passages just to impress us. Rather, he had remarkable respect for philosophers of the past. He was always open to the possibility that we could learn from these people, even though they wrote long ago, in different contexts and languages, and often without the sort attention to detail that Chisholm required of himself. Still, he seemed to think, there might be something really interesting and useful in their work.

Unlike some historians who stick mainly to the well-traveled highways, Chisholm was fully prepared to take a hike down some rather obscure and tangled paths. He was remarkably open-minded about his sources. He knew how to find insight in places where, according to the received wisdom, there was no point even in looking for insight.

Many of Chisholm’s students have been especially impressed by his remarkably extensive knowledge of the history of philosophy. I am not claiming, of course, that we have all devoted our lives to the history of philosophy. But I will make this more modest claim: Chisholm students are not likely to be contemptuous of the history of philosophy. You won’t find many among them who boast proudly of the fact that they nothing of the works of their predecessors.

b. Look again at "Eight Conceptions...". I think these little cartoons give evidence of an extraordinary clarity and forcefulness of mind. Chisholm has the uncanny ability to see to the heart of each of the eight doctrines and to find a surprisingly simple and direct way to express its essence. Although the cartoons do not contain any arguments or definitions or metaphysical principles, they also suggest the advantages of each of the views, and its unfortunate drawbacks. Consider, for example, Chisholm's "The Spirit of Occasionalism".



Even a philosophical novice would understand the core of the view. Mind and body marching in the same direction; no causal arrows connecting them; a thunderbolt from outside the box heading for the somewhat gauzy mind; a rock from inside the box heading for the physical head. The origin of the thunderbolt needs no explanation. The problems with the theory as a whole leap out at the observer. Just look at the picture. Chisholm has made it obvious.

Again, it seems to me that Chisholm students are more likely to strive for clarity in their own work, and to appreciate it in the work of their students.

c. Once, in a discussion of “brilliant ideas” Chisholm remarked, ‘Brilliant ideas are a dime a dozen. The real philosophical work takes place after you’ve had the brilliant idea.’ I think one of Chisholm’s most characteristic traits was an uncompromising commitment to getting it right – no matter how long it takes, and no matter how many times you have to start over.

I will cite just one bit of evidence here. Chisholm’s doctoral dissertation concerned the fundamental propositions of empirical knowledge. He wanted to formulate some general principles that would explain the circumstances under which an empirical proposition is epistemically justified. That was in 1942. He published papers on approximately the same topic in 44, 48, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Even in the 90’s, after attacking this problem steadily for more than half a century, Chisholm was still at it. In his Intellectual Autobiography (written at the end of 1995) he was still trying to formulate a set of epistemic principles.

This willingness to persist has also been passed down to the later generations of philosophers influenced by Chisholm. Like him (but generally not quite to the same degree) they keep hammering away at the philosophical problems that intrigue them.

d. My impression is that some philosophers think philosophical puzzles are little more than intellectual games – perhaps a bit more challenging than scrabble or cross-words, but essentially no more important. The idea is to make your moves, confound your opponent, and impress the fans.

Chisholm never seemed to have this attitude. He always proceeded as if he thought that the philosophical problems he confronted were among the most interesting and worthy problems a person could confront. What am I? And what are the chances that I will be able to continue to exist in some way after I die? What can I know; and how can I know it? What would make my life go well for me? And what would make the world a better place?

Chisholm’s sense of the worthiness of philosophy shines through even in these lighthearted drawings. In each he is expressing a view about the nature of persons. This is no mere scrabble game. No Chisholm student would view it as a trivial pursuit.

e. Consider Chisholm’s drawing “The Spirit of Interactionism”.



I believe that one of Chisholm’s most important traits was his extraordinary intellectual integrity. We all recall numerous occasions on which Chisholm would start (in the Aristotelian fashion) by describing a philosophical puzzle or problem. Then he would sketch some of the typical solutions. For each, he would show why it does not work. And then he would prepare to give his own solution. This would start with a typically Chisholmian procedure – the laying of the cards upon the table. He would identify all the main concepts to which he would appeal in his solution. He would offer definitions where possible, and explanations of other sorts where that was the best he could do. But nothing was hidden. There were no evasions or mere “promissory notes”.

This openness, and willingness to make manifest the nuts and bolts of his proposed solution, was not always dialectically beneficial. It often guided philosophical opponents to the diciest elements in the proposal. Another philosopher might have hidden these, or might not even have been aware that he was appealing to them. Their critics might have had a harder time figuring out where the proposal was most vulnerable. But Chisholm seemed less interested in “winning”; more interested in finding a solution to the puzzle. This, as I saw it, was at the core of his intellectual integrity. Always being focussed on finding the truth and sharing it with others, not on merely be recognized and praised as the one who found it.

You may wonder why I asked you to look at “The Spirit of Interactionism” while I discussed Chisholm’s intellectual integrity. I have no idea, but it is a neat cartoon.

f. Now let us consider “The Spirit of Pre-Established Harmony”



The drawing is light-hearted and whimsical. There is nothing pretentious or self-important about it. And the same was true of Chisholm himself. While he was grappling with the deepest philosophical problems, and engaging in debate with the giants of the past, and receiving awards and honors on all sides, he never became haughty or pretentious. Here was a man who was entitled to be called “Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Chisholm”, and yet who was happy to be called ‘Rod’, or perhaps ‘Rod the God’.

Clearly, Chisholm will be remembered as one of the most important figures in American philosophy. His paper monuments will not be buried in the sand, but will continue to be read and appreciated as long as there are philosophers who care about knowledge, and goodness, and identity, and existence, and the nature of persons. He will also be remembered – though perhaps to a lesser extent – for his seminal role in the history of art. But I think that this focus on his doctrines and arguments as revealed in his work puts the emphasis in the wrong place. If we want to know about Chisholm’s legacy, we should not think exclusively about the doctrines he defended. That is, the focus should not be on his monuments of paper. Rather, we should think about how he taught and how he philosophized. We should think about Chisholm as a person, as a philosopher, and as a teacher. His real influence – on us, our students, and the students of students up till the end of philosophy – is not primarily a matter of awesome works. Chisholm would not be the sort of man who would say, ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Rather, as I see it, he might say something like this: ‘look on these ancient and intriguing puzzles, my friends, and join me in an effort to solve them.’ Indeed, he did say something along these lines. Speaking of his career in philosophy, and the colleagues and students with whom he had worked – the generations of refuters -- Chisholm exclaimed ‘What more could one ask for?’

And what more could we ask for, than to have had the honor and pleasure of having been students of Rod Chisholm.