The Magazine

Paul Weiss at 100

A century of metaphysics

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By WILLIAM DESMOND
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FOR QUITE SOME TIME NOW, METAPHYSICS -- traditionally central philosophical discipline -- has been looked at askance by philosophers themselves. For Marxists, metaphysics seemed merely religion making a masked reappearance. For Heideggerians and deconstructionists, it was a dubious "onto-theology." For positivists, it was an outdated and pointless intellectual exercise. And for adherents of Anglo-American analytic philosophy (most notably A.J. Ayer, but also Wittgenstein and his heirs), it seemed mostly a confusion about language.

But even the hostility of philosophers has not quite managed to kill off metaphysics -- primarily because the questions it asks still remain with us, hidden in seeds in everyday life, and once properly asked, those questions burst forth again with all the force of elemental surprise. The metaphysical enterprise, philosophy in the "grand style," is simply philosophy as it was from its beginning: an intellectual exploration of being, an investigation of reality that tries to offer some argued vision of the whole and the place of human beings within it.

The American philosopher Paul Weiss, who celebrated his hundredth birthday on May 19 this year, is too American and commonsensical to claim for himself without qualification the mantle of philosophy's grand style. But for more than seventy years, his vocation has been to ask the hard questions and to try to answer them in the most comprehensive terms possible. More than any other figure, Paul Weiss kept the discipline of metaphysics alive in American thought and thus ensured that first philosophy -- the tradition of philosophy at its highest, most basic, and most serious pitch -- would survive to be handed on to new generations.

Weiss was born in New York in 1901, the child of Jewish immigrants (his father from Hungary, his mother from Germany). He discovered philosophy as an undergraduate at City College, and, on moving to graduate study at Harvard, he had the good fortune to find Alfred North Whitehead to direct his doctoral dissertation. Whitehead had spent much of his life in England as a mathematician and logician, and is perhaps most famous for co-authoring with Bertrand Russell the Principia Mathematica. On coming to the United States from England in the 1920s to start a second career, he was born again as a metaphysician, and deeply impressed Weiss, remaining in his memory as embodying something like greatness.

At that time, strongly positivistic influences were emerging in the United States. Weiss originally saw himself as a logician, but as he widened his horizons, he came to think that philosophy must be more generous in the range of its questioning. It must make some effort to address the root problems of metaphysics, as well as the full dimensions of human existence, with special emphasis on the practices of art, religion, history, and even cinema and sports.

With Charles Hartshorne, while both were graduate students at Harvard, he did pioneering work on the first complete edition of the works of Charles Sanders Peirce (widely acknowledged as America's most eminent philosopher). After Harvard, he spent 1929 and 1930 in Europe, where he attended lectures by Husserl and Heidegger, whose work raised in him undefined suspicions. On his return to the United States he taught at Bryn Mawr until moving to Yale, where in 1946 he was the first Jewish academic to be offered a full professorship. He had an illustrious career at Yale as Sterling professor and was a much-admired mentor to many students who went on to influential positions in all walks of American life.

He served as president of the American Philosophical Association, despite the fact that he rejected the style of philosophizing dominant in that national association. Indeed, he proved himself a person of surprising practical savvy as well as theoretical finesse, founding in the late 1940s the Metaphysical Society of America and starting an immensely successful (and still thriving) philosophical journal, the Review of Metaphysics. He also founded the Philosophy of Education Society. He retired from Yale in 1969 at the then statutory age of sixty-eight, and after a brief stint at the University of Denver, went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1994.