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 For positivists, it was an outdated and pointless intellectual exercise.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.

During these years, a string of books, covering an extensive array of topics, flowed from his pen. His first was entitled simply Reality. (The title signals a subtle criticism of Whitehead's Process and Reality, which had perhaps more process than reality, and of F.H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality, which similarly seemed more interested in appearance than reality.) Later books include a major work of metaphysics, Modes of Being (1958), The World of Art (1961), The God We Seek (1964), Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (1969), Beyond all Appearances (1974), First Considerations (1977), You, I and the Others (1980), Privacy (1983), and Toward a Perfected State (1986). In addition, he has published twelve volumes of an ongoing philosophical journal, Philosophy in Process. Being and Other Realities appeared in 1995 -- the same year the distinguished Library of Living Philosophers devoted a volume to his career, with the many sides of his work discussed by twenty-eight of his peers. And last year, at ninety-nine, he produced Emphatics, yet another philosophical investigation.

It adds up to one of the most extraordinary careers in American philosophy. Extraordinary because of Weiss's irrepressible curiosity, which has led him into a variety of fields and subjects. He devoted one of his sabbatical years to learning how to paint, attending cinematic sessions, taking dance lessons, trying to write poetry, and even attending cooking classes -- all with the aim of getting a feel for the arts from the insider's view of the practitioner. (Some of his sketches are reproduced in the Library of Living Philosophers volume.) He was a pioneer in the philosophy of sport at a time when the topic was unknown, and his book is still referred to with respect.

Yet, in all this, Weiss has continued the task set by the great thinkers of the philosophical tradition, even though his attention to such phenomena as the cinema marks him also as a man of his own time. (He was even for a time a regular guest on the television talk show of his former student at Yale, Dick Cavett.) Weiss is especially to be remembered for his insistence that our time is not peculiarly exempt from the fact that there are basic questions about the nature of reality, truth, knowing, goodness, and beauty.

These questions arise from the native curiosity of the human being, in all times, and they demand to be addressed apart from all sectarian allegiances. Doing philosophy is not the same as joining a school or signing up for a fashion. It requires the courage of an intellectual fidelity simply to the basic questions themselves, even if this puts one in the position of an outsider. Such initiatives as his founding of the Review of Metaphysics were defensive -- in the most constructive sense. Precisely because the culture of many intellectuals and academics was hostile to metaphysical questions, Paul Weiss took practical steps to create a space where, free of sectarian or scholastic allegiances, independent thinkers could productively discuss their philosophical work.

There are some constants in Weiss's philosophical outlook, despite its range. He is committed to a form of metaphysical pluralism that insists both on the real multiplicity of individuals and on the existence of certain ultimates. One can trace through his work, culminating in Being and Other Realities, a movement towards a deeper sense of Being itself, the ultimate of ultimates. Weiss's philosophy has always been marked with a sane respect for common sense -- but sane respect is not the same as the consecration of common sense. Science may be one crucial way to penetrate reality more deeply, but it is by no means the only way. The practices of ethical life and politics have as much to do with reality as does science. Art, religion, and philosophy itself are also vital ways to get to the roots of things.

Weiss's concern with art and the philosophy of art mirrors his wider fascination with all aspects of creativity, whether in mathematics, the human character, or the work of statesmen. But, interestingly, he denies that philosophy is creative. Philosophy must simply be true to what is and cannot "make things up."

This is a strongly realistic side of his thought, not perhaps fashionable with those who see "truth" as just another construction. In his most recent book, Emphatics, he puts an emphasis on emphasis itself: on how our experience of reality is punctuated with stresses of importance and value; on how reality itself, in diverse forms, punctuates itself with stresses of importance.

Paul Weiss continues to think, to talk, and to write. Among his students and friends, it is rumored that he is close to completing yet another book, this time on the philosophical significance of "surrogates," again an intriguing subject. We wait to see what will come of his investigations, but we know there is one place where surrogates cannot satisfy: in a life lived in dedication to the vocation of being a philosopher. On his hundredth birthday, one can say of Paul Weiss that the philosopher of surrogates has no philosophical surrogate.

A former president of the Metaphysical Society of America, William Desmond is professor of philosophy and director of the international program in philosophy at the University of Leuven in Belgium. His most recent book is Ethics and the Between (SUNY Press).