The Magazine

Paul Weiss at 100

A century of metaphysics

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By WILLIAM DESMOND
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.