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In memoriam Allan Gotthelf (1942-2013)

I received word late last night that the Objectivist scholar Allan Gotthelf had died after a long battle with cancer. He was 70. In what follows, obviously, I’m speaking entirely for myself. Reason Papers will at some point be producing a memorial statement on its website co-authored by Carrie-Ann and me.

I first encountered Allan as an undergraduate at Princeton, while writing either a junior paper or senior thesis on Aristotle’s ethics. I discovered him after noticing and thumbing through a copy of Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, his edited collection with James Lennox, in what used to be Micawber Books in Princeton.  Eventually discovering, as a budding Objectivist, that Gotthelf was a “big name” Objectivist–something harder to discover in those pre-Internet days than it is now–and discovering that he taught just down the road, I decided to make contact with him. What followed were twenty years of fruitful philosophical exchange–or perhaps I should say, nearly twenty years of philosophical apprenticeship in which I mostly played the role of apprentice.

Allan hired me to teach as an adjunct at The College of New Jersey in 1997 at a time when my professional fortunes were at their lowest ebb. I stayed at TCNJ in one form or another until 2005, when I got my first full-time job at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. We did a memorable panel presentation together at TCNJ just after 9/11; I still remember the sense of solidarity we had in doing it. He gave me three opportunities to speak before the Ayn Rand Society (2000, 2007, 2011); the second presentation became a chapter in his edited collection (with James Lennox) Meta-Ethics, Egoism, and Virtue. I wrote a review of his On Ayn Rand (2000) for the journal Teaching Philosophy, and taught the book maybe a half dozen times. I don’t have the review in front of me, but I know that the last paragraph praises Gotthelf’s capacity for capturing the “systematicity and grandeur” of Ayn Rand’s thought. I often photocopied the last chapter of Allan’s book and distributed it to people to read, Objectivist and non-Objectivist alike. One student of mine said that she liked how Gotthelf’s prose had a “vibe” that “grooved all over the page.” One person read it, was moved by it, but found it impossible to reconcile with the premature loss of her daughter in a car accident. Every romantic partner I’ve had since 2000 (let’s not keep count) found it “beautiful” and “inspiring.” Frankly, I think Allan would have appreciated my use of his book as the literary equivalent of a chick magnet.

Allan Gotthelf

Allan Gotthelf

I’ve blogged Gotthelf’s work here at IOS, but the blurb I wrote in the most recent issue of Reason Papers is probably more concise and to the point. I’ll quote it verbatim below, but readers can supply the changes of verb tense where appropriate:

Although not strictly speaking a discussion of Objectivism, Owen Goldin’s thorough and comprehensive discussion of a pair of books on Aristotle has important bearing on Objectivist normative theory. The first book is Allan Gotthelf’s Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology (Oxford, 2012); the second is a festschrift for Gotthelf, Being, Nature, and Life: Essays in Honor of Allan Gotthelf (Cambridge, 2010), edited by James G. Lennox and Robert Bolton. Gotthelf is currently the Anthem Foundation Distinguished Fellow for Teaching and Research at Rutgers University; he is also Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Adjunct Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. With James Lennox, he has revolutionized the study of Aristotle (especially Aristotle’s biological works), and has probably done more than anyone in the past few decades to bring Objectivism into conversation with academic philosophy.

Gotthelf was inspired, as he tells us in an autobiographical essay in the Teleology book, to go into Aristotle studies by Ayn Rand’s review of John Herman Randall’s Aristotle (he was a student of Randall’s), and his Aristotle scholarship, though rigorously textual, is obviously influenced by Objectivism. One doesn’t have to be a specialist in ancient philosophy to learn something—to learn a lot—from this scholarship. Goldin, our reviewer, is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. His area of specialization overlaps almost exactly with Gotthelf’s, and though he’s not an Objectivist, he certainly knows his way around Objectivism and capitalizes on that knowledge in his review.

I learned an enormous amount from Allan–much more than I can enumerate in a blog post–about concepts, about free will, about action, about virtue, about moral judgment, about the benevolent-universe premise, and about textual interpretation, of Aristotle, of Darwin, and of Ayn Rand. He had a way of addressing theoretical issues in ways that gave them a distinctively personal salience. “I find metaphysics fascinating,” he once told me years ago, “but personally, I’m at home where metaphysics intersects with ethics.”

I would be writing in bad faith, however, if I wrote as though my relationship with Allan lasted amicably until the end. We had a severe falling out in 2012, one that began in the mid-2000s, and concerned his affiliation with the Ayn Rand Institute and in particular his agreement with Peikoff’s “Fact and Value,” over which we had a decade and a half of fruitless discussions. When he first hired me at TCNJ in 1997, Allan was aligned neither with Kelley’s IOS nor with ARI, and our views on those things were not too far apart. By 1999 or 2000, however, he had re-affiliated with ARI, and had come to agree more with their party line. In consequence our views–and our attitudes–grew progressively further apart. His decision to make common cause with ARI set in motion an inevitable conflict between us. By 2007 there was a fair bit of acrimonious friction. By 2012, the friction had become irrevocable rupture. His death grieves me, but it doesn’t give me reason to change my mind about the moral bankruptcy of ARI and its offshoots. No one who affirms a loyalty oath like this can expect my sanction–whether in life or in death. When I found out that Allan had affirmed it, we reached the end of the line.

It’s bittersweet to have to put things this way, but life sometimes leaves us with no other way to put things but the bittersweet. It grieves me to have lost Allan, but it grieves me more that given the nature of our break in relations, my grief is an alloy of respect and admiration for his achievements without much affection for him.

Nothing literally erases the past, of course. I still fondly remember evenings spent in his company in the late 90s and early 2000s, over and after dinner in and around Princeton and New Hope, PA (where he lived), where the conversation was light, easy, brilliant, and unaffected. Much of that was Allan’s doing. He could effortlessly put people at ease.

But there was a side of Allan that people will now find reluctant to discuss, but that was undeniably a part of the man’s character. What is one to make of someone who puts you at ease while swearing a loyalty oath against you? How does one deal with a person who so eloquently affirms the benevolent universe in one breath–and then makes a gift to you (while endorsing it) of a book that defends ethnic cleansing? How does one learn philosophy from someone who teaches so much and then attacks you angrily for identifying “lacunae” in the philosophical system you both endorse? What does one make of a person who listens to a decade’s worth of criticisms of ARI, and then puts the critic in the position of having to listen to a job  offer from them over dinner? That is a sample of the sorts of issues I faced during my “years with Allan Gotthelf.” Unlike Allan’s close intimates and admirers, I seem to have inherited the deepest and most painful ambivalences of his profound and enormous legacy. But the ambivalences were as much a part of his legacy as anything else. If you find it discomfiting to have to read this in such proximity to his death, spare a moment for the person who wrote it. You may find it uncomfortable to read. I found it uncomfortable to live. 

But my best memories of Allan are great ones–liberating ones. What comes most quickly to mind is our first sustained philosophical discussion, in “Brooklyn’s Best Bagels” in Hillsborough, New Jersey on a hot July afternoon sometime in 1997. We were eating bagels and talking free will. I laid out my version of a defense of free will, and he just listened. I was defending a sort of incompatibilist position that was (without my realizing it) subtly indeterminist. As the words left my mouth, I knew that something about my claims didn’t make sense. I hoped, dimly, that he wouldn’t notice, but he did. “How do you get control out of a position like that?” he asked. He had a bagel half in his hands, and half in his mouth. Suddenly, he twitched, and the bagel fell out of his mouth–with part of it still in his mouth–and onto the table with a thud.

“What the hell just happened to him?” I thought.

“Uh,” he said in amazement, gazing at the bagel. “I just chose to let go of my bagel. And look what happened! It’s down there!”

“So,” I said with a bit of irritation, “you’re trying to say that that’s a reductio of my account of free will?”

“No,” he said. “It’s not a reductio. That is your account of free will.” And then he went into a half-hour explanation, one that persisted long after the bagels had.

I thought about what he said for days, and at the end of it, things suddenly became clear to me, really clear–not just about free will, but about my life. I remember thanking him for getting me clear about the first, but never thanking him for getting me clear on the second. If I could now be granted the wish to tell him one thing I never said to him in life, it’d be “thanks” for the bagel conversation–and all that it meant.

Irfan

P.S., September 5, 2013: Brian Leiter has a post on his blog that claims that Allan Gotthelf’s interest in Ayn Rand was a “side interest.” Sorry, but it wasn’t a side interest. Leiter may want for his own reasons to describe things that way, but the claim flouts Allan’s self-conception, as well as Allan’s self-description, and the plain facts. Allan’s approach to Aristotle was–as he himself put it–strongly influenced by Objectivism. Allan described his own interest in Rand as a “strong” one. He co-founded the Ayn Rand Society, and spent a good deal of his career promoting it. His CV makes clear that much of his later work focused on Rand. I sat in on Allan’s classes at TCNJ in the late 1990s, and he managed to cram Rand into virtually every class he taught, regardless of subject-matter. Intro? Ayn Rand. Ancient? Ayn Rand. Ethics? Ayn Rand. There were times when I wondered whether Allan could have a conversation without bringing up Ayn Rand. In any case, you can’t get an Anthem Foundation Fellowship by having a side interest in Ayn Rand. In fact, you have to be able to prove your doctrinal purity by affirming a document that says just the reverse. You don’t get status at the Ayn Rand Institute (as Allan had) by having a “side interest” in Ayn Rand. In general, people with “side interests” in a thinker do not say things like, “Irfan, I admire your intelligence, but it’s very harmful when you say out loud that there are lacunae in Objectivism.” A zealous desire to police the precincts of doctrine is not an indication of a “side interest” in the doctrine.

I don’t know who Leiter thinks he’s fooling by claiming otherwise. Perhaps he will want to say that what he meant was that more of Allan’s output focused on Aristotle than on Ayn Rand, which is true enough, but not what “side interest” means or conveys. (No sane person would think that the “law of peoples” was a “side interest” of Rawls’s, or that political libertarianism was a “side interest” of Nozick’s.) The phrase “side interest” implies that Allan’s interest in Rand was peripheral to his life as a philosopher and a scholar. That claim is not just false but a transparent fraud, and no relevantly informed person would be fooled into believing it. Caveat lector.

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8 Comments

  1. djr says:

    I was sorry, but unfortunately not surprised, to hear about this. I met Allan a few times at conferences, but never had any extended conversations with him. Nonetheless, he’s one of a few reasons why I don’t automatically regard anyone with an interest in Rand as an anti-intellectual ideologue, and while I have my doubts about his interpretations of Aristotelian teleology, everyone who works in ancient philosophy recognizes the importance of his work. I think it’s fair to say that Aristotelian scholarship wouldn’t be the same without him, especially given the work he did to bring people together to study Aristotle’s biology. Leiter’s comment could be simple ignorance — after all, he gossips about so many philosophers on his blog, it must be hard to remember everything about everyone — though I suspect it’s more a sliver of shame at speaking ill of the dead, since Leiter ordinarily misses no opportunity to marginalize and exclude his ideological opponents from the discipline of philosophy. In any case, Williams Wians’ comments in his recent review of Gotthelf’s collected essays (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2013/2013-09-06.html) strike me, from a non-Objectivist point of view, as more accurate and fair-minded.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks, and thanks also for the Wians review, which I’ll look at. What you say about Allan is very fair and right. I take your point about Allan as a reason for not automatically regarding anyone with an interest in Rand as an anti-intellectual ideologue, but I find it unfortunate on two counts. (I don’t mean this as a personal criticism of you; your comment just brings this issue to mind.)

    For one thing, I think that in some ways–on some issues–Allan really was an anti-intellectual ideologue. It was one thing if you were discussing some relatively abstract thesis with him–free will, concepts, “the benevolent universe.” On those issues (and others like them), Allan was a dream to talk to, not a hint of dogmatism about him at all, and an overflowing source of original ideas. I can’t count the number of hours we spent in that mode, hours that I would count as more intellectually satisfying to me than the hours I spent talking to almost anyone in the field. But talking to Allan about politics was an exercise in anti-intellectual ideological frustration. And talking to him about the internal politics of the Objectivist movement was to confront him at his absolute worst. I suppose this sounds like speaking ill of the dead, but I think it’s speaking objectively of them.

    For another, I don’t think that the issue of one’s impression of Objectivism should turn on Allan, or people like Allan. Either there’s something of philosophical substance to Rand, or not. If so, even if every Objectivist you ever met was an anti-intellectual ideologue, you couldn’t infer that anyone with an interest in her was. You could just have met all the wrong people. But if there isn’t (anything to Rand), then even if Allan was the genius of the ages (even if he was surrounded by a coterie of geniuses who called themselves Objectivists), his reasonability wouldn’t confer reasonability on Objectivism. In that case, Leiter’s comment would be true. Allan would just be conferring reasonability on Objectivism that wasn’t there. One thing I really did agree with Allan about is a sentence in the Introduction of his On Ayn Rand book. He says something like, it’s high time for professional philosophers to take responsibility for a professional-level judgment of Rand. What I took that to mean was: ask yourself why Rand is treated as philosophically subpar, but Nietzsche, Marx, and Wittgenstein are not. It really cannot be because N, M, and W set up their arguments in standard form, and argued for them in analytic style. They didn’t. Their writing is utterly idiosyncratic, cryptic, enigmatic, sometimes even silly. But they’re taken very, very seriously by the profession despite that. And Rand isn’t. We just need a straightforward answer to the question: why?, where that “why” admits of both extreme possibilities: (a) that the profession is indulging a double standard, or (b) that Rand is worthless and incompetent as a philosopher. But the person of Allan Gotthelf has nothing to do with the answer.

    I suppose there is a bit of fanaticism in my attitude toward this, but ultimately, we–Objectivist and non-Objectivist–have got to detach Rand’s writings from a close connection with personalities of any kind, including hers. The task is just to read the words on her pages and evaluate them. For fifty years now, the reverse attitude has prevailed, and to some degree I blame Allan for it. He took criticisms of the words on those pages to be an affront to a person he revered. When he got that way, philosophical discourse came to a halt, and one either had to have a screaming match or tiptoe away. I did both.

    I wasn’t sure what the referent of “this” was in your very first sentence–whether it was a reference to my criticisms of Gotthelf or of Leiter’s revisionism (I’m guessing the former). Personally, I don’t think Leiter’s comment is simple ignorance. He’s usually very assiduous about looking at people’s CVs, indeed obsessed by the idea that a person’s moral worth can be measured by the length and quality of his or her CV. No one could look at Allan’s CV and honestly regard Ayn Rand as a side interest of his. The claim is either downright stupid or dishonest.

    I haven’t forgotten your comments on moral luck, by the way, which I’ll be blogging on soon.

    Irfan

  3. djr says:

    I never discussed politics with Allan, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I do think, though, that, personality has quite a bit to do with the reception of Rand. But it’s a strictly causal relationship, not a justificatory one, and it’s got less to do with depths of personality than with the manifest display of intellectual virtues. Before encountering the work of serious professional philosophers like Allan, Jim Lennox, Fred Miller, and Roderick Long (you’ll notice the pattern, I’m sure), I didn’t regard Objectivism as worth taking seriously at all or consider Rand to be a genuine philosopher. That opinion wasn’t based on first-hand study, but I’m willing to say that it was at least somewhat justified given the evidence I’d been presented with: everyone I’d ever met (or tripped over online) who talked positively about Objectivism was not only very bad at philosophy, but bore a striking resemblance to a religious fanatic and hardly any to a philosopher, and everyone I’d known with a philosophical education had a low opinion of Rand. It wasn’t that I went around denouncing Objectivism without knowing anything about it; I just inferred from what I’d seen that it wasn’t worth learning about. I suspect that many people’s dismissive attitudes towards Rand have similar origins, in much the same way that many people suppose on the basis of their experience with Christians that all Christians are dogmatic and philosophically inept. A lot of philosophers just have to meet intelligent and honest theists in order to abandon that attitude. I think the same thing could be said for Rand, with the caveat that there are fewer intelligent and honest Objectivists working in academic philosophy than there are intelligent and honest theists. Of course, that isn’t the whole story, but it does provide part of the answer to your question about why Rand isn’t taken seriously when Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are. The other parts of the story seem pretty apparent to me, too: unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, Rand wrote for a very popular audience and is therefore disdained because her work is accessible; unlike Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, she is at the center of something very much like a cult (Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are often treated as saints, but rarely as messiahs); and unlike all three, she endorsed political views that most academics find appalling but that aren’t so crazy that nobody could take them seriously (like Nietzsche’s). I’m not saying these are good reasons, just that they explain the phenomenon. It’s also worth remembering that there are plenty of philosophers who don’t take Marx or Nietzsche seriously at all, who don’t even consider them to be genuine philosophers for much the same reasons that they wouldn’t regard Rand as a genuine philosopher. Nietzsche’s respectability in particular is a recent development among analytic philosophers. So Rand’s marginalization is not entirely unique. But in the main, I think it’s pretty apparent that there is in fact a double standard at work, and that political prejudices play a huge role in sustaining it. But it really doesn’t help that there is a “movement” and that so many of the people involved in it are anti-intellectual ideologues. The fact that even you encounter hostility because you don’t believe that everything Rand wrote was true or sufficiently elaborated illustrates the problem with getting philosophers to take Objectivism seriously, and the existence of reasonable, intelligent, philosophically adept people like you who aren’t dogmatic assholes is part of the solution.

    Now, I’ll go and read that post about moral luck.

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    Actually, in all candor, I didn’t take Objectivism seriously myself until I met David Kelley just before I started graduate school. I had philosophical inclinations in a vaguely Aristotelian and Lockean direction, but didn’t take Rand seriously, and wasn’t aware that anyone did.

    Having said that, though, I think the point I originally made stands. Biographically, one may well have come to take Objectivism seriously by meeting an Objectivist one takes seriously. But that really ought merely to draw one’s attention back to the Randian texts to figure out whether they’re to be taken seriously. Something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to Christian philosophy or theistic philosophy. I was educated at Notre Dame, so I was immersed in the culture of analytic theism, and eventually came to have a grudging respect for it. But I really should have known better. Even if I hadn’t gone to ND—even if analytic theism had never arisen–a responsible philosopher should be able to read Augustine, Aquinas, and Ockham (etc.) and grasp that there are conceptual resources in those texts for a philosophically robust defense of Christian theism. (I guess it goes without saying that a responsible philosopher should read the texts!) Same with Maimonides and Judaism, or Ibn Rushd and Islam, etc. You shouldn’t have to meet an intelligent theist to grasp this fact. One needn’t meet the adherent of a doctrine in order to grasp the meaning of his doctrine. It may help, but it’s not necessary.

    I don’t think your explanation works at all on Rand versus Marx. Rand and Marx don’t differ in writing for a popular audience; they both did. Ultimately, more people have heard of Marx than of Rand. Lots of Marx is accessible, too; The Communist Manifesto was written to be accessible to “working men.” Marx was and remains at the center of a cult and a movement–a movement much crazier than Objectivism, and much more harmful (if one includes Lenin and Stalin as among its members, which I would). Marx is still regarded as a messiah in certain quarters, and was regarded as more of one until, say, 1989. Though many philosophers fail to take Marx seriously, plenty do, and it’s hard to imagine any reputable political philosopher saying, out loud, in a non-partisan setting: “I don’t take G.A. Cohen seriously. What a crock!” I would also say that Marx endorsed views that almost all philosophers today find appalling but that are not as crazy as Nietzsche’s, and are therefore not dismissed out of hand as mere talk. Most philosophers regard dictatorship as appalling, but many have a sneaking sympathy for the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Most philosophers regard anti-Semitism as appalling but have a sympathy for some sanitized, safely anti-capitalist but not anti-Jewish version of Marx’s views in “On the Jewish Question.” So in the case of Marx, at least, I don’t think your explanation really explains the phenomena. I’m not entirely sure about how well it explains Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, but I’ll leave my comment at Marx for now.

    I agree with everything you say after “But in the main…”

    Irfan

  5. David says:

    What was Gotthelf’s reponse to, or feeling about, Peikoff’s weird attack on his book On Ayn Rand?

  6. irfankhawaja says:

    A very good question. To my knowledge, Gotthelf published no response to Peikoff (et al) in the twelve years following Peikoff’s (et al’s) attack on the book. If anyone can produce a published response, I’d be much obliged, but I know of none. I tried to have a conversation with Allan on the subject sometime after Peikoff et al’s denunciation was published, but he didn’t want to discuss it. All he said was: “Well, he may not have liked the book, but I did.” That was the sum total of the response I ever heard from him on the subject.

    Which is not to say that it’s the sum total of the response I ever heard from him about his book. In March 2001, I participated in an online discussion with Chris Sciabarra sponsored by an organization called “Enlightenment,” run by Carolyn Ray. In a public, online session, I asked Sciabarra some pointed and critical questions about his treatment of Gotthelf’s book in various then-recent writings of his (i.e., Sciabarra’s), and went rather far out on a limb in defending Gotthelf and his book against Sciabarra.

    Gotthelf either saw the exchange in real time or very soon after it took place. He then wrote me an angry email whose purpose was to take me to task for having offered an insufficiently robust moral defense of him and his book. We had a long email exchange on the subject, which I still have (and re-read from time to time, if you can believe that). I can’t quote from it because it was a private exchange.

    I’ll leave my impression of it at this: In my post, I asked a few “What does one make…?” questions about Allan, all of them adverse to him. Well, I’m afraid here is one more: what does one make of someone who refuses to defend his own work against an attack made against it, but expects others to defend it, and then attacks them for not defending it hard enough? I am not precisely sure what the answer to the question is. But whatever it is, it’s not good.

    Irfan

  7. David says:

    Irfan writes: “Personally, I don’t think Leiter’s comment [that Rand studies was a “sideline” for Gotthelf] is simple ignorance.” Well, Leiter doesn’t give a lot of evidence of being honest and conscientious in these remarks, does he? Gotthelf was “capable of making [Rand’s] work more philosophically interesting than it was.” (Does this mean that Lieter read Rand after reading Gotthelf and found that Gotthel was just making stuff up?) “He was particularly good at developing Neo-Aristotelian themes that he claimed to find in her work.” “Claimed”? So what are the distortions? I’m sure Gotthelf also would not have appreciated the assertion that he was “smarter” than Rand, or the jibe against Rand for not becoming a standard academic instead a mere massively influential novelist and essayist. I find these remarks more offensive than the “sideline” remark, because they imply that Rand’s work was thin or vacuous (or perhaps argued for the opposite of what she actually argued for) and that Gotthelf was delusional in appreciating the scale of her achievements. But Leiter’s remarks are all of a piece.

  8. […] counted myself a friend and colleague of Gotthelf’s during the period in question. I knew of his animus against JARS; at first thought I regarded it as partly justified but […]

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