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.
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.
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.