He Reimagined Me
Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)
In his poem “Seeing Things,” Seamus Heaney writes: “whatever is given can always be reimagined.” That is a great consolation. But there is a time for reimagining what is given, and a time to take what is given precisely as it is given. Dallas knew how to keep those times straight. Unlike many of us, who reimagine the given far too freely, Dallas’s philosophical life was characterized by a commitment to respecting the integrity of what presents itself to us in our conscious lives—including, not least, our conscious lives themselves—and resisting the urge to imagine it into something else. He also had a special affection for those philosophers who share that commitment—Reid, Moore, and Husserl, to mention three of his favorites—and dedicated untold time and energy to the study of their work.
Not only did Dallas not reimagine the given, he did not treat the imagined or otherwise non-given as though it were given. He could distinguish plainly between a hunch-like “intuition,” on the one hand, and an evident insight, on the other. He was unmoved by any consensus on a topic by “those in the know,” and never allowed slogans to pass themselves off as insights. Those of us who studied with Dallas recall how his philosophical definitions and examples were never recycled. His thinking was original, not because he reimagined the given or mistook the imagined for the given, but because he didn’t.
Because his point of view was not borrowed, Dallas had a knack for landing upon obvious truths with big philosophical implications. For example, many philosophical authorities have assured us that in virtue of having concepts and other cognitive tools, we are somehow unable to cognitively relate to reality as it is in itself. Dallas never bought it. In no other sphere of inquiry would we even entertain the idea that something’s powers and properties prevent it from relating to other things as they are in themselves. A concept, he wrote, “does not encapsulate the mind or its contents, any more than the properties of other things or events encapsulate them.” I take that to be fairly obvious, at least once it has been pointed out in the right way. But it is original, as were most of Dallas’s insights. As a teacher, I’ve come to notice that such “obvious” claims are virtually never made by students, either undergraduates or graduates, and have come to appreciate how hard-won many of his insights were.
Dallas respected the given, and thanks in part to the immensity of his knowledge and his determination to achieve what he called “cognitive clarity,” more things were given to him than could be to many of us. But as I’ve said, there is also a time to reimagine what is given, and Dallas knew when and how to do that too. Many of us whose lives he has touched and transformed are the beneficiaries of that wonderful gift he possessed to reimagine us as something better. At least, speaking for myself, I came to Dallas a philosophical mess, but it was clear that Dallas had a vision of the kind of thinker that I could become, and the knowledge of how to help me become it. He imagined a better version of what I in fact was and am, and knew how to guide me towards becoming it. I’m nowhere near where Dallas would probably have liked me to be, I’m afraid. But I’m closer, and I owe whatever progress I’ve made above all to Dallas, my mentor, teacher, and friend.