Celebrating the Professor of Lore | Dallas Willard

Scott Soames

Celebrating the Professor of Lore

Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)

Hello and greetings to all of you. Thank you for joining us in celebrating the life of our friend and colleague, Dallas Willard, who, after 47 years at USC resigned in the Fall of 2012, and died in May of 2013.  In the next hour you will hear what Dallas meant to the generations of students and colleagues who had the good fortune to work with and learn from him.  I will begin with a brief summary of his career in philosophy.

Dallas received his Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion from Baylor in 1957 and his PhD in Philosophy, from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, where he taught for a year before coming to USC in 1965.  Beloved by decades of undergraduates, he was one of the most popular, versatile, and dedicated teachers the School of Philosophy has ever known.  In 1976, he won the Blue Key National Honor Fraternity "Outstanding Faculty Member" Award for his contributions to student life.  In 1977, he won the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1984 he won the USC Student Senate Award for Outstanding Faculty of the Year, and in 2000 he was named the Gamma Sigma Delta Professor of the Year.  

He was, for many years, the teacher with the greatest range in the School of Philosophy, regularly teaching courses in logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, history of ethics, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy from the 17th through the 20th centuries, including both sides of the 20th century split between analytic philosophy and phenomenology. Two of his most recent courses are cornerstones of our new interdisciplinary major Philosophy, Politics, and Law.  One of the courses, Reasoning and Logic, introduces students to symbolic logic while stressing the importance of truth, objectivity, and disciplined reasoning for their daily lives.  The other course, The Professions and the Public Interest in American Life, studies the forces shaping our professions, the responsibilities of professionals, and the foundations of professional ethics.  

His 47 years of graduate teaching were also exemplary.  In addition to serving on PhD Dissertation Committees for other departments, he chaired 31 successful USC dissertations in philosophy, the last in 2007.  One of his students Walter Hopp, who is with us today, earned his PhD in 2005 and is now Associate Professor with tenure at Boston University. A member of many University committees, Dallas also served as the Director of the School of Philosophy from 1982 to 1985.  

In scholarship, he was an expert on the German phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, whose writings from 1900 to 1935 marked a fork in the road traveled by philosophy in the 20th century. Greatly influenced by the philosopher-mathematician Gottlob Frege -- who was a founding father of the tradition that came to dominate philosophy in the English-speaking world—Husserl’s work also spawned the counter-tradition that came to dominate philosophy in Europe. This work of Husserl’s, the understanding of which is crucial to connecting the two traditions, was Dallas’s focus.

In addition to publishing two books of translations of Husserl plus many shorter translations, Dallas published his own book on Husserl in 1984. Reviewed in the Philosophical Review, Husserl Studies, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Review of Metaphysics, and the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Dallas’s book remains a standard reference in such venues as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The author of nearly 50 other published articles in philosophy and 19 critical reviews, Dallas was struggling at the end of his life to finish a new book, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, which may yet prove to be his most important philosophical work. 

Professor Gregg Ten Elshof, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Biola University, Professor Steve Porter also of Biola, and Professor Aaron Preston, Chair of Philosophy at Valparaiso University are finishing The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge for Dallas.  When they do, I will write a Foreword and help them find a publisher. 

The thesis of the book is not that moral knowledge, truth, and justified moral conviction don’t exist.  They do.  What, according to Dallas, has disappeared is a once robust cultural and institutional belief in the possibility of a systematic body of moral knowledge arising from reasoned inquiry and disciplined argument.  Because our leading universities and other transmitters of culture no longer believe in this possibility, they don’t subject our moral passions, or theirs, to the rationale scrutiny they require. For Dallas, removing knowledge from the equation deprives us of our best means of enhancing our moral sensibility; worse, it also coarsens our passions, makes them more unreasonable, and generates intolerance where there could be civility.  Dallas didn’t believe in a golden age of moral consensus to which we should return.  But he did believe in our need to recover a lost sense that moral progress, through the advancement of moral knowledge, is possible. 

In the book he tells the story of the role in this loss played by important figures in twentieth century philosophy and higher education, whom he views less as causing than as responding to the cultural changes he deplores.  He directs his discussion chiefly to their successors in philosophy and education—in short to a number of people in this room and others like us.  In so doing, he is, I believe, challenging us to help correct the deficiencies he identifies.

It is, I think, best to close my discussion of Dallas’s manuscript by quoting words on the subject – found by Aaron Preston – that Dallas wrote 42 years ago, in 1971.

"…, although there are…senses in which wisdom and virtue cannot be taught, the university which set itself to trade in humanly important truths of all sorts… may contribute to its students becoming wiser if not wise. For it could search out and teach objective truths…concerning the…sources of frustration and joy in the human self, in social relations, and in man's relations to his natural environment. Surely this has always been…part of the university's task…It is…time to say once again that…universities should have an ultimate aim to help students understand what are the possible and… preferable arrangements …in which they…may spend…their lives. A humanely responsible program of… education would lead the student into a vivid awareness of what can be done in his probable life circumstances by intelligent cultivation…of the physical, …conceptual, emotional, social and moral powers of the human being. It should, thus, teach the truth, including the truth about how to get at the truth…Were the university…to undertake such a task, it would find millennia of human experience ready to yield testable hypotheses. There are even some wise people…still alive today." [1]

Those words, including the final poignant line, remain as powerful today as they were when Dallas wrote them, despite our loss of one of the wisest among us.

Dallas left quite a legacy for those of us who teach college students.  He was, quite simply, that Professor of lore who students hope to find but don’t really expect to – the one who enriches their lives by getting them to see more in themselves, and in life itself, than they had imagined. 

One such student, Catherine Hubisz, sent us such a testimonial as we prepared this event.  In it, she says that when she entered USC as a freshman, her friend dragged her to one of Dallas’s upper-division classes in philosophy.  She recalls, “I remember him standing in the doorway, welcoming all the students on the first day of class…When class was dismissed, I said to myself, "'I'm studying whatever that man teaches, because he knows what he's talking about.'"  Later, she added, “But more than that, he lived what he was talking about.” Visiting his office for the first time, she recalls tearing up because, as she puts it, “of the warmth, the sincerity, and the dignity with which he effortlessly treated me.”  “His genius,” she says, “was in creating a safe and open dynamic that encouraged genuine reflection. There was no pressure, no agenda, no superiority in his manner; he was just there to instruct, to listen to where we were at, and to help us. Once that Teacher-Student relationship of trust was established, he was able to focus on the careful and rigorous development of our thinking. As precisely and gently as he guided my intellectual development, what I am most grateful for is the LIFE he showed me was possible to live because he himself was exemplifying it.”

Now, that is a standard I don’t expect myself or my faculty to live up to.  But I do hope that we will respond to our irreplaceable loss by giving more thought to our students, and becoming better teachers than we have been up to now.  There are many ways of being a good or great college professor, and I wouldn’t want everyone to emulate a single model.  But if we all up our game in the manner that works best for each of us, we can mitigate our loss and benefit our students in a way that does credit to us all.   That, I believe, is the most fitting tribute we could offer to the memory of our dear friend.

 

[1] Excerpted and assembled from the article Can Wisdom Be Taught on www.dwillard.org


Scott Soames first heard of Dallas from Kenny Walker who spent a year visiting Princeton University in the 1980s.  When Scott left Princeton for USC in 2004, he learned that Dallas had also heard of Scott from Kenny.  The two immediately hit it off, sharing scholarly interests in the history of analytic philosophy, a commitment to improving the philosophy department at USC, and a conception of needed reforms in higher education generally. Scott is currently Distinguished Professor and Director of the USC School of Philosophy.

DWillard.org is co-sponsored by the family of Dallas Willard, Dallas Willard Ministries, and FiveStone.