Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Schools of Eccentricity

I do not know whether sociologists have noted and explained the declining number of true eccentrics among us, or the decline of social eccentricity generally; but it seems to me a marked long-term feature of contemporary life.  I wonder whether my readers share that perception.  Of course a professional academic is particularly well placed to observe it, as the Academy has been both the nursery and the haven of eccentricity.  How well I remember my first impressions of the marvelous assortment of oddballs on the streets and byways of Oxford in the late Fifties: clerical dons bicycling along in their tattered gowns and brightly unmatched argyle socks, pipe-smoking female philologists with stringy gray hair as copious as Rapunzel’s, all done up in huge latticed coils at the back of the head, mumblers everywhere.  Nobody batted an eye.

Last week I received an electronic inquiry from a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  She is writing a master’s thesis “that concerns Rose Rand’s Logic of Demand Sentences (1930/62) in the context of the development of deontic logic,” and she continued: “I have read your column from 2003 where you describe your encounters with her.”  Did I, she enquired, have further information?  In my correspondent’s opinion Rose Rand had importantly anticipated “the work of von Wright on deontic logic.”

That is the sort of delightful arrow from the blue that from time to time drops into academic mailboxes, but it was also intimidating.  Quite apart from the deontic logic part I did not immediately register the name of Rose Rand.  I could not for the life of me remember having written about encounters with her.  But it all did come back to me, especially when the woman in Groningen—clearly a masterful researcher--sent me an electronic copy of my own long-forgotten essay.

When I first joined the Princeton faculty the place was nearly Oxonian in its density of eccentricity.   There was a chemist, commonly known as “Dr. Boom” for his histrionic and pyrotechnical lectures, and his supposed inspiration for a film called The Absent-Minded Professor.  There was an eminent sociologist who strode about with a huge walking-stick accompanied by two mighty mastiffs.  Our ubiquitous and delightful Recording Secretary rode everywhere on an old bicycle to which a prominent (and one hopes, artificial) tiger’s tail had been attached.

But these were all examples of cultivated eccentricity, at least to a degree.  It is in academic libraries that one will find the wholly unselfconscious real thing.  Here I speak as one brought up in the observatories of large reading rooms in Oxford, London, and Paris.  The offspring of social marginalization and erudite monomania can be true eccentricity.   In my early years at Princeton there were several unusual people padding around the stacks of Firestone Library, including the Nobel laureate John Nash, reinvented with considerable poetic license for the film A Beautiful Mind.  Great wits are sure to madness near allied”, wrote Dryden; “and thin partitions do their bounds divide”.
One of Nash’s trademarks, odd footwear, was also a specialty of a small, frowning woman of gimlet glance and impenetrable accent who clomped about the philosophy shelves on the third floor in high-top Keds.  As her hunting grounds were not far from Medieval Theology, she frequently crossed paths with medievalists.  In time we came to exchange muttered greetings.  We all knew her as “the Polish Logician”.  It was a year or two before I came to know her name: Rose Rand.  She had no connection to Princeton much more substantial than a library pass, but concerning her Rumor raced through the Firestone stacks, as gossiping Fama had flown throughout Libya with reports about Dido, mixing truth and falsehood.  Rose Rand had been the amanuensis of the Vienna Circle of philosophers in the early 1930s.  And/or she had been Heidegger’s girlfriend.  She was nearing the completion of a huge manuscript that would prove more important than Bacon’s New Atlantis or Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.  I did not know then about deontic utterances and the logic thereof—not that I know all that much now.

I am ashamed to say that in those days I regarded her mainly as a campus “character”.  Since then I have gleaned some reliable information from standard reference works and from my new correspondent in Groningen.   Dr. Rand was born in Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine) in 1903.  She indeed did study philosophy in Vienna and, as a graduate student, did participate in the seminars of the Vienna Circle.  What could have been—and almost certainly would have been--a highly honored academic career was blasted by the madness of the Hitler regime.  She escaped the Holocaust, but apparently at no small cost to her psychological and bodily health.  She fled first to England, where destitution reduced her to manual labor and a nervous breakdown, and where she never found lasting teaching jobs commensurate with her skills.  Sexism, while not so murderous as anti-Semitism, probably played a role.  Later, at various academic sites in America, she eked out a living with small grants and some ad hoc teaching, but remained marginalized and impecunious. In the era of post-War academic life in the universities of Western Europe and North America, many intellectual refugees from Nazism and Communism flourished, won prizes, made great contributions to their fields; but many others could barely hang on by a fingernail.  Such is one of the injustices that encourage the tragic sense of life.

I lost track of the Polish logician well before her death in 1980.  I have learned that all her papers have ended up at the University of Pittsburgh, an institution boasting what is perhaps the world’s premier Department of Philosophy.  The young scholar in Groningen hopes soon to be able to visit Pittsburgh and work with them. Incidentally, what deontic means as a linguistic term is “expressing duty or obligation”—such as an obligation, perhaps, to recognize that sometimes little old ladies in tennis shoes are important and original philosophical thinkers.