My doctoral dissertation was not the preferred kind of dissertation for philosophy departments. Unsympathetic professors had called my work "Weltanschauung mongering" or "a fishing expedition," the former because I was interested in comprehensive theories, not in dissociated fragments on specific philosophical "problems," the latter because the dissertation proposal may have sounded like random wandering rather than a prospectus for a systematic theory. I was certainly guilty of "Weltanschauung mongering." I think other kinds of philosophy are irrelevant and schizophrenic. I was not guilty of a "fishing expedition," though what I ended up with was not in detail what I could have anticipated at the beginning. And it had been hard to get going with it.
As a kind of summa, covering territory that it took Kant three Critiques to do, the project of the dissertation was bad enough, but the drafts initially got up to 400 and then 500 pages -- vastly larger than the preferred 150 pages for a philosophy dissertation. One might have reasonably been excused for regarding the whole business as out of control. Nevertheless, Doug Browning, my dissertation committee chairman, calmly and systematically went through the thing, indicating where he thought it could be improved, and what could simply be cut. I am still grateful to him for the nature of his advice and the manner of his delivering it. As it happened, I cut even more than he recommended; and he got back a mere 250 pages: so miraculous a reduction that I think he was ready to sign off on the thing right away. Even if not, he thought it could go to the rest of the committee. From there it went to my Defense. Some recommendations from the whole committee at the Defense led to some extra material; but even at that, the whole work eventually came in at only 306 pages. One of my wife's dissertation committee members later supervised a dissertation of 1300 pages -- her own was over 600 -- so mine wasn't so bad, as these things go.
I am still generally pleased with the dissertation. I don't disagree with anything in it. One area where I might revise it now is in relation to the theory of understanding. I wasn't familiar with recent discussions about hermeneutics at the time, and much of that kind of material might profitably be added to the theory -- though, of course, the "deconstruction" side of hermeneutics is worthless and would not have been mentioned except for criticism. Another area for addition or revision is in relation to the object language systems of value: These are merely sketched in the dissertation, and the substantive content of morality was assigned to the jussive modality. Now I would return substantive morality to the imperative and use the jussive for historically evolved rules of private property and law. Nevertheless, this was just as well, since a real effort to describe the content of morality or to lay out the principles of and the arguments for capitalism would have burdened the dissertation with material that it did not need and would have added further to the problem of its size.
Otherwise, the dissertation sketches principles that I still think are true. The philosophy of science and philosophy of religion issues, let alone ethics and political economy, are vastly expanded in the materials at the Proceedings of the Friesian School website. These are direct expansions and developments of the ideas in the dissertation. More may be done in epistemology and metaphysics, especially in the metaphysics that underlies the theory of the modes of necessity.
The idea of the modes of necessity had originally come to me while sitting in a class about Martin Heidegger at the University of Hawaii in 1973. One might say that my mind was wandering, as Professor Mehta explained away Heidegger's participation in the Nazi Party. Now the metaphor I would use is that Being is like a pousse-café, a layering of liqueurs according to specific gravity: The apparent surface is phenomenal existence, while under the surface are the increasingly diffuse but concrete modes of necessity, the strong imperative of morality at the surface, down to the comprehensive but non-contradiction-violating mode of numinosity at the bottom. I think this is as striking and evocative a worldview as anything in the history of philosophy since Plato. Unlike Plato, it is not a world-denying view of absolute transcendence, but only a view of relative transcendence, like Kant, in which transcendence is an internal aspect of immanent objects. Being, indeed, in an important sense, is what materialists always thought of as matter. Parmenides still trumps Democritus.
As I wrote the dissertation, I often found myself listening to Brahms's Fourth Symphony (the RCA Red Seal recording of Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, played in background when file loaded). The mood of the symphony is a kind of "autumnal melancholy." My typewriter was rather loud, and I wore earphones draped across the room from my record-player/tape deck. The melancholy seemed appropriate since I had little realistic prospect of a job after finishing the dissertation. As it happened, I was unemployed for two years afterwards. Many philosophy Ph.D.'s have ended up driving taxicabs. I had associated important events in my life with an "autumnal melancholy": my birth, in October; my first marriage, in September, 1973, a subject of deep and enduring grief; and the dissertation itself, as it happened, since my defense was in November, 1984, after I had had about the worst cold and sinus infection of my life. Happily, things later turned out not so bad: I got hired, thanks to Harold Ravitch at LA Valley College; and my next marriage was in a June, under an extraordinary triple conjunction of Mars, Venus, and Jupiter, in 1991. But I am, as might be said, suspicious of happiness. Solon may have been right -- I could not count my life truly happy until it is over and the misadventures of suffering are finally banished.
When my dissertation was finished, indeed, I felt that I had accomplished what I set out to do, even if there was literally nothing else in my life. Fortunately, there has been more in my life, both for me personally (which I don't mind at all), and for the cause of truth and freedom that I have always embraced. What I did not know was that the latter would actually lead me into (gasp!) politics, especially a lunatic fringe politics that quixotically wants to actually restore Constitutional Government. But, you never know. And at least it enables me to love the principles of my country, the United States of America, even while detesting the vicious, tyrannical demagogues and the credulity of the people that dominate it now.
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