“A Forgotten Detour”

"Rodin" in front of Columbia University's Philosophy Hall

Rodin’s “The Thinker” in front of Columbia University’s Philosophy Hall

“A Forgotten Detour”

As I finished the chapter of Confessions of a Young Philosopher that’s about my years as a graduate student at the Columbia University and Penn State departments of philosophy, a missing piece of that time suddenly reappeared, filling a gap in memory.

Those were pretty much pre-feminist days for a girl in the field of philosophy. At Columbia, where most of my professors seemed tired and their courses shopworn, the woman side of conscious life was shrugged off, except as the butt of heavy-footed jokes.   Eventually I found the Penn State philosophy department more original, fresh and thoughtful than Columbia’s, so I finished my doctoral degree there. But the woman situation at State College, PA was no better. It was probably worse. Since that department enjoyed less prestige than Columbia, its faculty felt it had to be especially macho. Most of the philosophers at Penn State shared an ideological commitment to the belief that the mind was a masculine entity.

Whenever I’ve thought back to that stage of my apprenticeship in the field, I revisit scenes where my nature as a woman was waved aside as anomalous or embarrassing.

So I was truly astonished when, discussing those years with Jerry the other day, I suddenly remembered an experience of an opposite kind that I had entirely forgotten.

Professor Jacob Taubes chaired the Columbia religion department and sometimes co-taught courses in philosophy. That was how I met him, at an excruciatingly deadening Hegel seminar, co-taught by the professors of towering reputation, John Herman Randall and Paul Kristeller, as well as the more reticent Horace L. Friess and the maverick Taubes.

Taubes liked me right away. He got me an Assistantship in the Columbia religion department and appointed me Secretary to the prestigious Columbia Seminar on Hermeneutics. Hannah Arendt attended the Seminar regularly. Jimmy Baldwin dropped in at least once that I recall, looking as if he couldn’t stand another minute, but then he always looked like that. Since “hermeneutics” is the study or science of “interpretation,” practically anything can fit under it. The subject was elusive and amorphous enough to be all the rage, the coming thing. I don’t remember one interesting thing that anybody said, but it was a prime place to be for New York intellectuals. You can bet it’s on my c.v. as an academic credit.

The professor to whom I was assigned as an Assistant was on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary. Reading the course text and sitting in on his lectures, I learned to my amazement how openly contemptuous Christian religionists of those days could be of the Hebrew Bible, except as the run-up to the New Testament. Bigotry decked out as theology.

On the other hand, I had the opportunity to take a course in New Testament at Union Theological with the great Krister Stendhal, who taught with a modesty and devotion to truth that I admire still.

Why didn’t I stay there and simply take my degree in philosophy of religion? So what if the department’s course offerings were a bit repetitive! At least I wasn’t erased as a woman! Although an ambitious fellow student in that department complained to me that Taubes had singled me out because he must have had an … uh … extra-curricular interest, Taubes himself told me that, along with Susan Sontag, I’d been his “most brilliant” student. Sontag was in the religion department with me at the beginning, as a young instructor or assistant professor. She was already starting her meteoric rise as a public intellectual and opinion-shaper. With her friend Irene, we went to a Fair Play for Cuba rally together.

Why did I ever leave?

The beautiful people, or at least some of them, were there. There my youthful charms as a woman were tolerated as fully compatible with philosophic merit.

In fact, my charms were more than tolerated. I do recall Taubes – may he rest in peace – chasing me around his living room, with me telling him breathlessly that I was “fighting for my honor!”

“Your honor,” he rejoined instantly and regretfully, “is impeccable!”

These European eruptions were not a deal breaker for me. There was a distinguished theologian at Union Theological whose office a woman had to walk out of backward, so irrepressible was his fondness for the female rear. I thought all that fairly comical.

Whyever did I leave New York for the rural bitters of Penn State, exiting with a masters degree in philosophy? More than that, why had I completely forgotten this entire episode from my years as a graduate student? It’s something I haven’t thought about in years. Heck, I couldda been a contender!   I was well positioned to climb up the greasy pole held upright by the beautiful people in the New York intellectual circles of those days. What was wrong with me?

I had work to do, truths to seek, a life problematic to resolve, and none of them involved the ornamentation of Abigail.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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