Alexander Sesonske Remembered
As a pair of aging first year graduate students in the comparatively small but strong and congenial department of philosophy at UCLA in the years from 1948 to 1951, each of us having discovered philosophy late, after trying other lives, and each eccentric in taking a passion for the arts undiluted into the desire for philosophy, Alex Sesonske and I were rapidly bound to determine whether we would become competitors or friends. Encouraged by the presence on the philosophy faculty, and by the attention, of a young Abraham Kaplan (whose startlingly vivid and capacious intellectual accomplishments and promise seem now, in my experience, to be largely unknown, and where known undervalued, to those who never spent time in his presence), Alex and I published our first two philosophical papers jointly while still graduate students, indeed while in the first two years of studying philosophy. However transient the value of those texts of ours is apt or bound to be, the fact that they showed value enough to be published in professional journals of philosophy afforded lessons that I feel distinctly helped to keep our spirits (I feel confident in speaking for us both in this regard) intact through the grinds and bumps of graduate study. The fact that they were written jointly, which is to say, as the result of countless hours of alternating dictation and revision, showed that that one can think and work beyond oneself, and provided a distinct sense, vital if small, of contributing something, even if something contrary, to a field to which one was aspiring to belong.
Logical positivism reigned then as the avant-garde of academic philosophy, which meant that the then fashionable analysis of so-called value judgments – leveled in the course of arguments touching upon the arts and the moral life and religion – were judged to be intellectually thin, at best, in their support (a fashionable phrase in characterizing such judgments held them to be “cognitively meaningless”), in comparison with the incomparably communicative, even glamorous results in philosophical analyses of scientific discourse, as in the dominating publications in those years of Carnap and Reichenbach (the latter a dominating presence at UCLA in our time there). This sweeping cast of mind in its relation to judgments of value was not simply incredible to those of us for whom the recognition and protection of value was fundamental to the idea of philosophy, but baffling in its academic success, and depressing in the recognition of how helpless one was in attempting to refute or sensibly delay its intellectual detractors. (And what other way was there to dethrone them?)
Both Alex and I had come to philosophy from lives beyond the academy. He was six or seven years older than I and had served in the army during the Second World War and before that spent time as a racehorse tout. I was in the process of discovering that my virtually single-minded devotion to music through university studies had effectively deprived me of a serious education beyond my love and talent for that specialized realm and its closest neighbors. Alex deployed his distinct gift as a draftsman by painting an unmistakably talented rendition of Matisse’s elliptical circle of dancers joining hands that covered the exposed stucco side of his garage. These eccentricities served to free us, and motivate us, to make a decision to follow a suggestion by Kaplan that we try combining the sometimes similar and interestingly different preoccupations of our term papers submitted for his course that semester (in effect they were each defenses of pragmatism against positivism’s reductive attacks on moral philosophy and aesthetics) and offer the result for publication in a professional philosophy journal. Kaplan’s suggestion to us resulted in fact in a sequence of two jointly authored articles, the first publications (with a trivial exception on my part) by either Alex or me.
Writing these pieces together amounted to a dimension of my education that I otherwise cannot imagine having received. Combining (so to speak) our separate texts turned out to be amiable and intellectually productive (remunerative, Austin would later have taught me to say). But these very tangible satisfactions led Alex and me to want to continue with a further, more substantial joint adventure. And the writing of this second piece became unpredictably, anyway unpredictedly, anything but smooth. Here we were beginning from no drafts but proposing individual sentences meant to continue from what we had written to try to reach a farther shore. This exposed us perpetually to holding up each of our proposals to shared light, where, at least in memory, the pain of beholding one’s repetitive awkwardness was so often not really dissolved by finding a truer solution. I do not recommend the procedure. But I am still interested in the fact that it could be done at all, and still grateful for the early sense of accomplishment, despite all, that it provided.
Alex was in conversation a man of few words, and wasted none in offering comfort for the shortcomings he often discovered and impatiently voiced concerning one’s intellectual efforts, sometimes with a laugh unnerving to hear. He was superbly, complexly intelligent. Conversation with him was the best preparation one could have wanted for learning to withstand the impersonal violence of philosophical argumentation. I have not looked at those early efforts of ours in many years but my happy memories of the earnestness and the sense of discovery in composing them remain fresh. However vanishing their value, and while it was still some years before I was able to convince myself that I had something further on my mind individual enough to be worth making public, their existence formed an attestation for me that I might again find something to contribute to the professional community of academic philosophy. I remain vividly grateful to those early times of companionship.
Perhaps their most lasting value was their sufficient proof to me that equally intense commitments to philosophy and to the arts might prove fruitful and the results academically valued. Without this attestation in Alex’s intellectual instincts it is not easy to imagine that I would have, with whatever success and rationality and good grace I have managed to do so, overcome temptations to conclude that a serious philosophical hearing for the aesthetic was not in the academic cards, at least not in my path. His ability to laugh, I might even say giggle, at early positivistic reservations about the rationality of what were taken to be aesthetic judgments (e.g., “X is beautiful,” said with as little commitment or specificity as it looks) remain heartwarming to recall. Of course the warmth of his reactions would have been vanishing without his intellectual focus and fertility in sustaining and motivating these reactions.
While our paths crossed comparatively rarely in later years (I believe the last time was my memorable visit in the early 1970s on which Alex took me over to meet his friend Jean Renoir at his house in Beverly Hills) I remain sensible of my wonderful fortune, and grateful for it, in having had Alexander Sesonske as a philosophical companion in our first years of discovering, or surmising, the range of commitments philosophy can demand. Friendship is a blessing, but finding intellectual inspiration and steadiness in friendship, and critically in the opening years of the bewildering study of philosophy, is a gift of good fortune to be, as I find myself to be, endlessly grateful for.