Lee Brown Remembered
Lee Brown was one of the first persons I met when I came to Ohio State in 1964. We soon discovered that we had a great deal in common. For one, we had overlapping training. Prof. Herb Hochberg, a student of Gustav Bergmann at Iowa, was my first philosophy teacher in 1953 (at 7 A.M.) and was Lee’s teacher at Northwestern. For another, I had an M.A. in literature, and Lee was, as I soon discovered, extremely well read. Thus began an intense intellectual and personal relationship. We had a hell of a lot of fun.
I had been trained by some pretty brilliant people, but I had never encountered someone before with Lee’s depth and breadth of knowledge. Because he was not into public aggrandizement and kept a low departmental profile, few people know of this breadth and depth. But get him alone, as I did countless times, and the result was exhilarating. I had originally thought of him as a student of Continental Philosophy, but quickly learned that he could more than hold his own on any subject in analytic philosophy. Early on I had analogized the emergence of the later Wittgenstein of the Investigations from the earlier Tractatus to the switching by Bob Dylan from acoustic to electric guitar. I was then treated to a brilliant verbal essay on the virtues of the electric guitar, and asked if I still wanted to hold on to the analogy. As a result, I now love electric guitar, and am still at best ambivalent about the later Wittgenstein.
Perhaps Lee’s greatest gift was intellectual honesty; he was the most intellectually honest person I have ever met. He seemed to have no ego in arguments. Not that he could not be forceful, but he always listened and he would always think about what you said and change his opinion when he thought you were right. When he did change his opinion, he worked on the new view and soon came to have better reasons than you did for holding it. Sometimes this lack of ego seemed to be a lack of confidence in his writing. In the late 1970s Lee was contacted by P. A. Schilpp to write an essay for the Library of Living Philosophers edition on Sartre. Lee and I had been discussing Freud, and he was reading Freud night and day. He asked me to coauthor an essay comparing Sartre with Freud. We worked very hard on the article, a comparison of Sartre’s view of self deception with Freud’s seemingly parallel views about the unconscious. During one period we labored for three long days on a single short paragraph and finally got it to our liking, or so I thought. When I arrived at his home the next day, Lee informed me that he had torn up the page and he pointed to the wastebasket. These were the dark days before computers and we had made no carbons. The new term for my reaction is called ballistic. I demanded that he reassemble the page, and he very meekly, with Emily at his side, spent at least two hours putting it back together. By the end of the first hour I was laughing hysterically. Lee had turned ballistic into something he was wonderful at, marvelous humor.
We decided to use our new found expertise at psychoanalysis at department parties. Working as a team we gave horrific analyses of unsuspecting victims. Given that this dime store Freudianism had all roads leading to Rome, some of our colleagues did not share in our obvious delight…..long gone days.
Jazz was one of Lee’s great passions. His music collection was amazingly rich, as was his knowledge of the entire jazz tradition. Having grown up in a jazz era but not really appreciating it, sitting with Lee and listening to the music changed my whole way of hearing it, and added a pleasure to my life that I would not otherwise have had. Once a group of friends was sitting in Lee and Emily’s living room and Lee was giving a very critical analysis of Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert Sing, Sing, Sing. I was horrified, because it was just this record that had triggered my auditory conversion, I had heard it in a completely different way, an unforgettable Eureka moment. After 15 minutes or so of this in-depth critique, which made me quite uncomfortable, Emily said “Come on, Lee, what would you have given to have been there?” There was a brief hesitation and then he said “The lives of many people.” We laughed with relief, but I learned something valuable from that moment – that an insightful critique can not only be made in the context of appreciation, but can add to it. Lee could make one see things like that.
Lee’s passing ends the final chapter of an era in the history of Ohio State that centered on Larry’s Bar. Larry’s was not just a bar, it was an institution, the extracurricular center of much of Ohio State’s intellectual and emotional life. Lee was its undisputed monarch. His table never lacked for members, often a dozen or more at a time, and entry into its ranks meant belonging to a kind of exclusive club. Into it were welcomed, in the days when the Philosophy Department had money, the likes of Strawson, Ryle, Quine, and Sellars (for those here who are nonphilosophers, these are all famous ones). Conversations were often intense, and ranged from the sublime (I recall Ryle’s descriptions of life at Oxford) to the ridiculous (a running debate that Lee and I had over the number of ants in the world that, late in the evening on one occasion, quite fascinated Quine). There were very few of the leading lights of Ohio State’s considerable intellectual community that did not share that table on more than one occasion. I do not think that life would have existed without Lee.
Now Larry’s is gone, and now Lee. We are, all of us, the worse for it.