Rogers Albritton, 78; Philosopher Known for His Brilliance
Rogers Albritton, a charismatic philosopher who rarely published his work yet dazzled colleagues of diverse persuasions with his lucid analyses of fundamental human dilemmas, has died. He was 78.
The former UCLA and Harvard University professor died May 21 of pneumonia at UCLA Medical Center. A heavy smoker for most of his life, he had emphysema and had been in declining health.
Called a philosopher’s philosopher, he was considered one of the most formidable intellects in his field. His legendary stature, however, stemmed not from his writings, but from what philosopher and film critic Stanley Cavell called “the charisma of ... conversation alone.”
He was famous for marathon conversations about philosophy. A discussion lasting six or eight hours was not unusual. A former student once reported talking with Albritton for 11 hours.
In such encounters, the lean and stylish Princeton-trained thinker loved nothing more than to explore such matters as the nature of evil, free will or reality. Conversing with him was not like sitting downstream of a flood; he did not lecture. Rather, he probed gently, asking many questions in Socratic fashion to illuminate hidden dimensions of a philosophical problem.
Famously nondoctrinaire, even though he was an expert on the Greeks and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was averse to ever declaring that a problem was solved. He could argue that a person had no way of knowing whether he was asleep or awake, then conclude the opposite after more hours of laughter-filled discussion.
“He was a kind of philosophical conscience,” said philosopher Thomas Nagel, an Albritton student who now teaches at New York University. “Almost all of the rest of us ... fall back on the stuff we think we’ve established.... Rogers was a reminder that you can never dispense with the obligation to actively think whatever you’re thinking and be prepared to think it through from the beginning.”
“Back about 25 years ago ... Peter Strawson [an eminent British philosopher] said Rogers was one of the 10 best philosophers in the world,” said Hilary Putnam, a past president of the American Philosophical Assn. and emeritus professor at Harvard. “Many would agree, including myself. He was quite unique.
“He gave me the feeling for what Socrates must have been like. Socrates didn’t publish much either. Like Socrates, he had a lot of impact on lots of philosophers.”
Feeling for Socrates
Putnam recalled a discussion with Albritton some years ago on realism. “He illuminated a whole problem area for me--he made [it] worse. That’s what Rogers, and Socrates, often did. The ground you thought was firm suddenly shakes beneath your feet.... Other things you hadn’t considered now felt large in your mind.”
Putnam, whose teachers included such great thinkers as the late W.V. Quine, said he “learned more about the difficulties of philosophy--why it is hard--from Rogers” than from anyone else. “All the others felt it was easy. He [made] you distrust anybody who thinks he has the key to all the problems.”
Albritton rose to the UC system’s highest level of professorship--an elite rank referred to as “above scale”--despite a severe disinclination to participate in the academic convention of “publish-or-perish.” Over four decades of teaching, he published only about four papers, none considered definitive. Most appeared before he left a tenured position at Harvard to join the philosophy faculty at UCLA in 1972.
His seeming disinterest in publishing his thoughts was mystifying to those who knew him.
He spoke beautifully, using metaphors as naturally as a great novelist. “My God, he talks the way Henry James writes,” Putnam recalled once thinking. Writing--and publishing what he wrote--should have been just as natural.
Except for one address, however, Albritton published nothing during the last two decades of his career. The joke in philosophy circles was that his last name was a contraction of “All But Written.”
In fact, that phrase was an Albritton family joke.
His father, Errett, was a physiologist and accomplished research scientist who rarely published his findings. “He could not bring himself to be satisfied that he had enough of the final answer to publish. Rogers was like that as well,” said Albritton’s sister, Heloise Frame, a New York psychotherapist, who survives him along with seven nieces and nephews.
Albritton was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 15, 1923. When he was 3, his father and chemist-mother Rietta moved the family to Bangkok, where Albritton senior founded a medical school with a Rockefeller foundation grant.
When he was 5, his father decided to send him to a British boarding school in India, where he was the only American student. Much later he told his sister that it had been terrifying to be so far from home so young.
Returning home a year later, he horrified his mother when he greeted her by clicking his heels and bowing in the British manner. After that display, his father agreed to end his education abroad.
He completed his elementary and secondary schooling in Maryland and Washington, D.C. At 15, he enrolled at Swarthmore College, transferring two years later to St. Johns College, the Annapolis, Md., school famous for its emphasis on the Great Books. There Albritton began his formal training in philosophy, focusing on Plato and the Greeks. After two years with the Air Force in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, he earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Johns and his doctorate, in 1955, from Princeton.
He taught briefly at Cornell University, then joined the Harvard faculty in 1956. He chaired Harvard’s philosophy department from 1963 to 1970.
But he began to feel that Cambridge was too strait-laced and was intrigued by Los Angeles and its diversity. “My brother was gay and very comfortable to let that be what it was,” Frame said. “He said at UCLA he could be who he was. That was partly someone who didn’t publish but was a wonderful teacher.... And the fact that he was gay was something that didn’t stagger Los Angeles.”
He came to UCLA for a year in 1972 and stayed, making his home in West Hollywood and later in Silver Lake. A past president of the American Philosophical Assn. and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he taught courses on Greek philosophy, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, Wittgenstein and Descartes, and was an active member of the faculty until well past his official retirement in 1991.
He was a gifted teacher. At Harvard he co-taught with Marshall Cohen, dean emeritus of USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, a legendary course called Humanities 5. It was hugely popular--Cohen recalled that one year the registration swelled to 700 students. Students were in awe of Albritton, watching him tear up his notes and appear to struggle along with them through complicated philosophical arguments.
“He lectured as if he were struggling throughout the hour to figure out what he was going to say,” recalled Nagel, who was one of Albritton’s teaching assistants. “This was a dramatic performance, but it had the form of extemporary philosophical creation.”
Albritton saw everything through a philosopher’s eyes. Some years ago he was called to jury duty on a case that posed what he recognized as a complex philosophical problem. The defendant was accused of illegal possession of a machine gun. What he owned were all the gun’s parts, disassembled and scattered about his house. Albritton “spent a huge amount of time thinking and worrying about the metaphysics of this,” UCLA professor David Kaplan recalled. “Do you possess a machine gun if you possess the parts, and how spread out do the parts have to be?” The jury voted for acquittal.
Even as he lay in the hospital last month, Albritton wrestled aloud with philosophical questions. John Carriero, who chairs UCLA’s philosophy department, spent one of his last visits with the dying man puzzling over the problem of evil posed in a passage of Isaiah. Albritton, hooked up to all manner of tubes and monitors, asked his colleague to research the views of 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas and report back to him.
“The reasons these disputes never end,” he once said of philosophers’ struggles with age-old questions, “is that both sides are right about important things. I am inclined to think there is truth and nonsense on both sides, but the truth is very hard to find.”
Donations may be sent to the UCLA Foundation/Rogers Albritton Memorial Fund, UCLA, College of Letters and Science Development, 1332 Murphy Hall, Los Angeles CA 90095-1413.