A Conversation with Neal Klausner

April 19, 2010

Richard Cleaver ’75

By Richard Cleaver ’75 The son of a Grinnell faculty member himself, Richard Cleaver grew up just around the corner from Professor of Philosophy Neal Klausner, overhearing many an animated philosophical conversation among Grinnell’s “faculty legends.”

Neal Klausner has a gift for friendship. Many people in Grinnell have his intellectual curiosity, read as widely as he does, and more than a few share his intentional refusal to rest content with any answer.

But Klausner is different. During conversations, the professor emeritus of philosophy repeatedly rises from his comfortable chair (which is no trivial exercise for someone 101 years old) to pull a book from the shelf to pass to his visitor. As one talks with him, images of companionship, of living together with ideas, of intellectual friendship, continually recur. His long-running philosophical duel with his dear friend Howard Burkle (professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies) on faith and atheism is legendary on the Grinnell campus, even now that both are rarely seen there. But Klausner is quick to point out that it was kept going “because we spent so much time on the golf course together.”

Time and again as he recounts his route to Grinnell from Neenah, Wis., he mentions friends. Of his time as a divinity student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, where he went after graduating from Lawrence in 1931, he says, “The friends I made there were a gift better than the degree.” (“I stayed in school so long because it was the Depression, and jobs were hard to find!”) From Colgate he went to Yale, where he pursued a Ph.D. While still working on it, in 1936, he was asked to teach both philosophy and psychology at the University of Redlands. “I went straight from my wedding to a summer course in psychology at the University of Chicago, and then we drove out to California. The air was redolent of orange groves back then.”

When Klausner came to Grinnell from Redlands in 1944, he says, “Both the College and the town were a little bit shabby.” In fact, he and Mary Klausner were not sure they wanted to stay, especially once winter came. “But the warmth of the student body made it home. I’ve never regretted coming, though I have regretted the weather.”

One of the major changes he has seen in the 64 ensuing years has been the beautification of both. One thing he insists has not changed is the intellectual stature of the faculty: when he first arrived, his colleagues included Edward Steiner, Henry Conard, Grant Gale, Charlie Foster, Harold Clapp, and his predecessor John Stoops, among others.

He recalls the impromptu celebration at the announce-ment of the end of World War II. He and Mary and several friends were having dinner at the Monroe Hotel (across Third Avenue from the train station, now the Depot Restaurant), the best place to eat in town in those days. On hearing the news, Klausner, then-Dean Earl Strong, and then-Treasurer Lou Phelps got up and rushed to Magoun Hall on campus, and took turns ringing the bell that hung in the tower for about half an hour before returning to finish their meal.

One thing he misses from his earliest days is the strong sense of community, due in large part to the small size of the campus. He estimates that during the war there were about 300 women students and perhaps 21 men, and the faculty was correspondingly small. “There was a custom then that the senior faculty would come calling on the new ones on Sunday afternoons. If you weren’t home, they would stick their calling cards in the screen door. Sometimes we’d come home and all these cards would come fluttering down.”

Reminiscing is not the main point of a conversation with Neal Klausner, however. He shares with a visitor his current reading — in this case, Martha Nussbaum’s newest book The Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality — and points out that one of the great benefits of retirement is that “I’m free — I can read anything I want.” When he retired in 1975, he started reading all of Dickens. Now one of his main social outlets is a book club with a group of other men living at the Mayflower Homes. (He was well into his 90s before he gave up tennis and golf.) The number of College colleagues at Mayflower makes it a congenial place, “but I’m still surprised that students of mine are now living here!”

He also keeps teaching, opening a discussion of different definitions of philosophy. “Philosophy is our most vigorous mental effort to know the Is, the whole Is, and nothing but the Is. To which I would add that it is also our most vigorous mental effort to know the Non-Is, the whole Non-Is, and nothing but the Non-Is. Or there is Socrates’ definition: ‘To do philosophy is to practice dying.’ Because in dying we strip away the senses, and only pure knowledge can grasp pure knowledge.” (His visitor is pleased to be able to name the dialogue of Plato in which Socrates’ definition appears, the Phaedo, and receive, in exchange a simple, “Yes, you’re right.” It’s like getting an A on an exam.) Bertrand Russell comes in next: “Philosophy is the substitution of articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.” Wittgenstein enters the room, asserting that there are no philosophical problems, only linguistic ones, and that a philosopher’s business is to clear the language. “Philosophy doesn’t solve problems, it dissolves them.” But Klausner then welcomes his favorite definition, from William James: “Our most stubborn effort is to think clearly.” Summing up, Klausner remarks, with a smile, “These have been my companions for a long time.”

The image of wandering with, and among, friends, is a powerful one for Klausner, who declares that he has always wanted his students to do the same. He also wants their motivation to be pleasure, not utility. In a 1954 lecture in honor of former President John S. Nollen, later published in part in The American Scholar, Klausner makes plain that this companionship with our predecessors, like all friendships, is for its own sake. “I wish to defend the idea that the humanities are best thought of as ends in themselves, rather than means; man has the capacity for sheer personal enjoyment and satisfaction, and finds this deeply in the arts, literature, philosophy, history, and any other subject that expresses man by telling of his birth, struggle, achievements, decay, and death. Why should we think it necessary to defend man’s interest in himself?” Describing a situation that seems not to have changed much in a half century, and still to be relevant when the educational debate centers around “No Child Left Behind” and “teaching to the test,” Klausner deplores the “educationists in our day, who are responsible for sending into the schools of the nation teachers almost totally blind to what is human in the human situation.” Liberal arts education, he seems to be saying, is the antidote, especially if it helps us, as he puts it in another speech, to “endure the persistent small voice that often distracts [us] by saying, at the most critical times, ‘You could be wrong. Why not look at it this way?’”

Looking at things in new ways, helped by books and WOI-FM on the radio, are among Klausner’s chief companions these days, as his old friends and sparring partners move on. He still corresponds with old students, though — the ones who don’t live down the hall — and his dedication to teaching is strong, as the philosophy lesson just described makes clear. The conversation takes place on the day the financial rescue plan becomes law and the Dow Jones average plunges by 777 points, and the ensuing discussion demonstrates that Klausner has not retreated from the world.

But both he and his visitor have things to do, so he makes an elegant transition to parting. “I have an exit line,” he says. “Richard Rorty, an American philosopher, pragmatist, and atheist, said or wrote, ‘Love is the only law.’ I don’t put much philosophical weight on that wonderfully ambiguous and vague statement. But I go a long way with Rorty here.”

Then he walks the visitor to the door — companionable yet again, on the intellectual journey.

This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2008.

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