THE WISDOM OF JOHN HOSPERS – A PERSONAL MEMORY
[Last year I was asked to contribute a chapter for a Festschrift — a collection of writings published in honor of a scholar – as a memorial to Professor John Hospers (1918-2011), my mentor under whom I gained my doctorate in philosophy, and the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1972. As publication has been delayed due to the current flu bug panic, I thought TTPers might find it interesting. Too long for a single article, it will be presented in three parts on Mondays. Feel free to comment on the Forum!]
It began on a beach in Malibu. It was the spring of 1966. I was in a crummy mood, reading this beat up paperback book only because a friend insisted. I wasn’t paying much attention for it was a beautiful sunny day and the waves were perfect for body surfing. Also, the book was massive, over a thousand pages long, and after slogging my inattentive way for over 300 pages I was about to give up.
Then I read these words: “So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Aconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money?”
The words hit me like an electric shock. Suddenly I was hyper-focused as I read on, the realization that I was witnessing something I had always dreamed of, a moral, not just practical, defense of capitalism that was so clear, so precise, so irrefutable without the slightest hint of apology, that I heard myself yelling out loud, “YES! YES! YES!” – so loud other beachgoers were looking at me with bemusement.
I was reading Ayn Rand’s “Speech on Money” in Atlas Shrugged. To this day it remains one of the most electrifying intellectual moments of my life. I was 22, just graduated from UCLA and working for Ronald Reagan as his State Chairman of Youth for Reagan in his original campaign for Governor of California.
Reading Atlas was so transformational that, after a misadventure in Vietnam and ending up in Hawaii, I decided to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. At the University of Hawaii, I formed a student group of fellow Randians or “Objectivists,” calling ourselves Students for Laissez Faire.
We invited Ayn Rand to speak on the campus. Her office turned us down, saying Hawaii was too far from New York. We invited Ludwig von Mises, Rand’s mentor in economics. I received a gracious hand-written personal letter, saying he could no longer travel extensively at his age of 87. Then, in October 1968, we along with every subscriber of The Objectivist newsletter received the shock announcement of Ayn Rand excommunicating her “intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden for some unspeakably heinous and depraved behavior.
Literally unspeakable, because in her letter she never specified what he actually did that was so depraved. Uh-oh, we all thought. This was followed by a letter to all subscribers from Branden himself, in obvious gentleman’s agony over not being able to explicitly reveal what was going on – yet became clear as we read what was implicit between the lines.
“Oh, no, you’ve got to be kidding!” we exclaimed to ourselves. “Ayn Rand, the High Priestess of Reason herself, is the jilted woman whom hell hath no fury the like of!” We laughed ourselves silly – then decided on the spot to invite Branden to address the University of Hawaii student body. He accepted.
He came in March of 1969, his speech was a smash success, and he and I immediately hit it off – it was like I had found the older brother I never had. He quickly told me to call him Nathan. We talked for hours and hours. He asked me why I wanted a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
I explained that Rand’s statement that “the state of the world was not testimony to philosophy’s impotence but to philosophy’s power” went off like a bomb in my head. But that I didn’t want a doctorate as a union card to be a university professor for a living. It was to achieve the ability to think rigorously and clearly for the rest of my life.
Nathan looked at me very seriously for a moment, then said, “I will soon be lecturing at the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California – thanks to the new Chairman of the department. He is a very prominent and highly respected professional philosopher who has developed an academic interest in the philosophy of Objectivism. He and I have become friends since I moved from New York to Los Angeles. I’d like to tell him about you.”
I thanked Nathan and asked the chairman’s name. “He’s Professor John Hospers.”
That summer of 1969 I flew to LA and rode a Greyhound Bus across the US to Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, where Ludwig von Mises and his wife Margit had a summer retreat. I spent a weekend with them, a life-memorable experience. It was such an awe-inspiring honor to spend time with the greatest economic genius who ever lived. He autographed my copy of Human Action.
There was, however, a very funny and illuminating moment as Margit and I were walking through their garden and I asked her about Ayn Rand.
She looked at me sharply. “Mr. Wheeler,” she replied in her strong Austrian accent, “my husband and I have spent much time with her. Miss Rand is a person of very great intellectual power… but she can be a very disagreeable woman!” We laughed and laughed.
When the Greyhound bus brought me back to LA, I stayed at Nathan’s home on a hill overlooking Beverly Hills. He told me he had invited Professor Hospers to come over to meet me. It was a warm summer’s day, and the famed professor arrived decked out in a sports shirt, shorts and sandals.
The first thing I noticed was his soft-spoken gentleness, an ease of manner without a whisper of pretentiousness that you might expect from a man of such philosophical renown. When I addressed him as Professor, he quickly put me at ease, saying, “Please… call me John.”
Nathan’s wife Patrecia brought us a pitcher of ice tea, and our conversation lasted most of the afternoon. At the end, he said, “After finishing your Masters in Hawaii (I had a year to go), I’d like you to consider getting your doctorate with us. I’d like to offer you a teaching assistantship which would evolve into an instructorship.” I had not expected this, and was so startled I instantly agreed. Nathan had a Cheshire cat grin.
Thus after one last idyllic year in Hawaii, I moved back to LA where I was born and raised. During that year, I devoured Hospers’ master work, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (second edition published in 1967). Every page was confirmation I had made the right decision. The clarity of his discussion on every philosophical topic was breathtaking – it was an oasis of rationality in the desert of obfuscation one has to wander through studying famous philosophers through history.
The only philosopher I had found that truly spoke to me in three millennia of human thought was Aristotle (387-322 BC). Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, I discovered, was essentially an explicit restatement of much of Aristotle (once you cut through the overlay of Randian hyperbolic bombast). To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, Ayn Rand saw further by standing on the shoulders of Aristotle.
I had spent the last two years at the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii arguing with professors and students who compulsively spouted bromides like, “There are no absolutes,” “Well, what’s true for you isn’t true for me,” or “No one knows anything for certain.”
Somehow I managed to resist the temptation to slap them in the face, and when they’d angrily ask them why, to deny I did any such thing, saying “How do you know I hit you? After all, you of all people can’t assert you know I did.”
Subjectivism – the whim-worshipping assertion that there is no objective reality, truth, or morality – is what Ayn Rand dedicated her life to opposing. She is the unmatched champion of individual freedom, of every human being’s right to live for his or her own sake, of laissez-faire capitalism. Yet she did not name her philosophy after any of these.
Instead, she called it Objectivism, the core tenet of which is: Existence exists, A is A. Things are what they are, and all the wishes and temper-tantrums of relativists won’t make something what it is not. Our awareness does not create the world: the world exists independently of our awareness of it.
This was pure Aristotle, who ridiculed anyone who claimed to believe otherwise. For those who deny objective reality never actually behave as if they do:
“For why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to be walking there? Why does he not walk early some morning into a well or over a precipice, if one happens to be in his way? Why do we observe him guarding against this, evidently because he does not think that falling in is alike good and not good?” [Metaphysics IV iv 40].
So it was, in the Fall of 1970, when I first entered the USC School of Philosophy building where the school secretary, a British lady named Daphne, took me to the Chairman’s office, I was transfixed by a New Yorker magazine cartoon that had been clipped out and scotch-taped prominently at eye level on his office door.
“Professor Hospers put that there himself?” I asked Daphne. She gave me a knowing smile. “Oh, yes, he wants to make sure everyone sees it before seeing him.”
The cartoon was of a harassed man changing a flat tire of his car in the middle of a rainstorm on a deserted road. While his wife is in the front seat, his two kids are in the back with the window rolled down yelling at him. The man is looking up at the kids in frustration, with him saying in the caption:
”Look, kids, this is reality – you can’t change the channel!”
I looked at Daphne with a smile from ear to ear to say, “I’ve really come to the right place for me, haven’t I?” She gently nodded in assent.
 . A note on memory. A reader of this essay will naturally wonder how I could remember so clearly events of decades ago. One reason is that we all tend to recall formative or “life-memorable” experiences, which studying under John Hospers from 1970-1975 was for me. Another is that I have been blessed with a good memory for which I – still to this day! – am frequently complimented. I have kept and enhanced it by taking a nutritional formula every day for forty years containing a gram of choline that optimizes the brain’s levels of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for memory storage and retrieval. So the old phrase applies to my recollections: This is no accident, comrades.
Nonetheless, memory is never infallible, so for those who also knew John in the early 70s and remember differently from me, let me know and we’ll see how to reconcile them.