Death Comes for the Philosopher

Though John Hospers was never my hero, he came close. Now he’s dead, like most of the other philosophical writers I admire.

He died yesterday, a few days into his 94th year.

Since I grew up in one of the two states of the union in which his name appeared on the ballot for the U.S. Presidency, I must’ve come across his name in that year of 1972. But it didn’t stick. The renegade electoral college voter, Roger MacBride, who cast his ballot for the Hospers/Nathan Libertarian Party ticket, did leave an impression four years later, with his direct-to-the-camera spiel following the Democratic Nominating Convention.

That was probably my first notice of the word “libertarian” alone and naked, not prefixed by “civil.”

John Hospers was, though, a civil man, a civilized man. Like at least one later Libertarian Party presidential nominee, Harry Browne, he was committed to high culture as well as the arts of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Quiet in bearing, cautious in speculation, careful in reasoning, he also served as the epitome of the philosophic cast of mind. A professor of philosophy, in fact, his career in the field was illustrious.

It was not helped, however, by his 1972 run for the presidency, or by his political philosophy in general — a philosophy greatly influenced by his personal relationship (and its severance) with Ayn Rand. (Jesse Walker, on Reason’s Hit and Run, provides the links.) He once told me that the University of Southern California only reluctantly honored him with emeritus status.

I read his Libertarianism in 1980, shortly after meeting his LP running mate Tonie Nathan. I then  scoured back issues of The Personalist for his essays, and those of his friends. I remember, today, only one of those contributions: “Rule Egoism,” a short note that dovetailed nicely with J.L. Mackie’s comments about coalescing ethical standpoints in the second half of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, which I read soon after. I leaned more towards Mackie than Hospers, however, and remained puzzled at how this fine thinker could admire Ayn Rand so much. She was so ungainly a thinker. Hospers was not. Even in error his caution and subtlety shined through.

I met him, for the first time, at a Liberty conference (I was a sub-editor at Liberty from its inception till 1999), and was quite familiar with his writing style from working on many of his brilliant manuscripts presented for publication. His writings were challenging, often straying outside the rigors of libertarian ideology. His style was always crystal-clear, without a hint of Kantian clumsiness, Hegelian obscurity, or Heideggerian impenetrability.

The world of scholars will remember him chiefly for his work in philosophy as editor, author and anthologist. His writings on aesthetics (Understanding the Arts), ethics (Human Conduct) and basic philosophy (Introduction to Philosophical Analysis) are all worthy contributions. He was also a great pedagogue. His editorship of The Personalist provided an early first academic outlet for a wider-than-usual variety of viewpoints, including the libertarian — a variety quite alien to American philosophical circles at that time.

In all his work, up towards the end, Hospers exhibited a strong intellectual curiosity, which disallowed him to take comfort the confines of any ideological box. I always admired this. I could not be angered by most of his forays into territory that put him at odds with the mainstream of libertarian thought, even when I was pretty sure he was dead wrong. Yet I did have great trouble with his late, post-9/11 warmongering, and handled it chiefly (I freely confess) by ignoring the man. Perhaps I was wrong to do so. Philosophical lapses of the aged deserve some tolerance, as we give, say, to Anthony Flew for his flirtations with ideas that he had, during the height of his intellectual powers, demolished so severely.

The arc of life necessarily involves declension towards the end — that’s to be expected. That arc hits dirt and ash at terminus. So it has ended for John Hospers, as it will one day end for each of us.

We bear this truth “philosophically” — as John Hospers advised.