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The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Two

On May 9th of this year I sent the following e-mail to Donald Wester, Junior about his dad:


I'm grading final exams from Intro to Philosophy. One student wrote about how he's long struggled with proving the existence of God and that he was very disappointed with the day we spent on the traditional arguments. But then we read William James and he discovered that we don't need to prove God's existence.

Reading the essay made me think of your Dad, from whom I learned that. Now 27 years later I'm passing those lessons on.

Which also reminds me I brought up your Dad in worship planning yesterday when Stephen and I got off on a discussion of Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity. I mentioned how your Dad taught me to interpret Nietzsche, that basically the criticisms have some validity and any thoughtful person of faith needs a response that survives the criticisms.

Anyway, thought you might appreciate these stories.


Don Wester, Sr. for decades taught a class entitled "Fundamentals of Philosophy."  It was a sophomore level course required of all religion and ministry majors, the only other philosophy class they were required to take beyond Intro.  It was something of a rite of passage, which means many experienced it as a stumbling block.  The course was part of the genius of OBU's curriculum at the time--before all these young (mostly) men were turned loose on the church, they had to spend a semester with Don Wester.

Wester's textbook for that course was simply the Library of America volume of William James's philosophical writings--Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, the Varieties of Religious Experience.  William James is not a conservative evangelical, so his works were a definite challenge for most of the students in the course.  Many struggled with it.  I know because I was also Wester's grader for three years, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in the future of pastoral ministry. :)

Which gets me to Don Wester's intellectual project.  

As Don told the story, he was a rural pastor who decided to become a foreign missionary--the plan was to go to Indonesia.  He was smart enough to realize that much of the Christianity he knew was deeply Western, influenced by Greco-Roman thought forms.  He didn't think Indonesians should have to first accept the legacy of Greco-Roman thought before becoming Christians, so he realized he needed to figure out what Christianity was more basically, freed of Greco-Roman philosophy.  Or to put it more simply, Christianity without Plato.

This is a more challenging project than you might realize.

Wester never did end up on the mission field, but the intellectual project remained.  And it is one he passed on to his students.  The intensive study of William James was part of this.  I absorbed his love of James (in my Intro class we read Pragmatism).  I adopted his overall understanding of the history of philosophy and its relationship with Christianity.  I too wanted to understand the history of ideas so that I might know where certain ideas came from and what effects they had had.  The framework I learned from him still shapes how I think about new ideas and how I teach them to my students. 

One implication of this intellectual project is how we think about God.  Wester rejected the notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, as they were inherited from the Greeks (Parmenides really) and not the Hebrews.  Being persuaded by Wester on these points opened me to Whitehead's Process Thought, for he too rejects these concepts and conceives of God differently.  

When I took Fundamentals of Philosophy, my final paper was entitled "William James's Concept of God."  Wester marked the title as being wrong and then explained why to me.  James doesn't think we have a concept of God, but a perception, an experience.  He let me rewrite the paper.

Sunday I preached a sermon which explored the myriad ways one could interpret the Letter of Jude.  The sermon was written before Don Wester died, but I dedicated the sermon to his memory, for he taught me to explore truth in this way.

How does one measure the gift of an intellectual worldview?  Especially when his teaching helped me to keep my faith by seeing things in a new light?  

The Influence of Donald Wester: Part One

I didn't understand what he was saying, but I was fascinated anyway.

Something like that was my first impression of Professor Donald Wester in 1992.  I was an eighteen-year-old kid from small town Oklahoma, a conservative Southern Baptist filled with all the eagerness, naivete, curiosity, and confidence of a college freshman.  I was a member of Oklahoma Baptist University's inaugural Honors Class and that semester they decided to offer Freshman English and Intro to Philosophy as one co-taught class with Joe Hall and Don Wester.  I don't think the combined class worked all that well as a matter of curriculum, for they never did it again, but the gods of academia could have made no better selection than to introduce us to a combined Drs. Hall and Wester.  I was never the same, and that could probably be said for everyone else in the room (for instance, that was when I first read Wendell Berry).

My prior acquaintance with philosophy was three-fold.  Most had come by way of high school debate, where you needed to be familiar with Mill's utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, and the basics of Social Contract theory (e. g. one semester in high school John Locke's views on self-defense had been rather central to formulating our response to a question).  The second high school exposure was in my World Lit & Humanities class where we read about about Socrates.  And finally in Mr. Harvey's chemistry classes we had received an introduction to pre-Socratic cosmological theories.  So, I didn't come to Wester's class with no philosophical training, but it wasn't my chosen academic field, rather something I was curious about.

But as I said at the beginning, I didn't really understand what Don Wester was saying most of the time, but I was still fascinated.  And that largely remained the case.  I think that was also part of his magic as a teacher.  The students who fell in love with him worked their butts off with the hopes that they would finally be able to understand him.  By then you had been seduced into the discipline.

That fall semester of 1992 Don Wester turned me into a philosopher.  I had soon declared philosophy as my minor (I was a Religion major with an emphasis in Biblical Studies who ultimately did a double major).  

Samuel Enoch Stumpf's Philosophy History and Problems was the textbook, which I still have and maybe surprisingly still refer to in teaching my own intro to philosophy course.  We covered all the big names and major ideas in a rather comprehensive course that laid the groundwork for my future academic development.  In particular that semester, I was introduced to Alfred North Whitehead, whose ideas intrigued me.  Little did I know then that I would write a dissertation on Whitehead.

And so that one semester with Don Wester was a turning point that has helped to shape my subsequent life in myriad ways.

In the next post, I'll write about how I inherited Wester's intellectual project. 

Buffy & the Academy

A fun article in the Atlantic on why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is beloved of academics.

Back in the mid-Aughts I was invited to write an essay for a volume on the philosophy of Buffy which was being edited by a friend of mine.  I was going to write an essay on the concept of God revealed in the show, more on that in a moment.  But I ended up backing out not feeling I had the time to devote to the essay by the deadline in order to prepare something of the quality I would want to publish. 

I do regret that decision, by the way.  Which made reading this article a little melancholy.

In the final season there was so much talk about the "First Evil," I kept wondering when I first watched it if there was going to be a "First Good."  Maybe even a literal deus ex machina to close the series.  At the time I figured the show would end one of two ways--if Joss Whedon was fundamentally a pessimist or nihilist, then Buffy would be killed and the First Evil would conquer the world, or if Whedon was fundamentally optimistic then Evil would be defeated maybe with this appearance of the First Good.  

Of course the finale was not as final as I had hoped, which initially disappointed me.  In retrospect, however, I came to realize that the finale had in fact revealed the God concept of the show when Buffy's power is shared among all the potential slayers.  It's idea of the First Good was a immanent power, particularly a female power.  

But I never did the good work of more fully developing this interpretation.

Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A BiographyDescartes: A Biography by Desmond M. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very thorough biography that did help me better understand Descartes, which will hopefully bear fruit in my teaching. The downside of this book is that it spends a great deal of time in minute details of Descartes' movements and correspondence where a less detailed but more thematic (and shorter) overview would have been sufficient for my needs. But some thorough bio like this does need to exist.

The most surprising discovery for me was the speculation on Descartes' sexual orientation. The gay community can grasp onto the slightest rumors to consider whether some prominent historical person was gay or bi, but I had never heard Descartes mentioned. But Clarke's speculation, always very sober, was persuasively of at least the possibility.

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The Self

Today as I was driving back from Fremont, Nebraska, where I delivered cleaning supplies donated by our church members for flood relief, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour and its discussion of time.  This segment on the self with Dan Gilbert was very interesting, especially as it resonates with a view of the self promulgated by philosopher David Hume which I teach in intro.  I think I'll use this excerpt from now on when explaining that idea.

The NPR website's description of the segment should spark your interest:

Psychologist Dan Gilbert shares research on what he calls the "end of history illusion," where we think the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.

Grounds of Natural Philosophy

Grounds Of Natural PhilosophyGrounds Of Natural Philosophy by Margaret Cavendish
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book almost twenty years ago when I was teaching at course at the University of Oklahoma An Exploration of the History of Women in Philosophy. Each year senior grad students could apply to teach a course of their own design, and my final year of grad teaching I was accepted to teach this course I created. One of my goals in teaching such a course was compelling my own research into female philosophers so that I might enrich my own understanding in order to develop better courses for the future that would include the voices of women, something I believe I've been better about in my subsequent teaching.

I encountered Margaret Cavendish first in an excerpt in Margaret Atherton's Women in Early Modern Philosophy (a textbook for my course) and was able to discover that this major work of hers had been republished. I read it at the time with much interest, in particular noting the ways that her materialism anticipated the physicalisms I was drawn to, as it was reductive. I felt she had some affinities with process thought.

In re-reading this time around, I didn't encounter anything really new that jumped out to me, but it was good to refresh my acquaintance with this work, as Cavendish is someone I reference in my intro course.

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Philosophy and Social Hope

Philosophy and Social HopePhilosophy and Social Hope by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some essays deserve five stars, for their engaging and witty explorations of pragmatism.

A few essays deserve one star. In particular I disliked "On Heidegger's Nazism." I have a negative view of Heidegger to begin with, but was open to being persuaded by Rorty. Not only did his argument not persuade me to change my mind about H, it confirmed my pre-existing opinion and made me think less of Rorty.

Reading Rorty I feel disabused of errors, but also left with very little. His social hope is that we will engage in incremental problem-solving and institution-building. On the one hand, this is what I spend much of my time doing as a minister, teacher, activist, and author. Rorty believes it is the only tool we have approaching a more egalitarian society. And it is fragile. But in these days of trouble (which he presciently predicted in the essay "Looking Backwards from the Year 2096") I wonder if this is enough. If Rorty is correct that social hope as he describes it is our only tool, then we are probably in for a lot of trouble.

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Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard ClassicsBlaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard Classics by Blaise Pascal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I had looked forward to the Pensees, though as I began to read it I was struck by how awful it is and my recurring thought was, "Why is this in the canon?"

Of course the answer is Pascal's wager, so I eventually quickly skimmed/skipped ahead to that portion and read it. But even it is only okay. I then skimmed/skipped through the rest of the book.

Pascal is a bad thinker, overwhelmed with a religious fundamentalism and what seems either an inability or a refusal to see the wide variety of possibilities.

He is also overwhelming pessimistic, such as this line, "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." I was surprised that he isn't more popular with the nihilists. There's this:

"When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair."


I was surprised that this paragraph isn't famous:

"What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel this tangle?"

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Truth in Science

A thorough survey of the dispute in philosophy of science on whether or not truth is the goal of science. This author ultimately argues that it is and characterizes truth as follows:

Scientific truths are the resilient and robust outcome of a plurality of scientific perspectives that, over time, have meshed with one another in their (tacit, implicit and often survival-adaptive) normative commitment to reliably produce scientific knowledge for us as humankind.

Then she makes one further point of note:

That is why, far from being an insufferable hindrance to scientific pluralism, truth is in fact its best safeguard in tolerant, open and democratic societies that are genuinely committed to the advancement of scientific knowledge in the very many faces it comes with.

The Search for Truth

An incomplete manuscript of Rene Descartes' entitled The Search for Truth is a dialogue that makes standard Cartesian arguments for the method of doubt in pursuit of certainty, the cogito as the foundation for knowledge, and the argument that we are thinking things and not our bodies. The book is motivated by the idea that all "the items of knowledge that lie within reach of the human mind are all linked together by a bond so marvellous, and can be derived from each other by means of inferences so necessary, that their discovery does not require much skill or intelligence."

I enjoyed reading this unfinished work.  It includes some humor not as evident in Descartes' other writings on the same topics.  And there are responses to some of the arguments against his views that appeared after earlier works.  It could have made for a great text to use in intro classes if it were finished.