A group of us gathered in the bedroom after the wedding, and as the large reels of the tape recorder slowly revolved, the room filled with the sound of “the Swami” leading the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. I sang in response, answering his call. Looking back, the chanting on that August afternoon in 1967 appears to me now as a rare moment in time, a kind of karmic singularity, like the pinched waist of an hourglass, into which my whole past poured and from which my entire future would expand.
The wedding took place in the same neighborhood my wife Connie and I had lived as students at the University of Pennsylvania. Now, after only a year’s absence, we’d returned. In 1966, after Penn had awarded us each a bachelor’s degree—mine in Philosophy and hers in English—we had gone off to Amherst, where I had enrolled in a Master’s program in English literature at the University of Massachusetts. We timed our return to Philly to make our friend’s wedding, which took place two weeks before I was to begin doctoral studies in the new religion department at Philadelphia’s Temple University.
• • •
Religion had been the last thing in my mind when I entered college in 1962 with the parentally inculcated goal of medical studies. However, in the course of my first undergraduate year I became, to my surprise, increasingly preoccupied with the peculiar groundlessness of modern life. It seemed as if we were all slowly falling in a mysterious void. It seemed there were no certain truths or values to grasp, no sure foundations on which to build a life—my life.
Were there no absolutes? And if there were, how could we recognize them with certainty? Of course, such thoughts were allowed voice during late-night dormitory bull sessions. But then, you grew up; you forgot all of that stuff and got on with the pursuit of tangible goals—status, power, wealth, fame, and all the glittering trophies in their train.
I was abnormal. I seemed constitutionally incapable of the requisite forgetfulness.
So—a philosophy major. When I announced my decision at a family dinner, my father lunged across the table and displayed a quiverful of bread slices clasped tightly in his fist. He shook the trophy in my face: “What are you going to do about this?” he demanded. “What are you going to do about this?”
The philosophy department at Penn in the early sixties adhered closely to the Anglo-American analytic tradition. It was practically the last bastion in America of logical positivism, a hard-nosed school aiming at the final elimination of all metaphysical (and religious) questions. At its heart lay a criterion of meaningfulness. A statement is meaningful, logical positivism held, only if some possible sense experience could verify (or better, falsify) it. Thus, the assertion “There is a God,” being empirically unverifiable, is without meaning. For the same reason, “There is no God” is also nonsensical. Any discourse about God is outlawed, proscribed. In this way, logical positivism managed to be even more inimical to divinity than mere atheism.
Or consider this standard analysis of value-judgments: If I say something is morally (or aesthetically) good, I indicate really nothing more than my approval of it. (In the jargon: “x is good means I approve of x.”) And perhaps I am urging you to approve of it also.
In a similar fashion, the statement “I believe in God,” while strictly nonsensical, may be accepted as a round-about way of expressing one’s emotive condition, such as “I feel good about the universe.”
This is my initiation into the study of philosophy:
I am sitting in a tall classroom in College Hall with other underclassmen on the first meeting of “Introduction to Philosophy.” Our instructor is a graduate student, a native of the English midlands.
“What is philosophy?” he asks. This is not a rhetorical question. He wants our answers. Some of us raise hands, not knowing what we are in for. As we volunteer our responses one after another, he writes them on the board.
Our instructor calls on me. I propose, “Philosophy means asking questions like, Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going?” He gives a little start. Smirking, he writes my answer on the board.
When there are no more offerings, our instructor works his way down the list, demolishing each answer with great acumen, cleverness, and scathing wit. When he comes to my offering, his eyes light up.
“Oh, yes,” he say in a voice freighted with sarcasm, “‘Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going?’” Just the way he says them makes them sound stupid. “These questions.” He pauses a moment. “We have one person in this department who goes around asking them. And I reply, ‘My name is Ken Young. I am coming from College Hall, and I am going to Bennett Hall.’” Presenting a mundane stroll between two campus landmarks as the proper response to metaphysical questions, he smirks again, and with a flourish, strikes through my pitiful offering with a thick line.
I was much impressed by this philosophy of demolition. It required a capacity for painstaking study coupled with a quick wit—a mental fast-ball—for it prized above all the utterly devastating comebacks, as epitomized for us in a legendary tale of Sidney Morgenbesser, who had received his PhD from our own philosophy department.
Philosophy was supposed to cure me of the disease of asking nonsensical questions like that. Inexplicably, the cure failed. For a while, my disease went into remission. By my junior year, the questions had returned, never to go away.
At the same time, philosophy in the analytical mode seemed to be getting less doctrinaire, with no sacrifice of rigor.
In my sophomore year the American edition of New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1964), edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, came into my hands. In this collection of essays, English analytical philosophers took theological issues seriously. I was fascinated.
A year later I read Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This work presents a rigorous empirical investigation of the history of science as a social enterprise. In his study, Kuhn shows how science undergoes periodic “revolutions” centered on “paradigm shifts”—fundamental reconstructions in the way science thinks and works—before “normal science” resumes. Kuhn’s analysis brings out the unavoidable role “received belief” and “faith” plays in science, in both its normal and crisis mode. This work was much disliked in the department.
As I worked my way through my philosophy requirements, I took as many literature courses as philosophy. “I love English literature too much to major in it,” I would explain; people knew exactly what I meant.
Literature was my real love. I had become an addictive reader by the end of the first grade, and by high school I was giving myself an eager if uneven education in the world’s literary classics.
And then, at Penn, this happened: During a tedious lecture in a freshman English class in an overheated room, I sat leafing idly through the pages of our reading anthology. My eyes lit upon an unfamiliar poem, and, while trying at the same time to track the professor’s lecture, I began reading Yeats’ “Among School Children.” I only hazily followed the narration, which seemed to jump around from stanza to stanza. I didn’t grasp the imagery nor understand the religious and philosophical allusions. Even so, when I completed the last stanza, my heart was pounding, my nerves vibrating, and my hair standing on end. I was transfixed.
The poem had conveyed something vital to me—had done something momentous to me—and I did not even know what it was. I sat in awe, oblivious to the droning professorial voice, and wondered what had happened, how it happened, and why it happened. I resolved then that I would strive to understand the poem and try to understand the uncanny power it wielded to work so powerfully upon even me, an ignorant, distracted reader.
I had not a clue, sitting in that winter classroom, that Yeats’ poem spoke to me about my own life—it told me about my past and about my future as well:
—to be continued—