Defending the Citadel (Perfectly Scientific Press, 2012)

Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94]

Reviewed by Larry Sanger ’93
Marvin Levich

Marvin Levich, celebrated professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed for nearly 60 years, has produced (with publisher Richard Crandall ’69) an entertaining retrospective of his work in a remarkable range of fields: philosophy, history, classics, poetry, computers, and education.

First, as reviewer and former student of Professor Levich, I must confess to suffering from both bias and nostalgia. It was hard to read these 12 essays without constantly imagining how his written words, with unashamedly long sentences and advanced vocabulary, would sound uttered in his gruff cadence and punctuated by his hand gestures. The first three selections are humanities lectures (I seem to remember them), truly excellent examples of the genre, apt to make you imagine sitting in Vollum and scribbling furiously as you try to keep up.

Levich’s style owes less to Strunk and White than to Hume and Moore. Yet these essays are readable and enjoyable in a way that so many other academic productions are not—and that is because they apply the tools of scholarly analysis, with his trademark no-nonsense attitude, to issues larger than ordinarily taken up by academics. He confronts such questions as: Does Herodotus or Thucydides have the better claim to being a modern historian? What is historical interpretation? What should be the impact of the ideology of relevance on humanistic studies? What role should computer technology have in liberal education?

Most of these essays do not explicitly “defend the citadel” of the liberal arts, but rather illustrate how they are practiced. There are, however, a few that specifically address the philosophy of education. The 1969 essay, “What is the Impact of the Social Revolution on Humanistic Studies?” is an attack on the “ideology of relevance” in education. This movement of the 1960s and ’70s, that the curriculum should pass a bar of relevance to the here-and-now preoccupations of students, Levich finds to be fundamentally anti-intellectual, however much he agrees with the goals of the ideologues.

Levich qua intellectual warrior is also a stalwart defender of what I might call critical empiricism, of the strict application of reason to the facts as we observe them in nature or in texts. That, I suspect, is part of the citadel he defends. He takes curmudgeonly delight in demolishing the dogma of theorists and technophiles when it runs counter to reason and observation.

This challenging approach can be found throughout these essays, but nowhere more strikingly than in “Interpretation in History.” This persuasive essay takes philosophers of history to task for oversimplifying the craft of history, pretending that historical interpretation is no more than a special case of scientific explanation. Levich demonstrates that historical interpretation has many more varieties than just causal explanation of the sort analyzed by philosophers of science. He also plausibly argues that philosophers engage in this oversimplification because philosophers need bite-sized chunks of text to analyze, while historiography by its nature is complex and long form.

As his former students will remember well, Levich’s stock in trade is Socratic dialogue; in writing, he clearly enjoys skewering sacred cows and indulging a Socratic taste for irony. It is not surprising, therefore, that in one of the lectures here he challenges students to prove that some paradoxes of Socrates’ behavior and trial were not merely inconsistencies, but reflected some principled thinking.

Not surprisingly, Levich’s work has its own ironies: while he purportedly composed the first philosophy paper written on a Macintosh and championed an innovative master plan for the use of computers at Reed, he also gave a speech highly skeptical of “The Role, If Any, of Computer Technology in Liberal Education.” This reviewer—an educational technologist—also finds his verdict of “not proven” to be well argued, as far as it goes.

—Author info: Larry Sanger ’93 co-founded Wikipedia.