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reed magazine logoSpring 2009

The Evolution of Epistemology Forever

Epistemology Forever has a firm place in Reed tradition, but its origins are anything but clear. I recall singing it as an undergraduate in folk song sessions led by Dugan Barr ’64 and David Casseres ’65, among others. It has become part of the hootenanny at the annual alumni campout at Westwind.

Epistemology Forever

Authorship still unknown
Compilation 2009 by Jim Kahan ’64

(sung to The Battle Hymn of the Republic)

We have sat on rainy mornings in a musty lecture hall.
We have listened to them holding forth on no damn thing at all.
We have missed an hour’s sack time just to hear the clarion call:
The Truth does not exist.

Chorus:

Epistemology forever
Disputatio so clever
Metaphysics now or never,
[repeat last line of preceding verse].

As we’ve sat about in conference on a sunny afternoon,
We’ve been fed a lot of moral pap from Socrates to Hume,
And they’ve fed it to us gently with an imaginary spoon:
The Truth shall not be found.

We have read from Aristotle on the natural universe.
We have seen them wax loquacious on Shakespearean rosy verse.
We have gabbed on many subjects that are equally diverse.
And we can’t get more profound.

We discuss the moral notions of the frozen Eskimo,
And whether moral systems hold for all from pole to pole,
And conclude that all of mankind has a truly moral soul.
And time goes by so slow.

We have pondered o’er the problem of the ancient fate of man.
We have talked about the state of health in Bonaparte’s left hand.
We have even looked at Plato in a democratic land.
And the Truth we do not know.

We sit in lectures waiting for a word of common sense,
But we’re not about to find it ‘cause the lecturer is dense.
So we scribble stupid ditties for our sanity’s defense,
For the Truth does not exist.

Now we spend our time in wondering if we have got free will,
And then we ask, “is justice good?” but we have had our fill
Of ultimate reality and Philosophic swill,
For we do not exist!

A version appeared as a letter to the editor by Spencer Wyant ’64 in the August 1998 issue of this magazine. When the Westwind version was sung at the volunteer weekend in September 2008, I was struck by some differences between that version and the one I remembered from over forty years ago, and decided to do a bit of archival research.

I have found six different versions of the song, dating from 1956 to the present. My research continues, and I encourage readers to contact me at jimkahan@alumni.reed.edu with more information. Meanwhile, I offer a synthesis of what I consider the best of all the versions, including all verses that appeared anywhere.

The earliest rendition I have found was printed in the Quest of 10 December 1956 as a letter to the editor from the “Anacreon Society.” It had all but the third and sixth verses of the version provided here. I have consulted with about twenty Reedies of that vintage, but they recalled neither the song nor the Anacreon Society.

The next rendition I found was in the Quest of 23 May 1960, as a letter signed by the brothers Chuck and Les Lave (both ’60). This was, within the folk tradition and the hazards of retyping, pretty close to the original. It was offered so that the song would not perish with the graduation of those students who had experienced the original. The Laves said it was written “after a classic all night drunk by a pair of young scholars who subsequently distinguished themselves by flunking out.”

A third version appeared on Campus Day in April 1964. Identical to the version that Spence Wyant submitted to Reed, it, too, closely follows the original. Along with Spence’s submission, the magazine printed a letter by Chuck Lave, in which he revised his authorial attribution to state, “I believe the song was written by Bill Hunt ’58 during a classic multi-hour coffee binge at the old coffee shop.” Unfortunately, Bill, Chuck, and Spence have all passed away, but Bill’s first wife Jill Owsley Hunt Fanning ’59 and her husband Mike Fanning ’58 both claim that Bill is unlikely to have written it.

The next two versions exist as single copies buried in the Reed Archives. (I thank Gay Walker ’69 and Mark Kuestner for assisting my sleuthing.) They contain no information as to date or provenance. Forms of verses three and six appear for the first time in these versions. The last version I obtained is the Westwind codex, with transmission (not authorship) attributed to a Reed couple from the 1970s. Unfortunately, that couple denies such transmission. The Westwind codex has deleted verse five, but retains all of the others.

In composing my synthetic version, I have generally gone with scansion, personal taste, and recency, in that order. For example, in the first line, what started out as “dusty lecture hall” became “musty lecture hall,” which seems better. Readers interested in the details can write me for a fully footnoted edition.

—Jim Kahan ’64

reed magazine logoSpring 2009