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Master of the Socratic Method

Prof. Robert Paul Allard [philosophy 1966–96]

November 22, 2019, in Lake Oswego, Oregon, of natural causes.

Prof. Robert Allard Paul was born in his paternal grandmother’s home in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. His family soon headed to the Pacific Northwest, settling in Newberg, Oregon, where he was raised. After graduating from high school, Paul entered the ROTC and was a proud member of the Oregon National Guard.

In 1958, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Oregon, where he was founding editor of the Northwest Review, a quarterly journal featuring poetry, literary reviews, fiction, and visual arts of the region. After gaining his master’s degree at the U of O, Robert began his philosophical studies at Cornell University Sage School of Philosophy. The philosophical theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, were very influential at the Sage School, beginning with the hiring of Prof. Max Black in 1947. Paul studied with Black and with Prof. Norman Malcolm, a prominent interpreter of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Paul brought this Wittgensteinian approach to philosophy to the Northwest, where, after a brief stint back at the University of Oregon, he taught this work to Reed students.

He was a visiting lecturer in philosophy at Indiana University and then an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. In 1966, he was asked to consider a visiting position at Reed, which led to 30 years of teaching philosophy and humanities with another 20 years of emeritus teaching. A devoted member of the Reed community, Paul brought his favorite dog, Malcolm, a woolly wheaten terrier, to class. Malcolm greeted everyone before settling under the conference table.

When Paul retired, Prof. Mark Bedau ’77 [philosophy 1991–] noted that he had “a small but very devoted following of students, who hang on his every word as he leads them through the thought and method of Wittgenstein. Many of these students have since distinguished themselves in philosophy and other disciplines at institutions across the world.”

A few years after he retired, Paul taught a course with Prof. Mark Hinchliff ’81 [philosophy 1991–] who had been his student nearly 25 years before.

“At the end of our joint course, it was time to discuss grades for the students,” Hinchliff said. “We had given a number of short assignments along the way, as Bob often did. In that meeting, I saw that what mattered to Bob was whether the student had seen how hard the subject was, had appreciated that, had come to understand what a philosophical question was, had respected what it was to get an answer right, without distortion or obscurity, and had begun to do philosophy. I realized then that this was how Bob had taught our students in that class, how Bob had taught me, and how Bob had taught his students in every class. A student made a remark, and Bob gave a reply. The reply was to move the student to a deeper philosophical understanding. Bob was a master of this sort of conversation, as old as philosophy itself. I shall miss him as my teacher, my colleague, and my friend.”

Paul wrote fiction and poetry, and was a serious and dedicated long-distance runner, engaging in marathons and ultramarathons (which range in distance from 27 to 100 miles). He enjoyed hiking and backpacking in the mountains with his children.

He is survived by his wife, Linda Leigh Paul ’87 & ’95, his son, Christopher, and his daughter, Catherine, of his marriage to Patricia Helmers; and his son, Timothy, of his marriage to Marilyn Paul.

In 1957, Paul wrote a critical review in the Northwest Review of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, a one-act radio play. In that piece, he asked, “Do we see ourselves in Beckett? Yes. We see ourselves, but not realistically, not as others see us. Beckett’s mirror is held not up to Nature, but to the mouth of the dying man, in hopes that he will, before the glass clouds over with that final breath, be able to reach out a finger, trace a small, clear space on the surface, and take one last inward look at his humanity. ‘One has, after all, these moments of lucidity.’ And if they come too late? Well what better way to die than in the presence of a reflected smile?”

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2020

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