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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mentor: Abe Melden

     Among my mentors at UC Irvine was Abe Melden, who, by the time I arrived as an undergraduate in 1973, was nearing retirement. When, a few years later, I was admitted to grad school (again at UCI), Melden had retired, though he taught one or two classes. Still, it was during those years that he had the greatest influence on me—and on Kathie, who arrived at UCI in 1977.
     I should mention that Ron Bauer’s chief advisor in grad school (at UCLA) was Kit Fine, who is mentioned below.
     I have “colorized” the material below that strikes me as most interesting.

• A few brief personal remarks:

     We (Kathie and I) held him in such high esteem—during grad school—that I don't think we were able to see him for the eccentric or "real character" that he was. On the other hand, I think we were able to appreciate him—a very smart man—as no others could, simply because we accepted him as he was, not even noticing his peculiarities.
     He was the only real Wittgensteinian among the faculty. By then (c. 1978) the popularity of the "Later Wittgenstein" was waning or worse. (I'm still essentially a Wittgensteinian.) Nevertheless, Melden taught a seminar on W's Philosophical Investigations, which we took, along with perhaps one other student, who (as I recall) dropped out, owing to Melden's eccentric ways. The eccentric ways in question, I think, were his gruffness and disinclination to hear what the students had to say. Clearly, he proceeded with the idea that he understood this material and we did not. Thus our job was to listen and to learn.
     Perhaps he was influenced by the British system. (He had spent some time over there in the thirties.) Dunno.
Ludwig Wittgenstein
     At least for a while, Melden was very friendly to us—a couple, who attended his seminar religiously. He invited us to his place, located on the bluffs above Back Bay. He had an astounding wall of stereo speakers—evidently, the most advanced stereo system in the state and beyond. I never learned how that came to be, though I recall he told us that someone had "built it for" him.
     He was a serious appreciator of wine and would tell funny stories about colleagues and visitors and their tastes in wine. As I recall, he told of a visit by the famous British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who responded to a tour of Melden's fine collection by asking for a wine she had once tasted that she really rather liked. He tried everything but could not help her identify the wine. He even visited the local wine merchants. Finally, she told him, "well, it had a screw top."
     Melden really loved to tell those stories. He was a ham and he had a large ego. But he was tough. I never saw him as anything less than strong and confident.
     Clearly, he was rather full of himself. He was boastful and proud. He dropped names endlessly and in the worst way. He could be imperious. In that regard, he seemed always to be a dinosaur, forever dragging some forgotten era with him. I'm sure that was a factor in his "retirement" in 1977.
     He tended to make the most hideous faces during "lecture." He also tended to use old and forgotten phrases unapologetically. He stood uncomprehending when we revealed our unfamiliarity with such things. When he made allusions to literature or art or music, he expected us to understand them, which, almost invariably, we did not. As I recall, as an undergraduate, I impressed him when he expressed astonishment that none of the students in the classroom were familiar with Forster's "The Celestial Omnibus"—and I went straight to the library and checked it out; read it. I still recall the experience, for the book was very old, and, evidently, I was the only person in the history of UCI who had ever checked it out. I just assumed that the copy had been provided by Forster himself.
     He was, in his way, a friendly and jovial presence, though his mood could switch to something dark—usually, something condemnatory of some failure of appreciation—pretty quickly. This happened to me once or twice. Once, I implied that G.E. Moore wasn't very serious about ethics, and Melden really tore me a new one.
     He seemed to be some sort of old-fashioned liberal. Of course, to all other young people (beyond Kathie and me), he was assumed to be some sort of Neanderthalic Republican. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was a loyal Democrat. He would occasionally rail against Richard Nixon. As I recall, he once described how "we all knew" what a creep Nixon was back when he used his dirty tricks against Helen Gahagan Douglas, back in 1950 or so. Boy was he old, we thought. In fact, he was only in his late 60s at the time. (See below: response to Reagan's firing of Chancellor Kerr.)
     He owned a pricey Mercedes two-seater, which he seemed to take very good care of. He tended to have "only the best" of everything. Even his suits were expensive, if absurdly dated. He wore a hat of the sort men wore in the thirties. I think he liked bow ties. In some ways, he seemed to proceed through his days oblivious that some things had changed since his youth.
     At the entrance of his home stood a menorah. Nevertheless, I don't recall his ever alluding to his Jewishness or to religion.
     He seemed to have a good relationship with his wife, Regula, who seemed a very nice lady. One wonders, however, if his habit of imperiousness extended to that relationship. She didn't look to me as though she'd put up with that.
     I'm sure he had a daughter. Was there another child, who died? I seem to recall knowing about some tragedy, some sorrow, but I don't recall any details now.
     He loved to be the raconteur at parties; he enjoyed being the center of attention.
     He was the kind of philosopher—a very good one, I think—who quite literally could not understand that there were some who disagreed with him about philosophical matters. During his seminar on his (then new) book Rights and Persons, I recall the day he presented his case against John Rawls' account of rights. (Rawls was all the rage at the time. This clearly annoyed Melden.) He laid it out for us and then declared victory. "Well?" he'd say. He expected everyone simply to acknowledge the very great truth that he had just revealed. That few ever did this did not seem to discourage him from persisting in this expectation. On him, this was rather charming. He was a kind of charming despot, for those open to such charms, such as two grad students who came from very strong families and who were accustomed to respecting their elders.
     As I recall, he would tell stories the upshot of which was that some student revealed his failure to be respectful or humble or hard-working—and then some professor (Melden?) would say, "Go hall garbage!" Somehow, this imperative never seemed cruel or mean. Many things he said or did somehow didn't have the hard edge you'd expect them to have if you had simply heard about them and had not actually experienced them first-hand. There was an inner teddy bear that accompanied his outer grizzly, though few of younger generations, I think, hung around long enough to perceive this. I sometimes think that Melden understood this, and so, like Puff the Magic Dragon, he sadly slipped into his cave in 1977.
     Until the next awards ceremony, anyway.
     I loved him, I guess, though I'm sure I puzzled him. I see him now as a very flawed human being, like the rest of us. But I think about his ideas very often and I have quoted him and referred to him even recently. I'm very glad I knew him and learned from him. Kathie and I were, I'm sure, right not to join others out the door upon witnessing the Great Man's odd and imperious and old-fashioned ways.
     Let that be a lesson to you, kids!

• Kathie's remarks:
Kathie’s comments (Jan 5):

     Well, you brought tears to my eyes, Roy, due to (1) your wonderful writing, which makes me envious but also inspires me to redouble (or just "double") my efforts in the wonderful arena of narrative nonfiction and (2) your dead-on remembrance of Abe Melden.
      As I read it, and before I got to your own declaration of the same, I realized: "I loved him." We did, didn't we?—and that's a sign of our good sense (as he might put it himself) and our attunement to real worth and to characters who deserved to be loved. I will just add a couple of details to your rich tribute: once he told me (or some how communicated it less directly) that he loved his single cup of coffee in the morning. He needed not to drink much, for health reasons, but he really savored that one cup. At the time, and still now, that struck me as the essence of wisdom—and an admirable way to approach many things (the virtue of moderation!).
      When I was at Stanford, I was thinking about Melden and at one point wrote him a little note expressing my deep appreciation for all that he'd taught me; I think I even hinted very indirectly that even if others did not appreciate him, there were some who did, profoundly. He thrilled me by writing me back a note that said, "You were very kind to write to me as you did." I hope that I still have that note. I know I'd never discard such a treasure. Thanks so much for the memories! –Kathie

     Now I have to add more comments: I didn't remember that Karel Lambert was my first advisor, but I'll bet you're right. I remember that he was quite kind to me—a good thing, since I was characteristically petrified by them all and by the whole situation of graduate study. Once, in a Philosophy of Language class, Lambert required us all to write a paper of "no more than 6 pages long." I despaired and reflected on how impossible that was—and then did it. Good for him! He liked it, too, which thrilled me no end. (He used the word "ambitious," which makes me suspect that it was probably a complete failure to show what I intended to show. As I said: "kind.")
      Gerry Santas was another major character, eh? I loved that "what a formidable couple!" exclamation, which occurred during one of our endless volleyball games when we somehow, together, made a really good play. That was a wonderful moment. Remember how we'd play volleyball from around 3 in the afternoon on Fridays to maybe 7 p.m.?!?! And we'd be drinking beer out of coolers the whole time! That's one of my really fond remembrances of graduate school. — KJ

• Abraham I. Melden, Philosophy: Irvine 1910-1991
by Karel Lambert & Gerasimos Santas, 1993

Gerry Santas
     Abraham I. Melden was born in Canada in 1910. His family soon moved to the United States and he was educated at the University of California, Los Angeles (A.B., 1931), Brown University (M.A., 1932), and the University of California, Berkeley, where he received the Doctorate of Philosophy in 1938. After a short stint at Berkeley, he taught at the University of Washington until 1964. In that year he moved to Irvine to found the Department of Philosophy and to help create the new campus of the University of California. He officially retired in 1977, but was on recall for the next five years, and in fact was very much present in the Department of Philosophy, the Humanities Research Institute, and around the University, until his heart attack some two years ago.
      Melden broke onto the philosophical scene with a series of trenchant articles in moral philosophy: “Why be Moral?,” “The Concept of Universal Human Rights,” “The Obligation to Keep a Promise,” and “Two Comments on Utilitarianism.” The article on rights was only the beginning; he continued his examination of human rights in a series of books, Rights and Right Conduct (1959), Human Rights (1970), Rights and Persons (1977), and Rights in Moral Lives (1988). He also extended his critique of utilitarianism in a series of articles. And in 1961 he created a sensation in a related area, the philosophy of mind, with the publication of Free Action. Clearly written and forcefully argued, this little book maintained that the view of human action, dominant since Aristotle, as caused by desires and beliefs is mistaken, and any theory of determinism based on such a view is without foundation. It became required reading here and abroad, and was one of the most cited philosophy books in the 60s and 70s.
     During those years especially, Melden was constantly invited to expound and defend his views at colloquia, public lectures, and conferences, in the United States, Canada, England, Continental Europe, and Japan. Melden's readable books and articles, written as they are in clear and graceful—even racy—English without technicalities, engage any intelligent person seriously interested in human morality and conduct. Melden, considered “one of the three or four most creative contributors to contemporary ethical theory”, and “one of the leading statesmen of our profession”, was honored with Ford, Guggenheim, Fulbright and Rockefeller Fellowships. He was elected President of the American Philosophical Association in 1962, and he served the association generously in many capacities since then.
"Joe" Lambert
     At Irvine “Melden was an institution”. As the first chair of the Irvine Division of the Academic Senate, he directed the development of its bylaws and the organization of the faculty. His work “was always characterized by common sense and fairness”. He also served as chair of the “Budget Committee”, and on numerous search and ad hoc committees, the latest being the committee which planned the future law school. In a few short years he built a first-rate philosophy department, hiring not only well known senior people but also several younger investigators, such as Dan Dennett, Gordon Brittain, and John Lemmon, all of whom became famous in their own specialties. He was probably as influential in building the department and the campus as any other single individual. He always stood for “scholarly integrity” in the midst of all the political situations accompanying the founding of a new university.
     In 1972 he was given the UCI Alumni Association's Extraordinarius Award, and in 1988 the UCI Medal, the campus' highest honor.
     One is not defined merely by career stages and professional accomplishments; one's unique set of personal traits and actions also deserve mention. Abe Melden was a mixture of elements, often endearing, and sometimes amazing. His oenological [wine] expertise was legendary among his colleagues and sought out by the general community. So was his nearly infallible judicious investment sense, which he generously provided on request. Not that he didn't miss occasionally. Once when offered the chance to purchase what would turn out to be some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Abe informed the salesman, “It is a sand spit and a sand spit it will remain!”, and passed on the opportunity to acquire a large piece of Balboa peninsula in Newport Beach, California. 
     He was a person of considerable judgment and great intuitive gifts, though the twists and turns of his mind sometimes seemed like a black box to his colleagues. But his opinion about how to achieve some common goal was usually correct, and, of course, both amazed and usually delighted his colleagues. 
     Though he would probably have resisted the description that he was a kind person, in fact he was, and often, without solicitation but with great sensitivity, acted on behalf of the families of his departmental colleagues in trying and difficult crises; he was the epitome of a loyal friend. He laughed easily and boomingly, and loved a good joke, especially of a political kind. Though no mere raconteur, he was himself a practiced spinner of yarns and stories, and was a wonderful host at the numerous parties he and his wife Regula held at their home in Newport Beach, a place where the wine and food were invariably exceptional, the discussion always lively and filled with humor, and the source now and then of a pleasant piano performance by Regula and sometimes by various wandering colleagues—Kit Fine performing a fragment of a Mozart piano concerto comes to mind. He was rightfully proud of probably the finest home sound system on the west coast. 
     Unquestionably a very complicated man, Abe possessed the remarkable ability to carry out numerous and diverse professional, administrative, and personal tasks at one and the same time, enjoying every nuance of every task. Driving a four-horse chariot in ancient Rome would have been a waste of his talents. Because he was a person of great personal resources, and was always busy, not just in motion, he was rarely if ever bored. He was curious about everything—people, places, things and ideas—and, in the words of one of his own injunctions, did “everything first class”. He was himself, as they say, a class act. 
 —Karel Lambert & Gerasimos Santas [1993]
     [As I recall, Lambert was Kathie's first advisor at UCI. I had taken Lambert's two-quarter advanced logic course perhaps a year earlier. Gerry Santas came to be a friend in the latter years of our time at UCI. At one point he alluded to us, saying, "what a formidable couple!"]

• Philosopher A.I. Melden of UCI Dies (LA Times)
November 20, 1991
      IRVINE — Philosopher Abraham I. Melden, a founding UC Irvine faculty member and the first chair of the university's department of philosophy, has died of congestive heart failure, university officials announced Tuesday. He was 81.
     Melden was considered one of the nation's foremost scholars in the area of ethics and the philosophy of human action. A Phi Beta Kappa who took his doctorate degree from UC Berkeley in 1938, he was the author of five books and numerous reviews and articles. "It's kind of a passing of an era of people who helped in the building of this campus," UCI Chancellor Jack W. Peltason said of Melden's passing. "Professor Melden was a very distinguished philosopher, and he was active until the very end."
     Melden joined the UCI faculty in 1964, after 18 years at the University of Washington at Seattle. During his tenure at UCI, he also taught at universities in Japan, Taiwan and Korea as a visiting Fulbright distinguished lecturer. In 1972, he was named the Outstanding Educator of America. The same year, the UCI's alumni association gave him the Extraordinarius Award as the person best exemplifying the campus spirit and mission.
     In 1988, 11 years after his retirement—apparently in name only—UCI awarded him its highest honor, the UCI Medal. At that time, after cardiac surgery, the longtime Newport Beach resident continued to teach, write and work with UCI's Humanities Research Institute.
     Melden is survived by his wife, Regula, and their daughter, Jean, who lives in Menlo Park. No funeral services were planned, but a memorial service will be scheduled at a later date, UCI officials said. In lieu of flowers, Melden's family suggests that contributions be made payable to the UCI Foundation and sent in care of the Abraham I. Melden Memorial Fund to the department of philosophy, UC Irvine, Irvine, Calif. 92717.

• History of the [UCI Philosophy] Department 
     When UCI opened its doors in the fall of 1965, the first philosophy course was taught by one Daniel C. Dennett, lecturing on Descartes. Abraham I. Melden was the founding Chair of the Department, and one of a handful of founding faculty of the “instant university”, expanding the University of California system. Today we have the Melden Chair in Moral Philosophy, honoring Abe.

The case of Hubert Phillips, p. 151. The UC's Edward W. Strong is interviewed and mentions this case which occurred during the McCarthy Era. Melden contacted Strong in an effort to save Phillips' job at the U of Washington (he was a Marxist).
• The Senate reacts to the Dismissal of President Kerr -- Reagan summarily fires Kerr; UCI Ac Senate responds. Melden in charge.

P.S.: today (June 20, 2013), I came across this photo of UCI's "groundbreaking ceremony" in June of 1964. That's Chancellor Aldrich in the middle, President Johnson to his immediate left.  Then, over to the right, we have Governor Edmund G. Brown:

     Now check out the guy in the dark, appearing behind the Governor:

It's Melden!


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