Bob’s field was — he was in political science. I taught in the Religion Department. My special fields were philosophy of religion and ethics. This [1955] was at the tail end of the McCarthy period and we had a sense on the faculty that McCarthyism was on the run. Fred Schuman, who was a distinguished member of Bob’s department, had been hounded by some of the McCarthyites and other members of the Williams faculty had also come under some attack and President Baxter was a staunch defender of them. It was a heavy period. There was a sense that, having won World War II, the country was on the march. Liberalism, of the classical type, seemed to be in the ascendancy. A couple of organizations that represented that point of view were very strong, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans for Democratic Action. I was active in both. Jim Burns, of Bob’s department, was also very active. I would say it was a period in which Enlightenment philosophy — that progress is possible and virtually inevitable by the use of critical reason, scientific reason –was heavily subscribed to. But Bob was a kind of puzzle to many of us because he didn’t seem to fit into that mode. Some of us wondered if Bob was sort of teasing us. He had a teasing way about him. Then I began to understand Bob better when I learned that a very influential mentor at the University of Chicago was Leo Strauss, a political philosopher of considerable renown. I was reading Strauss at that time and knew where Strauss was coming from. And it was clear that he was not buying into the classical liberalism of the time and the Enlightenment primacies. He went back to an older philosophical tradition, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and so forth. And like Socrates, Strauss engaged in dialectical reasoning, questioning and answering. And that was Bob’s style.

I had a sense that here was a man who had an intellectual agenda that was benign. He was not out to get the better of anybody in an argument but that he was trying to push the discussion, the dialogue, to a deeper level. Let’s examine our assumptions, let’s examine our prejudices and let’s try to find out how things are, what we are, who we are. It could be that some of this is going to be upsetting but let’s go there anyway because it’s better to face the truth that’s unsettling than to live a life of lies, essentially. A life based upon illusions. Or as Socrates put it:”the unexamined life.” So he was a man who was helping his students live examined lives.

John Chandler,
former Williams College president