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Richard H. Kennington (1921–1999): A Remembrance

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Fall, 2001 - Vol. 30, No. 1

[We have reproduced Thomas McDonald's obituary for Richard Kennington from the March 2000 issue of The Review of Metaphysics. Professor Kennington was a valued member of our Board of Editors since 1991. His wise counsel will be sorely missed.

The next issue of The Political Science Reviewer will carry a review essay by Richard Velkley on Professor Kennington's scholarship. The issue of The Review of Metaphysics from which Thomas McDonald's obituary is reprinted is devoted to articles by several of Richard Kennington's closest friends.–Ed.]

Richard Kennington, a retired professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, died September 10, 1999, in Annapolis, Maryland, after a long illness. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, he spent a good part of his childhood and youth in China (Chao Xien, Anhui Province) with his missionary parents. He graduated from the University of California in economics and served in the Navy in World War II. He studied at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research from 1946 to 1951, subsequently receiving his doctorate of philosophy there; he also studied at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and at the Sorbonne. Kennington's teaching career began in 1955 at Baldwin Wallace College followed by appointments to Pennsylvania State University in 1960 and Catholic University in 1975. Over the years he was also visiting professor at the New School, St. John's College, Georgetown, Cornell, and Boston College. Kennington is survived by his wife, Pamela Kraus of Annapolis, Maryland; by a daughter, Elinor Michael of Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and by two brothers and three sisters.

I first met Richard Kennington through a mutual friend on a cold winter night some fifty years ago in an all-night café, long since vanished, in Greenwich Village near the New School, where we were both off and on students on the G.I. Bill. The Graduate Faculty of the New School was at that time a remarkable institution, an anomaly appended to an anomaly, with which it seemed sometimes mainly to share the hour of its classes—dusk or later—and the place. Formed originally in the thirties as the University in Exile and still known in the sixties in Germany as die deutsche Universitãt in Amerika, it included in those years on its philosophical faculty alone men such as Karl Löwith, Kurt Riezler, Leo Strauss, Felix Kaufmann, Hans Jonas, Alfred Schütz, and Werner Marx, figures from a world well-nigh vanished as well. What role all this may have played in giving Kennington a cast of mind as much European of another time as American of our time, I do not know, since he preceded me by several years at the Graduate Faculty. But clearly it must have been considerable. Something of the singularities of the place did of course come up in that first all-night conversation, almost every subject and detail of which remains fresh in my mind to this day, but of course what most remains with me is the sense of having met someone who was not only clearly very intelligent and interesting, well and widely read in history and literature as well as philosophy, and an almost ideal interlocutor, but who was also, for all his easy humor and companionability, genuinely serious and reflective in a way I had seldom encountered among my contemporaries. With already a clear sense of direction, he nonetheless sought out deliberately difficulties for the views he inclined to, and by no means just to forestall objections, and liked nothing more than unhurriedly turning things about in conversation to view them from all sides and in every light and relation. With Kennington there was always a sense of thinking going on. Despite differences from the outset, differences of interest and approach which the years did not in every case lessen, the years of our friendship only reinforced the deepened that initial impression of having met someone truly remarkable.

Kennington's published work was primarily historical and hermeneutic—though always with a clear philosophical motivation—and dealt almost exclusively with the seventeenth century. There were papers on Bacon, Spinoza, and Leibniz, critical studies of Blumenberg, Strauss, and Klein, but above all and at the center a series of papers on Descartes. Here he is perhaps best known for his demonstration of the finitude of the "evil genius" in the Meditations, and more generally, for questioning the role of the substantialist metaphysics in Descartes. Some sense of what drew him to the time of the origins of modern philosophy and science, and of his concern from there to open vistas before and after in order that the underlying questions be seen afresh, may perhaps be gathered from his discussion as to how far Descartes might orient himself from a pre-philosophic, pre-scientific Lebenswelt experience of things in their pre-given articulations as to kind or import. Because of the radical distrust of the appearances in their heterogeneity prescribed by his method and the homogeneity of the mathematical physics it seeks to found, it would appear that Descartes from this theoretical side was little guided by a pre-philosophic articulation, except, of course, negatively. But from the more practical side of a philosophy which even recommends itself as ultimately "practical rather than speculative as taught in the schools," Kennington found, partly by means of the so-called "teaching of nature" from the sixth Meditation, a lebensweltlich role both more positive and more problematic. Here he was able to show that there is a minimal but irreducible purposiveness of the composite or embodied consciousness directing it from within toward its own well being in general, and which makes itself sensed or felt especially in what Descartes himself emphasized as "the activities and concerns of ordinary life," and that ultimately this purposiveness provides what grounding there is for the practical ends of the "mastery and possession of nature" for which the new physics is to provide the means. Of the composite or embodied consciousness itself Kennington further argues in some detail that "no combination of the res cogitans and the mechanism of the res extensa can yield the purposiveness of the organic composite," a state of affairs which Descartes' own ambiguities as to "mechanism" and "final cause" can tend to obscure. But so central does Kennington consider this veritable imperium in imperio that he will even argue that "not the dualism of mind and body but that of mechanism and purposiveness is the basic Cartesian dualism," which may be to claim more than he needs. But be that as it may, what he has brought out is here sketched with theses detached from a larger argument, or set of arguments, which at this point can only be recommended to the reader. Whatever my own questions and reservations, I know of little on Descartes since Krüger's work from the thirties which for subtlety, penetration, and sobriety is even comparable, and his other papers, especially perhaps those on Spinoza and Bacon, are as fine in similar ways.

For the rest, teaching clearly played a greater role in Kennington's life than seeing himself into print, and it was in his teaching, as well as in his conversation, that the range of his interests and learning could best be seen. By all accounts he was an outstanding teacher, dedicated and demanding, who attracted good students and gained their interest and commitment, while striving to elicit their best from them. More generally he was known for his probity, his judgment, his patience, which was not always heroic, and for a clear-sighted largeness of spirit. Here I may be allowed one last personal remark in closing. I owe much to the exertions of friends on my behalf, but to none so much as to those of Richard Kennington, which, unbidden and performed with quiet dispatch, always made a real difference in what was sometimes a real need. Certainly I know that I do not speak for myself alone in acknowledging a generosity too rooted in friendship and too little self-regarding to be quite, or merely, Cartesian.

Thomas McDonald
Baltimore, Maryland