Richard J. Blackwell directed my doctoral dissertation at St. Louis University and later wrote the Foreword, “Piaget as a Philosopher,” for my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution. I was a student in a number of his graduate seminars in the 1980s, all of which had a profound influence on my thinking. Here is a brief recap of those seminars, along with my memories of Professor Blackwell—at once a great philosopher and an extraordinary human being.
Graduate Seminars With Richard J. Blackwell
In his course, “Concepts of Time,” I first pondered that enigmatic continuum which we all experience but cannot define. I particularly remember my fascination with J. M. E. McTaggert’s famous article, “The Unreality of Time,” and I left the class realizing that time, like so many things, is mysterious.
In his subsequent seminars on “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology,” I came to understand that knowledge and morality evolve, and in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I encountered a dramatic historical example of intellectual evolution. Putting this all together, I now knew that evolution was the key to understanding the minds and behaviors of human beings.
A synthesis of some of these ideas occurred when I took an independent seminar with Professor Blackwell on “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” Like Avicenna, who reportedly read the work 40 times without understanding it, I too was baffled by Aristotle’s book. And I wondered if Aristotle’s view of teleology—that reality strives unconsciously toward certain ends—could be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory, which is decidedly non-teleological.
In response to my queries, Professor Blackwell introduced me to the thought of Jean Piaget. [For more see my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution, or my summary of Piaget’s biological theorizing in Chapter 4 of The Cambridge Companion to Piaget.] What I found in Piaget’s thought was the concept of equilibrium, which was the biological analog of the quasi-teleological approach that I had been seeking. As a result, I saw how evolution could be characterized as a free, non-deterministic orthogenesis without resorting to Aristotle’s idea of final causation.
Furthermore, the evidence for orthogenesis was derived from an a posteriori analysis of cosmic evolution—order has emerged from chaos. An example of orthogenesis can be found by observing how the potential for language and thought are actualized in the maturing child. Teleology/equilibrium is strong enough to steer the development of the child’s language and cognitive faculties, but weak enough to allow for creative freedom.
In essence, what I came to believe as a result of my work with Professor Blackwell was that reality is unfolding in a progressive direction and that human life has meaning amidst this process of change.
My Further Development
Since that time I have hedged my bets—perhaps life’s traumas have dampened my youthful optimism. In “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” I conclude that the best we can do is to hope that life if meaningful, inasmuch as the evidence that life is meaningful is mixed. I think this is an honest response to the conflicting messages we get from reality. However, I am currently reassessing that conclusion as well, as I fear that hope too must be abandoned by the intellectually and morally virtuous.
Finally, let me say that the only way to ensure a meaningful reality is through human moral and intellectual enhancement—-the basic project of transhumanism. Only if we augment ourselves will we be able to improve reality. And while I don’t know that Professor Blackwell would agree, he would definitely commend the continual search for better ideas.
Professor Blackwell As A Philosopher
The January 1999 edition of the peer-reviewed philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman, was titled: “Philosophy and Modern Science: Papers Presented in Honor of Richard J. Blackwell.” (Having an entire issue of a scholarly journal dedicated to your life and thought is one of the highest achievable academic honors.) The introduction of that work was penned by Professor Richard Dees, now of the University of Rochester. Dees begins:
The articles gathered here honor the legacy of Richard J. Blackwell, a dedicated scholar, a consummate colleague, and above all, a much-loved and much-revered teacher … During his tenure, he has directed a program in the history and philosophy of science, written five books on topics ranging from the logic of discovery to his now-famous work on Galileo, translated four other books of historical significance, held the Danforth Chair in Humanities, won the Nancy McNair Ring Outstanding Teacher Award, directed over 30 dissertations, and guided literally hundreds of students.
After describing Blackwell’s many philosophical projects, and introducing the articles written in his honor by distinguished scholars, Dees summarizes Blackwell’s conclusions about the Galileo affair—the work for which he is most well-known. In the concluding paragraph, I found this pearl of wisdom. Dees writes:
The … question is whether the Catholic Church—or any organized religion—can open up its inquiries into the nature of reality in the same way that science has. Blackwell thinks that such a change is possible, but not without reconceptualizing the very structure of traditional Christian thought. As long as faith is considered the key virtue, any religion can fall too easily into dogmatism. Instead, he suggests, hope should be the center of our thought, for in hope lies all possibilities. (emphasis mine)
While I don’t share Professor Blackwell’s interest in Christian thought, I think that Professor Dees captures Blackwell’s exceedingly positive and optimistic philosophical attitude. And he has maintained that attitude, as far as is humanly possible, despite age and infirmity.
Professor Blackwell As A Man
As for Professor Blackwell himself, I can only restate the dedication of my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution:
To Richard J. Blackwell
an exemplar of moral and intellectual virtue
Finally, in a hand-written letter (remember those?) I received from him in the mid-1990s, Blackwell replied to my queries about the meaning of life like this:
As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.
This is still some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
I would like to thank Professor Blackwell publicly for his immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have been his student and will never forget him as long as I live.