Herb Morris ‘51, UCLA undergraduate alumnus, was interviewed by Sabine Tsuruda. Herb is professor emeritus in the UCLA Department of Philosophy and School of Law, and his research focused on legal and moral philosophy. His current research is at the intersection of literature, art, and philosophy, and his latest book is Disclosures: Essays on Art, Literature and Philosophy (2017). Sabine is a J.D./Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy who received her J.D. in 2016, and is completing a dissertation on the moral, legal, and political philosophy of work.
ST: Let’s start from the beginning. What initially attracted you to philosophy at UCLA as an undergraduate?
I think my interest in philosophy may have arisen because of events that go back into my very early childhood. I was six years old and kept a secret from my mother and father that I regarded as very significant. I felt that my not telling the truth was keeping from them something of importance. I felt guilty and apart from them in a way I had not before. From that day onwards in my life I felt that I was outside looking in. Even though I was very successful, popular, and good at sports, life felt like a mystery to which I did not have an answer. I began to read voraciously at about the age of ten. I read Dostoevsky’s novels while in high school.
I started off at UCLA as an economics major and then as a political science major. These disciplines didn’t seem to provide me with the kinds of answers I was searching for. Life was a puzzle for me. After a course I took at UCLA called “Logic in Practice,” taught by Abe Kaplan, I thought philosophy was an area that might hold for me what I was seeking. So I decided to switch my major.
ST: Did you feel like you found some of those answers while you were an undergraduate?
No, I remained as befuddled as ever. I think this sense that life was a puzzle led me to an orientation that favors the outsider, takes on strange philosophic views or puzzles in literature or in art, and tries to make a case out for their making sense in some way. This search naturally led not just to literature but to psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic interest was one that I’d had even when I first started teaching philosophy. But it became a much more intense interest when I met John Wisdom in 1957.
ST: Your interest in psychoanalysis really started when you were teaching. Was there something about teaching in particular or a subject matter you encountered?
It was the subject matter. I was interested in the status of psychoanalytic claims, the nature of the unconscious, what weight we should give to criticisms of psychoanalytic claims being reliable interpretations. John Wisdom saw this connection between philosophic reasoning, legal reasoning, psychoanalytic interpretation, and literary interpretation—all of these things for Wisdom were areas where there was room for rational discussion, although the traditional views of corroborating empirical claims and deductive claims were not applicable. So that really appealed to me because of my interest in literature and also my interest in philosophizing about strange things that people were saying, like “We’re all guilty and guilty for all men,” as Father Zosima said in The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to show that there was some truth in that, that we should see what was being brought to light.
ST: So after you finished at UCLA you went straight to law school.
Yes, but particularly in the first year I had a great deal of ambivalence as to whether I should return to philosophy or remain in the law school. I remember vividly studying for the first-year exams by reading poetry in the Yale Sterling Library. It was probably my way of coming up with an excuse for failing my first-year exams by saying I didn’t really study. I got on to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and reading his poetry. Ironically, it turned out to be the very best preparation for taking the exams.
ST: How so?
I remember so vividly the last two lines of a sonnet of his that I simply did not comprehend at all. And I can remember the lines:
. . . shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover” (1918)
I finally made out what it meant, and it induced me to read the hypothetical questions on the exam with the care that was like the care I was bestowing upon Hopkins. This led me to the view that we have to make very clear what the question is before we start to answer it. And the consequence is that I did extremely well on the exams, which diminished the ambivalence I was feeling, so remained at Yale.
In my third year I was selected as a legal research instructor, basically teaching lawyering and legal research skills, legal writing, and some jurisprudence. I picked up a lot in the way of knowing how to write. Actually, the person I give the greatest credit for the care I bestow in writing was Bob Yost. I took a course [of his] at UCLA as an undergraduate, and he announced at the beginning of the course that there would be a midterm essay, no more than three pages, and a final essay of five pages—he would not read a word more—and he gave me a D+ on my three-page Descartes paper. But no one, up to then, or subsequently, had ever gone over anything I wrote with the degree of care that he did. He left no word, sentence, connection between sentences, without a comment as to where he saw something that was unclear, deficient in its expression, what have you. It was the shock of my lifetime and the best shock that I had ever received. And that’s stayed with me and I’ve done it with students of my own—I give them, but not up to his standards, the Yost Treatment.
So that was a great experience at Yale largely because I was reading, reflecting, and writing. I was somewhat prepared for Oxford, but not quite prepared for someone like Herbert Hart. I hadn’t known about Hart at all. In fact, I can’t reconstruct why I was so attached to going to Oxford—I think it was largely a kind of romance, and I knew I didn’t want to practice law.
ST: How come?
I was just interested too much in ideas. What gave me the greatest pleasure was writing and researching.
I subscribed at Yale to the logical empiricist view of meaning—that propositions were only meaningful provided that they had a possibility of verification as being true or false. And then my first term at Oxford, Hart recommend that I sit in on J.L. Austin’s lectures on performatives. It was something like the shock that I had with Yost’s response to my first writing assignment. It taught me such humility. I thought I’d been dealing, not just in my everyday life, but for three years in law school immersed in performative utterances, regarding them as obviously meaningful, even though I subscribed to a theory of meaning that ruled them out. And so this was one of the more illuminating events in my life. The mismatch between some theoretical position I had assumed and what was staring me in the eyes. Yost, Austin, Wisdom, and certainly the late Wittgenstein were strongly formative influences on me.
ST: After your time at Oxford you returned to UCLA.
I was studying and working on my D.Phil. thesis under Hart, and it was the spring of 1956. My wife and I went to the American Express in Florence, Italy, and there was a letter from Don Kalish—a blue aerogram—and we opened it standing right beside the Arno river. In that letter Kalish said the department was offering me a tenure-track position. I was stunned by this. But then it was also the case that I now had the prospect of having a law degree from Yale and a D.Phil. from Oxford in legal philosophy, and I don’t think there was anybody in the country at that time with that combination. I got an offer from Stanford and an offer from UCLA, and there was no question for me that I would return to UCLA. These were my teachers and I felt I would be at home.
ST: A little earlier you mentioned that you often found more philosophical satisfaction engaging in literature than more traditional philosophical texts. What about literature in particular?
I initially found myself using literature as a springboard for philosophic reflection. Probably my most influential philosophical paper is “Persons and Punishment,” and I couldn’t get that paper off the ground at all until one day I thought of this novella, Traps, by Durrenmatt. And so I wrote a brief summary of what I saw taking place in that novella, and with that I wrote for two days without break, and I had the paper. I never dreamt I was formulating a theory of punishment. But that’s how it came about; just from that novella.
The same with Father Zosima’s claim [in The Brothers Karamazov] that we are all guilty, and guilty for all men and for everything. I thought, “What in the world does that mean?” And then I was off and running and wrote a paper on shared guilt. Likewise with the tale of Adam and Eve and my paper on lost innocence. So there’s something in literature where there’s often a kind of perplexing statement or narrative that grabs me. Another example: Jesus’s enigmatic statement, “If the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” That’s the sort of thing that fascinates me.
ST: You’ve mentioned to me elsewhere that you’ve organized a reading group with former students from your Philosophy in Literature class.
Yes! Some of the most satisfying experiences that I’ve ever had have been the group joining me at my house for dinner. And so far, we’ve read and discussed for four or five hours Anna Karenina, Gide’s The Counterfeiters, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and we’re about to do War and Peace.
I remember in one of the scheduled office hours for Philosophy in Literature, a couple of the students came in and in the course of our discussion, in which I really enjoyed the exchange, the students asked, “So what is the answer to the question, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’”
ST: What did you say?
I said, “How can you ask that question when we’ve had this two-hour discussion? Can you think of anything that is more gratifying, has more of a point to it, than what we’ve just engaged in? The playfulness, the imagination, the exchange of ideas, the total forgetting of oneself? If someone were to ask, ‘How would you like to spend the remaining hour of your life,’ what would you choose but being together with those whom you care for, talking about what most matters?” That’s the answer.
ST: Do you have any advice for current teachers about how to foster an appreciation for the humanities in their students?
I would say that it’s important to give some examples of attentiveness, first of all, of focusing in on something, and then to actually show—not talk about—but show by how you approach this thing that you’re focused on, in order to illuminate what there is in it, whether it’s a passage in a poem, a philosophic comment that’s puzzling, or something in a painting, whatever it is, it’s something that’s concrete that can remain with the person. Because I think that’s where the real excitement lies. It’s not the accumulation of knowledge about, you know, what is Plato about in the late Dialogues, or what is Aristotle’s theory about this, that, and the other thing. It’s rather the particulars.
One of the things that’s actually worth thinking about is “God is in the details.” What I’m affirming is that’s right. God in the sense of a life force that emanates from the details, that comes out of the concrete. I think it’s actually part of the truth of phenomenology, that it’s this attentiveness to the concrete experience as contrasted with some abstract term or general theory. That’s one of the things that’s been more evident to me; it’s been a strange period in my life the last half dozen years where I’ve felt more creative than I’ve ever felt in my life. And the reasons for it are that I felt myself so enraptured by particulars. And this ties in with a fascination with this now popularized movement of “mindfulness,” about focusing on the contents of what’s in your head, which very few of us bother to do.