John Hospers, R.I.P.
by Stephen Cox | Posted June 17, 2011
John Hospers, distinguished author and philosopher, first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, and a senior editor of Liberty, died in Los Angeles on June 12. He was 93 and had been in fragile health for over a year.
John was a modest and self-skeptical man, but his accomplishments were legion. Born in provincial Iowa of Dutch immigrant stock, he became an internationally recognized philosopher, editor of The Personalist and later of The Monist — two of the most important academic journals of philosophy — and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. An early organizer of the Libertarian Party, he was its standard bearer in the election of 1972, in which he and his running mate, Tonie Nathan, achieved a vote in the Electoral College, making Tonie the only woman who had ever done so.
John used to laugh about his encounter with one of his academic colleagues in the hallways of USC during the presidential campaign:
“Hello, John. What are you doing these days?”
“I’m running for president.”
“I didn’t know that. President of the APA!” (APA stands for the American Philosophical Association.)
“Oh no. President of the United States.”
John ran a vigorous campaign (and enjoyed it). Many years later, I got him to write the inside story of this episode, exclusive to Liberty. It’s in our June 2007 issue, and includes a good picture of the candidate.
Before the election, John had published a thoughtful book about the idea of liberty, Libertarianism (1971). As editor of The Personalist, he gave many young libertarians, such as Robert Nozick, their first chance to publish. John was an early and regular contributor to Reason, and starting in the early 1990s he contributed many important articles to Liberty. Usually it worked like this: John would make a comment about a topic that appealed to him. Bill Bradford or I would suggest that he write something about it. “Oh,” John would say, “do you really think people would be interested?” “Yes, John,” we’d reply, “they certainly would be.” Then we’d give him our reasons for saying so. “Well, I don’t know,” he’d say. He’d think it over for a while, and about half the time he would write the article.
Bill and I were right: our readers were always interested in what John had to say. It wasn’t just that he was John Hospers and had a historic importance for libertarians. It was that John had a way of combining the provocative with the calmly, steadily rational — a rare intellectual achievement.
From 1960 to 1962, John was an intimate friend of Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher who was one of the greatest influences on modern American libertarianism. John met her not as a disciple (at a time when she engaged with few people who were not disciples) but as a person of independent intellectual development and ideas. Indeed, with the exception of Isabel Paterson in the early 1940s, he was probably the only person who ever debated both amicably and determinedly with Rand. On many occasions, he and Rand stayed up all night, discussing everything in the world, without pretense or intimidation, like Athena and Odysseus sitting together on the shores of Ithaka, plotting the institution of a just society.
John told the story of their relationship, and of its eventual sundering, in an important two-part article in Liberty(July and Sept. 1990). He added another chapter in our August 2006 issue. I think you’ll enjoy those articles.
John’s relationship with Rand ended in one of those disasters that were inevitable with her. I used to wonder how anyone, even she, could quarrel with someone so intelligent, so gentle, so transparently sincere, so sweet as John — or with someone who loved her as much as he did. I’m sorry I never asked him that question, in just that way. Of Rand he told me, with tears in his eyes, “She had so few friends.”
John was a quiet, meditative person, who could sit listening for hours while other people talked, not feeling that the right note had yet been struck for his own intervention. But if you drew him aside, and made just a little effort to draw him out, he was a warm and delightful conversationalist. Personal warmth was important for him. He had it banked up inside him, in his private feelings: his memories of his family, especially of his immigrant great-grandmother, who lived to be a hundred years old, who was kind to him, and talkative about important things; his feelings of disappointment when the Libertarian Party no longer sought his advice, when it failed even to notice him anymore; his concerns about the future of the country, regarding which he was very pessimistic, fearing that the public demand for welfare had become so insistent and so chronic that a truly liberal social order could never be reachieved. He was particularly fearful about the political effects of open immigration, against which he argued with a logic that had been endorsed by every earlier libertarian leader, but that many current leaders of the movement had since repudiated.
I sometimes argued with John. I argued against his pessimism, and he always said, smiling, “Well, I hope you are right.” I argued against his religious agnosticism, and John, who had been brought up in very pious surroundings, always said, “What people don’t understand is that before we argue about God’s existence, we must first define what we mean by God.” My attempts to address the topic by using standard, operative definitions of God — “the creator of the world, who has sometimes intervened in its affairs” — got me precisely nowhere. For Hospers the analytical philosopher, that wasn’t nearly good enough. But I did get him to publish a riposte to my own theism in Liberty’s Jan.-Feb. 2008 issue.
I believe that was, very unfortunately, the last essay John ever wrote. His response to my frequent entreaties to publish something more about his many interests were unavailing. He would say, “I’m not sure I have anything to add. If I do, of course, I’ll send it.” When I suggested that if everyone took that approach, scholarly publication would cease, he enjoyed the joke, but his severe judgment of what it means to “add” to intellectual conversation prevailed. He was, indeed, a modest man.
John could occasionally be acerbic, when he felt that proper definitions, proper philosophic standards, were not in place — although he was never that way in conversing with me, or other people I know. Smiles, and carefully considered comments, and graceful encouragement to continue the conversation, whether he agreed with you or not — those were John’s hallmarks. In his later years, he was the center of a group of friends — including people of all ages, from his own down to the early twenties — who met for regular viewing and discussion of classic films. Enviable group! John had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, and his own taste was not only catholic but insightful and . . . here’s that word again: warm. Beneath the modest, judicious, (not unduly) professorial exterior was a heart full of feeling for any real human accomplishment, for anything that made life pleasant, graceful, witty, noble, or courageous. And John was all those things, himself.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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