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A Tribute to Joe Fell
Honoring a Teacher, Scholar and Philosopher
Former students and colleagues ….
In 2014, Class of '67 graduates Deborah Hayden, Gwenn Knapp and I attended a symposium honoring our philosophy professor, Joseph Fell, who taught at Bucknell from 1963 until his retirement in 1993. It had been 50 years since, as sophomores, we had studied Nietzsche with him, but Deb and Joe had continued to correspond, and he was very helpful to her when she was writing her book, Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis (Basic Books 2003).
Following that 2014 symposium, a number of Joe's colleagues and former students produced a remarkable collection of essays in a celebratory Festschrift, Commonplace Commitments: Thinking through the Legacy of Joseph P. Fell, which was published by Bucknell University Press in 2016 and described in Bucknell Magazine. The book centers on Joe's key works on Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger and his own mentor, John William Miller. Gwenn, a retired judge who is now a noted portrait painter in Chester County, Pa., contributed to the celebration by painting a portrait of Joe.
Gwenn delivered the portrait to Joe at his home in Lewisburg on May 12, practically on the eve of our 50th Bucknell reunion. To mark the occasion, I reached out to Joe's former students and colleagues who had participated in the symposium and Festschrift and invited them to write reflections on their personal experiences with Joe as a teacher, mentor, and friend. Following are their contributions.
— Diane LeBold '67
Appreciating Professor Joe Fell
Having just spent a delicious and inspiring morning reading through a thick file of correspondence with Joe Fell, I'm filled with gratitude for having had such a friend and mentor for more than 50 years. It has always been an uplifting day when I've opened my mailbox and seen Joe's beautiful handwriting in black ink. Because he and I had both studied the 19th-century Palmer Method of handwriting, our long letters on yellow-lined paper feel like a 19th-century correspondence. These letters, while filled with the ups and downs of both our lives over such a long period, also record our mutual passion for writing. And through it all, Joe has been gently encouraging and supportive of all my efforts in research, writing — and details of everyday life.
Joe joined the Bucknell faculty in 1963 — my freshman year. In 1965, when I was in his seminar on Nietzsche's philosophy, he gave one lecture on biography, in which he talked about Nietzsche's friendship with Lou Salomé, who went on to become a woman of letters, a dear friend of Freud and one of the first female psychoanalysts.
It was that 1965 lecture — combined with my ongoing correspondence with Joe and a great deal of research — that led to my essay “Nietzsche's Secrets,” which appeared in the book Nietzsche and Depth Psychology (1999). The essay touched on, among other things, Nietzsche's collaboration with Lou, his sexuality and his syphilis infection. Imagine my joy when Joe wrote to me that the essay was “absolutely splendid.”
And it was the 1965 lecture that ultimately led me to investigate, not just the complex question of Nietzsche's syphilis, but syphilis among other prominent individuals before the discovery of penicillin. So, with Joe's encouragement, I undertook more years of research that resulted in the publication of my book, Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis (Basic Books 2003), with a central chapter on Nietzsche and Lou. The book, I was pleased to learn, can now be found on Joe's coffee table, along with others written by Joe's many grateful students.
Deb Hayden '67
A Favorite Professor
Dr. Fell was easily one of my two favorite professors at Bucknell. Although his classes often required great mental exertion, his enthusiasm was infectious. A new professor then, he illuminated complex pathways in the mind with openness, wonder and kindness — qualities that are still with him today. Their effect has stayed with me and served me well through my life's wanderings over the 50 years since.
— Gwenn Knapp '67
Magisterial district judge (retired)
Philosophy As It Should Be Done
As a teacher, Joe Fell stood out as a model of wisdom and intellectual humility. In the classroom, he often would respond to what many of us students at first believed were the most ludicrous questions by stopping abruptly in his tracks to begin thinking about what he had been asked, by telling us he didn't know the answer, by wondering, by wondering more, and then by using some idea buried within the original question to lead us to some new insight or exciting mystery. My friends and I used to say we hoped that someday we would be able to not understand things as brilliantly as Joe didn't understand things.
I rarely had a professor as generous with time and support as was Joe. He was always available to his students in his office, and over long conversations I learned about some of the ways in which the passion for ideas can orient one's conduct. Joining him for concerts on campus, I came to appreciate the way in which passion for music can enrich one's life.
Later, when I was in graduate school, and then as a philosophy professor, Joe's published work proved indispensable for my dissertation and scholarly endeavors. I came to recognize that his scholarship exemplifies the best approach for combining sincere and personal philosophical questioning with the most rigorous conceptual analysis and careful engagement with texts, all while never losing track of the most important philosophical problems. Joe does philosophy as it should be done.
Throughout my life, I have thought that Joe's enduring passion — for ideas, for philosophy, for the natural world and for music — exemplifies the best way to pursue and appreciate many of the best things in life. He is a model for how to be a teacher, a scholar, a philosopher and a person.
— Marc Lucht '91
Co-director of the International Educational Collaboration between North Cross School in Roanoke, Va., and Shanghai Xinhe Middle School
Shaping an Identity
Professor Joe Fell's classes changed my life.
I entered Bucknell in the fall of 1969 as a thoroughly conventional premed student, having spent the first 18 years of my life living up to the expectations of my mother and my maternal grandfather, a surgeon. My study of philosophy at Bucknell liberated me to shape an identity of my own. From Professor Fell I learned that to become truly free, one must understand and come to terms with the weight of one's past and circumstances.
There are four courses that I remember most vividly: A course on the career of Sartre, offered in the spring of 1972 when revolution was still in the air in this country, enrolled 75-plus students. A sequence of courses on Heidegger's Being and Time and later works in 1972–1973 was nothing short of spectacular. Professor Fell's teaching in these three courses was likely unsurpassed at any undergraduate institution in the country. I think his philosophical juices were at their peak in these years, because he was working on his magnificent book on Heidegger and Sartre. In any case, his teaching provoked an intellectual energy and camaraderie among my group of 20 or so students that I have not experienced since.
But the course that meant the most to me was a tutorial in which my classmate, Steve Cindrich '73, and I joined forces with Professor Fell to tackle Hegel's Phenomenology, one of the most difficult and challenging works in the history of philosophy. Professor Fell assured us that if we could master Hegel's thought, we'd be way ahead of everyone else in philosophy. I believe that his claim has proved to be correct.
Thanks to Professor Fell, I have both experienced the liberating potential of philosophy and have been able to expose my own students to this potential as well.
— Kenneth Lambert '73
Professor of computer science
Washington & Lee University
The Very Idea of Philosophy
Philosophy, as it has come to be today, traces its roots to ancient Greece. It began there for many reasons and through the work of many different individuals, but the most important impulse and the most lasting force in that beginning is found in the admiration — even the love — a student had for his teacher. Plato was one of the young people who followed Socrates, listening carefully to his teacher's conversations with others, relishing in his wit, insight and ability to puncture the self-righteous claims of those who professed to be wise. Socrates never wrote, but he inspired the young, and he became a well-known figure in Athens. Eventually, he would be tried, convicted, and executed for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. This peculiar figure of Socrates, who in various iterations would become the exemplary model for a teacher, became the riddle of Plato's life. Plato was in his late 20s when Socrates died, but the remaining 50 years of Plato's life would be devoted to writing about Socrates, trying to understand this individual who had so profoundly shaped him and whom Plato carried with him throughout his own life. In giving shape to philosophy, as we have come to know it, Plato wove this relation between a student and a teacher into the very idea of philosophy.
Every discipline has had its great teachers, and students of all kinds have been influenced by and become indebted to teachers — this possibility belongs to the heart of great universities and to all education. But there is something distinctive about the way in which the very idea of philosophy is born of this special relationship. A great teacher of philosophy embodies something of 0 — its openness, its commitment to truth above self, its readiness to listen to others and its wonder at the fact of a world in which ideas can have a real place and weight.
To have had Joe Fell as my teacher has been one of the great good fortunes of my life, and this stroke of luck has helped me understand something of what it was that Plato saw in Socrates and that gave birth to philosophy. It is not so much what Joe told me about philosophy that has transformed my life and my understanding of philosophy, it is rather what he embodied and showed me in his character and commitment. I am now about 20 years older than Joe was when I was his student, and I still carry with me what I learned from him. Even more, I carry Joe Fell as something of a riddle still to be understood and as a reminder that one can make the world more alive and that one can help others find the better part of themselves.
— Dennis J. Schmidt '74
Research chair and head of philosophy
Western Sydney University
An Open-Hearted Approach
The first day of my Sartre class with Professor Fell in 1972, he came walking into the large classroom in Coleman, picked up a piece of chalk and quickly jotted something in French on the board. The room was completely full, with students sitting along the walls and also under the blackboard in the front of the room. There was great anticipation in the air. I had only taken four other philosophy classes, and they were run mostly as seminars. But it was clear that there were a lot of students in this room because they knew something about this class — and more to the point, something special about the instructor. I looked up at the board: on it he had written these words: “Empathie, seule attitude requise pour comprendre” empathy is the only attitude necessary for understanding. It wasn't long before Fell came to the reason he'd started with this quote (from Sartre's The Family Idiot, his existential psychoanalysis of Flaubert) — he wanted us to really try hard to understand Sartre's thought, before subjecting it to criticism. “There's nothing I can't stand more than someone who criticizes a thinker without first having tried to really understand him,” he quipped.
These words have been with me throughout my life — and especially when I step into a classroom and face my own students. Indeed, I just came from two back-to-back conferences where this quote was among the first slides of my PowerPoint — accompanied by a photograph of a group of bonobos sitting together in gentle harmony (a nod to another great teacher from Bucknell, Doug Candland).
It was Joe who taught me, at a very tender and impressionable age, something about how to approach just about anything one might encounter in life — that we go to the encounter with love, with an open heart. In this sense, Professor Fell taught me that “philosophia” could mean not only “the love of wisdom” but more importantly, wise loving.
— Scott Churchill '72
Professor of philosophy and human science
University of Dallas
Fell Is a Hero
Joe Fell was, and is, my hero. He and his work on Heidegger are the reason I first came to Bucknell.
— Jeffrey Turner
Associate professor of philosophy
A Special Kind of Friendship
My first encounter with Joe Fell was in the early 1980s, when I came across a review article that discussed key themes in Joe's epic work Heidegger and Sartre: An Essay on Being and Place. I had no idea at the time what a profound impact Joe and his work were to have on me in the course of my career in academic philosophy. Joe's book was a revelation — one of those rare texts that displays deep erudition and a keen sense for what is truly important in what Joe's teacher John Herman Randall called “the career of philosophy.” A handful of years later I somewhat fortuitously became Joe's colleague in the philosophy department at Bucknell, first as a visiting faculty member and later as a permanent member of the department. My arrival at Bucknell in the late 1980s marked the beginning of a very special kind of friendship, one marked by a shared interest not only in philosophy but also in more worldly matters such as cars and music. But what has been of the most profound and enduring significance to me is the example Joe has set for me as a human being. He is a man of extraordinary character and the only real mentor I have ever had. My life has been very much enriched by my friendship with Joe, as has the life of Bucknell University. Probably few people at Bucknell today know of the enormous contributions Joe has made to the University, contributions that earned him appointments to the John Howard Harris Professorship in Philosophy and a Presidential Professorship. I am proud and gratified to call Joe one of my closest friends.
— Gary Steiner
Presidential Professor of philosophy
A Singular Philosopher
I was formally neither a student nor a colleague of Joe Fell, though in actuality I was both. Quite by accident, I became interested in Joe's mentor at Williams College, John William Miller, and that interest brought Joe and me together more than 25 years ago.
Much like his teacher at Williams, Joe is an epistolary philosopher. Among the treasures I have amassed, his often long, detailed and always incisive letters are unsurpassed. His informal communications are more finely crafted and sharply focused than most published essays by other academics. The finely balanced sentences, the deftly drawn distinctions, the carefully constructed arguments and the conscientiously chosen word make his letters delightful and profitable. Joe's missives are paradoxical in being both self-contained pieces and fragments of an ongoing exchange, taking place on distinct levels and involving various interlocutors, not solely the person to whom they are addressed. They stand on their own and yet they derive their full force and meaning from the history to which they are contributing.
In this regard, Joe Fell as both a teacher and philosopher reveals himself to be a dialogical philosophy. He is always addressing persons in the circumstances of their lives. He can be whimsical and even impish, but he is never quixotic. He is not in the least tilting at windmills. He is rather taking on the inescapable threat of nihilism with the plainspoken eloquence of Miller, the intellectual gravitas of Heidegger and the moral passion of Nietzsche and other amoralists (moral passion is nowhere more intense than in the fierce pronouncements of avowed amoralists!). Addressing this threat demands more fully recovering the everyday world of human engagement than has yet been done. This itself means that one's life and one's thought must be of a piece. The quiet, centered committed life of this singular philosopher enables us to see what such integrity looks like. His teaching, writings, conversations and, indeed, letters reveal nothing less.
— Vincent Colapietro
Liberal arts research professor
Philosophy & African-American studies
Penn State University
Stunning Insights into the History of Ideas
My first encounter with Joe Fell was online, when he criticized a grant proposal I sent to the John William Miller Fellowship fund. The criticism was severe, or so it felt at the time. It appeared I wouldn't receive the fellowship, but the critique was so detailed, so palpably concerned with connections I was not making, that I couldn't kick the urge to respond.
To my impromptu email, I received a pointed reply — no less critical than the first, but even more deeply occupied with the ideas I proposed. We went several more rounds like this, stretching to a voluminous correspondence over a couple of weeks. I remember wondering (aloud, to my dog) how I let myself get pulled into hours of writing about the very possibility of a project that might not be funded. Years later, when I mentioned this to Joe, his surprise made clear that he'd embraced the project from the get-go. Others confirmed that he'd voted immediately to grant me the fellowship.
In the years between those two conversations, I realized that in the initial correspondence with Joe, what first appeared as a transient email supplement had intensified into a new domain of ideas. Joe opened up Miller's philosophy for me, through his own; he was already pointing to what would become major shifts in my thinking in that first exchange. As I wrote later, Joe provides the categories through which Miller, and the ambivalent legacy of idealist philosophy, can be understood. He's done this in writings that are now such necessary sites in my own conceptual landscape that it's hard to remember my thinking before them. And he's continued to do it in personal correspondence that now arrives in the mailbox the old-fashioned way; occasionally, unexpectedly — disrupting the daily grind with stunning insights into the history of ideas, along with the most generous readings my work could receive.
Associate professor of philosophy
Rochester Institute of Technology