He is 77 and jealous of his days. There isn't enough time, he says. For painting and drawing (the walls roar with his pictures). For keeping up his journal (seven published volumes by now) and writing more books (an entire new system of metaphysics is forthcoming). For reading (he's currently in a novel, a book on psychiatry, a study of local governments). For walking (still 6 and 7 miles at a clip, though no longer daily). For movie-going and theatergoing and all sorts of other going. Not to even dwell on Paul Weiss' classes at Catholic University, theoretically the source of his paycheck.
"Maybe when I was young I was what phychiatrists call a 'manic personality'" muses the American philosopher extraordinaire, a lizardlike grin on his bald and wrinkled face. "If that's true, I think I've succeeded some in quieting the manic side. I wish, though, ideas still popped out of me like they did when I was 25. I miss 'em."
He looks like a small, spry Martian, though he would doubtless dismiss this as empirically absurd. He sits here, black glasses slightly askew of his nose, arms flailing air of the world, eyes merry as the Mad Hatter's, firing sure answers at any question that bounces up. Behind him, from floor to ceiling, on handsome pine shelving, are rows and rows of books. An electric's banquet.
Bring up the old charge that philosophy and philosophers have nothing whatever to do with the real world, and before you can say Immanuel Kant, Paul Weiss will say: "On the contrary. Plato said we live in the 'realm of the mixed.' That's a good starting point. I, too, have to go out and buy groceries. And get my cavities filled. It's just that as a philosopher I'm more interested in disentangling the mixed."
Ask his opinin of such popular 20th-century philosophers as Mortimer Alder and Eric Hoffer, and Weiss, without skipping a beat, will say: "They're not thinkers. They're readers. They go to the libraries. Hoffer? He's a jobber. He takes great big books and makes them into little books."
At this he shrivels in laughter: A malevolent wood sprite.
Paul Weiss, who swears he's never once been depressed - or, in fact, even thought about it - celebrated his birthday the other evening. A group of colleagues, students and admirers held a small testimonial in his honor, something folks have been doing more or less regularly for the past decade or so, on the theory, no doubt, Weiss can't keep up this cuckoo pace. He loves to surprise. This time there was a dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Silver Spring, a documentary film on his work, a presidential citiation. Weiss took it all in stride.
In conjunction with celebration, someone tried to summarize in print "the philosophy of Paul Weiss." To a layman, of course, it all reads like ontological double-speak, philosophic jabberwocky: "Once one's certitude has been posited as doublesided, one can move from one's experience to the consideration of experiencing." Or, farther down in the paper: "Apearances are understood as a product of the interplay of actualities . . .
Weiss himself, thankfully, is a bit less opaque on the thought of Weiss. He says his special kernel of uniqueness might lie in the fact that he's tried hard "never to let go of the world of every day" - whether he's considering the world of the balletomane. Indeed, he seems able to take almost anything from the here-and-now and relate it quickly and simply to his own globe of ideas.
Consider this chair he's sitting in. Actually,it's a common enough piece of furniture - one of those webbed, wooden, modern affairs. But for Socratic Paul Weiss it becomes, suddenly, a way of explicating the role of the philosopher. He salps at it with two short, sturdy arms. "Take this chair," he commands. The deep, Lower East Side voice is excited, rising and falling nearly in syncopation with the slaps.
The chair is a sitting object, yes, he explains. But a philosopher might decide to look on it only as a artifact. He might stop right there, with the FACT of the chair, and try to understand it as a basis for understanding anything else he might face in the universe. In other words - and now the voice is coming rapid-fire - the chair is the philosopher's "direct presence." He fancies that.
"You see, it's only the occasion for him to have other thoughts. About a rock Or a horse. Or a baseball."
Well, not entirely.
The glassy, lizard grin pops back. "You see, a philosopher stands away from the world. He is an innocent. He's trying to look at things with a fresh gaze. And the more he does that, the more he approximates a childlike innocence. All the best ones have it."
He folds his arms. The minilecture is concluded.
Paul Weiss, the innocent, is a philosopher in the classic, grand, age-old sense of that word. He is a metaphysician, errecting broad systems of thought that attempt to explain every aspect of being and knowledge. He is interested, he says, in life's "underpinnings." Somebody once defined the metaphysic as he who "climbs every tree at once." That is Paul Weiss.
But metaphysics isn't in vogue anymore. Positivism came in awhile ago, and suddenly all those great 'ontological system builders like Aristotle and Hegel and Spinoza and Kant began to seem like musty old men. Nowadays American philosophers mainly conceern themselves with themselves with linguistic puzzles, with complex analyses of language, logic, mathematics.
Against this curling tide swims 5'6" Paul Weiss, the kid from German-jewish Yorkville who dropped out of the High School of Commerce at 16 to hang on curbs and go to work as a stenographer in MacLevy's Gym in Madison Square Garden. He taught the boxing instructor shorthand, got boxing lessons in return.
Six or so years later, he dropped back in, taking night classes at CCNY. The claw toward mountains of thought and begun. Then came day classes. Eventually the high school dropout made Phi Beta Kappa. But the time he was set for Harvard and Alfred North Whitehead, in 1927, he was married, metaphysical, manic with ideas.
Whitehead, the great British mathematician and philosopher, must have seen right off the flint-spark of Weiss' genius. To this day Weiss reserves a special reverence for his old teacher: "I'm not really a Whiteheadian. But on the other hand, there's a saying that philosophy never recovers from the shock of a great philosopher."
Since then (he did his doctorate in two years flat) there has been a flood of books. From "Modes of Being," his magnum opus in ontology, to "Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry," which sold 10,000 copies in the marketplace and made him the darling of gadfly tinkerers. His journal, recording these past 20-years, is titled "Philosophy in Process."
He has taught at three universities, including a stint at Yale for 23 years. There, Dick Cavett and William Buckley were pupils. On Cavett: "Witty, articulate, attractive, alert. Not profound, but quite intelligent." On Buckley: "Roughly then what he is now: very mature. Which means he learnt little."
He once unsuccessfully sued Fordham University for a cool million, claiming the school discriminated against him on the basis of age. (He was past standard retirement.) The suit made it to the Supreme Court, with Weiss' son, Jonathan, preparing the briefs. Somewhere in there, too, he counseled the Cincinnati Reds, whose front office came with its hat in its hand, fretting over an alarming rookie dropout rate. Weiss, who watches the Redskins every fall, told them to watch for the player who, like the savage, young Ted Williams, exhibited a "controlled obsession" that spilled over into every waking hour.
There have been talk shows (Jack Parr is his favorite interviewer) and there have been documentary films. There have been symposia in his honour, and there have been scholarly journals under his patronage. The "Review of Metaphysics," founded by Weiss in 1947, is one fo the most widely read philosophical periodicals in the English-speaking world.
And, of course, there have been all those lessons and classes. Acting classes. Dancing classes. Fimmaking classes. Cooking classes. Painting calasses.
Painting classes? "Just another way of learning about the world," shrugs the indomitable little man, grimning. "C'mon, I'll show you." He barely has to - the works fairly jump off the wall at you, those great splashy canvases, these bare, odd, pencil sketches. "I'm an expendable painter," he announces, leading the tour. "I can try anything." He pops a mint in his mouth; a flag of hanky waves from his hind pocket.
He stops before a technicolor vision of a man. "That, I think, is my father." Think? "Well, it's very close to him - but it wasn't him when I was painting it. You know?"
On to another room - a bedroom converted to a studio. Canvases everywhere, some abandoned in midjob. On his easel now, a great series of splotches. "I haven't painted in four or five months. This was just something I wanted to try." Awhile ago, he says modestly, he had a show at a local gallery. Sold $800 worth of paintings. Money ins't important, learning is.
"The ordinary philosopher is interested in what we speak of as 'esthetics.' He goes to the opera. He oes to the theater. He's interested in the finished product, not these artists in their grimpy little workshops. When I was investigating plays, I would go to rehearsels four, five, six, may be seven times. I wanted to see ."
But from where does all this impossible energy and curiosity come? He laughs. "Well, first of all, I don't smoke, drink very little, sleep a lot. I cook my own meals protein mostly. And I keep relaxed." Does he never get lonely? "Never." A couple of children grown, and a brother, a saleman, survive. His wife died long ago, and his longtime girlfriend last year. "There's too much yet to do."
His insatiable curiosity he's at a loss to explain. "All I know is when I was in first grade and learning my alphabet, a teacher told me - to my dumb foundment - that any word in the English language I could think of would be made up of a combination of several of those 26 letters. I immediately set out to prove her wrong. It was the most fantastic thing I'd ever heard."
He pauses. "Course, now I see it's a tautology. 'Cause any word that wouldn't have one of those letters wouldn't be a word in English. Would it?"
A boom laugh.
Nature has signs, though, and the signs say that Paul Weiss, against his will, is slowing down.He doesn't go to the opera much anymore: "I'm losing too many high notes." Lately, he's found he's losing something on the screen. That, too, hurts. "And when I go to the theater now, I have to sit in the first couple of rows."
Hold the pity. Last year Weiss published "First Considerations," a work some say broke bold new ground in speculative metaphysics. That may be nothing next to his systematic philosophic anthropology, due out in the reasonable future and tentatively titled "You, I and the Others." He is working hard to finish up.
Says Dr. Jude Dougherty, longtime Weiss associate and dean of the School of Philosophy at Catholic U. "When American philosophy got tangled in analytics and materialism.Paul Weiss was there to remind everyone that our profession is really the study of wisdom. That nature and being and reality are the philosopher's workshop. He's never been a fad, but I think the future may well be kind."
Weiss won't mind.