Friday, November 24, 2006

Robert T. Herbert: A Eulogy

Dr. Robert T. Herbert
May 26, 1928 - February 16, 2006

I just discovered that my dissertation chairman at the University of Oregon, Robert T. Herbert, passed away several months ago. He had been retired for quite a few years, and I had not had any contact with him for several years. I was sad to hear of his passing.

Professor Herbert was not a very well-known or a highly productive philosopher, but he was a very good one. He was an excellent writer, with a sense of humor; this is not often the case with philosophers. His emphasis was philosophy of religion and his main influence was Wittgenstein, whose writings he was introduced to through his professor, O.K. Bouwsma. This made for a tough customer for a graduate student to deal with. Herbert would "puzzle" (one of his favorite words) over philosophical issues, looking at them from every possible angle, and make probing suggestions. While not a stunning lecturer, he was not afraid of long pauses, and always carefully crafted his thoughts and expected his students to do so as well.

Professor Herbert and I disagreed on many things. In a Philosophy of Religion seminar he was leading, I voiced concerns about a paper in which he argued that believers come down with faith as one comes down with a cold. That is, the faith is neither rational nor irrational. (The paper was subsequently published in Faith and Philosophy.) He asked me to write a response to his paper. I agreed with some hesitation. (Whether I really had a choice, I do not know.) When I received the paper back, it was filled with red ink comments challenging nearly every one of my criticisms. At the bottom of the last page was the grade: A+. I published my response in The Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, which eventually upgraded and became Philosophia Christi.

Professor Herbert thought that philosophy could show that Christian doctrines were coherent, but not that they were evidentially established. But he thought that was enough, and held to some manner of Christian faith, it seemed. Thus, he argued for the coherence of the Incarnation against Kierkegaard's views. These arguments, along with papers on free will and determinism, and other subjects, can be found in his book, Paradox and Identity in Theology. (My own apologetic goals are more ambitious.)

Although I did well in his classes and on the comprehensive exams, I had a rough time discerning what Professor Herbert would acccept for a doctoral dissertation; but eventually, with the help of my wife, Rebecca, I found something that he was really interested in: the reasons why Blaise Pascal rejected natural theology. That was a nice "puzzle" to muse on—and no one had written very much about it. So, chapters were produced and few good comments leaked out from his infamous pen. One remark, "good patch," written next a line of about an inch long, carried me along for several weeks in the dissertation process. Professor Herbert was not , you may have guessed, lavish in his praise. After reading another chapter, he referred to it as "heartening." That became one of my favorite commendatory adjectives to this day.

The last battle, so to speak, was over the final chapter of my dissertation. Professor Herbert wanted me to conclude my dissertation with what I thought was the best argument for God's existence. My thesis had tried to refute all of Pascal's arguments against natural theology, so Professor Herbert thought I should marshal an ideal exhibit of what Pascal thought should not be done. I dreaded that, since Professor Herbert thought that no arguments for God's existence were rationally compelling! We went through several rounds of chapter drafts until I had a meeting with the entire dissertation committee. To my amazement, another professor, Don Levi, essentially and mysteriously took over the meeting and said to me, "Herbs [that is what he called him] has given you enough grief. Just turn in a final version and you're done." Professor Herbert just sat there, saying nothing. I left the meeting a free man. “Herbs” signed my dissertation form a few weeks later after the defense. Miracles still happen.

In our lighter moments (there were a few), Professor Herbert and I talked about baseball. We both rooted for the Braves. When he found out that I had accepted a position at Denver Seminary, he gave me a Colorado Rockies Baseball cap, which I still have. It was a nice touch.

All in all, Robert T. Herbert—crusty and demanding philosopher that he was—made me a better philosopher than I would have been otherwise. For that, I am grateful. And, thank God, I also told him so before he died.


Beyond Words said...

God used Herbs in your life as iron sharpens iron--what an honest and compelling tribute.

Tom said...

Doug--It was Bob Herbert's upper division philosophy of religion course that solidified my desire to go to graduate school in philosophy. He was unfailingly thoughtful, sincere, and kind. In part because he had so little tolerance for the score-keeping aspects of academic philosophers and their departments, he was terribly out of touch with the pragmatic side of the profession and offered me really awful (although well-meaning) advice about graduate school. But that just shows that, like the rest of us, he was not perfect. (-:

And I have no doubt that he had a sincere faith, even though, as he once told me, he was not much of a "joiner."