First in Family

Allen Harrison

Richard W. Werner

John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy

Richard W. Werner
Richard W. Werner

I grew up on a farm. I found that I love to learn. It beat the work and boredom of rural life as well as the silliness of teenage social angst. A few teachers recognized my love for learning and fed my interest in mathematics and science. It helped keep me out of the trouble in which I all too often found myself.

My favorite teacher, an English teacher, gave me some books to read, Descartes and Montagne, as I recall. I read and we talked about them. He told me to take philosophy when I went to college. I asked him, "What is philosophy?" I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and the only, save my wife and children, to graduate college. So my sophomore year in college I had an elective in my math curriculum and took history of philosophy. I fell in love from the very start, convinced by each philosopher that he got it right only to find that the next one proved him mistaken.

I remember looking at my professor, a man about my age now but far more dignified, and thinking, "They pay you to do this? How do I get this gig?" So I figured out how and it's about the most wonderful gig a kid from McKee City, N.J., could ever hope to have. Throughout, I had no idea what I was doing. If I did, I probably would never have tried.

I found that the only thing better than reading and thinking about philosophy was discussing it with students and colleagues. I used to worry that there was something wrong with me. Why after all these years do I still find it exciting, a natural high, to discuss the ins and outs of the arguments on abortion, or Aristotle's ethics, or the fact/value dichotomy with people much younger than I am? Why does it never grow old or I grow up?

I've learned to stop worrying and let it be. I enjoy talking with students about their lives and their problems and I think sometimes I make useful suggestions. I enjoy finding that kid who doesn't fit, who has no idea how talented she is, and helping her discover and develop that talent. That is payment on a promissory note that I discharge with joy. But I most enjoy watching a student work hard to accomplish a goal that he never would have even tried if he realized beforehand it was impossible to attain.