GEORGE MOLNAR: THE POWERS OF MAVERICKS

“The careerists don’t know what to make of you, Terry. You are too much of a maverick. Zapping the high powered intellectuals”.  George Molnar , 1979, talking to me about my problems with the Althusserians.

George Molnar was an amazing teacher and I owe him a lot, so I wanted to set out a few memories of this intelligent and humane man.

1972 – I began university after having by myself read hundreds of philosophy books while I was at school: The Presocratics, Plato, Berkeley, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Ayer, all of Bertrand Russell and all of Whitehead (including PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA), Reichenbach, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, and many more. So I already knew lots of the ideas and arguments that they taught us in my first year of philosophy (and after!).

But Molnar’s courses were different. He gave lectures but very quickly he would also divide us up into discussion groups and go from one group to the other stimulating and enriching the debate. He talked to us and got us talking about Freud and Marx, Ivan Illich, R.D.Laing, antipsychiatry, homosexuality, feminism, pacifism and revolution, the critique of the school and university system.

He had long curly fair hair frizzed out into an afro haircut and wore colorful hippie-style clothes. He talked about libertarianism and very clearly and openly lived his philosophy. I remember being pleased because I wrote an essay on the right to truth and the right to be different that he liked so much that he showed it around to his colleagues in the department and predicted that I was going places in philosophy.

1973 – He had an amazing seminar on philosophies of liberation that I sat in on. We read Illich, and Laing, but also Sartre, Foucault, Freud and Wilhelm Reich and Marcuse, and the German anti-psychiatric collective SPK, Juliet Mitchell and Kate Millett’s SEXUAL POLITICS. The general theme was : the personal is the political.

Strangely my only academic memory of talking to him this year (of course I often ran into him on campus and we would play chess and talk about all sorts of things – he was a great conversationalist) was about analytic philosophy. I had already begun to read Feyerabend seriously the year before and was trying to give some ontological underpinning to his pluralism. I was immensely interested in modal logic, possible worlds and counterpart theory and applying it to the analysis of counterfactual conditionals. He was interested in all this too, and he talked to me about his theory of powers and dispositions as a more economic ontology.

(At the end of 1973 the Philosophy Department split in two, and for the rest of my time at Sydney University (i.e. till 1980) there were two philosophy departments: the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy grouped together the analytic philosophers and the Department of General Philosophy assembled the Continentals (unfortunately under the growing hegemony of the Althusserians). This created a problem for those who had already done one year or more of philosophy: they had to choose which department to enroll in to continue their studies. For 1974 exceptionally one could enroll in both departments and count philosophy as two subjects, which I did.

Molnar of course chose to teach in the “Continental” Department, to his regret as it was quickly dominated by the Althusserians. They were academic Marxists, and certainly didn’t live their philosophy the way he lived his. He called them the “careerists”. The new Continental department was supposed to decide everything in democratic meetings of students and staff, which he was in favour of. But at the same time he was pessimistic, emphasising that teachers and students had conflicting objective interests, that they were “class enemies”. He decried the “careerism” that was already beginning to undermine the radical aspirations of the department).

1974 – I was enrolled with him in a class called “Philosophy of Education”. We read and discussed Illich (again!) but also A.S.Neill, Everett Reimer, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, Neil Postman, Jonathan Kozol, Paul Goodman, Paulo Freire, Bowles and Gintis, and also Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood. At the beginning of this year I was no longer able to bear the tension between all the new stuff I was learning and my fairly traditional parents, so I found myself leaving home but with nowhere to go. George Molnar kindly let me occupy a room in his house for a couple of months, till I found a flat to move into.

1975 – I wrote my Honours Year Dissertation on the science/ideology distinction in Althusser and subjected it to a thorough critique. The Althusserians were not at all happy, but the epistemological analysis was impeccable. I had a few conversations with Molnar on the subject, as he detested the scientistic marxism of the careerists. So despite the intellectual and administrative hegemony of the Althusserians I graduated from the Department of General Philosophy with First Class Honours.

After this time I lost track of Molnar, running into him only very occasionally. When he talked to me about being a maverick it was at a very symbolic moment. I ran into him on the street in Sydney and we talked. I tried to tell him about my enthusiasm for Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS, which I saw as the continuation of all that I had learned with him. Molnar was unimpressed as he had quit his tenured lecturer’s job at Sydney University for a life of militancy in London, especially anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle. When we met he was preparing to go to London, and I was preparing to go to Paris. So when he talked about being a maverick and being ostracised by the careerists, he was including himself in the same category that he was laying out for me.

I never met Feyerabend , one of my intellectual heroes, but George Molnar incarnated for me the same libertarian ideal and the same passion to philosophise and to live one’s philosophy. He was, and still is, an exemplary figure of individuation.

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10 Responses to GEORGE MOLNAR: THE POWERS OF MAVERICKS

  1. underground-man says:

    I find it hard to see how being a maverick fits into a life of militancy. Both anti-racism and anti-fascism are dogmatic positions. Did you know Feyerabend didn’t hold either?

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    • Anon says:

      dude, the guy is writing an homage to a deceased mentor, do you think you could maybe show a little class and save the know-it-all comments for another post? jesus.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    If you look at Molnar’s life it was very varied, not a “life of militancy” at all. Feyerabend was for the full development of human beings and of their traditions, so in that sense he was anti-racist and anti-fascist. In the name of this concern he was against making declarations and acting in the service of dogmas and abstractions, so you are technically right but existentially wrong, I think.

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  3. underground-man says:

    You just made that distinction up on the spot, didn’t you?

    In general I’m not happy to see people trying to press extreme relativism or variants thereof in the service of leftism, for example when Laruelle says (I consider non-philosophy a strand of relativism) that non-philosophy is akin to marxism. The quintessential relativistic insight that anything is possible and everything is equally valuable on some sort of meta-level, or rather because of the lack of such a meta-level, might as well lead one to embrace and glorify war. Think of Mussolini who defined fascism as relativismo per intuizione.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    I think you have not understood Feyerabend’s distinction between Dadaism and political anarchism. Anarchism “cares little for human lives and human happiness”, whereas “A Dadaist would not hurt a fly”. Feyerabend was very much concerned with liberty, and the distinction I made above has been very clear in my mind for 40 years.

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  5. underground-man says:

    Then I’d like to hear you expound on it.

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  6. terenceblake says:

    Against relativism and for humanitarianism, page 151-152 of Feyerabend’s KILLING TIME, but the whole book is relevant.

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  7. arranjames says:

    I remember my first honours dissertation, on Foucault and anarchism. I can barely recall the content, but I’d guess if I ever had anything resembling a master- someone whose influence I could never escape from- it would probably be Foucault. Not sure how I feel about such an admission. At any rate, Peter Hallward was my supervisor and I can recall him gently trying to turn my dissertation into on Foucault and the Maoists.

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  8. stellarcartographies says:

    Shouldn’t the last line be something like, “I was there before you, Levi…twice!”

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  9. Leon says:

    Beautiful and inspiring post.

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