Remembering Gary Gutting

An Exemplary Teacher, In & Out of the Classroom
Gary Gutting

The community of philosophers is mourning the death of Gary Gutting—a brilliant scholar, devoted teacher, and exemplary public intellectual who worked for about five decades at the University of Notre Dame.

After receiving his doctorate in 1968 from Saint Louis University, Gutting’s scholarly work focused originally on twentieh-century French philosophy, especially the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault. Over the course of his career Gutting wrote several books on topics in French philosophy, exploring the work of French intellectuals like Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou, and Paul Ricouer. (Non-philosophers who are interested in getting a flavor of this project might take a look at Gutting’s 2005 book Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, which is just what its title advertises.)

Thanks to the influence of his colleagues at Notre Dame, Gutting also developed an interest in contemporary analytic philosophy, leading to, among other things, his 2009 book What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy. And a couple of his more recent books are aimed at wider audiences: What Philosophy Can Do (2015), where he engages philosophically with the “big questions” of modern life, and Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (2016), a collection of interviews with distinguished philosophers concerning the rationality of religious belief. (Here and here are reviews of the last two books that were published in Commonweal.)

In a 2012 interview with Richard Marshall of 3:AM Magazine, Gutting pointed to his 1999 book Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity as “the book I’ve had the most fun writing and the one that best expresses my own views on the central issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics”:

I defend what I see as the best of the Enlightenment: a commitment to reason and to liberal values, but freed from the philosophical foundationalism, dismissal of history and tradition, and facile atheism associated with its positivist versions. Despite the disagreements among them, I see [Richard] Rorty, [Charles] Taylor, and even [Alasdair] MacIntyre as contributors to the Enlightenment project.

I defend what I see as the best of the Enlightenment: a commitment to reason and to liberal values.

Beyond his scholarly work, Gutting also defended these commitments, and demonstrated what can be gained by following them through, in an impressive number of essays, reviews, and interviews published in popular venues, including Commonweal and the New York Times. (His most recent essay for this magazine considered whether it is possible for humans to have genuine relationships with artificially intelligent systems.) Many of these writings showcase the value of bringing a philosopher’s commitment to reason to bear on contemporary issues such as gun control, the threat posed by climate change, the limits of economic science, and the ethics of voting. Others present philosophical ideas in a manner accessible to a contemporary audience.

Gutting’s skill in writing for a general reader was surely the product of his devotion to undergraduate teaching. In the one semester when I worked as his teaching assistant, more than thirty-five years into his career at Notre Dame, Gutting was trying out an entirely new approach to teaching Introduction to Philosophy, in which a group of students was required to email him with questions before each class meeting, and he’d use these questions as the basis for his lectures. Here is what he wrote about the importance of this sort of education in a 2016 essay for Commonweal that defended the existence of philosophy requirements at Catholic colleges and universities:

[T]he point of a philosophy requirement is not to teach students Catholic doctrine. That important task falls to the theology department. The role of philosophy is to introduce students to the problems, concepts, and arguments that philosophers, from Plato to the present, have developed to think rigorously about the fundamental questions of human life.… Philosophy does not assume Catholic doctrines but rather provides the philosophical resources needed for informed and rigorous thinking about the universal human questions to which these doctrines respond.

These resources are particularly essential today for coming to terms with secular challenges to religion, which are almost without exception philosophical. This is particularly true of the strongest challenges, which are from philosophical interpretations of scientific results. My own current undergraduate course, for example, focuses on the use of evolution to question the existence of a divine creator, psychological experiments said to undermine free will, and the claims of neuroscientists to reduce consciousness to the brain. My goal is to provide students with the philosophical distinctions and argumentative strategies—via readings from philosophical classics and contemporary discussions—that they need to intelligently assess challenges to faith.

That last line could well serve as a description of Gutting’s life work. While I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, the sense I always had was that his relationship to Catholicism was “complicated”—and surely it was. But here he is in the Times in 2013, defending his faith in the church where he “was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for eight years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for twelve more years by Jesuits.” For Gutting as an adult, the basis of his continued faith was a commitment to “the ethics of love preached by Jesus”:

The ethics of love I revere as the inspiration for so many (Catholics and others) who have led exemplary moral lives. I don’t say that this ethics is the only exemplary way to live or that we have anything near to an adequate understanding of it. But I know that it has been a powerful force for good.… As to the theistic metaphysics, I’m agnostic about it taken literally, but see it as a superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love. The historical stories, I maintain, are best taken as parables illustrating moral and metaphysical teachings.

Traditional apologetics has started with metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, then argued from the action of God in the world to the truth of the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and finally justified the ethics of love by appealing to these teachings. I reverse this order, putting first the ethics of love as a teaching that directly captivates our moral sensibility, then taking the history and metaphysics as helpful elucidations of the ethics.

Over the years, Gutting would frequently close the final day of Introduction to Philosophy by reading, in a dramatic way that I have never been able to carry off myself, some of the most famous lines from Plato’s Apology:

As long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any of you whom I happen to meet: “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”

Plato’s dialogue concludes with the last line of Socrates’ speech to the jury that had called for his execution: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one except God.”

John Schwenkler is associate professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of Anscombe's Intention: A Guide, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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