Amherst Magazine

William E. Kennick - Remembrances

William E. Kennick

Professor Kennick, the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus), passed away at his home in Amherst on April 12, 2009.  He taught at Amherst College from 1956 to 1999.  We welcome your notes, stories or remembrances of Professor Kennick.  To add a note, please leave a comment using the link below.  You will need to log in using your Amherst College username and password. 

 

 

 

 

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This man brought depth, and texture and color to my tepid youth.

I took a course with Prof. Kennick my first semester at Amherst (ancient and medieval philosophy).  I was clearly not prepared for what I was embarking upon, but Prof. Kennick was patient and understanding.  Before long I could distinguish my Platonic forms from my Platonic appearances!  Prof. Kennick helped set the tone of playful seriousness (serious playfulness?) that I've tried to remain true to throughout my life-long education.

And few other professors have ever looked as good in a bow tie!

In addition to his good teaching, I remember Professor Kennick's fascination (maybe obsession!) with split infinitives.  I had never even considered the topic until receiving his detailed corrections or commentary on my philosophy papers.  Since I took his class in the mid-1980s, I don't think that I have ever split an infinitive in any writing, be it a published article or even personal e-mail.  For those who may not be familiar with infinitive splitting:

      To quickly run = split infinitive (BAD)

      To run quickly = not split infinitive (Good!)

      To really care = split infinitive (BAD)

      To care = not split infinitive (Good!)

Of course, maybe Professor Kennick would laugh and tell me not to worry about split infinitives in common speech ...

Peter M. Hazelton '88

For a two-year period I had the great pleasure of serving with Bill Kennick on the College Judicial Board (three students, three professors) in the early 1970's.  We used to meet monthly in Chapin Hall in a 2nd floor classroom.  Our committee faced a fascinating and sometimes discouraging array of "cases" ranging from minor infractions such as misuse of drugs to more serious matters including plagiarism.  Bill was unfailingly thoughtful in his approach to these matters, displaying flawless logic in his precise analysis of each situation and also a sensitivity and warmth to the human side of college discipline.  Above all, he listened to the students on the committee, treating us as equals in an important enterprise, as we navigated through the difficult issues.  He also treated the students brought before our group with great respect and kindness even though he typically took a hard line on the outcome of discipline.   Through this process, Bill became my friend and a mentor.   

Every academic hour spent with Professor Kennick was an intellectual rainbow.  His classes embodied the essence of the liberal arts education.  His legacy - a generation of students whose imagination he stirred.          

Kennick's Wittgenstein seminar was one of my most stimulating classes at Amherst, not least the discussions about the famous ending of the Tractatus ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent") and how and why Wittgenstein's viewed changed after writing it. Professor Kennick's approach to philosophy blended a wonderful lightheartedness with a strong sense of its purpose and significance. I remember being surprised by his responses to my papers, by how closely he was reading them, as if what students wrote merited as much attention as the words of the philosophers we were reading. It was an awakening, to me.

Partly due to Professor Kennick's influence I became a professor of philosophy.  Long ago in Philosophy 18 he gave a particularly clear diagram of the differences among the various kinds of Kantian imperatives.  Some years later I saw him, and told him that whenever I teach Kant's ethics  I always use that diagram, and that I always am sure to credit him.  Professor Kennick replied:  "That's very nice of you, my boy, but you don't have to credit me -- the diagram is yours, you *paid* for it."  I don't know if I could ever pay enough for what Professor Kennick taught us.

As a  history major during the early 1960s with a strong interest in intellectual history, I felt that it was a basic part of my education to hear Professor Kennick’s lectures on the the history of western philosophy.  In those days, classes met four times per week for fifteen weeks.  Consequently, there was time for a LOT of coverage.  First semester, for example, there must have been ten lectures on Plato, eight on Aristotle, etc., etc.  Kennick meant business.  He had a great deal to say, and he was determined to stand and deliver.  Long before the invention of power-point, he would outline his lectures with chalk on the blackboard and then dive in, his booming voice carrying his crystal-clear analyses of the great ideas he had in mind in a manner that constantly held my attention.   I still have my lecture notes, which I loaned to my son so that he could use them years later when he took Kennick’s courses himself.  By that point, I had been a colleague of Kennick’s for a few years, when I was a member of the Amherst faculty.  The relatively calm early sixties had given way to the turbulent late sixties and early seventies.  There were lots of controversies on the campus about the relationships between academic traditions and current events.  Bill (as I had come to know him) was a leader of a group of faculty members who sought to uphold traditional standards in the face of criticisms by “activist” students and some of our colleagues.  He was always respectful of the views of people with whom he differed, but he did not seek to curry favor by bending with winds.  He displayed a strong academic conscience.  He is one of my former teachers whom I have  always most admired.    

Andrew Lees, 1962

 

Fondly and very well...He looked like Professor Kingsfield from the movie the "Paper Chase," but he was indeed the real deal. He was also warm, charming, and funny. If you could put on a coat and tie and sneak into a Mead art showing, Bill Kennick was the guy you wanted to be around. He could tell you everything about the art, but then you also had the pleasure of seeing him work the crowd, from students to faculty to College benefactors. If anyone embodied the Renaissance man at the College, it was Professor Kennick.

Some probably wouldn't recall this, but Professor Kennick was also the faculty advisor to Psi U fraternity. My good friend Clark King and I recruited the Professor after our then-advisor Professor Latham died suddenly, I believe in 1977.  He was our gift to the fraternity, one warmly welcomed into the brotherhood (and later sisterhood).

For me Professor Kennick was also the spark of my intellectual experience at the College, the one who got me thinking about thinking. I never would have majored in Philosophy without him, or taken that wonderful course in ancient Greek grammar by Professor Marshall, for example. When I reflect back and ask, what came from the Amherst experience, and when I answer among other things, there came a lasting curiosity, a confidence that anything can be learned or taught,  and an appreciation of high standards and precision in thinking and thought expression, and yes, when I reflect on these things, I certainly thank Professor Kennick.

I worked with Bill Kennick for my sophomore and junior years fully expecting that he would be my thesis adviser. He was on sabbatical for my senior year and the department hired John King-Farlow who not only worked with me on the thesis but became a lifelong friend and collaborator. Prof. Kennick was a gentle man, a scholar and a listener as well as being a brilliant lecturer. As Andy Lees points out, his History of Philosophy lectures were incomparable and provide me with one of my favorite stories. After students from Smith and Holyoke were allowed to audit his lectures, Bill was tearing along in high form one day when he noticed a young woman in the first row who seemed to be writing his words down verbatim. Without breaking stride he directed his remark to her, saying "What are you writing?"...and she wrote it down.

Professor Kennick defined my experience at Amherst. He was wise, benevolent, formidable and just -- kind of like God. The most valuable thing I took from college was an intellectual conscience, and I owe this to Kennick. His infectious passion for philosophy is now endemic to many quarters of the profession. Sad as it is to see him go, I can't help but think that he will continue to influence his students in the capacity of Unmoved Mover.

A  major, I was more Epstein's than Kennick's student. Yet the latter's erudition- especially his mastery of the ancient languages - and proficient pedagogy--- a lecture stylist second only to charismatic John Ratte' -- awed and inspired me. Particularly as a freshman taking the 17/18  sequence, I felt I'd encountered the consummate, albeit slightly epicene, cultivated person. Too, in Kennick's Aesthetics seminar I learned arguments and an approach ["You  must go to see what is there"] which served me not only in graduate and professional school but in practice. Aware of my debt, whenever over the years visiting Amherst I'd bump into Kennick, I'd always attempt to convey my gratitude for his influence. He would always so deftly and quickly turn the conversation that I was unsure whether it was his humility or my ineptitude. This past Autumn, a frail, but still keen Kennick showed up at a Classics Dept memorial at which my daughter 09E was presenting brilliantly. {Her Phi Beta  Kappa election contrasts with my withering college academic record.} Afterwards I introduced them. She did not miss a beat. "Professor Kennick, I've been hearing about you since I was a little girl."

   

If I remember correctly, I took Professor Kennick's two courses during my Junior year at Amherst.  Both classes were inspiring and among the hardest and most stimulating classes that I took during my four years at the College. There are three memories that stand out.  First, I remember spending a week trying to write a five page paper on the two or three paragraphs that constituted St. Anselm's theorem or Ontological Argument which purported (I think) to prove the existence of God.  Wrestling with phrases like "that than which a greater cannot be thought" was an aerobic exercise.  We submitted our papers on a Friday and then discussed the subject in class.  When pressed for his view of whether or not St. Anselm had succeeded, Professor Kennick's response was something like--"it may be that God (or that than which a greater cannot be thought) cannot be thought not to exist...but does he exist?!"  I've spent more than 25 years trying to figure that one out!  Second, I remember a Fall lecture in Merril when, about ten minutes in, Professor Kennick bent down to pick up a dropped paper and his glasses fell off.  They fell to the floor and one of the two arms of his horn-rimmed frames broke off.  What to do?  It seems that Professor Kennick couldn't really see his notes without his glasses and they wouldn't stay on with only one arm.   For the next 4o minutes or so, he stood at the lectern with one hand turning pages and the other wrapped around his head to hold his glasses in place.  When he finished, the room literally errupted in spontaneous applause--as if a boxer had withstood a relentless onslaught to "go the distance."  His sheer tenacity impressed upon us that he thought it was important that we discuss that morning, as planned, these ideas and no broken glasses were going to stand in his way.  Finally, I recall his lecture on Descartes in the second half of the year in Morrow.  Professor Kennick was discussing Descartes' most famous statement--"I think, therefore I am."  He said that in Descartes' conception, "I am nothing more than a thinking thing."  To illustrate, he pulled out about 20 small, plastic, wind-up animal toys and set them loose on the lectern, telling us that this toy was nothing more than a barking thing and the like.  The racket that these toys made seemed to delight Professor Kennick.  The incongruity of this horn-rimmed, pipe-smoking, oxford-cloth-button-down-Harris-Tweed-wearing Distinguished Philosophy Professor from Central Casting playing with little wind-up toys delighted his students.   When I think about what made my Amherst experience so wonderful, it doesn't take long to get to classes and conversations with Professor Kennick.  I will always feel incredibly fortunate to have been his student. 

No professor impacted my development more; I feel fortunate to have known him and to have been inspired by him.

David Foster Wallace seems to have gone to great lengths to avoid splitting infinitives in his prose -- not an easy thing to do when you write like DFW did -- which always reminds me of Professor Kennick (who I imagine played a role in this).

I entered Professor Kennick's philosophy 18 as a naive thinker with some curiousity about the world, and I emerged several courses later as a lover of philosophy and who would eventually do some gradulate work in the discipline (merely because it was enjoyable).  As though it were music or poetry, this stern, brilliant, compelling, loving aesthetician served up rigorous inquiry as a joyful end-in-itself.

I mourn for anyone who didn't have the pleasure of knowing him.

@xandnotx

     I was fortunate to meet Professor Kennick in the fall of my freshman year, 1962, in Humanities I.  In all the classes I took with him, Professor Kennick returned papers in descending order of excellence, and I was disappointed to find that, in those moments of hushed classroom drama, mine seldom seemed to retain the heft and buoyancy that I was sure they had when I turned them in.  Throughout my Amherst years, Professor Kennick treated me, nonetheless, with a kindness, regard and rigor beyond my deserving.

     One fall he saw that I was reading Yeats and remarked that Yeats was a favorite poet.  Soon after he gave me a black-and-white photograph that he had taken of Yeats’s grave in Drumcliff churchyard.  The epitaph from “Under Ben Bulben” was legible:


 Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, Pass by!


 Pass by we must, but like many of his students, I carry with me vivid memories of a wonderful teacher and an admirable man.

 

Bill Kennick turned 0ut to have the greatest influence on me of all my Amherst teachers.  I was a late bloomer.  Although I managed to graduate with honors in philosophy, I must admit that I seldom really pushed myself.  This annoyed Prof. Kennick, to put it mildly.  I needed to be pushed, and he was the only faculty member who really pushed me.  After ten years, I began to appreciate what he had done for me.  I cherish some of his comments, one of which is on a paper that I still have.  I don't know whether anyone else earned his comments to the effect of, "You know, you really could have tried harder," but it was a pleasure to thank him for these memories years later at a Homecoming game. 

Prior to the beginning of the academic year in the Autumn of '56, at President Cole's reception for incoming freshmen and new faculty members, I found myself standing next to a most distinguished-looking, pipe-smoking individual who introduced himself as WE Kennick of the Philosophy Department, newly arrived from teaching at Oberlin College. An indication of my own naiveté at that time was that, when he said that his special interest was aesthetics, I had no idea what the word meant—'tho I was of course too embarrassed to admit the fact. Across the next four years, and indeed ever since then (including my subsequent years of doctoral work in England and my own academic career back in the USA), I found both his sheer intellect and his eloquence in lecture to be incomparable. One anecdote from his marvelous History of Philosophy course: when someone asked for the fallacy in Berkeley's argument that ‘matter’ is a meaningless term, since one perceives only qualities and never—by definition—the substratum, he replied: ‘There's no fallacy; it's quite a valid argument’, which quite astonished us all. Later, while I was studying in London, he came there to live during a half-year sabbatical from Amherst, when I had a better opportunity to know both him and his charmingly brilliant wife Nancy (who had been one of his students at Oberlin). No one among the renowned scholars that I encountered among English academics was his equal in clarity of thought and expression. I've no doubt that, like myself, innumerable of his students and colleagues from across the years treasure most highly his example of intellectual excellence coupled with cultural sophistication. His article, ‘Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake?’ (mind.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/LXVII/267/317) remains a paradigm of clear and decisive philosophical thought, a supreme example of how one single work can outshine entire volumes by lesser minds. May he dialogue with the worthies in Paradise!

 

Highlight of Freshman year, second semester, Early Modern Philosophy--grappling with the meaning of necessity from Hobbes to Kant.  Highlight of that venture: watching Professor Kennick shatter Descartes' view that animals lack a mind, and hence a soul, through the classroom use of mechanical windup animals.  An idea's flaws revealed with a trip to the toy shop.

Outside of the classroom, Professor Kennick was  a champion for students.  When the axe was about to be placed on student financial aid in my sophomore year (81-82), Professor Kennick came to the aid of many financial aid students, like me, by telling the financial aid office, at one of the meetings, just find the money.  For that support, an example of his caring and his wisdom,  I and others will always be grateful.

I don't have the words to express how much Professor Kennick impacted my years at Amherst and beyond.  He taught me how to think and to love it while doing it. 

During my Freshman year, I was fortunate enough to be cast in a production of Medea, in a new translation by student Nina Kaminer.  The play was performed in the back yard of then President Gibbs (who was away at the time).  I was playing the Messenger and Prof. Kennick was playing King Creon.  My one scene consisted of me running around the front yard a few times to get winded, then stumbling into the back yard, out of breath, and delivering a lengthy monologue to the actor playing Jason about how his hot new wife and her father King Creon had been gruesomely murdered by a poisoned dress (sent by Jason's ditched, and angry,  wife, Medea).  After delivering my monologue, I made my exit into the President's house, where Prof. Kennick was waiting, having also finished his action in the play, since his character was now dead.  I greeted the Professor, who complimented my delivery of the monologue (as well as my memory), which he had watched through the window, and then said that we both could use a drink and he was sure the President wouldn't mind, since the Scotch belonged to the school, and thus most certainly to us as well.  So, we each enjoyed the rest of the play with a Scotch in hand before heading out for our curtain call with a warmth in our bellies and a pleasant buzz in our heads.  And I will always remember that day, and Professor Kennick, with great fondness.

I write this with a smile of chagrin, knowing how intolerant Bill Kennick was of lateness. At a time when everything was negotiable with most professors, and certainly deadlines, Kennick held firm. He had some scheme for deducting points from grades with every hour your paper was late -- and I never knew anyone who handed one in late! 

There is so much to recall and to write. College classes that stand out in memory tend to be the ones that taught you more than you knew you were learning at the time. Kennick's two omnibus history of philosophy classes did that. I couldn't say it better than the writer who called the challenge of tangling with difficult passages in the philosophers we read "aerobic." Kennick never settled for windy generalizations, and never encouraged them in us. You had to think. You had to slow down and focus. You couldn't let little areas of muddled incomprehension -- in you -- simply go; you had to stop and clear them up. You had to pay attention to the many different ways words could be construed. It was hard. It was rewarding. I found it to be rather like reading Shakespeare in high school -- the thrill of encountering a different language (poetic in that case, philosophical in Kennick's texts) and having to stretch your mind and imagination to fit. All this involved mental habits that would serve well later on, almost no matter what you did with your life and work.

I had the great luck to know Bill later on, and to maintain sporadic contact with him over the years. It was impossible to meet him socially and not come away with pleasure, especially the pleasure of laughter. He himself had a marvelous laugh, with more than a bit of WC Fields in it. He loved socializing, certainly enjoyed a sociable scotch or two, and was unrelentingly generous with former students who continued to come to him for advice and enlightenment. He was a terrific storyteller, too.

Though the rigorous language and analyses of philosophy structured his professional intellectual life, Bill loved literature and poetry and music and drama. While still an Amherst undergrad, and recently having come through one of his classes, I happened into a cocktail party at my aunt and uncle's house at which someone was present who had known Kennick as an undergraduate at Oberlin. Imagine my thrill at hearing that forty years later, Kennick's Hamlet was still talked about on campus as the greatest student theater performance of all time! I still feel the grin I smiled, picturing him in doublet and hose.

Finally, I should tell a story at my own expense. It was either junior or senior year, while taking Kennick's Ancient and Medieval class, that I attended faculty meetings in my capacity as an editor of the Amherst Student. It was the semester of the then-notorious cross burning on campus, and the faculty was considering suspending classes for a day or two to hold workshops. The discussion of this was heated, back and forth, and at some point I boldly raised my hand and was recognized by the dean. Shouldn't students' wishes be taken into account in this discussion? I asked. Sure, some students wanted worskshops, but what if others wanted to have their regular classes? Didn't we have the right to choose?

Kennick, of course, famously opposed letting campus protests interrupt his teaching. But now, amid the rumble (presumably of annoyance) that passed among the faculty,  he loudly guffawed. "Cooper," he said in his WC Fields voice, "you never come to my class anyway, so sit down!"

True enough, I had skipped his class the day before. I hadn't thought he would notice.

Bill, with me you will always have the last laugh.  RRC 

 

 

 

Thanks in part to the tutelage of Bill Kennick during my junior and senior years at Amherst, I have been a philosophy prof for forty years, and my wife thinks I have worked very hard at that job.  But let me describe Kennick’s own work ethic and work load at the time I knew him, 1964-66.  I have never seen or heard of anything like it. 

He taught two courses per semester.  One of the two would be either the first or the second part of his legendary Thales-to-Wittgenstein history of philosophy course.  It was hugely popular and enrolled something like 200 students at a time.  Kennick gave three brilliantly crafted lectures a week.  Now, in just that one course, he assigned four or five short papers during the semester and a full-length term paper at the end; I believe there was also a final exam.  And he himself graded every one of them, penning thoughtful, incisive comments on your pages.  The comments were directed personally to you; there was no boilerplate.  And in commenting on later papers he remembered things you had said in earlier ones.  That’s out of 800 to 1,000 short papers and 200 term papers, in fourteen weeks.

His other course the same semester was not so demanding as that, but it was demanding.  And of course he had other duties to the department and to the college.

Oh:  He held three hours of office hours every afternoon, five days a week.  And they were jammed.

This appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette yesterday:

Cookbook brings fond memories of a friend
by Marietta Pritchard

I recently received an early birthday present from someone who is no longer with us. Our friend Bill Kennick, who died last spring, always remembered my birthday, and usually gave me a book and sometimes a score with songs for me to learn. There was always a bit of a challenge in his gifts, and I tried to rise to it - to learn the songs, to have a conversation with him about the book. Sometimes my response took awhile, since his gifts tended to be serious. One year it was Vasily Grossman's gripping 900-page "Life and Fate," a banned Soviet-era novel, which echoes "War and Peace" but is based on the World War II battle of Stalingrad. Sometimes it took even longer: I still feel a little guilty about a collection of Rilke's poetry and prose that Bill gave me one year, which I have not yet fully faced up to. I'm sure I said something by way of thanks, but it can't have been very well-informed.

This time the gift came from Bill's wife, Nancy, who invited my husband and me to see if there were any books we wanted from Bill's collection. I came home with a couple, but the most evocative is "Chez Panissse Cooking," a volume that our friend seems to have taken quite seriously, judging from the list he left inside of his favorite recipes. He was a wonderful cook, having taught himself to prepare elegant dishes from the pages of Gourmet magazine, among other sources. (A decades-long subscriber, he would have been saddened at that magazine's demise.)

Inside the cookbook are several other reminders of Bill. One is an envelope from the alumni association of Oberlin College, where he both studied and taught. On the back of the envelope is a penciled notation in his neat handwriting, calculating the measurements for a half recipe for buckwheat crepes to be served with smoked salmon, crème fraiche and capers. We had eaten this excellent first course at the Kennicks' house, served as always in their elegant dining room, with the most carefully chosen wines and formal table settings that included damask napkins ironed by Bill himself.

A further reminder is a bookmark consisting of a business card for the Travel Loft in Amherst, with the name of another friend, Carol Mehr, who has long since retired from her work there. Bill, who had a difficult and impoverished childhood, made his way in the world on his own to become a distinguished professor of philosophy at Amherst College. He loved to travel, and as soon as he was able to do so, went in high style, staying at the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants.

The Travel Loft bookmark is at a page that begins the elaborate instructions for making "spontaneously leavened sourdough bread." The starter for this bread involves using a base of potatoes rather than commercial yeast. In the margin, Bill has marked the following sentence, surely for its literary value as much as its culinary usefulness: "The power of the potato should not be underestimated - if, at some point later on, your starter has suffered from neglect and appears slow to bubble up or produces heavy bread, use the water in which potatoes have boiled to fertilize and restore its vigor."

I know that Bill made this bread and had kept the starter around for years, sometimes sharing it with friends. I had once turned down his offer of some starter, thinking that life was too busy and that my bread-making days were over. But now life seems to have slowed down a bit, so I think I will get some russet potatoes and try making the starter. It's the least I can do for an old friend. I will be sure to send him a mental note to tell him how it's worked out.

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at mppritchard@earthlink.net

 

With apologies to Rand Cooper, I, not he, am the world's worst procrastinator, and must assert that dubious claim here with my favorite Kennick story:

Spring, 1978: on a warm and sunny day I was sitting on the lawn between Frost Library and Chapin Hall with Chris Callanan ('79E, if memory serves).  We sat cross-legged discussing who-cares-what.  Having concluded his office hours, Kennick emerged from Chapin and proceeded along the walk--tweed jacket with the suede elbow patches, tweed hat, pipe in his mouth, with his ramrod-erect gait--past the point where we sat.  Pausing, he greeted us ("Hello, Chris, hello, Jon"--always first names, he knew us all by our first names) and said, "You look like a couple of gurus sitting there."  Whereupon Chris placed his hands on his knees, palms up, joined his thumbs to his middle fingers, closed his eyes, and intoned, "Do you want the wisdom of the ancients?"  Kennick leaned over and took his pipe out of his mouth and in that distinctive professorial growl of his replied, "I've got the wisdom of the ancients!"  And with a chuckle he replaced the pipe and straightened and continued on his way.

I'm glad to see that Prof. Kennick allowed himself to bring out his inner dandy as he got older.  (This based on the excellent pictures you show of him in his later years). 

I don't remember a great deal about the specifics of his History of Philosophy course any more, but I do remember that he worked incredibly hard. . .and I'm pleased to see that he let himself wear brighter colours as he neared retirement age.  His intellectual discipline was an inspiration to us all, and continues to be an inspiration even now, as I approach retirement age myself.

 

Jon Peirce "67