PHILOSOPHER ON THE MOVE Marathoner's mind runs a course of enigmatic, imponderable ideas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His legs move swiftly, as they gobble up miles of Baltimore roadway or woodland path. But his thought processes are even quicker. Instead of following the methodical, earthbound forward course of the long-distance runner, they are free to range into the furthest reaches of abstract thought, the most intimate corners of the self.

His colleagues in the Baltimore Road Runners running club know William Desmond as a championship marathon man, winner of last year's Maryland Day road race and the Northern Central Trails Marathon, held on the old railway line north of Sparks.

In other quarters, though, mention Bill Desmond's name and you hear such descriptions as "mental giant" and "highly original thinker."

At age 40, Dr. Desmond has been the chairman of the Loyola College philosophy department for five years. He is the youngest person ever elected president of the Hegel Society, a prestigious group of scholars who study the German philosopher's work. And as the author of four books of philosophy (his fourth is due out this spring) and the editor of a scholarly Hegel series, the man who wrote that "every genuine thought is an adventure" has proven himself not only an able teacher, but a philosopher in his own right.

"I think Dr. Desmond is about the most promising philosopher in his age bracket in America -- and maybe I ought to take away the part about his age bracket," says Paul Weiss, Sterling Professor Emeritus, Yale University. "I think he's going to be outstanding in the country, and will be widely recognized. I have great admiration for him as a philosopher. He knows how to write beautifully, he's thoughtful and hardworking."

In a culture in which we are frequently identified by our jobs, and may be asked "What do you do?" even before "What's your name?" someone who claims the job title of "philosopher" may have some explaining to do.

"Often you do say you teach philosophy. If you tell people you're a philosopher, they'll start asking you about God and immortality. Or they'll say, 'I have a philosophy of life too,' " Dr. Desmond explains.

"If you want to call yourself a philosopher, one of the primary requirements, obviously, is to have done some thinking for yourself about some fundamental issues of existence. I think the basic question is 'What is the nature of being?' 'What is the meaning of being?' You have to devise a means of answering a question which, to some people, is a non-question.

Coming from another scholar, such statements might seem ponderous. But Dr. Desmond delivers them with a quiet certainty that makes the words inviting, if not easily understood.

It helps that he has a sense of humor. During a philosophy symposium several years ago, he presented a paper titled, "Can Philosophy Laugh at Itself?" and peppered his lecture with references to one of his favorite comedy troupes, Monty Python.

"William doesn't take himself or his discipline too seriously," explains his friend Ken Miller, dean of students at Gilman Middle School. The two frequently run together, and the subject of philosophy rarely comes up. "We crack jokes. We talk about our irritations of the moment," he says.

Bill Desmond is, as his bearded, blue-eyed face and romantic brogue immediately announce, Irish. But while the Celts are noted more as poets than as philosophers, Irish Catholicism is marked by a mixture of "divine transcendence" and an intense love of nature that he found powerfully attractive. It was his faith that helped the young philosopher-to-be first get in touch with the Big Questions. After graduating from high school in his native Cork, the 17-year-old entered a Dominican order as a novice.

He spent less than a year with the Dominicans, and decided against entering the priesthood. "I guess the adventure of the world was a little too beckoning," he admits.

But he still credits religion as a major force in his life -- and attends mass regularly at St. Mary's of the Assumption Church in Govans -- although, he says, "in contemporary intellectual culture we are made to feel somewhat shame-faced about religion."

After leaving the order, Dr. Desmond transferred his fervor to scholarly pursuits. He attended University College, Cork (part of the National University of Ireland), where he studied philosophy and poetry and emerged with both a B.A. and M.A.

There he met his wife Maria, then a student of history. "I thought she looked fascinating," he recalls. "Once we set eyes on each other, we started seeing each other. We've been inseparable ever since."

They married in 1972, and several years later moved to America with their infant son William so Dr. Desmond could pursue a Ph.D. (which in his case really was a doctorate in philosophy!) at Penn State University.

Penn State, at the time, was one of the few American universities to have a department that taught the so-called Continental philosophy, the continent being Europe and the philosophy being the type that still grappled with the big metaphysical questions, the meaning of life and such. Most American philosophers were, and still are, being trained in the analytical tradition that sees philosophy as a logic-based, almost scientific endeavor more concerned with the structure of language than of the human soul.

"The Analysts tend to dismiss the Continentalists as 'woolly nonsense,' and the Continentalists tend to dismiss the Analysts as superficial and narrow and lacking in profundity," he says with smile.

Although he had a tenure-track position at a Franciscan college in upstate New York, he decided to return with his family to Ireland in 1979.

"We were homesick and hoping to settle in Ireland," he explains.

Three years later, still unable to find a permanent position, he and his family returned to the United States, where Dr. Desmond was offered a position at Loyola. (He became department chairman in 1986.) He still has the Irishman's love of his home turf, however, and (finances permitting) returns to Ireland every other summer to escape the Baltimore humidity.

"I would like the opportunity to have a summer place there," he says. "My parents are there, and my wife's parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces -- 'the whole catastrophe,' as Zorba the Greek said."

For now, he satisfies himself with a home in Cedarcroft large enough for his immediate family, his wife and three sons -- William, 18; Hugh, 5 1/2 ; and Oisin, 3.

Loyola has become something of a second home for the family. His wife teaches English there, and his eldest son is a freshman, who to the delight of his father is taking several philosophy courses this semester.

Despite the family's highbrow interests, dinner-time conversations rarely focus on intellectual matters.

"When you have a 5- and 3-year- old, there are usually two or three conversations going on . . . shouting, food throwing," he says.

He and his wife deal with the pressures of working and raising children by sticking to a schedule: Ms. Desmond tends to the children during the day and teaches at night; Dr. Desmond is on the opposite shift. "We have a changing of the guard," he says with a laugh.

Dr. Desmond's own philosophy has been shaped by the immensely influential thoughts of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the idealistic German philosopher who lived from 1770 to 1831. Some of his own writings have been reactions to what he considers the limits of Hegel's world view.

Hegel's analysis of the swings of history is often summarized as "thesis-antithesis-synthesis." Rather than focusing on these extremes, Dr. Desmond is more interested in the areas in between. Human beings, he argues, are always in a state of between-ness: between the particular and the universal, between science and art, between God and the world.

"Hegel developed this grand total philosophy in which everything had its place," he says. "There are spaces of difference and otherness between realities which are not amenable to the kind of systemization that Hegel performs. I'm struggling with Hegel and against Hegel. But I think one shows greater respect for him, actually, by not simply repeating what he says, but thinking about matters he thought about."

Studying the thoughts of history's greatest thinkers also has provided Dr. Desmond with insights into his own character. "They've taught me my own imperfections. The more you know, the more you realize the limits of what you know. The more you think about life, the more enigmatic it seems to become. . . . This type of knowledge doesn't destroy confidence. It makes you more realistic about human nature, as well as your own," he says.

It's not easy communicating such matters to laymen, who may have come no closer to Kierkegaard than Woody Allen movies. But it's part of Dr. Desmond's job to do just that -- and to young people raised in a post-literate age.

"I try to be a teacher by first of all remaining true to the subject matter itself. The questions . . . they're intrinsically interesting. You don't have to 'sell' philosophy through something else," he says.

But philosophy student Steven Speaks says Dr. Desmond brings a certain passion to the discipline. "I see two sides of his personality. He can be very relaxed and joke in the classroom. That loosens students up. But once he gets to discussing philosophy, he burns with this intensity. There's not enough space on the board for him to jot all his ideas down. He once said he can't write quickly enough to get everything out that's in his mind," says the 25-year-old senior.

While his students are bright and definitely open to philosophical questioning, Dr. Desmond regrets that not all of them are able to grasp its subtleties.

BTC "First of all, most of them don't have the experience of life that is often necessary to see the point of some of these questions," he says. "Even apart from that, many of our students are simply not readers these days. The kind of reading background we would have brought to college 20 years ago doesn't seem to exist any more.

"The Phil Donahue style of teaching -- where you go around to your students and ask them to share what's on their minds -- supposes there's a richness in the person you are talking to that you can bring out. If the students have not already attained that cultural richness, it becomes more difficult."

When not wrestling with the imponderables, or communicating their mysteries to his students, Bill Desmond often can be found pounding the pavement; running has given him, he says, "some of the best times of my life."

"It's what keeps me human," he says, his Irish eyes smiling. "There's so much waffling in intellectual matters, but running is clean and honest. You either run fast, or you don't run fast!"

THE DESMOND FILE

Occupation: Chairman of Loyola College's philosophy department, author, thinker.

Born: July 1, 1951.

Education: St. Finbar's, Cork, Ireland (high school); University College Cork (B.A. 1972, M.A. 1974); Penn State University (Ph.D. 1978).

Family: Married to Maria since 1972; father of William, 18; Hugh, 5 1/2 ; and Oisin, 3

Books: "Art and the Absolute: A Study of Hegel's Aesthetics" (SUNY Press, 1986); "Desire, Dialectic and Otherness: An Essay on Origins" (Yale University Press, 1987); "Hegel and His Critics" (editor, SUNY Press, 1989); "Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind" (SUNY Press, 1990); "Beyond Hegel and Dialectic: Speculation, Cult and Comedy" (SUNY Press, to be published spring 1992).

Philosophical inspiration: "Plato is the philosopher. Plato has many voices; he has a logical voice, he has a poetic voice, he has a mythic voice. I think he's the most enigmatic of all philosophers."

Thoughts on the "Big Questions": I think some philosophers in the modern age have given up on the big questions: If you can't answer a question in a scientific manner, it's not a question at all. It's a particular psychological thing you should talk about with your priest, or your shrink."

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