The problem of nihilism has haunted professor Karsten Harries ’54 GRD ’62 since his undergraduate days at Yale. As he sees it, his predicament is not unique: Harries diagnoses the difficulty as one aspect of modernity.
But ever since his appointment to Yale’s Philosophy Department at the age of 24 in 1961, Harries — who is retiring from teaching at the end of this academic year — has established himself as a defender set against the specter of nihilism and a thinker attempting to “reconnect” beauty with love.
To celebrate Harries’ contributions to the field of philosophy and commemorate his retirement after more than 50 years of teaching, the Philosophy Department will host a two-day scholarly conference titled “Truth and Beauty” on April 28 and 29 in the Jeffrey H. Loria Center for History of Art. The conference will feature Harries’ former students and colleagues from across the country to speak on topics ranging from empathy in phenomenology to God in the modern world. The event will conclude with a reflection by Harries on his academic work and a reception.
Students and faculty interviewed by the News all spoke of Harries’ deep impact on the department, his colleagues, his students and the field at large.
“Karsten Harries is a fine teacher and a great scholar, but, beyond all of that, he is a remarkable human being,” said Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75, a former Law School dean and former student of Harries. “I feel really privileged to have been in his company and to have been able to learn from him for such a long period of time, and I am really looking forward to the conference this weekend.”
Kronman said he met Harries in fall 1968 when Kronman arrived in New Haven as a doctoral student studying philosophy. Kronman remembered Harries as a teacher who made “the old books come alive,” connecting him with a conversation among thinkers over the ages.
Philosophy Department chair Stephen Darwall ’68, another former student of Harries, fondly recalled a similar experience when taking Harries’ course on Søren Kierkegaard during his junior year.
“He made the books live for me,” Darwall said. “He showed me what it is like to be thinking about a philosopher who is trying to come to terms with philosophical ideas.”
In addition to praising Harries’ pedagogical skills, Kronman emphasized Harries’ deep understanding of several subjects in philosophy, including the philosophy of art and architecture, aesthetics, early modern philosophy and existentialism. Contrasting Harries’ breadth of knowledge with the trend of increasing specialization in academia, Kronman described Harries as a counterweight to the philosophers and academics who have become increasingly narrow in their focus.
“Karsten’s interests have remained sweepingly broad, and his books cover an immense territory, both timewise and subjectwise,” he added.
Harries’ wide-ranging body of work has been well-received. He has written hundreds of articles and has published 10 books on subjects ranging from the philosophy and history of art and architecture to widely translated studies of the work of Kierkegaard and Heidegger to his own musings on the relationship between and the prospects of modernity and postmodernity in Infinity and Perspective. Further, his book “The Ethical Function of Architecture” won the American Institute of Architects 8th Annual International Architecture Book Award for Criticism, Infinity and Perspective.
A self-described “outlier” in Yale’s Philosophy Department, Harries is seen as a seasoned boundary-crosser, having advised dissertations in various disciplines outside of philosophy, including German, comparative literature, English and even architecture. Harries noted how much he enjoyed working with students on their dissertations and essays in all of the different departments, highlighting that a large number of them had received prizes from Yale, such as the John Addison Porter Prize.
Harries was also an important fixture in Yale’s philosophical scene, his career spanning decades in the department. Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who has been teaching at Yale for over 20 years, said he first met Harries when Kagan was deliberating whether to accept Yale’s job offer — at a time when Kagan said the department was “in bad shape.” According to Kagan, Harries was one of the few to witness the entirety of the department’s rebuilding from the difficult past in the late 1980s and early 1990s to its prominence in the field now.
“[Harries] is the only person in the department that stuck it out for thick and thin,” Kagan said. “We owe him gratitude for that.”
And though Kagan said that his own approach to philosophy is different from that of Harries, who tends to emphasize intellectual history and philosophy’s engagement with culture, he deeply values working alongside Harries, noting that Harries’ retirement will leave a “hole” in the department that cannot be filled. According to Kagan, Harries is responsible for the department’s only connection with the School of Architecture, which is unlikely to continue after his retirement.
Kagan also said that when he sent out emails inviting Harries’ former students and friends to speak at the conference, all of them responded enthusiastically within 24 hours.
This might not come as much of a surprise to Harries’ many former graduate and undergraduate students. Indeed, for Harries, teaching always came first.
“Most important for me has been teaching,” Harries said. “Almost all of my writing comes directly out of my teaching and preparing for classes.”
According to professor of philosophy Michael Della Rocca, the former chair of the Philosophy Department, however, Harries has taught not only his students but also his colleagues.
“Through his unconstrained philosophical inquiry and through his devotion to mentoring students and creating the conditions through which they can flourish, Karsten has been for me a model of the kind of philosopher and teacher I aspire to be,” Della Rocca said. “None of my colleagues has influenced me more than Karsten.”
Harry Gray ’18, who took Harries’ course on the philosophy of architecture in fall 2016, described Harries’ style in the classroom as inspiring and infectious. He cited a particularly memorable class near the end of the semester as a paradigmatic example.
“[Harries] shared a slide with an amusing photograph of himself enjoying a beer in Germany. I think he wanted to show us that our physical needs and desires matter just as much as the immaterial concerns of the mind and the intellect and that architects should reflect that in their work,” Gray said. “This point is part of his call for an environmental aesthetics of architecture — our built environment ought to reflect the scarcity of resources on Earth, not waste those resources in a race to the biggest and the most expensive.”
But, as Kagan and others noted, Harries’ influence in the department is not likely to wane after his departure. And, for those philosophers of the future, Harries gave his own assessment of the state of the field.
“The real task of today for philosophy is on one hand to do justice to the legitimacy of science — no philosophy that cannot give an adequate account of science can be taken seriously,” Harries said. “On the other hand, philosophy needs to recognize that that objectifying perspective of science loses sight of dimensions of meaning.”
“We have to recognize the aspect of experience to which objectifying reason cannot do justice,” he added.
Some, like Kronman, might think this is an attitude especially well-suited for not only solving problems in the field of modern philosophy but also approaching life itself.
“For me, philosophy has always been a discipline of thought devoted to an examination of the human condition in the broadest sense of that term; that means, in my own view, philosophy is a pressingly humane discipline,” Kronman said. “Karsten Harries is an embodiment of that.”