welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Short Story

Double Edge

by Richard Taylor

His administrative assistants and secretaries had left for the day, but Dean Gilmore stayed late, lost in thought. He gazed from his office at the campus that had changed so drastically during his tenure. In those three decades, Parson College had become a major university, and his energy and resourcefulness were largely responsible. He now had reason to believe that the new arts and sciences building was going to bear his name. Soon festivities surrounding commencement would include a banquet in his honor, when former students would join the trustees and officers of the university in paying tribute to his long and dedicated service. The one problem that had plagued him was also about to be solved – Professor Halvorsen, for years the bane of his administration, was finally about to be stripped of tenure and fired.

Sven Halvorsen had been appointed to the faculty with tenure on the basis of his vast and original scholarship. Both Halvorsen and the Dean had, from the start, viewed each other as vaguely threatening. The Dean, with envy, saw an accomplished scholar and writer, while Halvorsen saw a fake in position of power.

The two were indeed opposites in every respect. The Dean was urbane and witty and easily ingratiated himself with everyone. Halvorsen was sloppy and disheveled and gave the impression of seldom bathing. The faculty’s fondness for the Dean was matched by their eventual detestation for Halvorsen. At faculty meetings, skillfully presided over by the Dean, Halvorsen sat in the front and directed snorts and sarcasm at every proposal. His letters to the student newspaper ridiculed administrative officers for their vanities. The President’s fond plan to establish a law school had come to nothing because of Halvorsen’s editorials. He pointed out that there were already three old and prestigious law schools within a radius of one hundred miles and questioned the President’s motives.

Such was the ongoing antagonism, largely the product of different backgrounds. Halvorsen was crude but authentic, while Gilmore was smooth and superficial.

* * * * *

Robert Gilmore had grown up on faculty row, adjacent to the small college where both parents were long-time professors. Its campus had been his playground, its environment his sustenance. Family guests were usually from the college community, and evenings were filled with the high-level talk, and pretense, that mark faculty conversations everywhere. His training in the art of cultivating appearances had begun early. As children from infancy mimic the speech of those around them, to the most subtle nuances, Gilmore mimicked the posturing of academics.

It was with this rich and artificial background that Gilmore, having finished college without leaving home, entered the state university for graduate studies in philosophy. There his manners and conversational skills won him the respect of his peers and the affection of his teachers. Yet, unbeknown to them, he lacked one essential ability. He could not develop, in writing, any sustained or creative line of thought. Letters, memoranda and routine reports gave him little trouble, but anything more than this was impossible. The effort to put serious and original thought into writing left him sweating, and after hours of futile endeavor he was confronted with, at best, a few incoherent pages. His brain felt numb and his fingers frozen.

This crippling handicap was balanced by Gilmore’s talent for fakery. The scholarly posture he so assiduously cultivated worked well to conceal his deficiencies. It was augmented by a trick he picked up from an unusual source. For a time he had shared rooms with a fellow student of severely limited ability who happened to have a large hole in his tooth. In the presence of intellectual discussion that exceeded his understanding he would nervously probe this tooth, quite unaware of what he was doing. This strange habit conveyed the impression, however, that he was deep in thought, silently and critically assessing what was being said, to everyone’s considerable discomfort. Gilmore, who eventually learned the real explanation for this behavior, saw in it a useful tool, and over time it served him well.

Gilmore compiled an acceptable graduate record, choosing courses and seminars mostly in logic and the history of ideas. The former required only the manipulation of symbols, and the latter the rehashing of what others had written. He knew that there are no objective standards of truth in philosophy and had, in fact, been attracted to the subject for this reason. In the history of ideas he found every imaginable absurdity, and his own mentors, he noted, often disagreed on the most basic principles. Any philosophical theory, however bizarre, enhances its proponent’s standing if cleverly defended.

“You had better all start going to church,” Gilmore announced to a gathering of friends one evening after there had been a considerable amount of drinking.

“How come?”

“Well, because God exists, and I can prove it. If you think of God, then you are thinking of a perfect being, right? Anything less than perfect is not the God of the Christian religion. But God, to be perfect, must surely exist. A God that did not even exist would hardly be worthy of worship, or even of being called God. So if you are thinking about God, then you are of necessity thinking of a God that exists. To speak otherwise would be self-contradictory – like saying you are thinking of a living ex-President who may, for all you know, be dead.”

Of course, Gilmore never converted anyone this way, nor was this his goal. He had nothing but disdain for religion. That line of thought is, moreover, familiar to every student of philosophy, but the clever way that Gilmore was able to articulate this and other philosophical chestnuts enhanced his standing, and his teachers saw in him the promise of an inspiring teacher.

It was in similar fashion that Gilmore proved, for example, that earth worms have souls, and that non-existent things, like unicorns and golden mountains, are perfectly real after all.

“Consider the hole in the doughnut,” he said. “People think there is nothing there. But certainly anything you can locate in space, and even measure, has to be real, doesn’t it?”

Gilmore could hold forth in this manner with ease, interspersing his arguments with deep concentration, probing a non-existent hole in his tooth. One of his greatest triumphs, however, was a formal presentation in which he proved that personhood resides in a minute particle of matter lodged in the brain. The announcement of this presentation drew both faculty and students from nearby universities. What was most remarkable in his performance, however was that he carried it off with only a few scattered notes and no written text.

* * * * *

Thus did Gilmore arrive at his final task, the dissertation, for which he chose the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, as his subject. Recognizing that philosophers, being overwhelmingly secular in their outlook, were unlikely to have much interest in Kierkegaard’s religious themes, he shrewdly calculated that he would be unlikely to come up against formidable experts when the time came for his oral defense.

For two years he agonized, but was never able to produce more than a few incoherent pages. He had no trouble summarizing what others had written about Kierkegaard, but could add nothing of his own that was clear and original. He dwelt in that limbo, familiar to all graduate students, known as A.B.D. – all but the dissertation. Many students get bogged down there, but most do, eventually, get some kind of dissertation written and accepted.

Not Gilmore. He finally faced the fact that he would never be able to do it, and this depressed him to the point that he considered other careers – perhaps the Christian ministry, where his gift of the gab would serve him well and where, he had been told, sermons could be purchased and recycled. The fact that he had no religious belief did not trouble him.

But then, miraculously, his problem was solved. He discovered a footnote in an old book referencing a doctoral dissertation on Kierkegaard of some fifty years ago, by a student who had earned his degree at North Dakota State University, best known for its programs in agriculture and engineering. His name, Preban Erslev, was unfamiliar to Gilmore and, he inferred, perhaps no longer known to anyone else. Inquiry disclosed that this dissertation was still in the university’s archives and had apparently never been published.

Gilmore went at once to Fargo and was given a scholar’s access to the archives, where he found the precious dissertation under a considerable layer of dust. He learned that the readers under whose direction it had been written, neither of them philosophers, were both long dead, and that Erslev himself had moved to Sweden to teach at the University of Upsala, had married a student there and, a few years later, died himself. His widow probably knew almost no English. This archival copy was evidently all that remained of the work.

Gilmore stole this treasure which, judging by the dust, was no longer of any value to anyone and would not be missed. For the next several months he copied it, keeping it safely hidden from the world. He altered punctuation, invented a new title and rearranged some of the sentences. Fresh footnotes referencing decent sources were scattered through the text, with little regard for relevance, and the bibliography was expanded accordingly. Spelling was anglicized, so that ‘daemon’ became ‘demon,’ for example, and the umlaut was dropped from ‘Søren.’ Put in final form, the impressive result was submitted as the final requirement for his degree.

Outside of the world of scholarship plagiarism is not considered a serious transgression so long as there is no profit from it, but within academe it is the ultimate crime – worse than stealing books from the library, sleeping with students, or appearing regularly before a class drunk. There can be no mitigating circumstances, no excuse, and the offender, utterly disgraced, is banished forever.

Gilmore reasoned, however, that in this case there was no victim, no real theft since the author was dead, no monetary gain, and hence no crime. More important, the likelihood of detection seemed to be zero.

Gilmore’s confidence never waned as the day of his oral examination approached. The two readers assigned to evaluate the work, neither of whom knew much about Kierkegaard, were impressed. Suggesting only trivial changes, they attached their endorsement and recommended it to the other three members of the examination committee, who were even less familiar with its subject. Gilmore, always good at talking, passed the examination with aplomb, fending off difficult question with feigned erudition, sometimes pretending to have understood a slightly different question than the hard one actually put to him, and sometimes interspersing his responses with profound thought, tongue in tooth. It was an impressive performance.

No effort was made to publish the dissertation but, as required, a copy was donated to the library.

* * * * *

Dr Gilmore’s career now took off. He won a junior level appointment at Parson College, well known for its liberal arts program, and quickly rose to a tenured professorship. He was popular with both students and faculty, affecting mild eccentricities suggestive of a devotion to learning rather than self promotion. His record of scholarly publication, the usual basis for promotion, was meager, consisting only of a few reviews and commentaries, but he compensated by a willingness to serve on committee, so scrupulously shunned by faculty everywhere. Soon he was spending more time in committee meetings than in the classroom, attracting favorable attention both from the Dean and the President. He was assigned to the august Committee on the Curriculum, which he sometimes chaired in the absence of the President. His most time-consuming work was with the Committee on Student Honor, dealing mainly with accusations of plagiarism. He gained a growing reputation for sagacity and good judgement, reinforced by a cultivated look of skepticism and the imaginary hole in his tooth.

Other tokens of success and community involvement came fast. He became active in the Episcopal Church, headed a charity drive, married one of the secretaries and helped raise two daughters. He was named to the editorship of the Journal of Kierkegaardian Studies, which involved minimal use of his time, since he could farm out manuscripts to various experts and then accept for publication without having read them, those receiving favorable comment.

It came as no surprise, then, when Gilmore was made Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Through the years that followed he watched Parson College grow to a thriving university, and to his university duties were added directorships in several corporations. These required only that he attend occasional meetings and share in the bountiful annual bonuses that boards of directors give themselves.

* * * * *

Professor Halvorsen, meanwhile, had discovered liberation theology, in which the Gospels are interpreted in the light of Marxist principles. Anything contrary to this ideology, he insisted, had no place in a university dedicated to disseminating the truth. Notices of meetings with other agendas were torn from the bulletin boards. Conservative faculty members were attacked as spineless or dishonest tools of the rich. Things came to a head when Halvorsen removed from the book store about twenty volumes that he had found contaminated with error. He piled them on the sidewalk and urged that they be burned.

Until then, Halvorsen’s professorship had seemed secured by his tenure, which permitted dismissal only for gross immorality or incompetence, neither of which could be proved. His behavior and personal habits, while gross, were in no clear sense immoral, and his competence was attested by his superb record of publication and the devotion even of students who rejected his ideas.

Dean Gilmore nevertheless decided that some way had to be found to get rid of him, and the President concurred. The matter was given over to an ad hoc committee on tenure, its members suggested by the Dean but appointed by the President. After several weeks the committee presented its findings. The report was lengthy and the reasoning convoluted, and it included three minority reports. The members were, however, unanimous in wanting Halvorsen out. Their basic point was that, while Halvorsen was absolutely entitled to the vigorous advocacy of his ideas, his actions, while not in violation with the law, were incompatible with the very concept of tenure under which professors are protected in their expression of unpopular views. Those actions, therefore, rendered his own tenure meaningless, they concluded.

The decision whether to accept this report was left to the Dean and the President. Dean Gilmore knew, of course, what he was going to do, but he waited a few weeks before summoning Professor Halvorsen to his office, lest he be suspected of having prejudged the matter.

On that morning, Halvorsen strode in, smiling, and with an affability that the Dean had never seen before.

“Good morning, Bob,” Halvorsen said.

The dean, taken aback by this demeanor, managed only to say, “Yes, Sven.”

Then, after considerable pause, to re-establish the gravity of the situation, he began.

“Sometimes,” he said, “the responsibilities of my office are deeply unpleasant…”

But before he could continue Halvorsen handed him a sheaf of papers. “This,” he said, “might interest you.”

The Dean glanced at the first page and, as soon as he began to comprehend what he was seeing, turned white:


by Preban Erslev

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of…

Gilmore’s vision failed him and his head spun. He stared blankly at a distant nothingness as the magnitude of what was happening slowly sank in. His trembling fingers slowly tore up the notice of revocation of tenure, together with Halvorsen’s explosive gift, the pieces falling into the waste basket.

Sven Halvorsen, saying nothing, turned and left.

© Richard Taylor 2003

Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York. His latest book, Virtue Ethics, was published recently by Prometheus. An interview with him by Tim Madigan appears on page 36 of this issue.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X