Richard Mc Keon

Richard Mc Keon books and biography

Richard McKeon

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Name: Richard McKeon
Birth: April 26, 1900 (Union Hill, New Jersey)
Death: March 31, 1985 (Chicago, Illinois)
School/tradition: American philosophy and rhetoric
Main interests: philosophy, rhetoric, Science and Metaphysics, pluralism, Communication, History of Philosophy
Influences: Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero, John Dewey, tienne Gilson, Frederick A. Woodbridge
Influenced: Wayne Booth, Eugene Gendlin, Bertrand Russell, Marshall McLuhan

Richard McKeon (April 26, 1900, Union Hill, New Jersey - March 31, 1985, Chicago) was an American philosopher.


Life, times, and influences

McKeon's obtained his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1920, graduating at the early age of 20 despite serving briefly in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. Continuing at Columbia, he completed a Master's thesis on Leo Tolstoy, Benedetto Croce, and George Santayana in 1920, and a doctoral thesis on Baruch Spinoza in 1922. He then studied philosophy in Paris, where his teachers included Etienne Gilson, until he began teaching at Columbia in 1925.

In 1934, McKeon was appointed visiting professor of History at the University of Chicago, beginning a 40 year association with that university. The following year he assumed a permanent position as professor of Greek philosophy, a post he filled for twelve years. As professor and, starting in 1940, as Dean of the Humanities, McKeon was instrumental in developing the distinguished general education program of the Hutchins era at the University of Chicago. He later founded Chicago's interdisciplinary Committee on Ideas and Methods. He presided over the Western division of the American Philosophical Association in 1952, and over the International Institute of Philosophy from 1953 to 1957. In 1966, he gave the Paul Carus Lectures. He retired in 1974.

McKeon was a central intellectual figure in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) early years. He advised UNESCO when (1946-48) it studied the foundations of human rights and of the idea of democracy. These studies supplied much of the material for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In 1954, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Indian Philosophical Congress, he conducted a series of eighteen roundtable discussions at Indian universities on human relations and international obligations.

McKeon was a pioneer American scholar of medieval philosophy and the history of science. He was also a prominent figure in the revival of rhetoric as an intellectual art, exploring the often problematic relation between philosophy and rhetoric. He taught Aristotle throughout his career, insisted that his was a Greek Aristotle, not one seen through the eyes of later philosophers writing in Latin. McKeon's interests later shifted from the doctrines of individuals to the dialectic of systems. He investigated pluralism, cultural diversity, and problems of communication and community, at a time when such subjects were less than fashionable.

McKeon was a founding member of "The Chicago School" of literary criticism because of his influence on several of its prominent members (e.g., Wayne Booth). Notwithstanding, McKeon distanced himself from "The Chicago School," which was mainly concerned with Neo-Aristotelian theory. As a pluralist, he wished to disassociate himself from any attempt to propagandize any particular ideology, philosophy, or theorist.


Former students of McKeon who have praised him and proved influential in their own right include novelist Robert Coover, author Susan Sontag, philosophers Paul Goodman and Richard Rorty, anthropologist Paul Rabinow, and literary theorist Wayne Booth.

Philosophy and pluralism

McKeon published 158 articles over the span of seven decades. The evidence of his pluralist influence is not evident in one particular doctrine or system, but rather in a plurality of all his articles. The scope of his work extends to virtually all philosophies and to the whole cultural history of the Western world while being ordered by semantic schema.

Early in his academic career, McKeon recognized that truth has no single expression. His understanding of philosophical and historical semantics led him to value philosophies quite different from his own. He viewed the aim of pluralism as not achieving a monolithic identity but rather a diversity of opinion along with mutual tolerance. It is important to note that his pluralism is not a form of relativism. He characterized his philosophy as a philosophy of culture, but it is also humanistic, a philosophy of communications and the arts, and a philosophical rhetoric.

The value of a philosophic position is determined by demonstrating its value as an explanation or as an instrument of discovery. The pragmatism of Richard Rorty owes much to McKeon, his teacher. McKeon's operational method is a method of debate which allows one to refine their positions, and in turn, determining what limits their perception of an opponent's argument. Opposition provides a necessary perspective. Notwithstanding, it does not necessarily acquire characteristics from the perspectives with which it is opposed; his philosophy, by nature, resists being pinned down by a single name. It is not meant to affirm the value or credibility of any and all philosophies. Essentially, pluralism is closely related to objectivity; a desired outcome of communication and discussion and a fundamental goal and principle of being human.

Human beings come together around common issues and/or problems and their different interests and perspectives are often an obstacle to collective action. McKeon's pluralism insists that we understand what a person means by what they say. He believes that proper discussion can lead to agreement, courses of action, and in some cases to mutual understanding, if not, an eventual agreement on issues of ideology or philosophic belief. The work of Jurgen Habermas has close affinities to that of McKeon. Conflicting concepts, interests, and assumptions which concern society form an ecology of culture. Discussion forms an object, which is the transformation of the subject into a product that is held in common as the outcome. McKeon's philosophy is similar to rhetoric as conceived by Aristotle, whereby it has the power to be employed in any given situation as the available means of persuasion.

The pluralism of perspectives is an essential component to our existence. Nonetheless, the effort to form out individual perspectives through thought and action brings us into touch with being human and being with other individuals. For McKeon, an understanding of pluralism gives us access to whatever may be grasped of being itself.

The New Rhetoric

In the later stages of McKeon's academic career, he started giving more attention to world problems (see UNESCO). He sought to improve individual disciplines as he felt that they were meant to improve mankind. Refurbishing rhetoric was necessary because by outlining the needs for, antecedents of, tasks imposed upon, and general character and affiliations of rhetoric would both solve problems and communicate solutions for people everywhere.

As our age produces new data and experiences, we require a new, expanded rhetoric which takes into account technology. The modern world has progressed quite far but it has not yet found a logos which is able to make sense of techne (technology = techne + logos). The sciences alone cannot hope to be productive without reincorporating rhetoric otherwise they would only be analytic. For McKeon a new rhetoric is the only means of bridging the gap between arts and sciences. By incorporating rhetoric it may permit the further development of new fields of arts and sciences. Rhetoric is able to navigate among the various kinds of arts and sciences providing an opportunity to interrelate them and set new ends which makes use of both spheres. The new rhetoric can order all the other arts and sciences resulting in new discoveries. Mckeon deemed a very forceful rhetorical strategy capable of avoiding relativism as with a very forceful rhetorical strategy a solidarity is gained as people are supposedly unified via a forceful rhetoric. Relativism is avoided according to McKeon via the force of a rhetorical strategy rather than via access to a Platonic realm.

McKeon borrows traditional rhetorical terms (see Aristotle and Quintillian) to outline the principles of the new rhetoric (creativity/invention; fact/judgment; sequence/consequence; objectivity/intersubjectivity) and then leads them toward brighter avenues of discovery by enlarging Aristotle's traditional rhetorical categories (epideictic, judicial, deliberative) and reintegrating philosophical dialectic. He believes that the materials for doing this are topoi and schemata. The new rhetoric must be universal, objective, reformulate the structure and program of verbal rhetoric and its subjects, and its applications must be focused on the particular now. For McKeon the now is to be 'mined' to contribute to the future resolution of an important problematic. Here again the impact of McKeon on Richard Rorty is evident. With John Dewey and now Richard Rorty McKeon deemed philosophy to be basically a problem solving endeavor. Basically there are two sorts of solidarity searched for by those who employ a rhetorical strategy the solidarity of those who have a goal and the solidarity of those who via 'values' work towards the goal of those who have a goal. One solidarity searched for is a solidarity of those who have no 'values' but rather a rhetoric and the other solidarity searched for is a solidariy of those who have no goal but rather 'values'.

New data may cause new problems for rhetoric but it will still continue to produce categories and attempt to find new kinds of topoi which will produce new classifications and create new interdisciplinary fields. rhetoric helps to figure out how to create these fields, or how to decide which existing fields are appropriate for various data. The new rhetoric will find new kinds of ends, by guiding technology in service to those ends in collaboration with other arts rather than allowing technology to lead us to restricted and potentially harmful ends. Whatever 'values' are deemed to lead to the solution of a problem are rhetorically deemed worthy. The problematic is all for McKeon and rhetoric is supposed to contribute to the solution of the problematic. Clearly rhetoric is unable to come up with a clear plan for a solution, rhetoric being rhetoric. Rather via rhetoric 'values' are ennunciated which are supposed to eventually gain the goal. One who employs rhetoric to gain a goal is basically attempting via brute force to gain an end.

Assuming a goal is gained a corollary of rhetoric is that those who had the end as an end now abandon the end, eschew the end as as a 'value', and now develop new goals and new rhetorics. This is getting way ahead of the game, though, given the track record of rhetoric. Rhetoric has been repeatedly tried down the centuries and has repeatedly been associated with disaster though this is irrelevant for those attempting a rhetoric as rhetoric is deemed to achieve goals by brute force by those who practice rhetoric, but rhetoric has also failed to achieve ends. Those who have espoused a rhetoric have achieved valued though precarious positions. The work of Richard McKeon shows despite multiple, great failures that even up to the 20th century, rhetoric following Aristotle. continued to 'put a spell over people'.



  • Is the "Chairman of the Committee" in Robert Pirsig's 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • Was cited extensively in Marshall McLuhan's 1943 doctoral dissertation The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (since published as McLuhan, Marshall (2006). The Classical Trivium. Corte Madera: Gingko Press. ISBN 1-58423-067-3.)

Books by McKeon

  • 1928: The Philosophy of Spinoza: The Unity of His Thought.
  • 1929: Roger Bacon to William of Ockham. Vol. 1 of Selections from Medieval Philosophers.
  • 1941: The Basic Works of Aristotle.
  • 1947: Introduction to Aristotle.
  • 1951: Democracy in a World of Tensions: A Symposium Prepared by UNESCO.
  • 1952: Freedom and History: The Semantics of Philosophical Controversies and Ideological Conflicts.
  • 1954: Thought, Action, and Passion.
  • 1957: The Freedom to Read: Perspective and Program.
  • 1959: The Edicts of Asoka.
  • 1971: Gli studi umanistici nel mondo attuale.
  • 1974. Thought, Action, and Passion. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1976: Peter Abailard, Sic et Non: A Critical Edition.
  • 1990. Freedom and History and Other Essays: An Introduction to the Thought of Richard McKeon. Edited by Zahava K. McKeon. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1994. On Knowing--The Natural Sciences. Edited by David B. Owen and Zahava K. McKeon. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1998. Selected Writings of Richard McKeon, Vol. 1. McKeon, Zahava K., and William G. Swenson, eds. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-56036-8

Writings about McKeon

  • Garver, Eugene, 2000. Pluralism In Theory and Practice. Vanderbilt University Press. ISBN 0-8265-1340-9
  • Kimball Plochman, George, 1990. Richard McKeon. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67109-7
  • Levine, Donald, 2007. Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning. University of Chicago Press.
  • Obermiller, Tim Andrew, December 1995, "Richard McKeon," The University of Chicago Alumnae Magazine.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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