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Frederick's Table

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Little things mean so much, particularly when confronting a deep, personal loss. When his wife responded to our message of celebration on Frederick Ferré's 80th birthday with news of his death, we were shaken and immeasurably saddened. Now, I find myself anchoring my grief over the loss of this remarkable man in simple objects ... little things, like our kitchen table. That may seem odd, given that Dr. Ferré was the world's leading Constructive Post-Modern philosopher, but therein lays the eternal magic of his inspiring legacy.

Many of us were captivated at a tender age by the promise of philosophy -- knowing ourselves, understanding the world around us, winning arguments and, mostly, the possibility of living a better life. The infatuation rarely lasts, often because of direct contact with teachers of philosophy who rarely meet our exalted expectations. Dr. Ferré exceeded ours.

He delighted in the every-day strength of philosophy. He insisted that philosophy counter-acted hopelessness. Need simple rules for living a meaningful life? He's game. 1.) Do no harm; 2.) Do good; and 3.) Be fair. Ready for a little more? Anchor oneself, as I have, with his kalogenesis ("the creation of beauty" in the face of death). He created that word when his mother (then in her 90s) worried the name he'd given his biologically inspired and gloriously useful brand new philosophy -- "polymythic personalistic organicism" (p.o.p.) -- might discourage some from engaging.

It mustn't! After 600 years of the modern era, it's time to move on. We're living through seismic shifts in worldview, weening ourselves away from "reductionism, materialism, the mechanistic and linear." (Dr. Ferré would flinch when reminded that he is credited for the term "post-modern", a mere place-holder until we get enough perspective on what all that's changing means to figure out what's going on.) He was uniquely qualified to construct a robust, relevant new philosophical platform from which to depart into the unknown. How immeasurably ingenious of him! He drew on the creativity of the universe itself to give us the intellectual and practical tools with which to unleash ourselves from modernity's chokehold. Now it is we who are enabled to choose between and among futures and, in some ways, to create them. We hope that's good news.

Those are the kinds of life-affirming insights he'd offer over many a supper sitting at our kitchen table. His singular joie de vivre energized us, just as it no doubt led him to focus on aesthetics. After a lifetime immersed in all the philosophy the West has to offer, Dr. Ferré concluded this: aesthetics is dominant in the human experience. This studied conclusion emboldened him -- a philosopher! -- to champion "feeling" in what he called the "muscular" sense, as in "once more with feeling!" Just knowing him made me feel that I could see the world a bit more clearly. It is no less complicated, but it does seem more attractive, alluring even.

At the same time, "Forever Frederick" as we lovingly called him, was no pushover. While weighing in for beauty, he insisted we face up to the fact of ugliness in the world. Whether that ugliness is the work of "vandals" (who actively destroy things) or more often "philistines" (carelessly letting ugliness triumph, the way-of-least-resistance behind which so many of us hide), ugliness is not only real. Ugliness can also be a friend. What? Frederick insisted that what ugliness destroys -- breaks apart -- may allow space for something entirely new to be created. Besides, he would remind us, "beauty" is always relative to its context. And in all things, context matters.

Dr. Ferré's astute and far-reaching ideas -- whether about metaphysics, the philosophy of religion, technology and values, or environmental ethics -- are proving powerful in the larger world he gloried in occupying. (How many philosophers do you know who also play bass fiddle and sing in chorales, fly their own airplanes, build his own house and create an entirely new field, in his case the philosophy of technology?)

Consider just two examples of the power of Frederick's lively ideas, spread across the world by people in and outside of academia.

One shining, living, evolving example of the power of Frederick Ferré's new mindset flourishes on the college campus where Frederick started college and I finished. (Sharing an alma mater, however briefly, somehow compounds one's sense of connection, that eerie feeling of having shared exactly the same spaces, many years apart.) Oberlin College's Professor David Orr and others there are hard at work making kalogenesis "muscular" as Frederick would have called it. I have no idea how many participants in The Oberlin Project's Green Arts District know that they are instantiating "polymythic personalistic organicism" but Frederick was wonderfully, consistently modest. "One just hopes one's ideas flourish in the present, but if they don't someone else may find them useful in the future," he once said when I compared him with history's great philosophers. When I told David about Frederick's death, he immediately responded, "Sad news indeed! But his stature and influence are still alive and flourishing."

Then there are those thousands of techies who were influenced by Frederick Ferré's genius for helping us face the good, the bad and the challenges of being steeped in technology.

While we've not read his entire, remarkable opus, I'm glad to say that we both have learned from Dr. Ferré's crowning achievement, three seminal volumes: Being and Value, Knowing and Value, and Living and Value. In each, he gracefully, and astutely, recaps Western philosophy, before moving forward into an exploration of his own brainchild, "polymythic personalistic organicism". Yes, Mother Ferré, the name is a mouthful. AND it is spot-on ... precise, if not lyrical.

While we were adjusting to the reality that we'll never again be able to respond to his "Skype me?" messages, I found myself resuscitated by how much "p.o.p." and kalogenesis have influenced me. In one of our recorded conversations with him, I'd asked Frederick, "'Why go beyond studying and teaching philosophy to creating a new one?" As always, he began with his philosophical grounding and moved on to action. "I believe in constructive post-modernism. That means that you don't just stop with the ashes and the rubble around (in contrast to "deconstructionists"). Don't just deconstruct what's wrong with the modern. Build something!"

Which brings me back to our kitchen table. We're renovating our kitchen and cannot return the table we often shared with Frederick to its rightful place at the heart of our home until I finish putting down our granite floor. It's one of those big jobs so easy of to put off. So when we learned Frederick died at the beginning of a celebratory trip he and his wonderful wife were taking to celebrate his birthday -- I unfroze myself from grief by confronting that floor, with a loving mantra: "The meaning of life is the creation of beauty in the face of death." Over and over and over again. And one by one, each heavy, beautiful square of stone became a reminder of the joy "Forever Frederick" brought to our lives and lived in his own, to its very end. "Build something beautiful" he would have said. Yes! Make a space beautiful enough for what I shall always think of as "Frederick's Table".