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The Dangers & Difficulties of the Empty Concept†
Lloyd J. Reynolds
PRESIDENT BRAGDON flatters me by asking me to make some remarks on this occasion – as if
after all these years I weren’t quite talked out. Among the few topics that have occurred to me is
a subject that has caused me difficulty – even anxiety at times – over the years. It might be
called ‘The Dangers and Difficulties of the Empty Concept.’
Let me illustrate what I mean: Often, over the years, a senior, during the reception after
commencement, will tell me that he feels terrible. The trouble, he says, is that he feels as if he
doesn’t know anything. I could have come back with some glib, wise remark such as, ‘Well now
you are ready to learn,’ but when I ask him to talk on, it appears he has a kind of knowledge, a
verbal faculty, but he feels it is superficial. It’s as if the concepts were boxes, beautiful boxes,
which he can take out and arrange in impressively logical patterns, but the boxes are all empty.
It isn’t that he doesn’t know the meanings of the concepts in the dictionary sense, but the box is a
nest of boxes. Each box contains another box which contains another box – ad infinitum – but
when they are all taken out, few boxes have any weight to them.
The joy of discovery in scholarship lies, I think, in the moment when a new fact will
suddenly link up with many other facts and form a significant relationship, so that a whole area
becomes intelligible as never before. The relationship is not of empty concepts, but all the boxes
are filled immediately and seem too heavy to lift – and they glow incandescent. But this happens
when one has had enough experience in living to give weight to the boxes.
In elementary, secondary, and higher education today, students are hurried through courses
of study. Requirements for one diploma, degree, or another are checked off duly – as if
collecting a bulky mass of superficial conceptual information were what constitutes being
educated. Most students haven’t had enough experience to grasp the full meaning of the
concepts thrust upon them. I didn’t when I was an undergraduate, and I hate to think of my first
years of teaching when I bandied weighty concepts with ease. The origin and history of this
attitude would make a great seminar subject, for it throws light on many aspects of cultural
history. The class members, I should hope, would not be limited to education majors.
Incidents such as the following, which you mayor may not find ludicrous, have intensified
my interest in the subject: A museum director, whom I knew many years ago, was told by a
married couple that they had registered for a course in sculpture, for they wanted to know what
sculpture was about. He assured them it was quite unnecessary for them to mess around with
wet clay. He could give them several books on sculpture which would give them all the
information they needed. Another incident: After World War II, one of my former students went
to an ivy-league institution to earn a Ph.D. in art history. He wrote to me that in one of his
seminars on the history of painting the class asked to have their meeting place changed to
another building – they couldn’t stand the odor of turpentine and linseed oil coming from the
painting studio down the hall. I conclude from these incidents that some people find empty
boxes quite enough. If this attitude were at all prevalent, and to some degree it seems to be, it
might be called an inferior kind of neo-scholasticism, a caricature of what scholasticism can –
and should – be. Better, call it sheer pedantry.
The Dangers & Difficulties of the Empty Concept
It is possible in this brief talk to point to only a few instances which suggest the origin of this
misconception. Euclid boasted that geometry was a proper field of study for the sons of
aristocrats, for the subject, he claimed, had no practical value whatsoever. Cicero wrote that
there is nothing ennobling about a workshop. Is it possible his concept of nobility was somewhat
narrow, possibly stuffy in some corners? The concept of nobility is rather out of fashion today. I
find it appealing. And I must confess I enjoyed plane geometry, also solid geometry and
descriptive geometry, and have even found them useful – especially in book design! These two
instances are certainly not enough evidence for what I’m about to say, but they do suggest the
thinking of members of a slavocracy. There is a squeamishness here about getting the hands
dirty, a horror of the chisel playing about the rough surfaces of wood or stone, about wet sticky
clay on the potters’ wheel. It is, they believe, better to think than to act. Would it not be best to
build something intelligently with one’s own hands? But mind is too infinitely superior to
matter; the soul exists separately from the body and would be free of the body as a hated
encumbrance. One wonders what Euclid or Cicero would have said of the craftsman’s claim that
the tool itself can feel its way as it builds form, or that the hand thinks. In calligraphy, for
instance, the hand may solve a design problem so quickly the conscious mind has had no
opportunity to break in and give directions.
Universities in the Middle Ages retained a degree of this snobbish prejudice, but the revival
of classical literature in the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought with it
the revival of the classic emphasis on the supreme importance of the abstract, the conceptual –
with little stress on the importance of direct physical experience for furnishing content to the
boxes. In natural philosophy, now called the physical sciences, we find the first breaking away
from ancient snobbish prejudices. Vesalius made observers of his barber-surgeons, and for the
first time the professor of anatomy dissected a cadaver with his own hands. Galileo made
experiments. The laboratory became a part of intellectual activity.
The visual arts were very slow to find recognition in universities. They were used to
illustrate moral philosophy and only very late were aesthetics admitted as a department of
philosophy. Later still, art history made its appearance as a discipline. Last of all came studio
work – and it still seems only a guest at times.
But return to the Renaissance for a moment. Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise on painting.
He attempted to prove that a man could paint and still be a gentleman, that he had to make a
study of natural philosophy – a rational activity – in order to paint the human figure and
landscapes. Furthermore, with his long-hand brushes he could keep the paint off his hands, his
lace, silks and satins. The sculptor, on the other hand, had broken fingernails and marble dust in
his whiskers and clothing. Of course, he was trying to shoot down his rival Michelangelo – but
the Ciceronian fastidiousness shows.
Albrecht Dürer wrote that in Venice he was wined and dined as if he were a member of the
aristocracy. He hated to return home to Germany where he was considered only a vulgar
workman. In Germany, his wife sat in a stall selling copies of Dürer prints at country fairs. How
humiliating for a gentleman’s wife!
What I am doing here is criticizing a whole cultural tradition. I am not singling out Reed
College or its art department, or the Museum Art School, for carping criticism. I would insist
they are victims of centuries of erroneous thinking. I am using art education to illustrate an
erroneous intellectual attitude because that is the area in education I know best. I am not so
The Dangers & Difficulties of the Empty Concept
much concerned that art history and aesthetics should be considered academically superior and
much more important than studio activity, but rather that the study of art should ever have been
fractured into these three departments. Reality is a continuum. We cannot study a continuum;
we must, through the use of analytical rationalism, break up this continuum into identifiable parts
if we are to become aware of the nature of these parts and be able to discuss them. But to make
practically isolated fields of these parts, to arrange them into a hierarchy, and to consider the
parts as being virtually independent of one another – this is truly heresy, a classical heresy in
origin, a Renaissance heresy later. In India, China, Japan – the Islamic culture at its greatest, and
in the Middle Ages in Europe, the training of an artist, at least, was kept closer to the continuum.
Ethics, aesthetics, history, theology, metaphysics, mathematics, physics and chemistry were
woven and interwoven endlessly into the fabric of his shop work. A moment ago I spoke of a
Renaissance heresy. This Eastern and medieval European training I consider the true orthodoxy.
Less than a year ago I heard an old friend, an important contemporary sculptor, say an art
student should not have to take courses in philosophy, art history, or poetry. The student, he
thought, should spend all the time he could just making sculpture or painting. Knowing him as
well as I do, I feel safe in saying that he has examined the bland, superficial conceptual
approaches and has no interest in collecting empty boxes. It is his loss, a grave one, and we all
lose because of it. He is a victim of our fracturing of education; of our placing too much
confidence in the purely conceptual approach. His training as a sculptor must have been, as far
as the studio work was concerned, impoverished as to art history, theory, and ideas. Today he is
an influential teacher – and what can we expect from his students but a lopsided training and a
taint, at least, of anti-rationalism, of anti-intellectualism. Our artificial fracturing of art education
into separate departments and our arrangement of them into a hierarchy is one possible cause of
his anti-rationalist attitude.
What can we do about the dangers and difficulties of the empty concept? I am talking about
First, we must try to weight concepts by putting more stress on interrelationships between
concepts and even between fields of study. There is a danger, obviously, of diluting the subject
matter of a course by doing this, but if concepts are made more significant, more memorable by
it, the risk may be worth taking. At all costs we must improve and not desert the conceptual
approach. I see no courses in astrology, phrenology, palmistry, or tattooing, or any other silly
off-beat subject in the Reed College Catalog this fall; so rationalism is still safe – here, at least!
In all educational institutions, the attempt can be made to make concepts so actual the student
could bruise his knuckles on them. And I think the method lies in making significant
interrelationships. Second, try to work theory and history into shop practice, into studio practice.
Third, practical involvement in field work and community work – if it is relevant. Fourth – my
long shot; I am convinced, that in the not distant future, the bulk of and possibly the most
significant field in education, will be outside the institutions as we now know them. The familiar
pattern of high school diploma, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. degree will
necessarily continue, but academic education will not terminate with the earning of one or more
of these degrees. People will continue to go to school as long as they live. As some of you may
have heard me say before, the only commencement address they have will be their memorial
service. The normal human being is innately curious, he would learn, in spite of whatever
stultifying experiences he may have had in schools.
The Dangers & Difficulties of the Empty Concept
The community colleges could be preparing for this new group of students, but they seem to
be quite unaware of the possibilities. They are organized for the 1920’s. Their curricula are out
of date. Their departments are divided into two groups. On the one hand, the trades; auto
mechanics, electrical engineering, carpentry, plumbing, etc.; on the other, academic subjects, for
which the student hopefully earns transfer credits acceptable to a four-year state college. I have
lectured and taught at several community colleges in the past few years, especially since my
retirement from Reed, and I have been astonished at how far ahead of the administrations many
of the students and most of the faculty are – the quality of some of the work and the enthusiasm
of students and faculty have far exceeded expectations.
At one of the colleges, the teacher of auto mechanics was complaining that a couple of his
good students were interested in Shakespeare and in poetry. (Why not physics and sociology,
too?) He thought they should stick to auto mechanics. But imagine buying a second-hand
pickup truck, repairing it by picking up spare parts in an automobile graveyard, and keeping it in
top condition. Later, going on the road, writing poetry, getting into Montana, living with the
Cheyennes, more poetry, repairing their trucks, working as journeymen mechanics in Helena to
get some bread, and on the road again. I could envy them.
Take the retired widower. His children are out of school, married, and have good jobs. He’s
tired of bridge, the bowling alley, football on TV, and booze. They are OK, but not enough.
What a candidate for a class in metaphysics! He has the joys, the sorrows, the disappointments
and successes, however humble – especially the scar tissue – to enable him to grasp the concepts
in metaphysics and to pack them so tight with meaning the lids won’t close down! To be sure,
he is unusual at present, but I’ve met his like. Sanskrit at age 65, or medieval Persian at 70 –
something craggy to grapple the mind.
At present, community colleges are turning away students. They have neither facilities nor
faculty to meet the demand. If we ever get out of senseless wars and stop supporting reactionary
governments abroad, maybe we can afford to transform the community colleges into community
learning centers which go far beyond the demands of trade unions and students wanting transfer
Recently I have been living with five cats. Their curiosity, especially in the young ones, I
find fascinating – quite as much as their ability to be relaxed. I sympathize, however, with their
pathetic lack of apperceptive mass. They have difficulty in establishing relationships, in
discovering the significance of a phenomenon. But people, as well as cats, are innately avid for
discoveries. The meaning of discover is obviously ‘dis-cover,’ or take the lid off. A treasure
waits for us. To invent means to find. The medieval poets of Southern France, the troubadours
and trouvères were finders. And the word apocalypse means, originally, to take the lid off. If
any concept appears to us to be empty, it is because we haven’t earned the ability to see what a
treasure it contains.
I hate slogans. But I could almost go for one which reads ‘Education by Apocalypse!’
†This copy of Professor Lloyd J. Reynolds’ acceptance speech for Reed College’s Honorary Doctorate of Humane
Letters, is provided by Lynn Robert Carter with permission and through the courtesy of the Lloyd Reynolds Papers,
Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College, and of Judith Reynolds.