Richard McKeon: Twentieth-Century Man

March 22, 2011

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By all accounts, philosopher Richard McKeon (1900-85) was a legend in the classroom. The list of students for whom McKeon shepherded an academic pursuit or two reads like a roster of the twentieth-century’s most noted cultural figures: Robert Coover, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Richard Rorty, Paul Rabinow, and Wayne Booth, among them. But McKeon never quite knocked out the one bankable work that makes an intellectual’s name. Instead, his contributions—to everything from human rights, medieval philosophy, and the history of science to dialectics, literary criticism, and rhetoric—remain as diverse as the pluralist approach he helped espouse.
Our own executive editor Doug Mitchell shares the following thoughts about McKeon’s contributions to twentieth-century thought:

The University of Chicago Press has been home to many publications by and about Richard McKeon, going back to editions of Cicero and Aristotle and up to an ongoing series of Selected Papers in three volumes, of which two are already published, with a third due in 2013. McKeon’s range as a philosopher was enormous (from metaphysics and philosophy of science to ethics and international politics to aesthetics, education, and the philosophic arts, with special emphasis on the arts of logic and rhetoric). His participation in curriculum-building at various universities (from Baroda to Puerto Rico to Swarthmore to Chicago), and in establishing UNESCO and the drafting the Universal Bill of Rights at the United Nations has marked him as a significant player in the junction of philosophy with the world of practical affairs.
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What may be most striking about his notably original philosophy is its reformulation of the history of ideas as a branch of philosophy and philosophy as an examination of plural traditions of philosophic discourse. This positions his philosophy of systematic pluralism as an entrée to invention and judgment in the extension of techniques of discourse and of avenues to inquiry, eschewing relativisms and deconstructivisms, on the one hand, but also deflecting the absolutism of naturalisms and positivisms on the other. McKeon’s philosophy is undergoing a revival of interest in areas as diverse as sociology, literary history, neuroscience, rhetorical studies, and comparative studies in civilization and world community.
For this reason, the Press is delighted to offer a link to a website devoted to McKeon, established in 2011, which features his autobiographical writings, a bibliography of his works, and samples of his audio lectures as well as his lecture notes.

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McKeon’s many publications include several published by the University of Chicago Press that are still in print today: Freedom and History and Other Essays: An Introduction to the Thought of Richard McKeon; On Knowing: The Natural Sciences; Introduction to Aristotle; Selected Writings of Richard McKeon, Volume Two; and The Edicts of Asoka (coedited with N. A. Nikam). For those seeking additional information about McKeon and his philosophy, George Kimball Plochmann’s Richard McKeon: A Study, the first book-length treatment of McKeon’s scholarship, is worth noting, as is Walter Watson’s The Architectonics of Meaning: Foundations of the New Pluralism.
The newly launched Richard McKeon website includes varied responses to McKeon’s philosophies and promises to be a very helpful place to begin for those unfamiliar with this pioneering American intellectual.


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