Friday, February 27, 2009

Campus to celebrate 50 years of John Searle

At 76, not much has slowed for UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle.

"I'm in fine shape," he said in a recent phone interview, as he took a break from skiing at Squaw Valley. "I've lost a couple of seconds on my giant slalom, I'll admit."

Searle, a key figure in the Free Speech Movement, has zipped around his share of obstacles in 50 years on the UC Berkeley faculty. On Monday, the philosophy department will honor his half-century with a reception featuring stories about his career.

Although professors are often feted on college campuses, rarely does it happen for a septuagenarian who continues to teach courses and write books and who is not ready to retire. Last semester, Searle taught two undergraduate classes with a total of 250 students, and he plans to finish three books this year.

Searle's enthusiasm for working with undergraduate students is rare at large research universities such as UC Berkeley.

"There's a certain vitality to the campus, and particularly to the undergraduates," he said. "You can get good graduate students anywhere. But there's a sense that you make a greater difference at the undergraduate level."

His courses have essentially become a rite of passage, said Jay Wallace, the philosophy department chairman.

"His classes are always oversubscribed," Wallace said. "He's probably the most famous philosopher in the world. Many students feel that it's something you have to do before you Advertisementleave Berkeley: take a class from John Searle."

Searle's work, including 14 major books, covers a wide variety of subjects including the philosophy of speech, artificial intelligence, rationality and social reality.

One reason Searle is such a draw could be his role in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. He was the first tenured professor to join the movement, and he became a driving force alongside Mario Savio, who was one of his students.

Aside from a brief period of satisfaction brought on by the movement, Searle does not have fond memories of the 1960s and 1970s. Even the Free Speech Movement changed for the worse and became violent, he said.

"People like to sentimentalize that period, but it was just awful," he said.

He eventually worked against the movement once it became clear it was trying to politicize the university, he said. The change of heart didn't win him friends among former supporters, but he has no regrets.

"It was much easier to run the revolution than it was to run the counterrevolution," Searle said. "A lot of people hated me. But if you're not willing to do things people are violently opposed to, you're a coward.

"I'm always amazed at how conformist professors are."

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