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Books: Manhattan Philosopher

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PHILOSOPHER’S HOLIDAY—Irwin Edman—Viking ($2.75)

Irwin Edman was 21 when he began teaching philosophy at Columbia University. On the campus one day shortly afterwards he met his old professor, Felix Adler. “What are you doing now?” inquired the professor. “Teaching,” said Edman. “Teaching what?” “Philosophy,” said Edman. The old man patted the open-faced, blond youth on the back. “How cute!” he said.

At 38, Edman was made a full Professor of Philosophy. Now 41, and one of Columbia’s most popular professors, he is also credited, through his writings, with an increased attendance in philosophy courses at other colleges as well. As a teacher of philosophy he no longer runs the risk of being called cute. As a philosopher in his own right, he might still tempt some old philosopher to do so.

Edman’s own philosophy is a humanist cocktail whose chief ingredients are Plato, Santayana and Manhattan. It is the last component that shines, like a pickled cherry, out of Philosopher’s Holiday, a tall, watery glassful of reminiscences, anecdotes and essays devoted to “persons and places, many of them obscure, about which I have occasionally told my friends over a glass of sherry. . . .” Son of a shirt & blouse manufacturer, Philosopher Edman still lives in the neighborhood where he was born and brought up, a stone’s throw from Columbia University. He has “spent a long life” in Carnegie Hall and art galleries, writes light topical verse, travels much in Europe, wears thick glasses, has a bad stomach, and in general exhibits the intellectual precocity, the urbane humor, the tastes and the slightly nervous detachment which seem as native to Manhattan as The New Yorker.

Professor Edman recalls with nostalgia his pleasant childhood and youth on Morningside Heights, the teachers who stimulated him, a few of his more picturesque students (some now stuffed shirts, some leading Communists); he writes of his travels, praises the English, meditates on music, relates an encounter with a big-shot Nazi in Greece. But the spotlight is on those amateur philosophers whom he numbers among the “Society of Itinerant Humanists.” One was a French doctor who came to treat Edman’s indigestion, launched instead into a discourse on Platonic philosophy. Another is his maid Maria, one of the best philosophers who ever kept a bachelor’s apartment in order, and Edman’s tribute is probably one of the sweetest portraits of a maid in literature.

Along with these portraits Philosopher Edman does not neglect philosophical morals, which consist mainly of advice not to become panicky about the way the contemporary world is going. Spinoza, he points out, went on grinding lenses for a living while war and revolution raged around him in Holland, and Santayana, Edman’s Master, meditates serenely on Essences under the very shadow of Mussolini’s jaw. Readers will envy Philosopher Edman his ability to enjoy himself. They will not be able to figure out, from this book, quite how to imitate him and may wonder if his poise, his easy blend of academic and worldly man, does not derive as much from his temperament as from the study of philosophy.

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