Hard Mind - Soft Heart

For more than four decades philosophy professor Thomas Sullivan has taught St. Thomas students how to broaden their own worldview

Even as a youngster, St. Thomas philosopher Thomas Sullivan can remember pondering, “When one plus one make two, what does ‘make’ mean?” It was the beginning of an intellectual journey for the university’s longest-tenured professor, one centered on exploring foundational philosophical concepts anew, on teaching from the bottom up, on simply getting the words right.

As the 70-year-old son of a Chicago firefighter begins his 43rd year in a St. Thomas classroom, he can look back on a distinguished career: holder of the Aquinas Chair in Philosophy and Theology; five times selected Teacher of the Year by students and chosen 1985 Professor of the Year by his colleagues; twice honored with other institutional awards for teaching and scholarship, and the author or co-author of more than 50 scholarly articles in some 33 periodicals and books.

Sullivan’s father was a Catholic, his mother a Jew. Given the climate of the times, they eloped, and he describes his upbringing as “being pretty much on my own among Catholics, Jews, Protestants, agnostics and atheists.” Pondering college, he told his father he was interested in history. “You can look it up,” was his father’s succinct rebuff. Sullivan returned with another proposal: “I’ll major in English; I want to be a writer.” The paternal response: “You’ll starve.” He came back a third time. “I want to study philosophy,” he said. There was no objection from his father, so he took it as approval.

Sullivan received baccalaureate and master’s degrees from DePaul University and went on to get his doctorate from St. John’s University, New York, with a thesis on 20th century analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

When one plus one make two, what does "make" mean?

A St. Thomas alumnus who had left St. John’s philosophy faculty to return to his alma mater convinced Sullivan to apply to St. Thomas. “Without exaggeration, I gave what must be the worst (job) interview in the school’s history,” he recalls, but was still hired.

Sullivan arrived on campus in 1966, when memories still lingered of the so called “philosophy affair” in 1950. The department was then dominated by Thomists graduate-trained at Laval University, Quebec, who advocated close readings of Aquinas and Aristotle to the exclusion of secondary sources. Faculty from other disciplines challenged what they considered the intellectual narrowness of this approach and its lack of relevance to contemporary philosophical scholarship, as well as to that of the modern sciences. The controversy was settled peacefully, but it marked the beginning of a broadening of inquiry in the department.

“The department in 1966 still gave special attention to Aristotle and Aquinas because it was generally (if not universally) believed they had a great deal to say to anyone, but especially to those who accepted the claim that the church has received a matchless revelatory endowment from the lips of the savior,” Sullivan notes.

Over time, as an examination of department offerings will attest, interest in medieval philosophy has come to include figures other than Aquinas and Aristotle; ethics has found applications in biology and in the environment, as well as in business, and students can take a course in Buddhism or Indian philosophy, as well as in metaphysics.

Sullivan believes that philosophy is to theology as mathematics is to physics, yet he welcomes the evolution of the department and stresses its continuing commitment to Catholicism. “Those women and men who continue to work chiefly on Aristotle and St. Thomas often connect their research with what is going on in analytic philosophy today,” he points out, endorsing a development “entirely congruent with the urgings of the church for its philosophers to be conversant with ideas and idioms of the day.”

Russell Pannier, emeritus professor at William Mitchell College of Law and a frequent collaborator with Sullivan in academic publications, puts it this way: “For Tom, the life of the mind does not run in any narrow sluice whose current carries along only the limited concerns of some slice of the complete intellectual spectrum. Rather, his never-quenched intellectual thirst has driven him to explore an enormously broad range of issues, including those in philosophy, logic, mathematics, physics, biology, neuroscience, literature, history, theology and even chess strategies.”

In his lifelong quest for what is true – for getting the words right – Sullivan has what another colleague, Dr. John Kronen, refers to as the gift of dialectic. “Tom will only discuss an issue with a person by reasoning from principles that that person accepts,” he explains. “This is very rare … but there can be no meaningful dialogue unless both parties reason from principles the other can accept. Without that, there is not dialogue but only two concurrent monologues.”

There are few, if any, "self-evident" truths.

Sullivan is given high marks for initiating collaborative scholarship in the department. Current chair Dr. Sandra Menssen counts 11 individuals with whom Sullivan has co-authored publications, including herself in the recently published The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint. Scholarly partnership extends to the classroom, where he has team-taught with art historians, law professors and neuroscientists, as well as with fellow philosophers.

Sullivan’s institutional service has extended beyond the normal committee work. He suggested opening classrooms free to parents of undergraduates; and the Parents on Campus Program continues today with uncounted beneficiaries. He was among faculty instrumental in founding the Center for Catholic Studies as well as an “idea person” behind St. Thomas’ Renaissance Program, which allows liberal-arts majors to take extra classes in business. He promoted “THINK St. Paul,” a lecture series bringing intellectual discussion downtown.

It is in the classroom where the veteran professor makes an indelible impression. Oddly enough, when he is asked for the secrets of his teaching art, Sullivan’s body language betrays discomfort. He offers no pat list, only some guidelines. “Strive for clarity and justification of claims above all,” he advises. “Dig for foundations. Defamiliarize what everybody ‘knows’; Jefferson aside, there are few, if any, ‘self-evident’ truths. Never fail to consider what may be said against your view. See the new through the lens of the old, the old through the lenses of the new. Be far less concerned about who said it than whether it is true. You are not just learning philosophy, you are building a worldview – your own.”

Not surprisingly, student reviews of his teaching turn up such quotes as “I have learned so much about how to do philosophy in this class. Dr. Sullivan’s way of questioning truths that I once supposed to be self-evident has greatly helped me in my critical thinking and argumentation skills.” Another writes, “This is the most interesting class I have ever taken … my brain almost exploded a few times. It was great.”

Dr. Mark Dienhart, an alumnus and UST executive vice president and chief administrative officer, remembers a “smart, well-prepared teacher who wanted to know all of us by name and was obviously pleased when a good and correct student response came (from his Socratic Method of instruction). He celebrated with us. He wanted us to learn and succeed. There was a lot of laughter and kindness. I think he treated us much as he would his own kids.”

Another former student now an associate of Sullivan’s, Dr. Michael Winter, credits him with a career choice. “I came to this university with very little focus or vision about what I wanted to do with my life,” Winter recalls. “After being inspired in Dr. Sullivan’s courses, I knew I wanted to be a philosopher. He is the perfect role model for a Catholic philosopher – a hard mind but a soft heart.”

The soft heart could mask tough love. A man in his 30s once approached Sullivan in a neighborhood eatery. “You won’t remember me, but you were my academic adviser,” he began. “One day in your office reviewing my academic record, you asked what I wanted to do after graduation, and I replied that I wanted to be a veterinarian. You looked at me and said in a kind but convinced tone, ‘There’s no way in hell you’re getting into veterinary school with these grades.’ I thought about that at night in my dorm bed. I started studying, the grades came up, I got into veterinary college and now practice in Highland Park. I just want to thank you for changing my life.”

The soft heart also could mean just that. Several years ago, a fellow philosopher had to leave St. Thomas for medical reasons partway through a semester. Already teaching two courses of his own that semester, Sullivan, according to the department chair at the time, immediately phoned to say, “I can pick up two of his three classes.”

Pannier describes Sullivan’s humanity: “He listens carefully to others before responding, and, when he does respond, he invariably does so in an accepting, friendly, gentle and quietly respectful manner which transparently affirms the intrinsic worth of the other parties to the conversation as well as the intrinsic worth of their thoughts.”

Another trait for which Sullivan is notorious is stereotypical professorial absent-mindedness. The stories about him are legion, a friend reports, such as spending an hour looking for his car in the parking lot before remembering he walked to work; taking his dog for a walk, tying it to a tree and returning home without man’s best friend; eating a colleague’s lunch thinking it was his, and picking up unguarded keys as his own.

In a biographical form filled out shortly after he joined the faculty, Sullivan scrawled across the question about avocations and special interests: “None. When not working, I just mope around waiting for something to go wrong.” Today, the self-deprecatory tone is somewhat softened. “I have no hobbies,” he says, “but I like to hang around my wife, Ginny, our six kids and 16 grandchildren. I watch a bit of baseball, read history, preferably revisionist, as well as in the sciences and art history. I’m not much fun. I don’t play bridge, drink (much), dance, or play an instrument. I can whistle, though.”

In a time when what might be called mass-market atheism is fronted by contemporary philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, it is refreshing to hear Sullivan tell of walking a lot along Minnehaha Creek, “thinking about philosophy and the great gift of revelation” as well as about “love of the church and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.” He spends several hours a week going to Mass and reading spiritual works. “It’s the sort of thing I am reluctant to discuss much, but it’s at the center of life, out of which grows everything affecting family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. It contributes to my wonder about the world.”

About which he is trying to get the words right.

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