Emeritus Professor Andrew Levine Has Passed Away

The Department of Philosophy is sad to report the passing of Emeritus Professor Andrew Levine, who taught at UW from 1974 until 2004 and specialized in political philosophy. Below are remembrances of Andy from a former student and a former colleague.

Andrew Levine, A Remembrance

By Dave Estlund, with help especially from Harry Brighouse, and Paul Warren

March 20, 2021

Andy Levine passed away Tuesday, March 9 at his home in Maryland. He had a long career as a political philosopher, and a later but overlapping career as a prolific opinion journalist. He did his graduate work at Columbia University, receiving his Ph. D. in 1971. He taught at the University of British Columbia, before moving to the Philosophy Department at UW-Madison from 1974 until he retired in 2004. He then taught at the University of Maryland-College Park, soon beginning to write, as he did for the rest of his life, a column for the political online publication Counterpunch, all the while continuing to publish books in political thought. Andy’s biting humor and basic decency were cherished by his colleagues as much as his idealistic leftist political writing and teaching were galvanizing to his students.

A strong interest in progressive and radical politics always informed his scholarly work. It emerged more explicitly over time, from his early work on the important affinities between Rousseau and Kant on autonomy (with Marx barely off-stage), (The Politics of Autonomy (1976))to books on Marx and socialism, (The Future of Marxism (2003))and critiques of the liberal tradition’s conceptions of equality and democracy. (Liberal Democracy: A Critique of Its Theory (1981). His careful approach to arguments—not a hallmark of mid-century Marxist writing—and his conversance with the most important contemporary liberal theory, anticipated what became a minor movement in the 1980’s and 90’s, “analytical Marxism.” That was a fertile period professionally, partly owing to rich collaborations with his friends Erik Olin Wright, in the Sociology department, and Philosophy colleague, Elliott Sober. (Reconstructing Marxism (1992))

Andy’s courses were mostly in social and political philosophy broadly speaking, though he also taught a wide-ranging course on the introduction to philosophy (this author’s first course in philosophy in 1976, for what it’s worth). His seminars looked closely at cutting edge new work in political philosophy across the political spectrum, including the analytical Marxists of course, but also the monumental liberal theories emerging in that time from left-liberal John Rawls, to libertarian Robert Nozick, and the importance of economist Kenneth Arrow’s work for democratic theory. Some philosophers do good work by focusing on their own narrow specialty with blinkers on, but Andy—despite a career-long discomfort with academia—was a true scholar, fascinated by the work of great historical figures, and wide-ranging enough in his expertise to contribute fruitfully to colloquium discussions in just about any area of philosophy.

While Andy was more a theorist than an activist while in Madison, one former student recalls peering out the front windows from a several-day occupation of an administration building in favor of TA unionization, to see, amongst the small crowd that came and went, Andy strolling up and down for some time, making himself quietly but publicly present with the protesters in solidarity. Although a socialist by political commitment, Andy was more of an anarchist by temperament (The End of the State, 1987). He was instinctively hostile to bureaucratic rules, even when he could see their point, and took great pleasure in long irritable correspondence–in dead earnest, even if amusingly recounted–contesting parking tickets and objecting to various by-laws designed to facilitate snow-clearing in the city. A letter to the parking bureau would meet the same exacting intellectual standards that he abided by in his teaching and research.

Andy had a brush with real fame when the media got hold of his rare ability to effortlessly speak backwards. A friend, Lewis Leavitt, studied and published some research on this phenomenon, but not before Johnny Carson flew (and limo’d) Andy to California as a guest on the hugely popular Tonight Show. He was charming and funny, and one fellow guest on the couch, the beautiful TV and film star Angie Dickinson, seemed to think it was the most entertaining thing she’d ever seen. The fame was worldwide but brief. Andy later reported that he was, “a huge hit in Japan,” and that “if it had led to a career on ‘Hollywood Squares’ or something, I would’ve stayed with it.”

Whether you believe him about that or not, Andy was indeed always skeptical of the academic profession, especially for its pernicious effects on political thought. He believed, and argued in print (most clearly in his piece in the Oxford Handbook in Political Philosophy (2013)), that without any constituency among the real people who were being theorized about, it was no surprise that the reality of their lives had scant influence on the work of academic philosophers. It made sense, then, that after leaving his 30-year stint at Madison, Andy embarked on a second phase of his career, writing more directly political articles and books (which, combined with this academic books, came to a total of twelve). (The American Ideology (2005)). And he began a new intellectual life as a prolific political commentator, unsurprisingly witty and iconoclastic but now for the benefit of a wide following. He told friends that he absolutely loved it and that he had finally found his voice, his intellectual place in the world—not as an academic after all, but as an opinion journalist—not so different (he surely appreciated) from the early career of hero Karl Marx. In addition to his new intellectual home, his new physical home in Maryland, with unique architecture and open spaces for his beloved dogs, also gave him great pleasure.

As acerbic as Andy was known to be, his unmistakable social and political idealism (if not optimism) was present already in his grad school years. Robert Paul Wolff supervised Andy’s dissertation at Columbia and remembers him announcing that he was on his way to lead his very first discussion as a teaching assistant, and that he planned to conduct it without any hierarchy: just people sitting in a circle discussing philosophy. Wolff was not surprised at Andy’s later crestfallen report, “they treated me as the teacher.” Andy was active in Students for a Democratic Society during the politically intense late 1960’s at Columbia, and in a 1968 New York Times letter replying to George Kennan, a top foreign policy figure who regularly denounced the student left, Andy concluded with this: “Without pretending to authority in these matters, I think it is reasonable to hold that institutions, if not perfectible, are at least improvable to a point where war and poverty, exploitation and racism can disappear. Once this is granted, it should not require too much withdrawn reflection in academic retreats to make the necessary intellectual connections.” It’s almost as if he had planned to graduate from academia all along, and the sooner the better. But many are grateful for the fascinating mind, piercing humor, and friendly skepticism that livened up those reflective, if often overly-withdrawn, halls for as long as he did (fourth door… on the left).

Elliott Sober on Andy Levine

Andy and I started our teaching careers together.  We had a lot in common.  He was from Philadelphia and I was from Baltimore; we both felt like displaced Easterners.  Andy and I both got interested in cooking in those earlier years, so besides talking about politics, the Department, and philosophy, we talked about recipes and about the foods we craved but could not find.  In 1976, a giant ice storm immobilized the city. It knocked out the power at Andy’s house and at many others, including Dennis Stampe’s, so Andy and Denny and his family camped out over the weekend with Norma and me and our first son Sam, who was then a baby.   Andy’s wry sense of humor was very much appreciated.

My philosophical collaboration with Andy began when he asked me a simple question:  what makes a theory historical? Andy was thinking about Marx’s theory of historical materialism and he thought it would be interesting to put that theory side-by-side with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  The result was a paper called “What’s Historical About Historical Materialism?”, which appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985.  Working with Andy on that paper was a pleasure.  A lot of the work was done outside – we would walk around the neighborhood (we lived 2 blocks away from each other) ─ talking loud, gesticulating energetically, and cracking wise.  We had no trouble writing up our ideas, with each of us editing the other’s work.   Andy and I went on to write papers with Erik Olin Wright, and they wrote a few with each other. We put these collaborative projects together in a book called Reconstructing Marxism – Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History (Verso Press, 1992).   The three-way collaboration with Erik had the same enjoyable dynamic that Andy and I had when we first worked together.