- Frank M. Oppenheim, SJ: A Model for Philosophical Interpretation and Reflection
i am proud to honor the legacy of Frank M. Oppenheim. This legacy is broad and deep. First, Oppenheim has played a major role in remedying the neglect of the life and work of Josiah Royce. He has done so with probing articles on central concepts in Royce’s philosophy and with a series of longer studies that delineated unexpected developments in Royce’s thought and life, demonstrating how Royce, throughout his career, refined and rethought his central philosophical ideas and created entirely unique and new directions of philosophical reflection. With superb interpretive and mediating skills, Oppenheim has provided the scholarly world with a finely nuanced picture of the context of Royce’s thought in terms of his relationships, interactions, conversations, and philosophical dialogues with his contemporaries of the academic, social, political, and personal world of his time. Oppenheim has also probed Royce’s thought in terms of the issues of his time as well as our time. Oppenheim’s work on Royce’s philosophy provides us with a model for the study and interpretation of the work of a philosopher, whether a contemporary or historical figure. His work combines in a unique way a respectful openness and faithfulness to another’s thought with subtle and insightful critical observations and judgments.
In addition to being an exemplar of the model of interpretation developed by Royce, applying it in a distinctive and particularly effective manner, Oppenheim, in my judgment, also provides a model of philosophical reflection at its finest. He approaches philosophy as an ongoing conversation, as requiring continual refinement, reflection, and dialogue with one’s own thought as well as that of others and with the experiential content provided by one’s life and time. Oppenheim also recognized and acted on a belief shared by William James and Royce that a person’s whole philosophy arises out of one’s unique personality. This informs Oppenheim’s superb work on [End Page 1] Royce and other philosophers, but significantly it applies to Frank Oppenheim, whose wonderful personality is revealed in his work as an interpreter and philosophical reflector. His work reveals a person who exhibits humility; fair-mindedness; loyalty to text, person, and philosophical ideas; and a true community spirit; as well as a sharp, probing intellect with a deep sense of history, context, and personal relationships. Oppenheim also shares a goal he attributes to Royce in his moral philosophy, namely, to help human beings achieve a better understanding of one another by continually opening new avenues of dialogue. Oppenheim has pursued this goal in many ways, but most admirably in his concern for ecumenical dialogue among the religions of the world and his concern to open windows to the East and to build bridges across disciplines.
In what follows, I will first discuss “interpretation” as a method, drawing on Royce’s own work on this as well as other sources. I will discuss Oppenheim’s own notions of interpretation as well. Then I will provide concrete examples of the work of interpretation done by Oppenheim both on the life and thought of Royce as well as on other occasions. This will help demonstrate that Oppenheim is an exemplar of interpretation and will lead to a discussion of the personal traits of this interpreter. A final section will discuss Oppenheim’s legacy as a philosopher and interpreter and will issue a call to others to carry on his fine work.
The Method of Interpretation
Although there is evidence that Royce employed the method of interpretation early in his philosophical work,1 Royce formally sets out to do this in The Problem of Christianity (255). He does this while developing the conditions for “true” community. Each of these conditions leads to interpretation. The first condition, extension of self, already presupposes the interpretive method since Royce views the self as an interpretive process.2 The second condition, namely, that there need to be distinct selves capable of social communication and engaged in such a process (Royce, Problem of Christianity 255), leads directly to interpretation. Royce asserts boldly that, without interpretations in the world, there would be neither selves...