by Jeffrey Stanley
"I’m a philosopher as well as a teacher of philosophy. My writings span ethics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind and action, and the philosophy of religion. A unifying focus in all these areas is rationality." Robert Audi '59
, a Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Management, and the David E. Gallo Chair in Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, was attempting to explain his work in layman's terms, a feat which he accomplished in greater detail in his books The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality
(Oxford University Press, 2001) and The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value
(Princeton University Press, 2004). A Manhattanite by birth, Robert grew up in Brooklyn Heights in the 1940s and 50s, when "there was little enough traffic to allow for fairly safe playing on the street," he fondly recalled.
His big sister Elaine and big brother Alfred had attended BFS so it was only natural that his parents also enroll Robert here starting in Kindergarten. His parents liked the school's academic strength and its closeness to their neighborhood. "BFS was academically serious," said Robert, "and I had a sense of responsibility." He remembers thinking well of his classmates and respecting his teachers. "I can still picture many of them and remember most of their names." He recollected morning snack time and having rest time in the old Meeting House.
His teachers cared about accuracy and the power of ideas, said Robert, but the primary influence on his interest in philosophy came from his father E.J., a well-read businessman and Lebanese immigrant with an interest in philosophy and history. His mother Rosa Lee Nemir Audi, a medical doctor and faculty at NYU Medical School, also spurred Robert's interest in ethics, arts and literature. "Both liked to explain and comment on things," Robert mused, "and they often entertained people from the diplomatic world and medicine who argued about politics, religion and ideas in general."
Robert remembers learning in Lower School the importance of mutual respect, understanding, honesty, and academic seriousness although he admitted that it didn't always take. "There was discipline but I never felt it was heavy-handed," he said, "and I should know since before junior high I was a nonconformist who often needed a lecture from the principal or a teacher."
One lecture in particular will always stick out in his mind. In fourth grade he brought a pocketful of bullets to school which he'd been given by a family friend who was a gun collector. Outside the school he and a classmate started hurling the live ammo at the sidewalk hoping to set them off like fireworks. When teacher Noemie Watkins got wind of it she didn't punish them but instead gave Robert and the class an impromptu lecture on ballistics. "I still remember how she went to the blackboard and explained the difference between discharge in the confines of a barrel and uncontrolled explosion into dangerous shrapnel. I respected her and remembered the lesson."
Then there was the time when Dr. Freedman, a dentist and father of Jonathan, Matthew and Eric Freedman, gave the fourth grade a talk on dental hygiene and handed out cardboard tubes of powdered toothpaste. "I took mine into Coach Wally Longley's small office which adjoined the boys' locker room and punctured each end with the needle of the basketball pump. Keeping the needle in one end I waited, and when he entered I vigorously pumped out a cloud of toothpowder at him...Thank God he laughed."
By his junior and senior years Robert was reading the works of philosophical heavyweights like Spinoza and Bertrand Russell. He also took psychology courses and delved into the works of Freud and other writers. "These courses were highly engaging for me," he said.
After graduation from BFS he attended Colgate where he double-majored in philosophy and literature. By his senior year he settled on philosophy, obtaining his MA and PhD degrees from the University of Michigan. "It was among very best in the field and had a more diverse faculty than the leading East Coast universities," he said.
Today, along with expertise in several branches of philosophy, he is known as a specialist in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. "I tend to be a defender of common sense," he explained. In other words, we know some of the things we think we do (like that fertilizer will help a tree grow), but not everything we think we know. "Moreover," he added, "I've defended the possibility of knowledge, or at least rational belief, in certain kinds of religious matters given certain conditions."
We also apparently know some things we don't think we know. "Don't our students often know the answers we call for...without knowing that they know them?"
If there is also, empirically speaking, such a thing as luck then Robert can point to many such observable instances in his life. "I've been lucky...I've greatly enjoyed doing papers and books and leading discussions, and I've had the privilege of doing seminars and Institutes under National Endowment for the Humanities grants." He has collaborated with other internationally known philosophers, and lectured at Oxford and other leading institutions in the US and abroad. "I greatly enjoy discussion and always learn from dealing with hard questions from a thoughtful audience," he said.
Robert and his wife Marie-Louise enjoy the performing arts and do a good bit of traveling. Robert also plays the piano now and again. "I also still do my own yard work in both Indiana and upstate New York," he said, adding, "some, but not all, of which is a good change of pace."
He and Marie-Louise raised three children--Katherine, Evelyn and Paul--all of whom are teachers. Robert's brother and sister both joined the family's highly successful furniture business, E.J. Audi, Inc., which acquired Stickley Manufacturing Co. in the 1970s, becoming Stickley, Audi & Co. Alfred passed away in 2007 but Elaine still lives in Brooklyn Heights and works as an interior designer.
Do Quaker values still influence Robert today? He recounted the time he cowrote a short book with a philosophy of religion professor from Yale, who at one point without knowing Robert had graduated from a Quaker school described him as regarding citizens in a liberal democracy as working together in a kind of large Quaker meeting to arrive at consensus. "I didn’t say exactly this, but I certainly find the ideal attractive."