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Most people like to fluff up the pillows and read a good book. Professor of Philosophy Irving Singer likes to curl up in bed, fluff up the pillows and write one.
"I do my best thinking when I am reclining," said Dr. Singer, who has written on a laptop computer since 1993. "Writing in bed has its virtues. It defeats your inhibitions and allows the creative juices in your vegetative being to flow most freely." He notes that Mark Twain, among others, wrote in bed.
Professor Singer's George Santayana, Literary Philosopher (Yale University Press) will be released on October 17. A prolific writer, Professor Singer has authored 16 books and dozens of articles. He is best known for the trilogiesMeaning in Life and The Nature of Love.
Santayana is the second of five books by Professor Singer that will hit bookstore shelves in the next year or so. Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique (MIT Press, 1998) was recently released in a paperback edition. Two books are scheduled for spring publication by Rowman and Littlefield -- Feeling and Imagination: The Vibrant Flux of Our Existence and Sex: A Philosophical Primer. A sequel to the latter, entitled Explorations in Love and Sex, is complete and will be published by Rowman and Littlefield shortly afterwards.
"I've worked on these new books for more than a decade," he said, "simultaneously, going back and forth on each through many drafts." Sometimes a book is especially elusive. Professor Singer has been writing a major study of the classic myths of love for 30 years without being able to finish it. "I mull ideas for a long time before I feel I have something to say. Then I struggle with those endless drafts until I get disgusted and often put them all aside. Weeks or months later, when I look at what I've written, I sometimes think, 'I can't believe I wrote this stuff.' So I start again." Professor Singer said that though it may not be apparent, everything he writes is derived from personal experience.
A bright kid from Coney Island, he graduated from Townsend Harris High School for gifted students at age 15 and attended Brooklyn College for two years before he joined the Army during World War II. Because he was only 17 years old, the Army sent him to Harvard University for six months before he was given basic training and shipped into combat in Germany. "Going to Harvard was the real turning point in my life," he said.
When the war ended, he was 19 but had already been promoted to the rank of Tech 4, equivalent to sergeant, and had written a complete history of his unit (the 210th Field Artillery Group) which was then published as a book. As his reward, he was sent to a university in Southern France for six months, after which he wangled an assignment in Paris. "The only reason I came home was because I was afraid that Harvard wouldn't take me back if I remained overseas too long," he said.
Professor Singer graduated summa cum laude in 1948, the first one in philosophy at Harvard to be awarded that honor in eight years. He earned an MA in 1949 and, following a year at Oxford, a PhD in 1952. He joined the MIT faculty in 1958 as a lecturer, was promoted to associate professor in 1959 and has been here ever since.
"I've been extremely fortunate to be at MIT all these years," he said. "It has given me the freedom I needed to work on my books. I teach in the afternoon and write in the morning." Another benefit at MIT is the caliber of the students. "They're the brightest," he remarked. "I learn what I want to say by trying out my ideas on them."
Professor Singer has had a lifelong admiration of George Santayana, with whom he shares Harvard roots. He published a book on his aesthetics, edited a collection of Santayana's essays (1956), and wrote the introduction to the Critical Edition of his only novel, The Last Puritan (1994). He met Mr. Santayana only once, in Rome in 1950, when the great philosopher was 86 years old. Singer describes their three-hour conversation in his new book.
"Santayana succeeded because he was able to turn his alienated condition into a creative resource," Professor Singer said. In the book Professor Singer writes that, for him and others, "Santayana served as a model of the literary philosopher trying to overcome his alienation from a world that has become increasingly oblivious of its need for the humanities... The world in which we now exist needs... aesthetic achievements [such as Santayana's] more than ever before."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2000.