Office of Exquisite Curiosities

Professor White, an ardetn admirer of Nietzsche, stands amongst his larde postcard colletion. Photo Courtesy Carol Wu
Professor White, an ardetn admirer of Nietzsche, stands amongst his larde postcard colletion.
Photo Courtesy Carol Wu

Alan White, professor of philosophy at the College, enjoys an office of exquisite curiosities. Other than working behind a stand-up desk and displaying masks given to him by his daughter, White also stashes hundreds of postcards in his office. The story behind the origin of these postcards might be even more interesting than their vast volume, however: they were sent to White from a fellow admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Soon after publishing Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth in 1990, White began receiving emails from Earl R. Nitschke, a retired art professor. Nitschke started to send White artistic postcards which, over the past two decades, have accumulated to more than 750 in number. Some postcards showcase Nietzsche’s quotes and likeness while others depict imaginary books written by Nitschke.

One of White’s favorites, postcard #79, is based on the cover of Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, which shows a maze on a white background. White’s inspiration behind the design sentimentally bridges some core elements of Nietzche’s philosophy with White’s love of his family.

At the publishing of Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, White’s daughter Charlotte White ’08 and son Niko White ’04 were three and seven years old, respectively. This explains the “C” on the top left corner of the book cover, the “3” that looks like an backwards “E” on top right, the “N” on the bottom left and the “7” that is right above it. Jane Nicholls, White’s wife and director of the College’s Parents Fund, is represented by the gigantic “J” snuggling under White’s name. “Nietzsche once said something along the lines of, ‘In the universe, a lot of things don’t make sense, but there are pockets of things that do make sense.’ So I used that idea for my cover, which looks like it doesn’t make much sense at first, but here are some pockets that do.’”

Other than avidly exploring philosophy, White is also busy learning new languages. Having started with German during his college years, White later collaborated with author Larenz B. Puntel to translate the originally German philosophical works, Being and God and Structure and Being. While working as the Director of the Williams-Exeter Program at Oxford from 1979 to 1999, White also taught himself French, and soon moved on to Spanish and Italian. Now he speaks and reads in all five languages. When asked the secret to mastering so many languages, White answered with a single word: “Obsessiveness.” White noted, “Sometimes I studied Spanish or Italian for seven to eight hours a day.” Even now, to maintain his language skills, White does approximately 10 practices on German and Spanish on language-learning app Duolingo, every day.

White’s latest book, Toward a Philosophical Theory of Everything: Contributions to the Structural-Systematic Philosophy, was published a little over a year ago, in January 2014. Challenging the term “theory of everything”, which was also the title of Oscar nominated film this year, White points out that because physics has restrictions to its field, or rather has a “restricted universe of discourse,” the usage of “everything” is incorrect. “Philosophy and only philosophy can look at the unrestricted universe of discourse, in a word, everything. For the most part, philosophy these days proceeds in a quite fragmented fashion, so you have people who specialize in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and so on, but it is also important to look at how things relate to each other. That is the point from which I try to work towards ‘a philosophical theory of everything.’ However, one phrase I use in the book is, ‘it’s holistic but not imperialistic’, it leaves physicists to do physics and biologists to do biology, but part of what systematic philosophy does is that it investigates issues that are presupposed but not investigated by other disciplines. Physicists can’t write an article about truth and publish it in a physics journal; you can in a philosophy journal.”

Toward a Philosophical Theory of Everything has won acclaim from both critics and readers. Coming to the College two decades ago seeking “a place to balance teaching and doing research” as well as “an appropriate environment to raise children,” White and his wife are now not only pillars of the College family, but also parents of two alumni. Evidenced from his personalized office in which each detail is meaningful, White admits he has found a home here amongst fellow researching, learning and teaching minds.