Reproduced with permission of Jeanette Falk from: Henry A. Landsberger and Christoph E. Schweitzer (eds), They Fled Hitler’s Germany and Found Refuge in North Carolina, Southern Research Report #8, Academic Affairs Library, Center for the Study of the American South, IRSS Faculty Working Group in Southern Studies, Spring 1996, pp. 69-74.
"Carolina" Vignettes: W. David Falk, Philosopher
by Jeanette L. Falk
David Falk brought to his twenty-eight years in Chapel Hill his natural vitality, and an outlook on life shaped by the remarkable experiences of his previous fifty-seven years.
He was born in Berlin in 1906 to a father who was a family doctor and a mother who was part of the illustrious and eccentric Cassirer family. He told stories about his grandfather and great uncles who met every day in a Berlin cafe to plot business tragedy, solidifying their fortunes made in the cable and lumber industries that fed Germany's rush to industrialize after its unification in 1871. He told about the big family parties in the Apartment that could accommodate a forty-person sit-down dinner "without removing the piano." The family met often to amuse and torture each other with their sharp "Cassirer wit." Stories, scandals, exploits were told and retold until they achieved a mythic quality.
School was a mixed experience. As one of the few Jewish boys in his class and one of the sturdiest, he often found himself forced to fight to fend off the taunts of fellow students. But he had some inspiring teachers and especially remembered one in 111story and philosophy who took him under his wing.
By the time he was ready to go to a university, his family's
fortune had been ravaged by the inflation of the 1920's. The family decided
that he should try his hand at business, so he spent a year as an autoparts
salesman (selling, among other things, a machine that would "rough
up" slick tires to extend their wear, and hand operated windshield
wipers!) But finally his intense desire for university study was heeded. He
went to the University of Berlin, then transferred to Heidelberg where he
finished a Ph.D. in Political Economy in 1932. He obtained a teaching position
at the Hochschule für Politik, the youngest, he was told, ever to hold
such a post. But by then, Germany was becoming inhospitable for a liberal/socialist Jewish intellectual. Packing
for a ski trip in Austria, he threw in a suit along with his usual gear. During
the holiday, his parents sent a telegram advising him that "for his
health" he should extend his vacation. He never returned to live in
short stay in France, he went to England. Determined to pursue his career, he
found that the English university system had no use for a German Ph.D. He must
go through the undergraduate program and, what is more, he must emerge with a
"First Class Honors" degree: the British equivalent of summa cum
laude. He began an intense effort to master his new culture and found this
to be an exhilarating and enlarging experience. He read English literature,
18th century philosophy and anything else that came his way. The
"First" at Oxford was duly won and he was taken on as a lecturer at
New College in 1938.
was a wonderful experience. He embraced and admired Oxford's tradition of open,
fierce and exacting intellectual exchange, but he never felt totally at home,
and he never lost the wide base in Kant, Hegel, and Marx that he had learned in
Germany. He used to say, only partly joking, that after ten years some colleagues still raised
their voices when addressing him in the common room in case he might not
understand. Yet this melding of cultures and educations combined with his
Berlin/Cassirer-shaped sensibility made him very original. He had the
unrelenting precision of mind of the Anglo-American analytical philosophical
tradition on top of the rich social science oriented German education - and he
had the ready wit to bring it all into focus. Despite his affection for Oxford, when a position was
offered to him in Australia, he moved there with his family. He flowered in the
free atmosphere of Melbourne. The casual, less tradition-bound university, the
wild country, the intense artistic and intellectual scene just suited him.
In 1958 he came to the United States as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and in the Spring of 1963 he came as a visiting professor to the University of North Carolina's Department of Philosophy. After only a few months in that position, the department offered him the chairmanship and awarded him the newly endowed Hanes professorship. Perhaps surprisingly, David Falk and Chapel Hill were a perfect fit. The university community accepted him with warmth and respect, not as an oddity or an object of suspicion. After all, Chapel Hill was no provincial outpost. Many members of the faculty had studied abroad and were eager to see UNC become a more cosmopolitan place. Professor Maynard Adams, chairman of the philosophy department in the early sixties, was actively seeking to give the department "world representation." Foreign born professors were nothing new at the University. In the 1940's, during the war, a German, Helmuth Kuhn, was a member of the philosophy department. (He eventually went back to Munich.) Chapel Hill was tolerant toward and, indeed, actively seeking new influences.
Falk himself did not cultivate his refugee-ness. He strove to perfect his English and master its idiomatic subtlety. He sought to distance himself from the caricature of the learned, lovable but quirky misfit which some refugees embraced. Wade Marlette, who was a graduate student when Falk first joined the department, says that he was not so much thought of as a refugee as a British/German scholar. He was "exotic" only in that he wasn't like anyone else. His positive individuality overshadowed any category such as "German Jewish refugee."
The chairmanship's mandate to build the department vided an outlet for Falk's energetic vitality with which he always had to struggle when he wanted to channel it solely into scholarly pursuits. He approached his dealings with the university administration with zest and with due respect for his, at times, adversaries. (He learned early not to be deceived by easy Southern charm!) The expanding university of the mid-60's and early 70's gave him scope to hire and start new ventures like the much respected annual Chapel Hill Colloquium in Philosophy. The democratic style and broad mission of the university appealed to him. He never longed for the elite and focused European university atmosphere.
He was proud of being Jewish but he was not religious. He thought that such cultural differences should be the basis for
one’s identity and a source of private pride, but should not be emphasized. He favored blurring ethnic and cultural boundaries - not assimilation but de-emphasizing the lines separating groups. He extended this attitude to Germany and did not waste his energy being anti-German. He was against Nazism wherever it showed itself; the Germans had no monopoly on wickedness. His attitude toward people was deeply tolerant and liberal. After all, his philosophy was grounded in Kant as much as it was inspired by Hume. He was no ideologue and was not interested in foisting his beliefs on others. This did not make him a traditional liberal in foreign affairs. Here his attitude was closer to Realpolitik. He thought war and conflict were inherent to human nature and could be deterred only by strength. Thus he had little patience with sentimentality and saw the belief in man's inherent peacefulness as a most dangerous sort of sentimentality.
Despite his urban roots, he loved Chapel Hill as a place: its peace, verdure and the opportunity it gave him to have a house and plenty of space. He used to say that the trees were Chapel Hill's architecture. If he occasionally missed the cultural intensity of a big city like London (and Chapel Hill in 1963 was quiet) he would remind himself that, "You can only live in one place at a time."
He had an intense passion for the visual arts. When he was a boy, he once played hoockey from school for a whole week, going every day to pore over the prints collection at the Berlin State Library. As he matured, he began collecting Chinese, Greek, Egyptian, and later, African and Native American sculpture. Chapel Hill's lively artistic community provided a congenial milieu for this passion. For some years he sat on an advisory board for the Ackland Museum, contributing his original, witty and often irreverent comments on proposed acquisitions.
He found plenty of intellectual challenge in Chapel Hill. He talked philosophy at length with students and colleagues and anyone who just came to his office in search of a seriousear. After he retired from the chairmanship in 1974, he spent a year at the National Humanities Center and then continued to be in his office in Caldwell Hall, writing and talking and teaching. Every other week, he hosted, in his home, a lively Triangle Ethics Discussion Circle which drew participants from as far as Greensboro, every other week. On his eightieth birthday, Cornell University Press published his collected essays, which included some recently completed work, under the title, "Ought, Reasons, and Morality." He continued seeing students and colleagues to talk philosophy until days before he died, always energized by the power of the subject.
Chapel Hill gave David Falk a generous opportunity to express himself as a philosopher, a teacher, administrator, and art collector as well as a peaceful homeowner and family man. In his energetic enjoyment of these pursuits he, in turn, enriched the community and left his mark on it.