A Strange Philosophical Manuscript. A Secret Benefactor. The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician.

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Feb. 10 2012 3:42 PM

The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician

One of the greatest magazine stories of the past generation, republished in Slate.

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The Mayhemites differ from their many peers who descend from the antimetaphysical tradition of logical positivism. As Zimmerman explains, the Mayhemites admire philosophers like Princeton's David Lewis and Saul Kripke, Notre Dame's Alvin Plantinga, and the late Roderick Chisholm of Brown University, all of whom helped to revive metaphysics by arguing that a range of traditional philosophical topics—ontology, existence, essence, natural kinds—are in fact central to contemporary philosophical concerns about reference, meaning, necessity, and possibility. Some paper titles from past Mayhems provide a flavor of their arcane interests and humor: "The Varieties of Vagueness (Fewer Than You Think)"; "Impenitent Cartesianism"; and "The Homogeneous Stuff Objection to the Doctrine of Temporal Parts."

Jan Cover, a former mountain climber who speaks in the distinctive accent of the Anabaptist community in which he was raised, describes the Mayhemites as "a bunch of up-and-coming, some people say, 'stars,' who are just hard-nosed, analytic-style, logic-chopping, think-real-hard-and-do-kick-ass-old-fashioned-metaphysics types." Cover's enthusiasm is infectious. In his review of "Coming to Understanding," he claimed that one "would be hard-pressed to locate a richer, deeper contemporary approach to the most fundamental questions of metaphysics." He even went to the trouble of appending a list of typographic corrections—including suggestions for better ways of formatting the indentation of paragraphs.

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As I became increasingly consumed by the A.M. Monius Institute, I began to think of A.M. Monius in very much the same way that A.M. Monius thought of Being—as something that existed for the purpose of my coming to understand it. With the stakes this high, I felt I needed to bring in some bigger guns. Armed with my impressions of the manuscript as well as my tentative suspect list, I placed a call to the renowned literary detective Donald Foster.

Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College, is perhaps best known for using meticulous textual analysis to expose the journalist Joe Klein as "Anonymous," author of the political roman à clef Primary Colors. I sent Foster a copy of "Coming to Understanding" and a set of writing samples from suspects on my list. Foster agreed to see what he could do for me.

Given the limited information that I had provided, Foster was not able to identify the author of "Coming to Understanding." But with some confidence he felt he could rule out a few of my suspects: "Though one can admire Sigourney Weaver's force and form when blasting space aliens," he wrote in a memo, "she's not a writer to take on the logical positivists." As for Larry Ellison? "My oracle says 'no way,'" he said. "Same for Horst Dieter Steklis."

Foster suggested I look for a white male who had attended Notre Dame, though again he was merely going on instinct—not offering his professional opinion. "Another possibility," he added, "is that A.M. Monius may be a bright and ambitious, but somewhat shy, Rwandan gorilla."

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I confess: We were having some fun at A.M. Monius's expense. And who could blame us? It's not every day that you find yourself scripted into a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Still, all of the philosophers I spoke with made a point of emphasizing how much they admire the spirit behind A.M. Monius's attempt to help revive metaphysics. They applaud his intellectual commitment, not just his financial one. Zimmerman notes that modern philosophers have rarely had patrons in the way that thinkers like Gottfried Leibniz once did. And though it's true that Roderick Chisholm was for a short time supported financially by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, wealthy inventor of the medicine Argyrol, in few such cases does the apparent benefactor also serve, as A.M. Monius does, as the chief philosophical instigator and problem poser.

"Would that there were more nonprofessionals who got jazzed about philosophy!" Zimmerman exclaims. With palpable excitement, he ponders the possibility that the institute might back "slightly broader projects, like a research center"—or better yet, he adds in jest, "support the Mayhem!"

Certainly, there was something right about this conception of A.M. Monius. This was not your stereotypical amateur metaphysician, the kind who stumbles into rarefied speculation about the structure and purpose of the universe as part of a more general descent into paranoia and madness. The institute's philosophy was far too disciplined for that.

And yet there was some evidence—such as the belief that the institute had made a genuine methodological breakthrough in metaphysics—that the author of "Coming to Understanding" might not have a completely realistic outlook. After all the reviews were in, the institute's Web site began promoting a new round of lucrative research grants for the purpose of "directly improving central aspects" of "Coming to Understanding." The advertisement for these grants makes the rather strong boast that the "closest analogy to the upcoming program of the Institute is the widespread collaboration on specific problem-solving found in the bio-medical sciences, along with its pinnacle achievement of the mapping of the human genome."

As one reviewer groaned: "Oh, no—not more money to think about Monius."

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The discovery of the identity of A.M. Monius came about much faster—and with much more serendipity—than I had expected. When I spoke with Foster about the text of "Coming to Understanding," he told me of one intriguing clue that he had ferreted out. The term "kindmates," which A.M. Monius uses on page 7 of the manuscript, does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. As far as Foster could tell, the term appeared only in essays from the late 1980s by Mark Johnston, chair of the Princeton philosophy department.