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.

Plato.
The search for an amateur philosopher

Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikipedia.

In the July/August 2001 issue of the late, great magazine Lingua Franca, James Ryerson published an enthralling article about an anonymous benefactor who was paying professors huge sums of money to review a strange 60-page philosophical manuscript. Slate editor David Plotz talked about “The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician” on this week’s Political Gabfest, citing it as one of his favorite magazine articles of all time. Ryerson gave Slate permission to republish the story in full. 

In June 2000, the philosopher Dean Zimmerman moved from the University of Notre Dame to Syracuse University with his wife and three kids, only to see their new house catch fire the day they moved in. Much of what they owned was destroyed. "We were out of the house for six months," he recalls. "It was a miserable experience."

The week after the fire, Zimmerman got a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant that brought encouraging news: "You will move to a wonderful new home within the year," it read. Zimmerman, a metaphysician with side interests in resurrection and divine eternity, was heartened by the prophecy. And when he returned to the restaurant three months later, his second fortune was equally promising: "A way out of a financial mess is discovered as if by magic!"

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The next day Zimmerman received a letter from the A.M. Monius Institute. Printed on official-looking stationery and signed by the institute's director, Netzin Steklis, the letter offered Zimmerman a "generous" sum of money to review a sixty-page work of metaphysics titled "Coming to Understanding." As the letter explained, the institute "exists for the primary purpose of disseminating the work 'Coming to Understanding' and encouraging its critical review and improvement." For Zimmerman's philosophical services, the institute was prepared to pay him the astronomical fee of twelve thousand U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, three thousand miles away in England, the University of Reading philosopher Jonathan Dancy returned from a short vacation to find his house in dire need of repairs. He also discovered a letter waiting for him. "I arrived home thinking that the roof has collapsed and I must do something about it," he remembers. "I wasn't sure how I was going to do it."

Dancy's letter from the A.M. Monius Institute made him the same remarkable offer that had been made to Zimmerman. "I thought, this is very weird," Dancy says. "At first, I thought they were offering me twelve hundred dollars." And the roof? "This was a godsend," he says, "as far as that goes."

Zimmerman and Dancy were not the only scholars who received lucrative offers—and ultimately payment—from the institute. Soon the roster had grown to include at least nine other philosophers: Ermanno Bencivenga of the University of California at Irvine; Jan Cover of Purdue University; John Hawthorne of Syracuse University; Trenton Merricks of the University of Virginia; Eugene Mills of Virginia Common-wealth University; Gideon Rosen of Princeton University; Michael Scriven of Claremont Graduate University; Theodore Sider of Syracuse University; and Ted Warfield of the University of Notre Dame.

The institute's letter claimed that a "very substantial sum" had been earmarked to help contribute to "the revival of traditional metaphysics." Given the number of philosophers involved, that sum was at least in the neighborhood of $125,000. Who could afford to spend that much money on philosophy? And of those who could, who would want to? No one had a clue.

The institute, for its part, was maddeningly secretive. Many of the philosophers spoke by telephone with Steklis, who refused to disclose any information about the author of the manuscript, the institute's funding, or her superiors. ("She made these mysterious references to 'the board,'" Zimmerman remembers.) As instructed, the philosophers downloaded "Coming to Understanding" from the institute's Web site. Then, with a collective sense of puzzlement and excited disbelief, they awaited the arrival of their contracts in the mail.

To judge from both the reviewer's contract and "Coming to Understanding" itself, the institute meant business. For one thing, the manuscript, signed by one A.M. Monius, suggested the handiwork of a serious thinker—not a prankster. "It didn't seem like a joke," Zimmerman says. "It wasn't that funny. It was clearly the work of a fairly able writer—a smart person, one capable of making some gross philosophical errors while at the same time having some clever ideas." Theodore Sider was pleasantly surprised. "To tell you the truth," he says, "when I actually got into it, I enjoyed it." Dancy concurs: "There are enterprises you wouldn't want to be associated with. But I was much reassured by the work. It was better than many manuscripts I had refereed for leading publishers. It was at least different."

The contract looked even more professional. Written in fluent legalese, it featured an eleven-point list of terms and conditions, including the requirement that the reviewer had published "an article (not merely a review) in The Journal of Philosophy, The Philosophical Review, Mind, The Monist, Noûs, and/or The Review of Metaphysics." Reviewers were offered the choice of writing a "substantial critical review" or a "testimonial." A review meant a "reasoned criticism (whether favorable or unfavorable)" that offered "detailed positive suggestions" for improving the work; it had to be at least thirty pages long and "consistent with professional standards regarding reviews of this nature." Alternatively, for a two-page testimonial that would "praise 'Coming to Understanding' and highlight its merits and significance," the institute was willing to pay four thousand dollars.

Despite the institute's evident professionalism, its anonymity and mysteriousness made reviewers skittish—even after they had received countersigned contracts. "Some of us were wondering, what the hell? Is this for real?" says Jan Cover. Sider acknowledges that "it was a bit of a risk, because I had no idea who these people were." Dancy assumed that he had only a "one-in-ten chance" of getting paid and confesses that he is "still wary about the whole affair." Trenton Merricks shares that anxiety, noting that he had hoped A.M. Monius was "George Soros—and not some cult leader!"

For all the reviewers' reservations, their checks came through as promised. All their reviews, except for Gideon Rosen's, now appear on the institute's Web site, and all eleven reviewers have been paid in full. (Only Ted Warfield chose to write a testimonial.) "My hourly rate went way up," noted one reviewer, who wished not to be identified. Merricks, who received a three-thousand-dollar bonus for his review, laughs when he confesses that he spent the extra money on Lasik eye surgery. "It's so embarrassing," he says sheepishly. "I could never justify paying the money under normal circumstances. But with the bonus—bada bing!"

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