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To Philosopher, Discipline Is Beacon

June 17, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

When Abraham Melden moved with his parents from Montreal to Los Angeles a few years after World War I, the first place he explored was the Los Angeles Public Library. He remembers the day vividly. "I was just wandering, exploring, and I found a book by Plato--one of the early Socratic dialogues. I was fascinated, and I took the book home and devoured it."

That incident took place more than 60 years ago, and it put Melden on the track that tonight will bring him the highest honor UC Irvine can bestow. Along with Walter B. Gerken (chairman of Pacific Mutual's executive committee who recently established an endowed chair in Enterprise and Society) and Robert and Meryl Bonney (local residents who established a $1-million trust fund for the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and have strongly supported research and education in the College of Medicine), Melden will receive the UCI Medal at the Bren Events Center.

Melden, who has shown few signs of slowing down since he retired as chairman of UCI's philosophy department in 1977, uses the word emeritus to describe his current relationship with UCI. Retired , he said emphatically, "I hate that word."

At 78, about the only thing he has given up are his administrative duties at UCI, and he has more than filled that void with regular teaching assignments, writing, work with professional societies in his field and a dedication to UCI's new Humanities Research Institute. All this in spite of a recurring cardiac problem that finally resulted in surgery in April.

Today, relaxed in his Newport Beach ranch-style home, surrounded by the books he loves, Melden said the surgery was completely successful and he's feeling fine. "It's the only real health problem I've ever had," he said, "and now it's behind me."

Poor health is especially intolerable to Melden because it gets in the way of what he considers the primary mission of a human being: the life of the mind. "Without intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder," he said, "we'd all be dullards."

He has believed this stoutly since he was a small boy enjoying "a marvelous public school education." That's when discipline became a guiding light to Melden in all of his thinking processes. "My teachers came out of well-disciplined schools in England," he recalled. "One of the best courses I ever had was in Latin because it made me understand for the first time how to construct and craft an English sentence."

Melden graduated from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1927, then went on to win a BA degree in philosophy from UCLA, an MA from Brown and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1938. He taught at Berkeley until 1946, when he began an 18-year run at the University of Washington, the last eight as a full professor of philosophy. By that time he had published several landmark books and was known worldwide for his work in ethics.

He got into the field almost accidentally ("because I had to") when he was asked to teach a course "that was not being taught in an intellectually responsible fashion. I thought it should be a tough academic discipline, and I dug it out myself from classical texts." As a result, he began to write and publish on ethics and philosophy, and his name became associated with moral rights. He had enormous international stature when he came into the view of UCI in 1964.

Then-Vice Chancellor Ivan Hinderacker called Melden to check the references of a teaching applicant at this new university that existed mostly on William Pereira's drawing boards. Almost as a footnote, Hinderacker added that if ever Melden thought about making a change, UCI would welcome him with open arms. The offer came at a time when Melden had decided to leave the University of Washington and was considering several other prestigious jobs. So before he made a commitment, Melden and his wife, Regula, flew to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove out to have a look at this new university.

They asked for directions to Irvine and ended up at a crossroads gas station surrounded by citrus groves. The attendant gave them directions to the "new university" 8 miles away and Melden was instantly attracted.

"I saw the ground all chewed up," he remembered, "and I got excited. I had moved with UCLA from Los Angeles to Westwood, and I saw the same beginnings at Irvine. I thought, here's an opportunity few people ever have--to develop one's own department from scratch. To make my own mistakes and not have to live with the mistakes of others. When I turned down a fine offer from a well-known, established university, they couldn't understand how I could pass them up for this new and unknown school."

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