‘Brilliant, eccentric’ professor not one to forget

Bergendoff's search for a European philosopher to teach in English paid off

July  27, 2010

In remembering philosophy professor Dr. Theodore Celms, 1963 graduate Dr. Thomas Benson says Celms “brought to the classroom a passion for big ideas and for the grand sweep of philosophical history.

“The recollection of him pacing in front of the blackboard in Old Main, his eyes closed, remembering a critical quotation from Hegel or Fichte, then open and glowing with the importance of some grand conclusion, reminds me of what one saw when watching Pablo Casals play Bach solos or Leonard Bernstein conducting.”

Former Augustana President Conrad Bergendoff is credited with bringing Celms, one of the most influential professors in the college’s history, from Germany to Rock Island in 1949. Bergendoff was looking for a European philosopher who was able to teach in English, according to Coming of Age: A History of Augustana College, 1935-1975. Celms was a “fluent speaker of a charming central European English” and came to the college at a salary of $3,600 a year, as noted in Bergendoff’s historical papers.

How Bergendoff found his professor is noteworthy. Bergendoff had formed an extensive network of colleagues by this time, and after the war, had written to a Lutheran agency in New York that secured positions for Europe’s “displaced” academics. He learned of Celms, who had come to Germany in 1944, fleeing the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Celms had taught at Germany’s University of Göettingen until 1949, when he and his family were sent to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp.

“His wide contacts with and knowledge of European philosophy from the inter-war period brought a perspective to the Rock Island college that was unique in a faculty trained almost entirely at Midwestern American universities,” wrote Dr. Thomas Tredway in Coming of Age.

Born in Latvia in 1893, Celms studied political economy and then philosophy at the University of Moscow. Former student Robert Cooper ’63 remembers Celms talking about witnessing the Russian Revolution. In 1923, Celms received his doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Freiburg in Germany. From 1927 to 1944, Celms taught at the University of Latvia, which awarded him a second doctorate in 1936.

Photos Courtesy of Special Collections, Tredway Library

At Augustana, Celms taught several courses at the college and the seminary, but his favorite was the philosophy of culture. He retired from full-time teaching in 1963, but taught part-time at Augustana from 1967 to 1975. Celms wrote nearly 90 publications, including five books, on philosophical issues. He died in 1989 in Austin, Texas, where he lived after his retirement.

In 1992, Cooper and members of the Celms family established the Dr. Theodore Celms Memorial Scholarship in Celms’ honor because he “represented the best of classical scholarship, and I wanted to preserve his memory there,” Cooper says.

Recollections from a former student

By Dr. Thomas Benson ’62

“Dr. Celms was a mystery man for a generation or two of Augustana students. He had studied with Edmund Husserl and been a classmate of Martin Heidegger, but it was difficult to pin down his personal philosophical orientation. His special love was intellectual history. He developed unique courses with exotic titles such as ‘objective culture’ and ‘subjective culture.’ He regaled us with the ideas of little-known philosophical figures from Russia and Eastern Europe: Merezhkovsky, Kireyevsky and Danilevsky, to name but a few of the distant stars he charted….

“Dr. Celms was an original and gifted interpreter of philosophy, but he was also great theatre. He had a gift for pithy reductions of the complex to one-line conclusions, embellished with dramatic use of his hands. ‘Pure essence, pure essence,’ he would insist with a knowing smile. Those of us on the Augie debate team were chided by him for our willingness to argue fervently — in the nature of the debating game — for positions that sometimes ran counter to our beliefs. ‘Mere sophistry,’ Dr. Celms would observe, shaking his head in disapproval.

“Several years after leaving Augustana, when I was in graduate school at Harvard Divinity School, I spotted a curious book on the shelf of one of my classmates, a gifted international student from Latvia. Seeing the name Celms in its title, I examined the book and found to my amazement that it was a festschrift for Theodore Celms, a book of essays in his honor written by a number of outstanding European philosophers. My Latvian classmate was astonished to learn that I had been a student of the great Dr. Celms.

“This experience and later discoveries made me realize that the brilliant, eccentric man who tirelessly laid out his grand theories in a humble hall on 7th Avenue in Rock Island had commanded the interest and respect of many scholars throughout pre-war Europe. We were lucky to have him all to ourselves.”

Dr. Thomas Benson ’62 is chair of the board of directors of the Council for American Culture and Education and the founder and executive director of World Leadership Corps, an international service organization launched at Oxford University in 2005.