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Dr. James Otteson

Dr. James Otteson

In the world of ideas, things can move rapidly.

On August 19, 2013, one of the single best minds of our era, James R. Otteson II, announced his move to North Carolina to become the Executive Director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism and a full professor at Wake Forest University.

The Move

After spending a rather distinguished (but also relatively normal) academic career teaching philosophy at the University of Alabama and at Yeshiva University, Otteson will now be in a position to direct movements and ideas, to influence the course of events in more immediate ways than college classroom teaching allows, while also still teaching to the rising generations of students.

Asked about his move, he said:

What this new job means to me: An organized inquiry into the political, economic, moral, and cultural institutions that enable human prosperity. We want to create an intellectual community asking the big questions of political economy: What is a good life, how can we foster freedom and virtue, and how can we encourage a prosperous and humane life for free and responsible people with dignity?

He also wrote a very moving post, praising his students at Yeshiva as some of the finest anywhere.

To my students: It has been my honor and my privilege to work with you, and to make whatever meager contribution I could to your development. You have demanded the very best from me, and I have willingly given it; but you have given me your best in return, which has made everything more than worthwhile. A professor could ask for no more from his students. I thank you for what you have given me.

When I write above “relatively normal,” let me clarify. While at Alabama, Otteson served as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and, while at Yeshiva, Otteson held a double position–a full professorship in the departments of philosophy and economics. He also served as a visiting professor at Georgetown. I’ve yet to meet one of Otteson’s students who wasn’t profoundly affected by his mind and his personality. Wake Forest is gaining much.

Otteson’s Background

Otteson is also the leading scholar of Adam Smith in the world. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago writing on the so-called “Adam Smith Problem”. That is, how does one reconcile the Smith of the The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Smith of the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations?

As many have argued, Smith, the great moral philosopher of the 1750s somehow became the slimy defender of Mammon by 1776. Otteson shows definitively in his dissertation that there is no problem, and that, in fact, Smith’s ideas mesh beautifully and even necessarily, one into another. While Smith’s thinking might have evolved, it never radically altered or encountered some radical revolution. A continuity and harmony exists in all of Smith’s writings.

In addition to a short (but truly excellent) intellectual biography of Smit, Otteson published what is arguably the single greatest defense of what might be termed “classical liberalism” of the last several generations of scholars, Actual Ethics. The Templeton Foundation awarded the author of Actual Ethics with a $50,000 prize for best book of the year, 2007. Otteson’s followup, The End of Socialism, a painstaking analysis of egalitarianism, will appear from Cambridge at the end of 2013.

A Personal Note

Jim is one of the closest male friends I’ve had in my nearly 46 years on this earth. We first met in August 1986 in our very first freshman class at the University of Notre Dame. It was Professor Albert Wimmer’s German class, and Jim and I hit it off immediately.

Our sophomore year, we spent (July 1987-July 1988) together at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. We lived in a high-rise student dorm, Josef Hirn Heim. I was in room 717, Jim in 617. We used to signal each other with brooms hitting either the floor or the ceiling. We also used to line up clothes baskets to see how many we could clear in crowded hallways. Please remember, we were 18.

We also traveled throughout much of central and southern Europe together. We drank together, we worked together, and we talked about everything under the sun together.

Interestingly enough, when we first started arguing with one another, Jim was the C.S. Lewis traditionalist conservative and I a radical libertarian. For what it’s worth, Jim’s own ideas and encouragement have shaped me as much as any other thinker of our era. We’ve stayed in close contact throughout our adult lives, and Jim is the godfather of my first daughter, Gretchen, and I to his second son.

I can say this about Jim rather definitively: he is as kind as he is brilliant. He has scary razor-sharp logic, and I doubt if his brain ever turns off. He’s loyal and dedicated, and he has a beautiful family (Katie, his wonderful wife, was in our same class at Notre Dame).

In the scheme of things judged eternally critical, Jim is and always has been his own man. Those who have tried to manage him or use his success for their own have found themselves disabused of their mistakes very quickly.

On a much more mundane level, however, one of the things I like most about Jim, however, is his humor and his own lack of recognition of just how humorous he is. Anyone who has met Jim knows this about him. He can turn from a seriousness beyond imagination (he is, after all, a two-time black belt in martial arts) to the funniest guy in the room. What I most appreciate about this aspect of Jim, though, is watching him realize how good his own humor is. After one part of his brain has caught up to the other, he has a look upon such realization that is pure mischievous imp quickly followed by a bellowing laugh.

What you see with Jim is what you get. Thoughtful, intense, or joyous, Jim is Jim and with never a deceptive bone in his being.

The Significance

The Imaginative Conservative readers should know Otteson, and they should know his works. While he is probably more classically liberal than most of The Imaginative Conservative community, he does like and appreciate Burke almost as much as Smith, Kirk almost as much as Hayek, and Lewis as much as Nock. Ten years from now, we almost certainly will be talking about how the political and academic landscape changed because of what Otteson has done.

Wake Forest has gained much. But, for those of us who despise ideologies and cherish the good life, we have gained more. Much more.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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