Marathoner's mind runs a course of enigmatic, imponderable ideas


February 02, 1992|By Lynn Williams and Mary Corey Michael Hill of the The Sun metro staff contributed to this article.

His legs move swiftly, as they gobble up miles of Baltimore roadway or woodland path. But his thought processes are even quicker. Instead of following the methodical, earthbound forward course of the long-distance runner, they are free to range into the furthest reaches of abstract thought, the most intimate corners of the self.

His colleagues in the Baltimore Road Runners running club know William Desmond as a championship marathon man, winner of last year's Maryland Day road race and the Northern Central Trails Marathon, held on the old railway line north of Sparks.

In other quarters, though, mention Bill Desmond's name and you hear such descriptions as "mental giant" and "highly original thinker."

At age 40, Dr. Desmond has been the chairman of the Loyola College philosophy department for five years. He is the youngest person ever elected president of the Hegel Society, a prestigious group of scholars who study the German philosopher's work. And as the author of four books of philosophy (his fourth is due out this spring) and the editor of a scholarly Hegel series, the man who wrote that "every genuine thought is an adventure" has proven himself not only an able teacher, but a philosopher in his own right.

"I think Dr. Desmond is about the most promising philosopher in his age bracket in America -- and maybe I ought to take away the part about his age bracket," says Paul Weiss, Sterling Professor Emeritus, Yale University. "I think he's going to be outstanding in the country, and will be widely recognized. I have great admiration for him as a philosopher. He knows how to write beautifully, he's thoughtful and hardworking."

In a culture in which we are frequently identified by our jobs, and may be asked "What do you do?" even before "What's your name?" someone who claims the job title of "philosopher" may have some explaining to do.

"Often you do say you teach philosophy. If you tell people you're a philosopher, they'll start asking you about God and immortality. Or they'll say, 'I have a philosophy of life too,' " Dr. Desmond explains.

"If you want to call yourself a philosopher, one of the primary requirements, obviously, is to have done some thinking for yourself about some fundamental issues of existence. I think the basic question is 'What is the nature of being?' 'What is the meaning of being?' You have to devise a means of answering a question which, to some people, is a non-question.

Coming from another scholar, such statements might seem ponderous. But Dr. Desmond delivers them with a quiet certainty that makes the words inviting, if not easily understood.

It helps that he has a sense of humor. During a philosophy symposium several years ago, he presented a paper titled, "Can Philosophy Laugh at Itself?" and peppered his lecture with references to one of his favorite comedy troupes, Monty Python.

"William doesn't take himself or his discipline too seriously," explains his friend Ken Miller, dean of students at Gilman Middle School. The two frequently run together, and the subject of philosophy rarely comes up. "We crack jokes. We talk about our irritations of the moment," he says.

Bill Desmond is, as his bearded, blue-eyed face and romantic brogue immediately announce, Irish. But while the Celts are noted more as poets than as philosophers, Irish Catholicism is marked by a mixture of "divine transcendence" and an intense love of nature that he found powerfully attractive. It was his faith that helped the young philosopher-to-be first get in touch with the Big Questions. After graduating from high school in his native Cork, the 17-year-old entered a Dominican order as a novice.

He spent less than a year with the Dominicans, and decided against entering the priesthood. "I guess the adventure of the world was a little too beckoning," he admits.

But he still credits religion as a major force in his life -- and attends mass regularly at St. Mary's of the Assumption Church in Govans -- although, he says, "in contemporary intellectual culture we are made to feel somewhat shame-faced about religion."

After leaving the order, Dr. Desmond transferred his fervor to scholarly pursuits. He attended University College, Cork (part of the National University of Ireland), where he studied philosophy and poetry and emerged with both a B.A. and M.A.

There he met his wife Maria, then a student of history. "I thought she looked fascinating," he recalls. "Once we set eyes on each other, we started seeing each other. We've been inseparable ever since."

They married in 1972, and several years later moved to America with their infant son William so Dr. Desmond could pursue a Ph.D. (which in his case really was a doctorate in philosophy!) at Penn State University.

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