The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837, and the history of the University's schools and colleges. This project is part of a larger effort to prepare resources for the University's bicentennial in 2017. Find out more.

The Bentley Historical Library serves as the official archives for the University.


Dewitt H. Parker
LSA Minutes


DeWitt Henry Parker, born April 17, 1885, in New York City, was the son of DeWitt Henry Parker and Jennie Ada (Stevens) Parker. He is survived by his second wife, Martha Vaughn Parker, and two children. Gooch Vaughn (born December 22, 1927) and Jennie Katherine Stevens (born August 7, 1931). A son by his first marriage, DeWitt Webster Parker (born September 4, 1910; died March 10, 1938) was killed in action at Belchite, Spain, as a volunteer in the Spanish Republican army.

Parker prepared for college at the Boston Latin School (1898-1902) and entered Harvard College in 1902. He was granted his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1906 with honors in Philosophy. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was active in the Harvard Philosophical Club while still an undergraduate. In writing an autobiographical sketch for the twenty-fifth report of his college class he almost forgot to give any account of the following two years, 1906-08, during which he was a graduate student, for, as he said, his years at Harvard were a unit, and as a candidate for the doctorate he merely went on doing more intensely the same things that he had done as an undergraduate. These two years, however, were a happy and formative period, for he became well acquainted with a famous group of professors, James, Royce, Santayana, Palmer, and Munsterburg, and was influenced by them as personalities somewhat in the order in which they are named. He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1908. His dissertation was not published in its original form, but his first journal article, based upon it, appeared under the title "Knowledge and Volition" in 1910, and subsequent publications grew out of it.

Except for two years at the University of California, 1909-10 and 1924-25, and his last sabbatical leave, 1946-47, at Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum, his entire professional life was devoted to teaching and related academic activities at the University of Michigan. He served as Instructor from 1908 until 1913, Assistant Professor of Philosophy from 1913 to 1921, Associate Professor from 1921 to 1925. He became Professor of Philosophy in 1925, and succeeded Wenley as Chairman of the Department in 1929. His final appointment, in June, 1947, was as Robert Mark Wenley University Professor of Philosophy. At this time he was one of a group of nine distinguished professors who were chosen for professorships named in honor of illustrious Michigan predecessors.

Aside from the two years at Berkeley, Parker's teaching career was diversified by summer appointments at the University of Wisconsin in 1927 and the University of Chicago in 1928, a semester at Columbia University (1946-47) and a series of lectures on aesthetic appreciation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during the winter of 1926, when he also gave lectures at Harvard University.

The first year at Berkeley resulted in a contribution of book-like proportions to the University of California Publications in Philosophy, entitled "The Metaphysics of Historical Knowledge" (1913). The later year left its record in the same series under the title "The Harmony Principle in Ethics" (1925).

As a writer and contributor in his chosen field, Parker was characterized by sincerity, logical development, and charm of expression. His writing always had the unique personal touch, the illustration, the appeal to introspective experience. He can be said to have carried on the tradition of the great luminaries who were his teachers at Harvard. He was an idealist of a pluralistic type in his doctrines. His influence in the field of aesthetics was particularly marked. As he thought through various subjects he put his ideas into writing, and so his books came out at fairly regular intervals, each showing long and studious preparation.

Parker's first book, The Self and Nature (Harvard University Press, 1917), harked back for its beginnings to the graduate years at Harvard. His studies for the second were well under way in 1917. Entitled The Principles of Aesthetics (Silver, Burdett & Co., 1920), it was paid the compliment of an unauthorized translation into Japanese and was published in Japan. He laughed about this episode and said that if the Japanese could get as much satisfaction out of his book as he could from their old color prints, it was a fair enough trade. The next five or six years were largely devoted to continued studies in art appreciation, and culminated in the lectures at the Metropolitan Museum and the publication of his third book, The Analysis of Art (Yale University Press, 1926), which was well received.

Aside from a journal article ("Wish Fulfillment and Intuition in Art," Proc. Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, 1927), this third book brought his publications on art almost to a conclusion. He did, in response to a continued demand for The Principles of Aesthetics, prepare a revised edition (Crofts, 1946) which was very favorably received. This had been preceded by the publication as a journal article of his matured ideas on "The Nature of Art" (Rev. Internat. d. Philos., 1939).

Parker's almost exclusive scholarly absorption in problems of aesthetics was wearing off by 1928, and this year marked the beginning of a new phase of thinking and literary productivity. His fourth book, Human Values (Harpers, 1931) was a nucleus to which are related several lesser essays and discussions. The subject was obviously one which would be highly controversial, and as would have been expected, the book did not escape criticism. So Human Values had a varied reception. A. S. Woodburne, in the Crozer Quarterly, found "the whole discussion stimulating." The reviewer for the New Republic, on the contrary, said: "Professor Parker gives us in effect a flesh-and-bones dissection of ethics from which the breath of life is missing. Such life can come only from a central metaphysical affirmation, which the author has deliberately avoided."

His next book, Experience and Substance (1941), was, on the whole, favorably reviewed. Charles Hartshorne, in the Christian Century, said: "This excellent essay shows that metaphysics, often proclaimed dead or dying is very much alive." Paul Weiss, in Ethics, indicated that its effect was to make readers think whether or not they could agree. This reviewer said: "On the whole, where his premises are sound, his conclusions do not seem to follow; where the conclusions hold, the premises seem to be inadequate; where the position is strong, the criticisms are not convincing; and where the criticisms are just, the alternative is not clearly stated .... It is not enough to tell the truth as one sees it; one must say it so that another can say and see it too. It is regrettable that Professor Parker's conspicuous originality and incisive observations fail to take him over this barrier."

Parker's final sabbatical leave, in the second semester of 1946¬47, enabled him almost to complete his last book, to have been entitled The Metaphysics of Value, and he was still working on it when death came. Unlike the earlier Human Values, to which it is allied, it was to be confined to consideration of a group of values which he considered to be of great importance in our epoch of crisis. He concerned himself much with an inquiry into the problem of giving quantitative rating to ethical values. He felt that it seemed as if his accomplishment had been slow during a five-month period of leisure. "I have always been a slow writer," he said, "feeling that philosophical composition should be done, as it were, under the eye of God; and I have never been content with any writing of mine that did not reach the highest literary standards of which I am capable."

During the preceding semester he had taught at Columbia University. His contacts there included guest membership in the New York Philosophy Club, meetings of which were attended by members from as far away as Yale and Princeton. He found the fresh contacts stimulating. The discussions clarified some of his own problems. He was working during this period not only upon his own book, but upon a revision of his contribution to a symposium on values by several authors, which is now in press.

This year in New York included the only sabbatical leave which he had spent in this country (the others had been spent abroad) and his first under the post-war requirement that a sabbatical leave must be devoted to a definite program of scholarly or scientific activity. Being conscientious to the utmost degree, he found his residence in New York a vigorous intellectual workout. He wrote a report on what he had done which concluded: "Looking back on earlier sabbatical leaves, I doubt the wisdom of the new ruling which demands a definite program of work. I feel how beneficial was the welcome sense of complete freedom from any, except an inner, obligation."

Three previous sabbatical leaves and two summers he had devoted to travel in Europe. He spent most of his time visiting art galleries, but he also delighted in sitting in the cafes and watching the world go by. He cared little or nothing for sports or active recreations and led essentially a contemplative life. His physique, indeed, was not adapted to great physical activity, and for some years he had had indications of heart disease.

Parker was relatively inactive in the affairs of professional and learned societies, not because he was unconcerned with what went on, but because of a natural reticence that led him to sit back and watch while others put on the show. He was, however, President of the Western Branch of the American Philosophical Association in 1928-29. He was more active in local than in national society activities, and participated in the organization of a Philosophical Section of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters and served as its Chairman. As President of the Research Club of the University of Michigan during 1948-49 he was devotedly interested in the year's program of this locally important organization which has always exercised a directive influence on the University's attitude toward research and scholarly endeavor.

Shortly before his death he was gratified by being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Michigan honored Parker by appointing him to the Russel Lectureship in 1948, and his lecture was published by the University Press under the title "The True, the Good, and the Beautiful."

His most intimate local social and intellectual tie was with one of Ann Arbor's long-established faculty dinner clubs, the Catholepistemiad, which far antedates any living member. With members from several departments of the University, it calls upon each for a paper every year. These clubs serve for the first trying-out and discussion of many a learned contribution. Parker's papers were always distinguished for lucidity of presentation. In his communications to his colleagues as well as in his teaching he characteristically sought for the best that could be discerned in any ideological situation. If good was there, he could see it, even if he found it to be far overbalanced by bad. His judgments and conclusions were therefore thoughtfully considered even by those who radically disagreed with him. No one could have been more distressed than he by any manifestation of national or racial intolerance. But if the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews were admittedly intolerable, how sure could we be that the same evil ideas that had come to ascendency in Germany were not latent and awaiting flowering in countries with which we would willingly ally ourselves for the defeat of Germany? How could we guard against them? And what basis had we for judging, so long as we winked at the denial of full human rights to Negroes? Parker was politically somewhat on the left. He was interested in the results of social experimentation on a grand scale, and had a feeling that excesses would eventually right themselves. At the time of American entrance into the first world war he did not believe that maintenance of any particular political status quo in Europe was worth the cost of war. If American participation would prolong the agony, lead to the greater ruin of Europe, and result in a longer period of recuperation, he was opposed to it. Consequently, a convinced pacifist, he made no contribution to the war effort. He could not, he said, get the moral satisfaction out of it that most of his friends and colleagues did. So, to quote his own words, he "remained in Ann Arbor, vainly trying to teach philosophy to students whose minds were elsewhere, and wishing for an early and not too unjust peace, which of course never came." The thought of war was utterly repugnant to him, and became more so as the years passed. It was therefore a terrible blow to him when his eldest son was killed while fighting as a volunteer in the Republican army in Spain.

Three years later America entered the second world war. He wrote: "Being by temperament and aptitudes little fitted for war activities, I made no specific contribution to them. It seemed to me that the best I could do was to carry on my academic work, trying to keep alive the cultural tradition as represented by our universities. I do not apologize for this, because I believe that it is essential to preserve the values of peace in the midst of war, so far as possible."

As a teacher, Parker was the pride of his Department. Colleagues and students saw in him the exemplar of "a philosopher at work -- a philosopher with learning, charm, sympathy, breadth, profundity, and originality." His altogether admirable attitude toward his students was innate in his character, but in it he emulated Palmer, one of his revered teachers at Harvard. Esteemed as a writer not only for his earlier studies in aesthetics but also for his ideas on the ethical values of contemporary culture, Parker was one of those through whose reputation the University has attained and held its prestige. Besides his books, he wrote various contributions to the learned journals on subjects in aesthetics and ethics. He led a life well balanced between teaching and productive scholarship. Certainly he would have said again in 1949 as he did in a report to his college class secretary on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of graduation, in 1931: "I seem to have led a crowded life, yet very few of the events or experiences which make a life full and various can be reported.... I have been a university teacher and I cannot imagine myself being anything else, or wanting to be anything else, or finding anything else more interesting and delightful. Yet for all this, being a professor is, I think, only a small part of what I am or have been, and has far from absorbed my interests."

To the University and to his profession Parker's untimely death on June 21, 1949, is a great academic loss; to his friends a personal one; to his Department a grievous deprivation; for in relatively few are combined the traits of intellectual strength and integrity with unassumingness, open-mindedness, and consideration for others.

Roy W. Sellars
Charles L. Stevenson
Harley H. Bartlett