As Nancy Scott Anderson has documented in her An Improbable Venture: a history of the University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, 1993) UCSD was planned from the beginning and top-down to be an instantly excellent University, and it is widely recognized that it has in fact become the best university established in the country since the end of World War II; among the best public universities in the country, if not the best; and one of the greatest scientific research institutions in the world. The origin and subsequent evolution of the Department of Philosophy has to be understood, of course, against this institutional backdrop.
The Philosophy Department at UCSD was founded on July 1, 1963. The first graduate and undergraduate courses were offered in Academic year 1963-1964, making Philosophy the first functioning non-science graduate program at UCSD. The first Ph.D. degree was awarded in 1965 to David Fate Norton. David was also the first Assistant Professor hired by the department, and the first Professor to earn tenure in the department (1970). In 1972, David went on to a Professorship at McGill University and has contributed greatly to the study of David Hume.
Richard Popkin was recruited as the first Chair in 1963. He had already published in 1960 his major work History of Skepticism, which he continued to revise and expand throughout his career at UCSD. It remains an authoritative work on the influence of ancient skepticism on the subsequent history of western philosophy. Simultaneously with the founding of the department in 1963, he established the Journal of the History of Philosophy (recently ranked as the best general journal in the history of philosophy by readers of Brian Leiter’s blog). Popkin also founded the book series International Archives of the History of Ideas, which has now published over 200 monographs.
The other founding Professors, recruited by Popkin in 1963, were Jason L. Saunders, a specialist in ancient philosophy, and Avrum Stroll, a contemporary metaphysician, epistemologist, and philosopher of language, who remains Research Professor Emeritus at UCSD. Avrum gave the first non-science faculty lecture at UCSD in 1964, and he organized what turned out to be a momentous seminar on contemporary Marxism for the scientists in 1964, with Stanley Moore and Herbert Marcuse invited as speakers. As a result of the success of this conference, UCSD hired both Moore and Marcuse the next year.
Stanley Moore, in a low point for academic freedom in the USA, had been fired from Reed College in 1954 after refusing to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. He was recruited as a senior lecturer at UCSD in 1965 and made a full Professor of Philosophy in 1967. During his time at UCSD, he produced several important books and dozens of articles on Marxism and social-political philosophy. He was affiliated with the department until he died in 1997, and a thoughtful and interesting remembrance of him has been written by Avrum Stroll, Fred Olafson, Dick Arneson and Georgios Anagnostopoulos.
Marcuse was a philosopher and political activist associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, celebrated for his activities while he was a philosophy Professor at UCSD (1964-1979) as “the father of the New Left”. Interest in and research into Marcuse’s philosophy is flourishing: Routledge has recently published 5 volumes of translations of previously unpublished material. Like Moore two decades earlier at Reed, Marcuse became the subject of enormous controversy while he was a Philosophy Professor at UCSD. A death threat was sent to Marcuse at the Department in 1967, but he courageously vowed to continue living and teaching in La Jolla, bolstered by official letters of support published by both the Philosophy Department and the Academic Senate. In 1968 Marcuse participated in and spoke at the Paris demonstrations in the Summer before returning to teach at UCSD in the Fall. His radical activities were heavily criticized by the local media (especially the Union-Tribune) and other local right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and the American Legion. The American Legion started a campaign pressuring the UCSD administration to eliminate Marcuse’s contract. In a very low point in its brief history, William J. McGill (UCSD Chancellor 1968-1970) took the extraordinary cowardly measure of issuing an ad hoc arbitrary mandatory retirement policy in order to force Marcuse to retire (the policy was subsequently dropped and ignored). The Philosophy Department for its part stood by Marcuse and continued to provide him an office, assign him to teach classes and advise students, and to print his name on the official roster of the Department of philosophy in the UCSD General Catalog as Honorar Professor from 1971 until his death in 1979.
Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who came to UCSD to work with Marcuse, including Angela Davis, Lowell Bergman, and Andrew Feenberg were political activists and journalists. Some of them produced and contributed to a radical philosophy journal named Alternatives. Edited by Andrew Feenberg, Alternatives contained articles not only by Marcuse, but also by such left-wing luminaries as Linus Pauling, Günther Anders, Hans Meyerhoff, and Barry Commoner. Marcuse’s students also contributed to the vibrant underground newspaper scene, including San Diego Free Press and Street Journal. In their various conflicts with the local media and police, the graduate students and department in general had a strong friend in Roger Ruffin (Judge, Superior Court of California) who served as a Lecturer in the UCSD Philosophy Department from 1967 until 1973.
In the same year that the department hired Moore and Marcuse, they also recruited Professor Paul Henry, a major scholar of late ancient and medieval philosophy. He is best known as the co-editor of the critical edition of Plotinus for Oxford Classical Texts. While at UCSD he authored the entry on “medieval philosophy” for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and also published a monograph on the logic of Peter Abelard.
By 1968, Richard Popkin could write of the new Philosophy Department that, in his opinion, “it has developed so rapidly and so well that it is now generally considered one of the leading departments in the country”. In 1969, amidst all the controversy, Herbert Marcuse was elected President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association and addressed its annual meeting in Portland, the first of six UCSD Professors to do so.