Dr. Leonard O'Brian, Philosopher


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A Philosophical Autobiography


Philosophical Autobiography:


My father, H. Corson O’Brian, was a Disciples of Christ minister. Harry Emerson Fosdick influenced him, as did other liberal theologians.

Before marriage, my mother, Edith Alice Gossard O’Brian, had been a high school Latin teacher. She taught me to appreciate language by reading to me from The Golden Book of Poetry.

In 1948, our family, including my younger brother Paul, moved from Madison, Wisconsin to the twin cities in Illinois, Bloomington-Normal. Illinois State Normal University had elementary and secondary schools on campus, both of which Paul and I attended. After University High School, I continued at ISNU, in English and Speech. Donald Burke in the Speech Department, and Ferman Bishop in the English Department, introduced me to some of the basic problems in philosophy. I became occupied with the question of whether God exists.

After college, I would earn graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, and rhetoric at The Divinity School and The Philosophy Department of The University of Chicago, and The Department of Speech Communications at The University of Illinois, Urbana. The three most formative books that I read at Chicago are Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

During this period, I also went to Queens University, Northern Ireland. In Belfast, my perspective on the world began to change, especially with respect to socio-politics. I learned of The Troubles in Ireland. My tutor in philosophy, Hugh Brody, cautioned me about the American war in Vietnam, to which I had been inattentive to the point of ignorance. Even with his warning, and all the anti-war protests back in the States, only slowly did I come to recognize the gravity of that misadventure. To this day, my early apathy and myopia about Vietnam weigh on my conscience. Though there are differences between then and now, that war continues to remind me of the enduring dangers of ignorance about other cultures and of the presumption of national rectitude.

Now, in 2019, I have taught philosophy for three decades near Phoenix, Arizona: at Mesa Community College and Scottsdale Community College. I retired in 2018.

Over the years, my philosophical outlook has evolved politically, ethically, and theologically. No longer do I presume the rectitude of any nation, including the one that counts me as a citizen.

I have come more fully to appreciate Aristotle’s flexible, open-ended Virtue Ethics, based on the person’s development of the person’s own character; and Aristotle’s conception of human beings as political animals, whose personal fulfillment derives at least partially from the person’s participation in the broader society.

Also, I have come more fully to appreciate David Hume’s naturalistic ethics of human fellow feeling. This fellow feeling may be likened to the issuance of a sense, a distinctive moral sense, whereby people’s actions evoke our approval or disapproval. 

Immanuel Kant is another matter. The First Formulation of his Categorical Imperative purports to construe morality as fundamentally rational as well as non-consequentialist. True enough, this formulation of moral principle can be illustrated, but illustrated with moral questions to which we already suppose the answers, in other words, illustrated with relatively easy questions. In my view, the formulation fails to illuminate the tough moral problems, the problems that we must approach cautiously because the answers are elusive.

Kant’s Second Formulation, however, construes morality as the requirement that each person respect all persons. Kant says that we must treat others as persons, that is, as ends-in-themselves (and also treat ourselves as persons, as ends-in-ourselves). This precept does seem helpful for the choices that we make daily.

All of these considerations—Aristotelian, Humean, and Kantian—speak to the current political situation. As of 2019, we witness an American president who displays few of the virtues; exhibits scant empathy (except, perversely, empathy for men who are accused of abusing women); and treats persons as means to his own ends, rather than as ends-in-themselves.

This president lies, deflects, distorts, and maligns. He divides, consolidating support through white-identity politics: His first campaign deployed the racist falsehood that his dark-skinned predecessor had been born in Africa; and now, in the summer of 2019, he launches his second campaign via a classic racist taunt: “go back to the countries that you originally came from.” This malignant language he aims at dark-skinned female members of the United States Congress; with characteristic sophistry, conflating their disapproval of his policies and behavior with what he calls “hatred” for this country.

He has apologists. They invoke (controversial) tax cuts and (controversial) judicial appointments, which, so the apologists say, redeem the man. Without broaching the substance of these controversies, it suffices to note that even good tax policy and good appointments—however both are understood--do not require that the president be deficient in character.

Granted, comprehending one’s own historical moment is difficult; maybe there is something big here that I’m overlooking. My worry, however, is that a theme runs from the 1960s to the present. Critics of the Vietnam war were attacked as unpatriotic, and were told to “Love America or leave it”; similarly, today, this president conflates criticism of him with lack of patriotism, and tells critics to “Go back to the countries that you originally came from.” 

This taunt profanes the core American Idea, enunciated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and reaffirmed on our Statue of Liberty. The American Idea is that all people are equal; all are endowed with rights that are unalienable, including rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our founding document declares this truth to be “self-evident” about all people, not just some people.

Thus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The question that, originally, had motivated my graduate studies in the 1960s—Does God exist?—has not been answered—nor has it been rescinded. Rather, it has receded into a broader acceptance that life’s bigger questions may not succumb to answers that are singular, but that conversing within a plurality of perspectives can help a person navigate the questions. 

The old question about God thus evolves into a problem involving a multiplicity of perspectives on reality and value. This affirmation of the value of multiple perspectives is consistent with classic liberal political philosophy on which the United States of America was founded—a philosophy epitomized by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

The affirmation is also consistent with a venerable theological tradition, the tradition of divine transcendence: Since no theology can fully capture the divine, no one theology can fully capture the divine. Thus, whether we are thinking politically or theologically, intellectual humility is required of each agent, and each agent requires an intellectual community within which to converse, and converse freely.

I had not participated in a religious community from my late 30s on. Soon after retiring, however, I joined the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona. Consistent with contemporary Unitarian Universalism, the UUCP abstains from commitment to a creed, but avows the three values of being “Theologically diverse, radically inclusive, and justice centered.” Pursuing these values will be difficult, but that difficulty reflects the aptness of the values; for living, itself, is difficult, yet not hopeless.




Professor of philosophy, Scottsdale Community College, 1998-2018, now retired.



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Previous Positions:

  • Professor of philosophy, Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona, 1989-1998

  • Lecturer in philosophy, Ripon College, Ripon, Wisconsin, 1988-1989

  • Adjunct Lecturer in philosophy, 1978-1988, Harper College, Palatine, Illinois; Elgin Community College, Elgin, Illinois; College of Lake County, Grayslake, Illinois

  • Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church, Elgin, Illinois, 1974-1978


  • Bachelor of Science, English, Illinois State University, 1966

  • Non-degree Rotary Fellowship, philosophy, Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1967-1968

  • Master of Theology, theology, University of Chicago, 1970

  • Master of Arts, rhetoric and speech, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1972

  • Doctor of Ministry, theology, University of Chicago, 1974

  • Master of Arts, philosophy, University of Chicago, 1992

Courses Taught:

  • Introduction to Philosophy

  • Philosophy of Religion

  • Introduction to Ethics

  • Introduction to Logic

  • Philosophical Psychology

  • Biomedical Ethics

  • Social and Ethical Issues in Medicine

  • Story, Identity, and Truth

  • Philosophy of Humanities

  • Philosophical Analysis

  • Philosophy of Sex 

  • Business Ethics

  • Senior Thesis 

  • Introduction to Speech

  • Introduction to Humanities

  • Introduction to Psychology

  • English Composition

Publications And Presentations:

  • Wisdom, War, and Doubt,” Social and Behavioral Sciences Teach-in, Scottsdale Community College, 20 April 2006.

  • Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy, this website under “Philosophical Writing,” 2004.

  • Religion as Cosmic Metaphor,” this website under “Philosophical Writing,” 2003.

  • “A Contemporary Celtic World-view,” lecture and workshop for the Phoenix Friends of Jung, presented with Dr. Barbara Bagan, psychotherapist, 14-15 May 1999.

  • Metaphors as Interrogatives,” Community College Humanities Association, Fort Worth, 23 October 1998.

  • Why Poetry Is Not Technology: The Inexplicability of Metaphor,” Community College Humanities Association, New Orleans, 1 November 1997.

  • Seamus Heaney’s Use of Poems as Metaphors,” Community College Humanities Association, Salt Lake City, 12 October 1996.

  • Toward a Philosophy of Educational Risk,” Community College Humanities Association, Washington D.C., 11 November 1995. Subsequently published in the ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges.

  • Toward an Ethic of Desires,” Community College Humanities Association, Colorado Springs, 7 October 1994.

  • “Black Elk: Religious Healing for the Human Community,” Community College Humanities Association, San Antonio, 1993.

  • “Can Native American Thought Solve the Problem of Evil?”, Community College Humanities Association, Scottsdale, 1992.

  • “On the Purpose of Sport,” Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. XIII, No. 7, Jan./Feb., 1991, pp. 1-3.

  • “Aluminum Bats and the Purpose of Baseball,” Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and the American Culture, (Meckler, 1990), pp. 386-399. Subsequently published in Elysian Fields, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1992, pp. 55-67.

  • “The Impossibility of Faith as a Religious Mode of Knowing,” Wisconsin Philosophical Society, fall, 1989. Subsequently published in Southwestern Philosophical Studies, Vol. 12, spring 1990, pp. 53-60.

  • “A Practical Perspective on Tom Stark’s Conception of Critical Thinking,” Association for the Development of Philosophy Teaching, Chicago, 22 October 1988.

  • “Kai Nielsen and the Possibility of a Religious Ethic,” Association for the Development of Philosophy Teaching, Chicago, 24 October 1987.

  • “Dyadic Similarity and Family Resemblance,” Southwestern Philosophical Studies, Vol. X, No. 1, spring 1987, pp. 71-78.

  • “Is Part-time Academic Compensation Unethical?”, Association for the Development of Philosophy Teaching, Chicago, 12 December 1985.

  • “A Shifting, Shimmering World: Photographic Futurist, John Grady,” Darkroom Photography, Vol. 2, No. 5, Sept. 1980.

Personal Activities:


  • Excellence in Teaching, National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, Austin, Texas, June, 2006