Richard Hilbert


Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Anthropology

Originally, in the first place, and in the Beginning, I didn't know I was good at anything. As far as I knew, I had no gifts, no distinguishing traits, and no ambitions.

I later learned that I was, in the Beginning, a thinker. As an adult, thinking is all I do.  If it weren't for academia, I don't know what would have become of me.

But I must have been born thinking. I must have been thinking in the womb.

I didn't notice I was thinking until age two, and even then it didn't strike me as anything remarkable. I figured it was nothing. I figured everybody did it. It just seemed like something everyone would do, something dull and automatic, and it didn't seem particularly important after all.

Now that I am a professional thinker, I know that what I was doing when I thought about thinking, during what were supposed to be afternoon naps, was a sort of proto-philosophy of consciousness.

I noticed that I could never think about everything I was doing at a given moment, since what I was doing at the moment included that I was thinking…so I would have to think about the fact that I was thinking, which left out the fact that I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking, which left out the fact that I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking, which left out…and so on forever. In a quick acrobatic turn of mind I would try to capture the whole enchilada all at once, but it had to fail just like outmaneuvering your shadow, or your reflection in a mirror, has to fail.

What good is it to notice things like that? No good, I thought, though I couldn't help noticing them. I figured everyone notices them, or they just know them too well to think about them, or they know better than to think about them, or they never notice them at all and wouldn't want to notice them. In any case, nobody ever talks about them, and neither did I.

I remembered it, though, what I'd noticed in the crib, and as I grew up I found those thoughts to be of a silly sort, of a something-that-leads-to-nothing sort, of a sort of boring sort, an annoying sort, and definitely of a childish sort, something only a baby would think about, and something nobody would ever, ever worry over. I would be in my mid-twenties and in graduate school before I would discover how wrong this was.

I concluded my undergraduate years with a course in Wittgenstein. I took the course because I was attracted to a style of talk on the part of a philosophy instructor whose inspirational ground spring, his students told me, came from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though this professor never mentioned Wittgenstein by name, I recognized a smooth and effective thought style running through philosophical matters he discussed, such as ethics, logic, and politics. I could anticipate his sentences mid-argument and say them to myself only to have him confirm my sensibility by saying them out loud a few seconds later. This wasn't because they were clichés or the kinds of things you'd expect someone to say, quite the opposite. And they were new to me. So I wanted to access his frame of mind. That's why I took his Wittgenstein course.

After graduation, I had this sense that Wittgenstein had solved every problem that ever was. Everything settled, no more issues, at least not of the philosophical or intellectual kinds. There was a distinct sense of knowing it all.

Later I would  know this is foolishness, and I can say it even today: This is foolishness. Still, the Wittgensteinians got to me. That there were other frontiers, even more difficult ones, would become rather obvious before I was thirty. But when I entered graduate school, I was, as far as I could tell, Wittgensteinian.

Another graduate student, named Bill Ivey, who was on top of everything phenomenological, once asked me if I was Wittgenstein.  He knew just enough Wittgenstein to suspect me of being possessed. He even compared my birthday with Wittgenstein's deathday to convince himself it hadn't happened. "But who are you," he would say, and things like that.

Bill and I shared a problem common to all the students in our local milieu, and that was trying to come to terms with a new kind of sociology called "ethnomethodology". We knew a million different ways of saying what it's not, but just how to grasp it, to turn it into a productive direction of our own, that was surely a challenge. We didn't get much help from each other, and we didn't get much help from the professors, who if truth be told were having their own difficulties with the new discipline. And the book only made things worse, even though the first chapter was called "What is Ethnomethodology?".

One thing was for sure, though. Ethnomethodology had something to do with a difficult thing called phenomenology, of which Bill Ivey knew practically everything. Most of us had to somehow come to terms with phenomenology in order to come to terms with ethnomethodology. For Bill, you'd think this would be easy. He came to graduate school expecting it to be easy. There was not a phenomenological book, treatise, article, or manuscript he hadn't read. He later published an annotated bibliography just of the stuff he had read.  But when it came to ethnomethodology, Bill was leading a more tortured existence than any of us. He had entire rooms plastered with yellow legal paper with terms and citations and page numbers and arrows and other drawings written all over them in black magic marker, all referring to one another. He kept saying he was getting nowhere. What the hell is ethnomethodology, he kept asking.

My problem was a little different. I was trying to bring Wittgenstein to ethnomethodology, and Wittgenstein is not phenomenology. There are eerie touchpoints of similarity and overlapping imageries, but they are not the same at all. In fact when Bill asked me if Wittgenstein had written anything about consciousness, I asked him why anyone would ever want to do something like that. Phenomenology is intimately tied up with consciousness.

 But I saw a Wittgensteinian something winding all through ethnomethodology, and my professors were happy to let me work on it. I never found out why. Maybe they just didn't believe in too much supervision. My papers in social theory, even in research methods, were so saturated with Wittgensteinian potshots that nobody knew what to do but give them A's. "You must have caught me in a weak moment," one of my teachers says today.

But none of this would save me from studying phenomenology, and so I did. Phenomenology came with none of the smooth attractions that Wittgenstein had, and it made me suffer. One evening in a seminar, I expressed chagrin that the papers of social-phenomenologist Alfred Schutz were making such a big deal about the fact that people can't think about everything they're thinking about all at once and that efforts to do this would lead to an unsolvable "infinite regress." This was too obvious to me, having first noticed it in the crib. It was one of the first and most babyish thoughts I ever thought in my life, I supposed. Didn't everybody already know this, and what was the point? But everyone in the room was deeply serious. They were concentrating on this puzzle. So I said, "Come on, I thought about this in my crib, way before kindergarten." It was the first time I had ever mentioned it in my life. Here was the opportunity to show that part of Schutz's work was childish, focused on triviality, underdeveloped at best, banal, hung up on a detail that deserved no more than a passing glance of acknowledgement.

But here's the thing: They thought I was bragging. Even Bill Ivey thought I was bragging, and lying, too. "You didn't think of the infinite regress in your crib," he said later on, and things like that.

"Can't be verified," he says today.

So, I guessed, I was originally, in the first place, and in the Beginning pretty good at something after all.

-----From "Crib Notes and Sentons"


BA, San Diego State; MA, PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara; Postdoctoral Studies, UCLA



Courses Taught

Synonym Title Times Taught Terms Taught
S/A-113 Social Problems 26 2013/SP, 2012/FA, 2012/SP, 2011/FA, 2010/FA, 2010/SP, 2009/FA, 2009/SP, 2008/FA, 2008/SP, 2007/FA, 2007/SP, 2006/FA, 2005/FA, 2005/SP, 2004/FA, 2004/SP, 2003/FA, 2003/SP, 2002/FA, 2002/SP, 2001/FA, 2000/FA, 2000/SP, 1999/FA, and 1999/SP
S/A-375 Sociological Theory 15 2012/FA, 2011/FA, 2011/SP, 2010/FA, 2009/FA, 2008/FA, 2007/FA, 2006/FA, 2005/FA, 2004/FA, 2003/FA, 2002/FA, 2001/FA, 2000/FA, and 1999/FA
S/A-245 Strangeness in Life 11 2013/SP, 2012/SP, 2011/SP, 2010/SP, 2009/SP, 2008/SP, 2007/JN, 2005/JN, 2004/JN, 2002/JN, and 2001/JN
S/A-234 Personality & Society 10 2013/SP, 2012/SP, 2010/SP, 2009/SP, 2007/SP, 2005/SP, 2003/SP, 2002/SP, 2001/SP, and 1999/SP
S/A-237 American Minorities 6 2011/SP, 2008/SP, 2004/SP, 2002/SP, 2001/SP, and 2000/SP
S/A-373 Social Welfare 5 2003/SP, 2002/SP, 2001/SP, 2000/SP, and 1999/SP
S/A-273 Social Welfare 3 2007/SP, 2005/SP, and 2004/SP
S/A-169 Consciousness 1 2013/JN
S/A-268 Career Exploration 1 2001/JN
Courses prior to Spring semester 1999 are not displayed.