Newsletter Spring 2019

The nowness of experience: a dinner conversation with Professor Ted Coons

By Taliesin Thomas, Cohort ’13

March 11, 2019

In the winter of 2015, I had the honor of interviewing Dr./Professor Edgar Elliot “Ted” Coons for the IDSVA newsletter. Ted is a longstanding professor at NYU and a board member of IDSVA, among other notable professional activities. That lively conversation was educational, fun and a memorable highlight of my semester. Ted is a human treasure chest full of ideas and insight; it was a delight to hear about his life and the development of his career.

The recent news about his extraordinary one million dollar gift to IDSVA inspired a date to meet for another round of conversation in late February. This outstanding donation has been established to fund the Edgar E. Coons, Jr. Professorship of New Philosophy and IDSVA founder and president George Smith will serve as the first bearer of this esteemed title: Edgar E. Coons, Jr. Professor of New Philosophy. Ted graciously invited me to meet for dinner and a casual chat at Tre Giovani, a classic Italian restaurant near his office where he has been a regular since the 1980s.

Ted Coons, IDSVA Commencement. January, 2019. Photo by Lisa Houlgrave

Ted Coons, IDSVA Commencement. January, 2019. Photo by Lisa Houlgrave

As we settled into a cozy corner table, Ted began talking enthusiastically about his tenure as a professor of psychology. He has been teaching at NYU for 55 years and he continues to offer his ‘Introduction to Psychology’ course to nearly 300 students a semester. He admits to being the class historian and grinned when I said he is the class celebrity, too. The forthcoming NYU psychology department newsletter will feature him on the cover and they are also planning a special event in his honor.

Once again our dynamic conversation explored a range of fascinating topics—everything from the importance of sleep (a basic need as it relates to psychological health), to the seduction of Hollywood (Ted once fancied a career as an actor), to Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ series of prints (he is the executive producer of the feature film Impossible Monsters by Nathan Catucci that references a phrase from one of Goya’s famed etchings, “The Sleep of Reason”). As our savory meal ensued, Ted opened up about his life path. “I paid a lot of attention to the psychological factor of things,” he said with respect to his choice to switch from the study of music as an undergraduate at Colorado College to the study of psychology as a graduate student at Yale. Having taught for more than a half-century, Ted proudly mentioned how many of his Ph.D. students have gone on to populate the field of neuroscience.

During our conversation, Ted used the word ‘happenstance’ several times in connection with his life’s journey. When I asked him about his decision to gift IDSVA with such a generous contribution, he cited the happenstance of meeting George and the genuine camaraderie that ensued. Ted remarked that he and George were on “the same wavelength in so many ways” and the intensity of their friendship was immediate. Soon enough “things began to thicken” between them, as he put it. He identified the turning point of his commitment to IDSVA during a summer visit to Maine to stay with George and Amy Curtis—IDSVA Executive Vice President and CFO—at their cabin in Brooklin, a little town on Maine’s Downeast coast. Ted smiled fondly as he recalled their vigorous three-mile morning walks during which he, George and Amy had serious discussions about the spirit of the gift under consideration. Ted is affiliated with many important institutions—“so why IDSVA?” I asked with regard to his incredible donation. He stated a ‘new philosophy of art’ as a significant aspect of the IDSVA educational mission. He also mentioned the importance of George’s new book on this topic, The Artist-Philosopher and New Philosophy (Routledge). Ted spoke of his grandfather’s generosity with his students as a professor (he taught Greek, German and mathematics) and then as a lawyer (he assisted the Territory of New Mexico in entering the Union as an official State) as an important influence on him, citing a “magnetic attraction” that influenced his desire to teach and to give back.  

As the restaurant bustled with a swelling evening crowd, we spoke about his many years of hard work and simple living. “I’m not an expensive guy,” he remarked with respect to his lifestyle. “I don't need ornamentation, inside myself, I am ornamented,” he said with a look of glee. Ted noted the simplicity of his childhood and growing up in the dust bowl during the Great Depression. Once again he spoke of the happenstance of certain “inexpressible themes” and the trajectory of his existence: “I am discovering the plan as I fulfill it,” he said of his evolving role with IDSVA and various other projects that he is involved with. As our after-dinner glass of Amaro and dessert cookies arrived, I could feel the conversation turn more serious. Ted spoke of the expectations concerning the “momentum of philosophy” as a traditional discipline versus the “experience of the now.” He passionately expressed the importance of the “nowness of experience”—the need to pause and integrate. “What are the goals ahead with respect to philosophy and its development in contemporary times?” he asked aloud. Ted was unequivocal about his choice to donate to our program: IDSVA represents the necessary interruption and re-centering of philosophy.

That lead to our discussion of his recent presentation at the IDSVA commencement held at the Morgan Library in January (the 7th IDSVA commencement exercise). Ted disclosed that after weeks of working on his talk, he revamped the entire presentation the night before and stayed up until 3 am reworking the flow of his ideas. Titled “From RATionalize to ARTionalize,” Ted’s presentation considered—among other topics—primitive feelings and the essential bedrock of things—the qualia of life. Among his most poignant remarks during his address was a series of pointed questions concerning the state of philosophy now: What about old philosophy has inspired new philosophy? What are the methods of philosophy today? Who can do philosophy? What has been left out? His animated commencement talk culminated with the notion of a liberal inductive philosophy that emphasizes the “nowness of experience” and the significance of hovering with the feeling of pause. “Intentional pauses are necessary,” he stated. Ted’s comments about the “cultural qualia of a time period” rang loud and clear: artists capture the gut feeling of where we are now and the ‘new philosophy’ encouraged at IDSVA fosters a sense of responsibility as contemporary creators of qualia. It is precisely the “nowness” of IDSVA that Ted believes in.

Ted Coons, IDSVA Commencement. January, 2019. Photo by Lisa Houlgrave

Ted Coons, IDSVA Commencement. January, 2019. Photo by Lisa Houlgrave

As we were preparing to depart for the evening Ted recalled a most amazing story about the time he met the H.H. Dalai Lama at a neuroscience conference. They shook hands and His Holiness walked away, but then suddenly felt compelled to turn around and walk back to Ted, grabbed his hand and blessed him a second time (he said that everyone who witnessed that moment spoke of it magically). I felt compelled to reach out and hold his hand after hearing such a special sound bite. I, too, could feel what I think His Holiness must have felt in that instant—the warmth of his soul and the utter kindness of his being. From my heart to yours, thank you, Dr. Ted Coons, for your exceptional generosity and support of IDSVA.