Office hours: The objects inside a Stanford philosopher’s office
Stepping inside a scholar’s office is a bit like stepping into their life and mind. Here's a look at the books, art, and mementos in philosophy Professor R. Lanier Anderson’s office, and what they reveal about him as a scholar and person.
BY MELISSA DE WITTE
As you enter the office of Stanford philosopher R. Lanier Anderson, his scholarly discipline announces itself first.
Philosophy books – from the ancient to contemporary – greet you like old friends, their worn and well-loved spines welcoming you into Anderson’s intellectual enclave.
Anderson’s office is tucked away in a corner building of the Main Quad. With windows on either side is Anderson’s desk, where he can be found writing, reading, or running meetings over Zoom: Anderson, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of the Humanities, is currently serving as chair of both the Philosophy Department and also the American Philosophical Association.
Surrounding him are cherry-stained bookshelves housing the complete works – in their original language and their English translation – of thinkers who are the subjects of his current and most recent projects: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, and more obviously, Michel de Montaigne, who is also on display in both portrait and bust form on his desk – one of which came from his parents.
In between various tomes, texts, and other miscellaneous papers are also tokens of gratitude: In one corner is a dark metal statue of the Greek Titan Atlas saddled with the weight of the world that was given to Anderson by Jeffrey Schwegman, when Anderson left his position as senior associate dean of humanities and arts, a role he held for four years. During this period, Anderson helped the School of Humanities and Sciences navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also personal mementos throughout: On the wall above his two computer monitors are black-and-white photos of his family and also his wife Katherine, one on the main quad – she also works at Stanford in the Human Biology program – and another of her as a young child.
Also hanging on the wall is a bold, abstract painting by literary critic and Stanford scholar Terry Castle who has also cultivated a creative, artistic practice.
“She had an open studio one day in the city and I went up and bought that picture from her,” Anderson said. “I kept it in the dean’s office so that everybody could see their colleagues were doing interesting things.”
A nod to his Southern roots
Anderson grew up in Macon, Georgia, a small city in central Georgia located south of Atlanta.
There are items in his office that pay tribute to his Southern roots. In one corner is a painting of a kudzu vine given to him by his mother-in-law. Kudzu is an invasive vine that was first introduced to the state to help with soil erosion and has since taken over.
“I have personally measured a kudzu vine grow 13 inches in one day – it’s insane,” Anderson comments.
The plant has become associated with the characteristic charm of the American South.
“Among southern artists, there’s a nostalgic aesthetic of it,” Anderson said. “In my house, I also have pictures of rundown buildings totally overgrown by kudzu that look very nostalgic and romantic.”
A curious ceramic creature
Also living in Macon were members of the Allman Brothers Band who came to the area to record their music at Capricorn Records, an independent studio located in the city’s downtown. Anderson never knew any of the bandmates personally, but Macon is small enough that you know someone who knows someone who does.
“I’m six degrees from Chuck Leavell,” said Anderson about the Allman Brothers keyboardist.
Leavell’s partner, Rose Lane Leavell, who is friends with many local artists, would host art shows where Anderson met the ceramicist Meg Campbell, who was selling clay creatures she had made. One in particular – an aquarium ornament with a broken part – stood out. It reminded Anderson and his wife, who is a botanist, of the prehistoric marine fossils from the Burgess Shale that Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had studied.
“We were telling her about the period that these fossils came from and she asked, ‘How do you find out about these things?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you just Google it.’ And she was like, ‘Google, what’s Google?’ This was in the late ’90s when Google was a brand new thing and she never heard of Google image search, and so she was so grateful to know about it that she gave me this broken piece.”
It has sat on Anderson’s desk ever since and his former student, Sarah Vernallis, who is now a PhD student in philosophy at UC Berkeley and is also a potter, constructed a facsimile of the main missing part, which Anderson keeps nearby.
Anderson comes from a family of lawyers, many of whom are also named Lanier Anderson – he is the fourth.
On one shelf is a nameplate from a law office his father once occupied. “We have the same name, so it’s my name plate too,” Anderson said.
On his desk is an old, sepia-drenched photograph taped underneath a glass paperweight. The photo once adorned his grandmother’s desk and depicts three generations of Laniers – his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather – all donning suits.
“This picture was taken when my father was about to go to college, which would have been the summer of 1954,” Anderson described. “We were each allowed to take one thing when my grandparents died, and this is the thing I chose to take.”
There is also a framed picture of his uncle who was a professor as well and who helped show Anderson what a career in higher education could look like.
“I think it was stressful for him to not go into the family law firm and to leave our little town and become an academic,” said Anderson. “I think it meant something to him that I was also going to pursue an academic career.”
Anderson decided on majoring in philosophy after a summer working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Savannah. He was helping them with community organizing – “ineffective[ly],” Anderson joked.
Anderson spent a lot of time in the car that summer – driving an hour to work from the place he stayed at during the week, and then three hours home to his parents on the weekends. He was trying to decide whether to major in history or philosophy. “At the end of the summer I somehow just knew,” Anderson said. “I’ve always thought the most important decisions in your life choose you, you don’t choose them.”
Places with many meanings, many memories
In another corner of his office are two black-and-white photographs of the exterior of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – a place that holds special meaning for Anderson.
Anderson, who earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Yale in 1987, was part of the student movement calling on the university’s administration to divest investments with companies associated with South Africa’s apartheid government.
For two years, students – including Anderson – occupied the plaza between the Beinecke Library and Woodbridge Hall, the building that includes the Office of the President, among other administrative offices. There, students built a makeshift area they called “The Shanty Town,” where Anderson would join fellow students, faculty, and New Haven community members in solidarity with their cause.
The photos of the library Anderson would see every day were taken by his brother, who is a photographer.
Friendship and philosophy
Anderson’s walls are adorned with photos of his close friends. When Anderson looks up to his left, he sees a friend who passed away a few years after college. To his right is another chum, Charles Thomas, who is a singer and writer in Chicago.
Friendship means much to Anderson, as it did to Montaigne, a French Renaissance philosopher whom Anderson is currently writing a book about.
Montaigne also lost his best friend early in life and it too had a profound effect on him.
His friend, Etienne de La Boétie, bequeathed Montaigne a library of books, with the hope that it would tame the somewhat unfocused Montaigne.
Montaigne went on to write three books containing over 100 essays, which was a new literary form (Montaigne is credited for creating the modern essay). He deliberated on broad, contemplative topics such as fear, sadness, and uncertainty – essays that still have salience today – Montaigne’s essay on the education of children is taught in the COLLEGE seminar, Why College? Your Education and the Good Life.
Anderson has been delving into each of Montaigne’s essays, particularly his reflection on friendship and how he has used philosophy as a way to transform his own life into how he wanted it to be.
“I’m interested in this idea of philosophy as a way of life,” Anderson said.