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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

'Riskful thinking,' 'elementary pleasures' matter to Gumbrecht.

Beneath the solemn arches of Memorial Church, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht told a group of roughly 25 students and scholars that he has no faith.

"Not that I have anything against religion," Gumbrecht said, glancing up at a stained-glass image of Christ in the west transept of the sanctuary. Rather, he said, he simply never "clicked" with a religion.

Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature at Stanford, was speaking at the Nov. 15 installment of "What Matters to Me and Why," a bi-weekly lecture and discussion series that provides a venue for faculty members and administrators to talk about their personal values, beliefs and motivations. The series is held in the side chapel of the church.

Gumbrecht spoke candidly about topics ranging from what drives him to what he believes the role of academic institutions to be -- that is, "to keep alive the sublime complexity."

Universities are important because they allow scholars to practice "riskful thinking" -- to pursue ideas and research that won't produce just one or a few easy answers but that will, on the contrary, often lead to more questions, he said.

The notion of truth "with a capital 'T' is no longer a viable concept," he said. In an interview following the lecture, he elaborated on this idea, saying that in any context it's impossible to rely on people agreeing on anything -- even the most important questions.

"So that what we call truth, or what we agree upon, is always something negotiated," he said.

Similarly, in a question-and-answer period following his talk, Gumbrecht said the goal of teaching should "not be to give students answers."

Rather, he said, teachers should lead students "to the gates of complexity."

"I think consensus is the black hole of the humanities," he said.

Gumbrecht also discussed his reputed workaholism, which he said probably stems from a need to garner the admiration and love of people around him.

"I want to be loved," he said. "I am a profoundly insecure person."

Gumbrecht said this motivation could prove beneficial for colleagues and students: To gain their admiration and love, he naturally will do things that are useful for them.

Gumbrecht also said there are things that matter to him that he has not achieved -- or cannot achieve.

"I would definitely like to be good looking," he said.

He also emphasized the importance of basic gratifications in his life, such as eating good food and watching sports.

"It really matters to me to maximize elementary pleasures," he said.

Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1989, Gumbrecht taught at the universities of Konstanz, Bochum and Siegen in Germany. He has studied Romance philology, German literature, philosophy and sociology in Germany, Spain and Italy.

Gumbrecht was chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature from 1990 to 1993 and again during the 1996-97 academic year. In 1995, he received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He received the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for exceptional service to the university at Commencement in June.

He was the founding director of the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Some of Gumbrecht's most recent publications in English are Making Sense in Life and Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Materialities of Communication (Stanford University Press, 1994, co-edited with K. Ludwig Pfeiffer); Cultural Authority in Golden Age Spain (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, co-edited with Marina Brownlee); and In 1926 -- Living at the Edge of Time (Harvard University Press, 1997).


By John Sanford

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