Guignon Reminiscences

From Kevin Aho (Ph.D. 2004):

I was introduced to Charles Guignon indirectly in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Salt Lake City in the late ‘90s. Approaching 30, angst-ridden and disillusioned with academic philosophy and on the verge of dropping out of my second graduate program, I was more interested in figuring out how to cobble together a fulfilling life as a bartender and ski bum than becoming a university professor. In the philosophy section, I happened across Guignon’s The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger and sat down to read his chapter “Authenticity, moral values, and psychotherapy.” I was absolutely blown away. Here was someone who was writing about what genuinely mattered in life, about the givens of human suffering, about how we tend to fall prey and conform to the expectations of the public, and about the moral imperative to be true to oneself. His writing on Heidegger was refreshingly clear and accessible and, at times, outrageously funny. I thought to myself, “Why can’t I study with someone like this?”
Two years later, on the back of some providential coincidence, I was face-to-face with Charlie, talking, laughing, and eating sushi at the Ichiban restaurant in north Tampa near the University of South Florida. I was now at my third graduate program, and Charlie was the new senior hire. I vividly recall my own excitement when Steve Turner pulled me aside in the cinderblock hallways of the FAO building and told me of the plan to hire Charlie. I immediately high-fived him and gave him a huge hug. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Charlie more than lived up to the hype. His bona fides as an internationally respected Heidegger scholar were already well-known. But we all quickly discovered that it was his gift as a teacher and mentor that set him apart. Students would literally line up outside his office door to meet with him and his graduate seminars were packed. Charlie would present well-prepared lectures from meticulous notes written on yellow legal pads and periodically open the room up for discussion. His patience and generosity with students in these exchanges was extraordinary. The toxic posturing and polemics so common in philosophy seminars rarely appeared, and when it did, Charlie would carefully defuse the situation, either with a self-deprecating joke or a gentle but firm correction such as: “You make an interesting point, but I don’t think that’s what [insert word] means in German.”
Charlie often had gatherings at his house or at coffee shops around campus where he would hold court for hours talking philosophy, and his students learned that his interests extended far beyond Heidegger. He talked about philosophy in relation to music, film, literature, architecture, and politics. And what drew so many of us to him is that he had the courage to make himself vulnerable in these conversations, opening up with honesty about his own personal crises and how different expressions of philosophy helped him confront and, sometimes, overcome them.
My own experience at USF was transformed. I took every seminar Charlie offered as well as numerous directed independent studies and read nearly everything he ever published. When I came to him with the odd (even heterodox) idea of writing a dissertation critiquing Heidegger’s failure to give an account of the body in Being and Time, he enthusiastically agreed to be my supervisor, suggesting that a critical study of this kind was long overdue. The dissertation was later published as Heidegger’s Neglect of the Body (SUNY Press, 2009) and was dedicated to Charlie.
At the end of 2003, as I prepared to enter the job market and the soul-deadening gauntlet of the eastern division meeting of the APA, Charlie was there with his warmth, encouragement, and absurdist humor, reminding me how he faced a similarly bleak market in the early ‘80s and only made it to where he is today by the skin of his teeth. He also provided the consoling advice that there are many ways a philosophically-inclined person can lead a rich and meaningful life beyond the academy. After securing my first (and thankfully only) job at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2004, a deep and lasting friendship began to take shape.
Over the years, Charlie and I presented papers together at numerous conferences, co-hosted the annual meeting of the Heidegger Circle in 2014, and collaborated on a number of articles, book chapters, and edited volumes.  My own writing has been indelibly shaped by his clear prose and signature turns of phrase (or “Guignon-isms”), and my dialectic teaching-style is modeled after his. But far beyond the professional relationship, Charlie was my best friend. We spoke to each other at least once a week for over 15 years, sometimes just to touch base, gossip, and laugh about culture and politics, but often, and right up until the end, about our deepest and most personal concerns and for emotional support as we struggled through life’s various upheavals and emergencies. He gently talked me off the ledge countless times.
I have so much love for Charlie (and the entire Guignon family) and am overwhelmed with gratitude that he has been (and will remain) part of my life.
Kevin Aho  

From Professor Lee Braver (USF Philosophy):

I first met Charlie at an NEH summer seminar. I was a young scholar and he was one of the speakers. I was intimidated--this was the first Big Name I would meet, the first person whose work I had read, pored over, been informed and inspired by, that I was going to then actually talk to. His first book, 1983’s Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge, was wonderful--the first peering into the Dreyfus school of thought (Dreyfus wasn’t to publish his own work on Heidegger until 1990) but more than that, just a wonderful example of talking about Heidegger in clear, straightforward ways that showed his relevance to traditional issues. A model.
I reread it before the summer, looking for something intelligent to say to him, and found one thing I disagreed with. I stressed over this, going back and forth on whether I should say anything, risking antagonizing this austere figure (if you knew Charlie, you know where this is going). Finally, I decided that this is what philosophers do, and I should go ahead and mention it. At lunch after the first session, I plopped down next to him, and at some highly artificial moment in the conversation, told him how much I admired the book, but that also I did have a disagreement. I nervously started laying out my objection, worrying about his reaction, and before I got halfway through he burst out with a grin, “oh, that was a huge mistake! You’re right--I got that completely wrong!” I was put at ease and we had a great conversation. His humility and good humor won everyone over, making it so easy to talk to him. The rest of the week he told stories and taught lessons that captivated everyone, especially me. He was a mensch.
When I came to USF to interview, he told me that while he missed some things about Vermont, he loved writing about Heidegger on the sugar sands of Clearwater beach, and that that would be his retirement. I thought that here was a guy who had it figured out. I will miss him.

From Professor Richard Polt (Xavier University):

At Berkeley, in the fall of 1984, I had the good luck to take Charlie’s course on Being and Time. He was able to make this dense and challenging text come alive and light up. Not just that, but he gave me a model of what it was like to exist philosophically, to care about the issues personally while rigorously studying the texts. In later years, he was a very generous mentor to me, and shared opportunities with me that were invaluable to my academic career.

From Casey Rentmeester (Ph.D. 2012):

Charles was a phenomenal mentor and a model for all of us not only in the philosophy realm but as a human being. He knew when to be supportive and when to be critical as a mentor, his classes were always engaging and he knew when to speckle in his characteristic humor, and his writing was clear and never pretentious. Charles lived a life worth living, and we are all better off because of him. 

From Professor Brook Sadler (USF Humanities and Cultural Studies and Philosophy):

I am very sorry to hear of Charlie's death. I have several good memories of him, but one in particular stands out. He came to my class on philosophy of emotion one day as a guest for a Q&A with students. Our topic was Heidegger's understanding of mood. The way he responded to students was uniformly kind and avuncular. He showed great respect for their efforts at comprehension and was, himself, very modest as he claimed his own limited understanding. After class, he and I had a rich and, for me, memorable conversation about the topic. I know he will be fondly remembered by many. I offer my condolences to his family.


From Professor Steve Turner (USF Philosophy):

When I became department chair, no one had been hired into the department in a normal search for almost twenty years, and the old core of the department was nearing retirement.  The department needed to be remade, and one need was for a senior person in Continental philosophy, meaning Heidegger. I invited Bert Dreyfus to keynote a little conference we held on Kierkegaard, and walked around the block before dinner at Mise en Place to pick his brains about who to approach. He immediately identified Charlie. I don’t recall the details of what happened next- perhaps he encouraged him to apply, as I also did. But in a few weeks we had Charlie on a visit, with his arm in a sling from a skiing accident. I booked him into a small beach hotel, a kind of a test to see how Florida-friendly he would be. He loved it, we hired him, and it was a perfect match. Charlie blossomed with Ph.D. students. He quickly became the main producer of Ph.D.s in the department, and his students were devoted to him, and he was devoted to them.
It is always difficult to see where the magic is in the Ph.D. advising relation, but Charlie possessed the magic. Charlie was never uncritical—he spoke of one of his favorite and most devoted students as a “work in progress”—but he also inspired them to work hard, and to work on new aspects of Heidegger. There was always a gulf between “American continental” and German views of Heidegger. Dreyfus was always a puzzle to the Germans. Charlie represented the best of American continental, and a Heidegger that looked out to the rest of the intellectual world, and to whatever new topics, such as the body, had come into prominence. His students continued the habit of Heideggerian engagement with other thinkers, other traditions, and other problems.
Charlie never stopped being a mentor, even after retirement. He cared about his students, and drew satisfaction from them. He didn’t engage in department politics, or strive for a bigger job. The constant flow of students kept him busy and happy. And he brought them into his own projects. It was a full life as a scholar teacher, and an immensely productive one. He returned after retirement time and again to serve on committees of students he had inspired. Sometimes his health was so threatened it was touch and go as to whether he would be there for the defense. But he always was.
For almost twenty years, Charlie, Ofelia Schutte, Joanne Waugh and I served on committees together for continental students, most of whom were Charlie’s advisees. Just in November, Charlie and Ofelia returned for a defense. I took the occasion to thank and remind them of our many years of doing this together, and to express my sadness at the fact that this was probably the last time. It was the end of a rich era. Charlie and I made plans to get together at his new home. Holidays and then C-19 intervened, and it did not happen.
Charlie was not only a mentor, but a model. His students got from him a way of being in the world that allowed for genuine inner satisfaction. This was a great gift, both the fact that he had it and could convey it, and the treasure that they received. One hopes that they pass this gift on and that it is preserved forever.

From Adam Buben (Ph.D. 2011):

My first encounter with Charlie came years before I actually met him, when my undergraduate existentialism course at Arizona State used his reader (the old tan edition, not the newer purple model) as the textbook. This was my first exposure to the likes of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and I’ve been hooked ever since. So I was pretty excited nine years later when I got to bring my weathered old copy of the book to a proseminar meeting at USF with Charles Guignon himself. I was too cool to ask him to sign it for me, but the thought did cross my mind. When I taught existentialism for the first time ten years after that, I wasn’t too cool to send him an email to tell him I made the book required reading for my students in the Netherlands. I’ve now dragged my copy around the world with me for 23 years. In a number of different ways, Charlie has been my philosophical guide for my entire adult life.
By the time I showed up at USF, I didn’t have a lot of coursework left to complete, and I only spent about three full years in Tampa between various fellowships and teaching posts, but I made sure to spend as much time with Charlie as possible whenever I could. In addition to that 2006 proseminar section, I took his Heidegger seminar in 2007, at the same time we worked through Kierkegaard and Hegel in a formal reading group. The next semester Charlie was on sabbatical, I was preparing for my qualifying exams, and neither of us had much interest in being around the office, so we met almost every week at “Java Joe’s” by his house to talk about dissertation ideas and what we were reading. Once I was ABD, I wasn’t around much during the academic year, but I was able to join his informal Being and Time reading group over the summer of 2009. It goes without saying that Charlie was a saint for spending his summer guiding confused grad students through Heidegger one more time, but what cannot go without saying is what a fantastic reading group this was. Of all the times I’ve been through that book, I think that was when I got the most out of the experience.
My last year at USF was a rough one for Charlie, as he was dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I had been sitting in on the narrativity class he was co-teaching with a communications professor when he got the bad news. Although surgery and recovery kept him out of the classroom for a few weeks, he was eventually able to return to class, a little worse for wear, and I walked with him to and from the car until the semester ended. At this point he was pretty convinced he didn’t have much time left. In fact, he and Roger Ariew were so worried about his health that they asked me to co-teach his Contemporary Philosophy class in the spring of 2011 and take over if he couldn’t manage. In the entire semester, I was just along for the ride except for the four or five meetings when he couldn’t reschedule doctor’s appointments. He also guided me through my dissertation defense that same semester. No big deal. It was around this time that I became convinced he wasn’t quite done yet. Although it probably wasn’t his favorite year, it’s one of my most treasured. We had such great discussions about the readings after class, and I really can’t overstate how much his approach to teaching rubbed off on me. The self-deprecating sense of humor that everyone loves about Charlie was on full display; despite the illness, I was watching a master at the height of his powers.
Given my frequent travels after leaving USF, and my now long-term European residence, I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Charlie as I would have liked in recent years, but his support and friendship never wavered. As one might guess, given that he supervised my dissertation on death in the history of philosophy, and contributed a fantastic chapter to my edited volume on death in the work of Kierkegaard, the end of life has always been a frequent topic in our conversations. (Of course, anyone who got to know him, especially in the last decade or so, has no doubt heard him talk about his own mortality.) The impression I always got was that he was ready for death in some sense, but not that he was “at peace” with it, as “one” often says. He had a firm, but not entirely comfortable, grasp of the brutality of his own going out of the world. And yet, he wouldn’t let that brutality diminish his appreciation for what his life had been. To sum up these ideas, I’ll quote a passage I think Charlie would have liked from a text that I know resonated with him: “So, then, let death keep its power, ‘that all is over,’ but let life also keep the right to work while it is day.”

From Megan Altman (Ph.D. 2015):

I met Charlie my first semester as an undergraduate when I took his Existentialism course in 2001. In retrospect, this chance encounter was a privileged gift that turned my world upside-down and, hence, right-side-up. I stumbled into his classroom as an angsty eighteen-year-old, Jewish girl from Wisconsin who had never felt at home in the world. In this course, I was shocked to learn that there is an entire tradition of “outsiders” who criticize the hypocrisy and complacency of contemporary life and offer powerful reflections on concrete, personal issues of human life. The most important message of this course, for me, was that I was not alone in my loneliness, that such emotional experiences as alienation, anxiety, and purposelessness reveal to us the burden we face in trying to live meaningful lives. In his lectures, Charlie presented the issues of existentialism on an intimate level with a heightened sense of personal struggle, inviting me to ask the questions that really matter and explore the implications of philosophical thought for my own life. I experienced this invitation as an awakening and a homecoming, but I was skeptical and, before I could cross the threshold, I needed to know that it was real. Toward the end of the semester, I called my existentialism professor at home—yes, he gave his home phone number to his students at the University of South Florida, which housed a student body of nearly 50,000 students. When he answered my call, I politely introduced myself and asked, “Professor Guignon, do you actually believe all this stuff you talk about?” And he replied, “Why yes I do.” So I said, “OK, I’ll write my final paper.”
            What I like best about this story is what it says about Charlie as a teacher who played a powerful and formative role in the lives of students. For Charlie, being a good teacher was synonymous with being a good philosopher. This is because the things he taught were the things he cared about. Charlie’s teaching style was captivating. His genuine enthusiasm for the life of the mind, combined with a virtuous mixture of wit, patience, passion, and honesty awakened his students to the importance of examining human existence in all of its strangeness and uncertainty. This is not a hyperbolic characterization of his edifying pedagogy. Just a few weeks ago I reconnected with friends from my undergraduate days, some of whom I had not seen in ten years, and in that brief Zoom gathering Charlie was brought up as we reminisced about the good ol’ days. It is a testament to the impact of Charlie’s teaching that his courses were counted among the memorable moments of this group of misfits. None of them were philosophy majors, and yet Charlie’s lessons continue to reverberate in their lives.
            Charlie’s accessible and friendly presence fostered a welcoming environment where individuals from all walks of life felt comfortable expressing themselves and were encouraged to gain confidence about their own voice. Personally, Charlie gave me the courage to enter the Philosophy graduate program at USF. I was apprehensive about venturing down this road, and not because of the limited job prospects or other “practical” concerns; rather, I was worried that I was not smart enough or sophisticated enough to be an academic. Through his example and training, Charlie carved out a path in academic life for me. I benefited regularly and immeasurably from his steady and diligent mentorship. He taught me how to navigate off-putting academic jargon and exclusionary codes and practices of the academy. He took the time to teach me how to access seemingly inaccessible texts. With compassion and kindness, Charlie tended to my struggles with feelings of inadequacy and bouts of impostor syndrome. When I was writing my MA thesis, in the spring of 2009, I found myself paralyzed by self-doubt and self-criticism, and I was having a grueling time writing the last chapter. I was in Guam at the time, so it was a little difficult to meet up with Charlie to discuss things face to face. I had to wait and dwell in my anxieties until my scheduled return to the states, which was three weeks away. As soon as I returned home, I met Charlie at a café near his house in Tampa Palms. I had not explicitly expressed my internal struggles, but his sensitivity to the particularities of human anguish enabled Charlie to hear what I was not saying. I’ll never forget the moment when, during our conversation, Charlie turned to me and said, “I believe in you.” One week after that meeting, I completed my final chapter. As the chair of my PhD thesis committee, Charlie continued to encourage and nurture my enthusiasm for philosophy in the broadest sense. From reading countless drafts to co-authoring a conference paper, his mentorship was truly transformative.
            Even with a separation in age of forty years, Charlie and I became very good friends, keeping in touch regularly by email and phone. I never made an important decision without seeking his counsel. In our mundane and ordinary interactions, Charlie gave my life a measure of levity and gravity. In 2016, when introducing Charlie at a public event, I recounted the story of that first phone conversation we had in 2001, and he jokingly asked, “What would have happened if I had said ‘no’?” We all laughed, but I honestly can’t imagine what would have become of me if he had not invited me to live the philosophical life, if he had not gifted me the opportunity to attend to the shades of meaning in human existence. With gentle guidance, healing words, and life-giving friendship, Charlie made, and shall continue to make, a place in which I may feel at home in the world, but this dwelling-place is a little bit darker now that he is gone.
In our last email exchange, a few months ago, Charlie said, “I think of us as equals in a shared project of bringing a little good into the world.” With humility and reverence, I shall endeavor to be deserving enough to carry on our shared project.         

From Professor Emerita Ofelia Schutte (USF Philosophy):

Charlie and I were colleagues at USF for many years. We retired, along with Kwasi Wiredu, in a joint philosophy department gathering in 2012.
On a daily basis I would see Charlie a lot since his office was next to mine. Countless times I walked down that hallway. We would often greet and exchange a few pleasant words or Charlie would offer some observations of the world. I recall his cheerful personality. If critical of something (including self-criticism), he’d do it with a keen sense of humor. As I passed by, I would often see him reading or meeting with students.
It was through students and pedagogical activity that we interacted most often. Charlie was like a magnet for students. He met regularly and generously with graduate students one-on-one. At certain times of the year there was also a line of undergraduates standing or sitting in the hallway waiting to see him. Charlie and I made a very productive Heidegger - Nietzsche team, with graduate students seeking his help for Heidegger dissertations, projects in which I served gladly as one of the committee members.
It often happened that when students came to me with their works-in-progress, seeking my comments, I would follow my observations with the question: Have you talked with Dr. Guignon? What did he say?  Surprisingly (to me) they would say that Charlie and I had made similar comments. At first, thinking of myself as a Cuban Latina feminist, not exactly the image of a Heidegger expert, I would be curiously surprised. But this pattern of pedagogical affinity when it came to graduate supervision lasted throughout the years. We worked together very well in our commonalities and differences.
I also learned a lot about reading Heidegger from Charlie and through the excellent work of many of his students, among the most memorable of whose dissertations in the continental tradition I recall Kevin Aho (2004), West Gurley (2008), and Aret Karademir (2013), the last co-chaired by Charlie and Steve Turner.
After several years of retirement and having moved to Gainesville, in the fall of 2019 I agreed to join a dissertation committee on Heidegger and Nietzsche. On what has become now a memorable Friday, November 8, 2019 in Tampa, Charlie, Steve Turner, and I served as members on our last dissertation committee defense together. (This time the dissertation was chaired by Lee Braver.) The three of us had aged several years, and there we were together again as if in the old times.
At the moment when the Q&A portion of the defense was about to begin, Steve spoke and made an unforgettable statement, addressing everyone present, including a new generation of students.
Steve said he wanted to mark this moment because it could be the last time that the three of us would serve together in a dissertation defense. He mentioned what a worthwhile effort it had been over the years for himself, Charlie, and me to have worked together and to have contributed to so many students’ projects. As Steve spoke, I thought of how many times, semester after semester, we had gathered in that small, modestly furnished seminar room in order to hear our students present the best of the research, to which they had dedicated so much energy and hope. We then resumed with normal business.
After the meeting Charlie and I were able to chat for a little while. I am very grateful that (without intending this to have been our last conversation) we had a few warm moments together. He told me of his heart condition and wished me continued health. While mindful of his limitations he was appreciative and cheerful. Even though he could no longer drive, he was excited when he heard that students were ready to give him a ride home. And on that we parted – Charlie happy to ride with students and I, standing in a nearly empty seminar room, wishing him a good ride home.

From Professor Wei Zhang (USF Philosophy):

The most fresh memory of Charlie was the neighborhood gathering, and walks. We had chatted on seemingly random topics from Florida sun, beaches, family, and certainly neighborhood—as appropriated by Heidegger. He was alway pleasant, graceful, and caring. Always enquiring about my husband’s health; seldom complained about his own—even he was apparently unwell. At such times, I feel that the topics of enigma of health, sickness, authenticity and mortality had assumed a deeper and more personal meaning.

I knew his work before came to know him as a person. He took interest in the less popular ares of Heidegger scholarship, such as late Heidegger’s encounter with East Asian and particularly Kyoto school thinkers, that I (and few others) had tried to document. At a later time, he asked to read my piece on ‘Gadamer’s phenomenological hermeneutics of medicine’ and shared with me his work, ‘Medicalizing psychiatry’ (co-authored with Kevin Aho). The exchange was so stimulating that decided to continue to explore the topics of health, medicine, death in a graduate seminar. Charlie definitely helped to shape the seminar. He wanted to come in as a guest speaker, as I remembered. I remember those ‘professorial’ interactions as vividly as our neighborhood gatherings.

It is comforting to know that he passed away peacefully. My sincere condolences to Sally and the rest of the family.