I was born in Salisbury, North Carolina on June 9, 1950. Located 42 miles northeast of Charlotte, Salisbury is in what is called the Piedmont section of the Tar Heel state--mostly rolling hills and a history of Cherokee and colonial settlement and antebellum charm. My dad's family was of Scotch-Irish stock, having settled originally in Pennsylvania and located in south-central Virginia at the time he was born. He served in the U.S. Marines before and during WWII and was, for a time, a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina. In 1946, when he was stationed in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, he met my mother in New Orleans (across the river from her home in Gretna). A lifelong southern Baptist, he converted to Catholicism shortly after he married my mother in 1946. After spending the remainder of his tour of duty at Camp Lejune, NC and Camp Pendleton, California, they settled in Salisbury where his parents lived. He worked as a machine operator at a box company, and my mother worked (after my sister and I went to school) at a drug store.
Until I was eleven (when my family moved to the house where my mother grew up in Gretna), I spent much of my time exploring the arrowhead-strewn corn fields and woods near our suburban house in Salisbury. In addition to collecting arrowheads, I was fascinated by reptiles (especially snakes). I read as much as I could find on the kinds of snakes common in our part of the country, and decided early on that I wanted to be able to pursue such studies, if only as an avocation, for the rest of my life.
At the time North Carolina was only 1% Catholic, so the state was considered mission territory. So from the time I entered Catholic grammar school through the fifth grade (when we moved to Louisiana), I did not have an American-born teacher. The nuns who taught me were either from Ireland or, one year, from Guam. Our school was small, so two grades occupied a single classroom. After we moved to Gretna, I continued in parochial school and entered St. John Vianney Preparatory School in New Orleans 1964, having decided to consider becoming a priest. Upon graduation, I entered St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana where I majored in philosophy and minored in history in the piney woods across Lake Pontchatrain from New Orleans. My undergraduate studies were aimed at providing a strong background to the study of theology, so I became quite familiar with the Bible and church history. Four years of Latin and two years of Spanish in high school were complemented with six undergraduate courses in French (mainly reading). By the time I graduated in 1972, I had already decided for some time against the priesthood. Indeed, ten days after graduation I was married to Sheryl Breaux by the Rector-President of the College. Breaux (as everyone now calls her) and I had met three years earlier in the spring of 1969 in a political science course. That course was my first real exposure to the history of philosophy. It is to that spring that I trace the beginnings of my two lifelong loves.
In the fall of 1972 I entered the graduate program at St. Louis University where I was assigned to be research assistant to James Collins, for whom I ultimately completed a dissertation on the 17th-century freethinker and deist John Toland in 1977. I also studied with Vernon Bourke, Leonard Ezlick, Richard Blackwell, James Marsh, Vincent Punzo, and William Charron. For Charles Ermatinger I wrote a M.A. thesis in 1974 on the principle of individuation in the Renaissance philosophy of Giordano Bruno, but the lion's share of my work was with Collins. From him I learned the importance of careful textual and historical analysis, especially in seminars on Nicholas Cusanus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Kant. From 1973 on I taught at least two undergraduate classes every semester.
In the summer of 1976 I spent six weeks collecting materials in libraries in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Austria for my dissertation. Just as I finished it in 1977, I received my first full-time teaching appointment at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. A year later I joined the faculty at the smallest Jesuit college in the country, Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. There I taught as many as five courses per semester, and in my last year there (1982-83) I was chair of the department. However, I continued to publish articles and to revise my dissertation. In 1979-80 I received a year-long NEH fellowship to study with Ralph Cohen of the English department at the University of Virginia, where I was first exposed to the intricacies of current continental philosophy. After that year I returned to Spring Hill thoroughly caught up in the mystique of poststructuralism, deconstruction, hermeneutics, and semiotics, but as yet unsure about how I might incorporate such strategies into my own work in the history of modern philosophy.
During my time at Spring Hill (from 1978 to 1983, including the year in Virginia), I explored new techniques for teaching philosophy. The results of those inquiries appeared in publications about undergraduate research papers, multiple-choice testing, and mass media ethics. My first book, John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984) was slowly making its way through a convoluted reviewing process, and my research interests and publications had turned to the presence of mythic elements in modern philosophy. Despite having presented a rather deconstructive reading of Descartes to the faculty at Texas A&M University, I was offered a position there in 1983. I continued to work on comparable interpretations of Bacon, Mandeville, Berkeley, Condillac, and Herder, and they ultimately were published in my second book, Myth and Modern Philosophy (Temple University Press, 1990).
For four years (1986-90) I was the assistant department head at Texas A&M. Administrative responsibilities as a member of the University's Faculty Senate, the Liberal Arts Council, and numerous university, college, and department committees occupied much of my time during those years. In 1990, however, after having received outstanding teaching awards from the University Honors Program and the College of Liberal Arts, I was given a faculty development leave to study the philosophy of the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards. My third book, The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics (Indiana University Press, 1994), was the product of the next few years' research. In that book I acknowledged how poststructuralist historiography has opened up marvelous new opportunities for historians of modern philosophy (as long as one is not bogged down in the jargon). In fact, in 2004 I edited a collection of essays, Current Continental Theory and Modern Philosophy (Northwestern University Press), in which continental philosophy scholars discuss ways in which Heidegger, Levinas, Althusser, Derrida, Deleuze, Irigaray, Le Doeuff, Foucault, Kristeva, Gadamer, and others provide new stratgies for interpreting Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, the French Encyclopedists, Rousseau, and Kant. Earlier that same year my book, Contemporary Continental Thought (Prentice Hall), appeared; it was the culmination of ten years of introducing students to some of the intricacies of late 20th century European philosophy.
I anticipated that the Edwards book was to be the first of three volumes (the other two dealing with Berkeley and Leibniz) that would show how elements of the thought of the Renaissance logician Peter Ramus appear in modern philosophy, especially in terms of the image of the book of nature. I became more involved in research on Berkeley, and in 2003 I organized an international conference at Texas A&M to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Berkeley's death. I was elected vice-president of the International Berkeley Society in 2004 and president in 2006. Presentations at the 2003 conference became the seeds for two collections that I edited, Reexamining Berkeley's Philosophy (University of Toronto Press, 2007) and New Interpretations of Berkeley's Thought (Journal of the History of Philosophy Book Series, Humanity Books, 2008). My involvement with the Berkeley Society allowed me to travel throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, and even though I stepped down as IBS president in 2016, I still have a fondness for the good bishop's ideas.
In recent years I have focused much of my attention on teaching and have received more than my fair share of awards--including the Texas A&M University Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence (2007) and the prestigious Fasken Chair at Texas A&M University (2007-12). I continue to work hard on being as good a teacher as I can be.
Three years before I left Spring Hill College, something else happened that radically changed my life: the discovery of whitewater kayaking. In the years since then I have paddled raging Class V torrents, 25-foot waterfalls, and meandering streams thoughout the U.S. (primarily in the Southeast and in Colorado) and Mexico. After years of exploring Texas streams, I pulled what I knew about runs, access, water levels, etc. together in Texas Whitewater (Texas A&M University Press, 1999) and spoke at canoe clubs, bookstores, and paddling shops around the state. The book sold more than 4000 copies (more than the total of all of my academic books together), and in 2004 I produced a second, expanded edition of the book which has now sold another 3000 copies. In 2006 I produced and edited Texas Whitewater: The DVD, a 35-minute film based on the book. When I am not running rapids I am thinking about running rapids. My passion for whitewater kayaking and the way of life required to maintain it, however, do not have a philosophical significance.