Fred Newman Ph.D.

Fred Newman (1935 - 2011) is the public philosopher who for 40 years translated the most progressive ideals of the 1960s into effective instruments of social and personal transformation. The centerpiece of Newman’s work in culture, psychology and politics is our capacity to create the conditions for our own development.

Newman’s cutting edge discoveries and accomplishments generated constant controversy throughout his career. Branded a “cult leader,” a “self-hating Jew,” a brainwasher and a political opportunist by his critics, Newman’s unusual blend of rigorous postmodern philosophy and practical on-the-ground organizing have made him a lasting – if vilified – architect of a new progressivism. (See Newman and his Critics)

Born in 1935, Newman grew up in a predominantly Jewish, working class area of the southwest Bronx. After his father died when Newman was nine, leaving his family destitute, Newman earned what money he could at a variety of jobs. From the years he spent working in machine shops, where he learned the skill of precision tool-making from his older brother, Newman derived a lifelong interest in creating the social machinery for making new tools.

Newman briefly attended the City College of New York before enlisting in the U.S. Army at the age of 18. After serving in Korea he returned to New York to complete his undergraduate education at City College, where he majored in philosophy. In 1962 he received his doctorate in the philosophy of science from Stanford University. His dissertation – published under the title Explanation by Description – was written under the supervision of Donald Davidson, whom Newman credited with having taught him to think and to teach.

Explanation (Mouton, 1968) sought to elaborate on Carl Hempel’s insights into the structural similarities between historical explanation and the causal-deductive paradigm of explanation applied to physical phenomena. His unique perspective is most fully articulated in the anti-epistemology trilogy (co-authored with the developmental psychologist Lois Holzman) that concludes with The End of Knowing: A new developmental way of learning (Routledge, 1997). The three major influences on Newman’s thought – the early Marx, the early Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein – are all very much present in these books.

In 1962 Newman embarked on a career in academic philosophy at Knox College in Illinois. He subsequently taught at several other institutions while becoming increasingly active in the anti-Vietnam war movement that was rapidly taking over the country’s campuses; with a handful of others across the country he began giving only A’s to his students to help the men avoid the draft. But by 1968 Newman decided that this form of protest was inadequate, and left academia to become a community organizer. His dream was not to construct a version of what Christopher Lasch called a “haven in a heartless world” but to create something – he did not know what – that could be of value to society as a whole. For over 40 years he served as chief engineer/toolmaker in a community of activists with a shared commitment to human development; together they created and/or inspired dozens of political, therapeutic, educational and cultural projects.

Newman’s views on the central political issues of our time – poverty, racism, war, the democratic process itself – often aligned with the positions of other progressive intellectuals. Social therapy, the clinical approach that he founded, bears a “family resemblance” to the work of many postmodern, critical, and humanistic psychologists, including the social constructionist Kenneth Gergen. Newman is the foremost American director of the plays of the late Heiner Müller, the German playwright whose ruthless and poetic accounts of Communism’s failure inspired Newman to “translate” Müller’s quintessentially European sensibility into an American idiom. On the electoral front, Newman was an early pioneer of the independent political movement, in which he remained, until his death, an active tactician and power broker.

That Newman was a uniquely polarizing figure suggests that it is not merely the content of his ideas but his ability to organize political bases of support (e.g., votes) and give practical expression to them that most disturbed his critics. He was, in effect, a “rebel with an organization.”

New York Times Obituary, July 9, 2011.