Biography


Maynard Adams was born on December 29, 1919 in the small farming community of Childrey in south-central Virginia. At that time, the Adams family, like virtually all of  their neighbors, had no electricity, indoor plumbing, radio, or telephone. Adams said once that he had “fond memories” of growing up on the farm, but he also said that except for attending church and school he spent all of the first eighteen years of his life doing hard, manual labor on a working farm. It is very unusual to find, at any time in Western history, a philosopher who was born and reared on a working farm.

Educational opportunities were very limited in Childrey; the young Maynard attended a one-room schoolhouse through the seventh grade and then went to a small, rural high school. However, it was in Childrey that he learned to think for himself and began to become a philosopher. His philosophical journey began in a “cultural conflict” that he described by saying: “I was born in the Protestant Reformation and educated in the Enlightenment.” At home and in church, he absorbed a God-centered, conservative view of the world that emphasized the importance of belief and the wickedness of doubt. In school he learned to trust the powers of the human mind and to accept the virtues of questioning and inquiry. In short, he confronted two contrasting ways of understanding the world, and his struggles to resolve the conflict gradually led him to philosophy. One result in the long run was that he gave up on orthodox Christianity and developed his own philosophy of religion.

Adams’s experiences in Childrey eventually influenced his later philosophy. Most notably, much of his mature thought focused on the issue of personhood, what it is to be a person and to live a good life. The topic of personhood was a natural concern for any intellectually-aware person who grew up in the racially segregated South where the personhood of black people was questioned and undermined every day. Other connections between Adams’s early life in Childrey and his later philosophy include his insistence on the importance of family and community, his continued attempts to understand the nature of divine reality, and his philosophy of nature which is grounded in his love of the land.

From Childrey, Adams went to the University of Richmond, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His master’s thesis was on “The Logico-Mathematical Philosophy of Bertrand Arthur Russell.” He then completed a B. D. degree at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. His graduate work in philosophy was done at Harvard University, his primary mentors being C. I. Lewis and Ralph Barton Perry. His doctoral dissertation was “An Analysis of Scientific Explanation.”

Adams said several times that he wanted his academic career to be in the South, so that he could help overcome the racial prejudice and authoritarian belief-systems that dominated the traditional South. So, after leaving Harvard he spent one year at Ohio University and then came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He remained there for the rest of his life.

Adams thrived in Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Phyllis, had two children – Steve and Jill – and built a happy family home. At the University, Adams soon became a powerful presence in the classroom. Over forty years of teaching, he had a striking influence on many of his best students.

He also experienced in the 1950s what he said was the richest period of his philosophical development. The source of this richness was eight years of prolonged philosophical discussions with Everett Hall, the Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1952 to 1960. These discussions often focused on value theory and categorial analysis and helped stimulate Adams’s first major book, Ethical Naturalism and the Modern Worldview (1960).

An interesting sidelight here is that, while Adams was teaching full-time and writing his first book, he was also building a basement under the already-constructed Adams home. From 1959 to 1962, he periodically spent his afternoons digging out an area under the house to a depth of seven feet. As he proceeded, he gradually poured new concrete footings and built a new foundation wall. Around the neighborhood the project was known as “Maynard’s Folly,” but by 1962 the Adams family had a new basement.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Adams was a major figure in both the community and the University. When civil rights demonstrations came to Chapel Hill in the early 1960s, Maynard took the lead in helping form Chapel Hill Community Action, an antipoverty organization designed to work with the local black community in order to improve the living and working conditions of black people. At the same time, he was Chairman of the Philosophy Department, serving in that capacity from 1960 to 1965. He was later elected to be Chairman of the Faculty Council from 1976 to 1979.

From 1970 to 1972 Adams was Director of the Curriculum on Peace, War, and Defense, and innovative interdisciplinary academic program on war and peace issues that was formed in response to student protests against the Vietnam conflict. Then, in the late 1970s he helped found the Program in the Humanities and Human Values. The Program became a very successful effort to involve the out-of-school public in examination of humanistic ideas and values. While carrying out all these community and university activities in addition to his teaching, he was also writing Philosophy and the Modern Mind: A Philosophical Critique of Modern Western Civilization (1975).

Adams gradually began to receive many awards and honors. In 1971 the University awarded him a Kenan Professorship which he held until his retirement. In the same year, he received the Thomas Jefferson award, the highest honor the University could give to a faculty member. In 1989, a number of his former students and colleagues published a Festschrift on his philosophy: Mind, Value and Culture: Essays in Honor of E. M. Adams. He received honorary doctorates from both Wake Forest University (1989) and the University of Richmond (1992). In 1992 the University established the E.M. Adams Professorship. And, in 1998 the Program in the Humanities began to sponsor an annual “E. M. Adams Lecture in the Humanities and Human Values.”

Adams retired from full-time teaching in 1990, but he remained extraordinarily active in his philosophical work. In 1989 he taught an NEH seminar for college teachers on “Metaphysics, Morality, and Moral Theory.” In the 1990s, he published three major books. The Metaphysics of Self and World: Toward a Humanistic Philosophy (1991) was his magnum opus, the most important book of his philosophical career. Religion and Cultural Freedom (1993) resolves the cultural conflict he had confronted in Childrey as a young man. A Society Fit for Human Beings (1997) demonstrated how his philosophy could be used to carry out a cultural revolution in modern societies. He also continued to reach out to the general public through newspaper columns and letters to the editor.

Adams died on November 17, 2003.