Friday, January 17, 2014

Oderberg reflects on Lowe

The following is a guest post by David S. Oderberg on the life, work, and legacy of the late E. Jonathan Lowe (pictured at left), who died on January 5.
E.J. Lowe (1950-2014)
My first intellectual encounter with Jonathan Lowe was around 1990 or 1991, while in the thick of my doctoral thesis. I was trying to defend a position in metaphysics that went against the majority view at the time, though a minority of significant philosophers agreed with it. The problem was one of finding some decent arguments in support of the minority view: merely citing a well-known adherent would not be enough.
While trying to develop some arguments of my own, I ended up despondent (as most doctoral students do at some time during the process). I was getting nowhere and could not find anyone who had arguments that proceeded along lines similar to my own. Then I came across Jonathan’s first book, Kinds of Being (1989), recently reissued in revised form before his untimely death as More Kinds of Being. It was there I found what I was looking for - a philosopher of standing who had produced several arguments along lines very similar to my own. What a relief that was…and my first lesson in professional philosophy (of the many I learned from Jonathan over the years). Most graduate students would be disheartened by such a discovery, namely that one of their key arguments had been anticipated by another person, thus depriving their dissertation of some of its originality. My reaction was a bit similar at first yet quickly gave way to immense relief: so I wasn’t going out on a precarious limb after all! What I thought might ultimately be a highly shaky piece of reasoning had at least one supporter, moreover someone who articulated it far better than I did. Who cares whether I lost some originality? To this day I tell my doctoral students that it’s always better to be right than original, and at least to care more about whether you are being plausible than novel. (If you can achieve both truth and originality, then so much the better; but we should leave that to the greats.)

My first personal encounter with Jonathan was soon after, at the time of my viva voce examination. He was one of my two examiners, an expert in the area but a source of sleepless nights as I worried whether I had done enough to pass. The first sight to greet me, distinctly remembered all these years later, was of two men solemnly walking through the Examination Schools, copies of my dissertation in their hands. I was sitting on a cold, wooden bench on my own, sweatily clutching a few notes, trying to discern from what seemed to be their grim faces the faintest hint of a reassuring glance or smile that let me know I would survive and possibly even come out with a doctorate. No such glimmer was forthcoming.

As I entered the examination room after them and took my place, Jonathan proceeded immediately to set my mind at ease. Yes, I would pass. They liked the dissertation, so they said. (Second lesson: when examining doctoral dissertations, I always  - well, nearly always - reassure the candidate before proceedings get under way. It’s an act of simple kindness of the sort that, for Jonathan at least, was intuitive.) Still, they needed to ask me a few questions. Whereupon both examiners, with Jonathan leading the way, subjected me to a two-hour barrage of questions and objections that convinced me the initial reassurance was a mistake and that I would fail after all. The way I handled the questions, if I had been the examiner I would have failed myself. The examination over, my heart thumping and my shirt collar drenched, they both gave me wide smiles and Jonathan congratulated me on my doctorate. A few nervous exchanges of jocularity later, off they walked and I blinked at the sunlight outside, wondering exactly what had happened.

There I was exposed, in however brief a period, to the two sides of Jonathan with which I am most familiar: the fearsome intellect, taking no prisoners, spotting holes in arguments with uncanny insight; the kindly, reassuring presence, smiling more often than not, incapable of genuine aggression in philosophical exchange, substituting in its stead a kind of drive or insistence, a relentless questioning that always got to the heart of an issue yet without any hint of malice calculated to make his opponent feel slighted or small.

One might think this was typical of the profession. That it is not is evidenced by the endless requests Jonathan received to act as doctoral examiner (let alone all the others, of  which more later). My third lesson from Jonathan: always tell your doctoral students, even before they put finger to keyboard, to start thinking about possible examiners and to pick them carefully. Alas, I contributed far too much to Jonathan’s workload over the years by recommending him as an examiner for my students or others who came to me for suggestions. I knew that, however formidable a challenge a student might have getting a dissertation past Jonathan, they would find themselves in the hands of someone who was fair, judicious, benevolent, and whose critique of their work could only make it better.

I suppose this was Jonathan’s personality, pure and simple. No one who met him could fail to be impressed by his geniality. This was not, however, a mere matter of the disposition of his humours. Jonathan was relentless in his search for truth. We sometimes hear of an academic who is ‘no respecter of persons’ in their remorseless quest for the right answers. This is always code for something less flattering about the way they conduct themselves in debate (whether in person or in print). Yet Jonathan was no respecter of persons in a far more favourable way. He never thought that part of the philosopher’s brief was to grind their opponent into the ground, hoisting the triumphalist flag of a debate won, a ‘knockdown argument’ scored. What he respected was the debate itself, the ideas at stake. One could dismember them as much as one liked; they felt no pain and the bad ones had no right to reassembly. As for persons and personalities - they were subject to the same rules of cordial and civilised discourse that applied to anyone, academic or not. As he conducted himself socially, so Jonathan behaved in the seminar room. True, it would have been exciting occasionally to see some fireworks fly from Jonathan, verbally or on paper, for it’s not as though polemics have no place among scholars. Yet I could not imagine such a thing being any more than contrived coming from such a warm and affable person as he was.

Over the years I saw Jonathan at various conferences and seminars, and we corresponded off and on. Knowing how overloaded he was, I was loath to burden him with yet another message about this or that (far too often a request for assistance). He was always the same, both physically and in his personality: the latter always amiable, smiling, or perhaps half-serious, half-smiling; the former, well - he had that enviable knack of never seeming to age. When he spoke at a conference I organised in 2011, I couldn’t help marvelling that he looked about as young as he did when he examined my dissertation. (I have learned no lesson from this, except perhaps to accept with grace one’s genetic lot.) When he told me of the upcoming marriage of one of his children, and how he seemed reluctant to make a big speech (wanting never to be the centre of attention, so I assumed), I needled him playfully about it, encouraging him to get up on a chair and declaim his pride to the guests. He went red, genuinely bashful at the thought of having to make, Heaven forbid, a wedding speech! Here was one of the world’s leading philosophers, a presenter at more conferences than I can count, one of the most confident writers and speakers I have witnessed, genuinely nervous at having to be the focus of a social gathering. (His wonderful wife, Susan, assured me he would make the speech - and so he did.)

For all his intellectual power and self-assurance, Jonathan was fundamentally self-effacing - one of the most underrated and disrespected virtues in an age of celebrity-idol worship. The UK government now requires all academics to demonstrate ‘impact’: how have their ideas changed the lives of people outside the academy? Where’s the evidence? The more quantifiable, the better: pure research for research’s sake, the simple, unadulterated pursuit of knowledge and wisdom might get a good rating in the next government assessment exercise, if you’re lucky, but an academic’s ‘impact’ is zero if they can’t prove they have done something specific to influence the minds of non-academics. Well and good, in a way: academic blogs, such as the present one, perform an enormous service in reaching out to people who might never pick up a philosophy book, or who if they do will never have the chance to participate directly in the debates going on within the academy. In fact, philosophers always delight in genuine impact, in the effect their ideas may have on the world. The problem is, we tend to measure it in centuries or even millennia, not the five-ten year scale required by the UK government.

I never asked Jonathan about the so-called ‘impact agenda’, but I have a fairly good idea of what he would have said (and probably did say to others). His own actions make it clear. For apart from the very occasional interview, I am not aware of his ever writing popular philosophy, pop articles or throwaway pieces. He may have spoken to non-philosophers in a formal setting occasionally (I do not know), yet he was anything but a ‘pop’ philosopher. He was, on the contrary, a philosopher’s philosopher, writing for his peers, speaking to his peers, pursuing what he thought needed pursuing, or what interested him. That’s why he entered the profession, and that’s what he continued to do until his tragic death.

How? How did Jonathan manage to produce over two hundred articles and around ten books, along with several edited collections and nearly a hundred book reviews? I know it wasn’t by sacrificing quality, because his work is of the highest rank from beginning to end. There is not a single publication from which I haven’t learned something, whether I agree with him or not. And the range of topics is vast - pretty much everything in metaphysics, of course, not to mention philosophy of mind, history of philosophy, action theory, conditionals, time and tense, philosophy of language, logic… Not much ethics or philosophy of religion, mind you, let alone aesthetics or political philosophy, for which more’s the pity; but that is symptomatic of the lamentable contemporary division between ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ philosophy, where it is almost an axiom that if you specialise in one domain you couldn’t possibly have anything useful to say in the other. (Quine notoriously tried, with unhappy results that have perhaps set the tone.) Had he tried his hand, no doubt Jonathan’s effect on moral philosophy would have been as salutary as it has on metaphysics.

As one of the many philosophers who have read a large amount of Jonathan’s corpus I think I detect a style, or rather a method - welcoming yet fearsome. He tends to begin with some fairly ordinary, relatively uncontroversial observations about a subject. You find yourself nodding in agreement: yes, good place to start. Plausible intuitions. This should be fun. You convince yourself it’s going to be an easy ride. Five or ten pages in (Jonathan had the incredibly enviable knack of bringing in most of his papers at 30 double-spaced pages; would that we all had that gift of succinctness), you start to feel a little uneasy. It’s hard to put your finger on. He’s turning up the heat, ever so gently. It’s getting a little complicated. Soon you know it’s complicated. It’s usually mid-way through one of his papers that I start smacking my forehead (metaphorically, most of the time). I’m a bit lost; I need to read page 20 three times before I feel remotely confident in continuing. I keep at it, usually grabbing a scrap of paper (these days, my iPad or laptop) to try to reconstruct his argument. Once I think I’ve got it, I step gingerly forward, and then, by about page 25, I feel  as if I’m on a ski slope heading down, and dare not get off till I reach the bottom: I have to finish, I have to get the whole picture before I can go away and mull it over. Then, maybe a week or two later, I think I’ve got it. My inevitable conclusion: this topic, or debate, or issue, has now been decisively modified - perhaps taken in a different direction, maybe taken wholly in reverse to where it should have remained; but often decided pure and simple. (I felt the latter in particular when reading his paper on McTaggart’s indexical fallacy.) It’s not often that one can read a contemporary philosopher and think with confidence that they have actually done what they were supposed to do - answer the question correctly.

In the early 1990s, when Jonathan came to speak at a conference I organised, I distinctly remember him saying to me that he was working on a metaphysics textbook but that writing books wasn’t really his thing. He was turning out one article after another, but I too wondered whether he was capable of producing many books. More fool I, as he unleashed a torrent of textbooks and monographs from around that point on. I used his A Survey of Metaphysics for many years as the text for my final-year metaphysics course: a brilliant book, beyond what 99% of metaphysicians could produce, equally enjoyable and intimidating for the students, and for me less a textbook than a monograph from which I have learned an enormous amount. How he managed to write brilliantly on such a wide range of topics is beyond me.

As if his brilliance and peerless productivity were not enough, Jonathan was the most conscientious supporter of students and professional friends that I have known. I am embarrassed by the endless calls I made on his time to write me a reference or some letter of support, to give feedback on a paper, contribute to a book I was editing, provide some professional advice on this or that. Never, not once did he decline the request. Not once did he do less than take it with all seriousness and do exactly what was asked, even more than was necessary. I have heard the same repeated by student after student, by one freshly-minted PhD after another. If you were in line for promotion and needed a crucial reference from a ‘big name’, you asked Jonathan. If you needed backing for a grant application, you asked Jonathan. If you wanted to get an edited volume published but knew that you did not have well-known contributors and/or co-editors, you asked Jonathan. Countless students and academics owe their careers to him in one way or another. What he did for the profession, both intellectually and administratively (for want of a better word), would take several career lifetimes for the average academic.

When I first learned last summer than Jonathan was gravely ill, my heart sank. Not him, who never seemed to age, never slowed down. It wasn’t right. Then, when I emailed him in October of last year to see if he was on the mend, he replied directly to say that he was indeed recovering and expected to be back to full strength soon. I know he had cancelled all appointments; we were scheduled to speak together at a conference at the end of 2013 but he had to withdraw. Still, his personal reassurance set my mind at ease. Then to learn of his sudden death, when emails began coming my way asking if the rumours were true, was a body blow. I still cannot believe it, and I want to pretend it is all false.

I am sure plenty more people, apart from his devastated family, knew Jonathan better than I. I can only relate my perspective on a friendship that lasted over twenty years. On more than one occasion - a moment of crisis, when help was needed and gratefully received - I said to Jonathan directly that there was one, and only one, word to describe him, and it was not in English. Jonathan Lowe was a mensch. He was, in my humble view, the greatest philosopher the United Kingdom has produced in the last fifty years at least, and among the handful of greatest in the world. For all that his death is so, so untimely, he has left a wonderful legacy, a body of work to be studied by generations of philosophers for many years hence; indeed, a lifetime’s philosophy on which to reflect, as he spent his own life in the search for truth and wisdom. In latter years he moved more and more in the Aristotelian direction, which for me (albeit not for some others, no doubt) was a pleasure to behold. Now I will never know how far he would have taken his Aristotelian leanings. I know with utter certainty, however, that he was a mensch, and for that he must foremost be remembered.

Rest in peace.

17 January 2014


Scott said...

Rest in peace indeed. Thank you for this wonderful and touching post, Prof. Oderberg.

Tony said...

That's a class act. Thank you, Prof. Oderberg, for letting us know him a little. Would that more of our scholars were as self-less.

Anonymous said...

Touching piece. Sounds like a great man.

Joe K. said...

Beautifully written and incredibly touching. Thank you, professor.

rank sophist said...

I was not familiar with Lowe's work until recently, after his death. Judging by this post, he was a great thinker and a great man.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry for the loss of someone so important to you and to us. Same age my brother passed.


Daniel D. Novotný said...

Thank you, David, for sharing this with us.