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Richard Taylor Remembered

One of the most colourful and engaging of modern philosophers (and of Philosophy Now contributors) is recalled by Robert Holmes, Barry Gan and Tim Madigan.

I first became acquainted with Richard Taylor when I was on the editorial board of Free Inquiry magazine, the secular humanist publication of which he was a frequent contributor. While his articles tended to be hard-hitting denunciations of the foolishness of organized religions, he went out of his way to assert that he himself was not a secular humanist. Yet he was delighted by his induction into the International Academy of Humanism, and proudly displayed his certificate on the wall of his study. This was my first introduction to Richard’s love of paradox and Socratic whimsy.

Over the years, Richard was incredibly helpful to me in my own stop-and-start attempts to get a PhD in philosophy. When I would bemoan my difficulties in writing my dissertation, he offered the sage advice that I should write exactly one page a day, and in a year’s time I’d have more than enough pages to justify the degree. Somehow this never quite worked for me but I admired his own discipline and skill as a writer. When I finally did complete my dissertation, he kindly agreed to be my outside reader. We shared a fondness for the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose extreme pessimism delighted us both.

What I most appreciated about Richard was his joy in living. He truly found meaning in life through his philosophical explorations, and always maintained a healthy sense of humor about them. Hubris was never one of his sins. He and I would get together with some frequency to discuss philosophy and life in general, and I arranged for him to give talks to various groups of which I was a member. Once, he and his close friend Robert Holmes engaged in a strenuous debate over the topic of euthanasia, in a course I was teaching on medical ethics. Bob had mentioned to us both that he had to leave the class early for another appointment. When he suddenly dashed out, many of the students thought that he had been so offended by Richard’s remarks that he took umbrage and left in a huff. I had to explain to them the next class meeting that philosophers typically engage in such vigorous disputations, and Richard and Bob’s friendship had not been destroyed. When I related this story to Richard, his eyes twinkled with delight.

When I learned from him that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I decided that I would make these gettogethers a more regular occurrence. Every few weeks thereafter, he and I got together for lunch on a Sunday afternoon, along with other philosophical friends he had accumulated over the years. I considered this my own version of Tuesdays with Morrie, and benefited immensely from his erudite yet down-to-earth discussions of politics, sex, religion and all the other topics we are told to eschew in polite company.

Richard Taylor was a true epicurean, who met his final days with the equanimity of one who had lived life to the fullest. He was and is an inspiration to me. I very much miss my Sundays with Richard.


Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press and a U.S. Editor of Philosophy Now.

It is strange to be writing a memoir about Richard Taylor: only a few weeks ago a number of us gathered with Richard at a little restaurant in upstate New York, as we had done frequently over the past year. “Don’t get me started on Bush,” he said. “I tired myself venting about him on the way up here.” I was surprised because Richard used to tweak me and my critical views of the U.S. by sending me copies of his letters to the editor extolling, for example, the virtues of American fighter pilots. One of the things I loved about Richard was his Socratic penchant, always with a twinkle and a smile, for tweaking almost everyone he could. He could not stand complacency, vanity or puffery.

I first heard Richard Taylor’s name when I was a freshman at Miami University in 1966, where I announced to my philosophy professor that I was transferring to the University of Rochester. The first words out of his mouth were, “Oh, great department! Doesn’t Richard Taylor teach there?”

At the time, I didn’t know who Richard Taylor was, but I found out quickly enough. He was the first professor from whom I took a philosophy course at Rochester. The course was History of Ancient Philosophy, and a regular attendee in that class was Richard’s dog, a German shepherd named Vanee. I was never sure how to spell or pronounce the dog’s name. The way Richard said it, the V sometimes sounded like an F. But every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Richard would wander into class wearing a pair of khakis, a pair of work boots, some heavy duty socks, and a flannel shirt. He would lift himself up onto the desk, light his cigar, and Vanee would curl up beneath him, under the desk. Then, as Richard captivated us with his stories of Plato and Aristotle, Thales and Epicurus, he would slowly gather up the ashes from his cigar into a neat little pile, and at the end of class, he would dispose of them and wander out the door with his dog.

One of the other students in that class was Taylor’s own son Chris, whom I got to know a bit during my undergraduate years. Another was Teddy Seidenfeld, who later became, like me, a professional philosopher. I can’t help but wonder who else was in that class, and how many of us are now philosophers. Nick Smith, who also became a professional philosopher, is one name that comes to mind. He may have been in that class, too.

I never took another class from Richard while I was an undergraduate, but when I returned to the Department of Philosophy at Rochester in 1978 as a first-year graduate student, Richard remembered me. He had replaced his trademark classroom cigar with a thermos of tea, and Vanee had long since passed away. Polly, a Dalmatian who always sported a red bandana to match Richard’s, had taken Vanee’s place. Richard supported and befriended me. I felt honored by his friendship. As a graduate student I saw sides of him I hadn’t known as an undergraduate. At conferences he would go out of his way to introduce me to famous philosophers. In Rochester he would make it a point to invite me and others to small dinner parties at his apartment. I would encounter him at the school swimming pools, where he regularly swam laps. And at one point in my graduate student career, my wife and I took a course from Richard on beekeeping, and I discovered that he was a well-known author on beekeeping. He marveled at the miracles of nature. His home on Cayuga Lake hosted colonies of purple martins.

Later, when my wife and I moved to Olean, I learned the truth of what I had once heard Richard proclaim at a department meeting, that well-known though he was as a philosopher, he was far better known as a beekeeper. When people in town would hear that a Richard Taylor was coming to speak on philosophy at the university, often they would say, “Richard Taylor, the beekeeper?” I have never met a beekeeper who hasn’t heard of Richard Taylor.

Richard was a frequent guest of the Philosophy Department at St Bonaventure University. He delighted in poking fun at the Catholic underpinnings of the University, gleefully seeing via his presentations just what barbs he could direct at the Church. Later, in the evenings, he would ask me, expectantly, “Were there any priests there? Do you think I offended them? Oh, I hope so!”

So I will remember Richard always, but not because of his beekeeping and not because of his philosophical writings. I will remember him because he was, like Socrates, a gadfly who delighted in making others uncomfortable about their selfimportance or their conventions. But he was also, like Socrates, a loving man and faithful correspondent who, while all of us gathered ‘round a few weeks ago, went gentle into that good night.


Barry Gan is a professor of philosophy at Saint Bonaventure.

Richard Taylor died on October 30, 2003, at his home near Trumansburg, N.Y. after a nearly year-long struggle with lung cancer. He was 83 years old. Richard took his PhD at Brown University under the late Roderick Chisholm and taught principally at Brown, Columbia and Rochester, from which he retired in 1985 after twenty years of teaching. His visiting appointments included those at Cornell, Hamilton, Hartwick, Hobart & William Smith, Princeton, Ohio State, Union and Wells.

He remained active until the end, writing and meeting for philosophical luncheons with friends and former colleagues. His last book, Understanding Marriage, written largely during his illness, and by his own account a nonphilosophical work, is slated for publication in 2004. He is perhaps best known philosophically for his books, Metaphysics (1963), Action and Purpose (1966), Good and Evil (1970) and Virtue Ethics (1991). Never one to take his work with grim seriousness, he laced the index to the metaphysics book with entries such as: “Mice, difficulty of getting rid of,” and “Graveyards, how we all sink thereinto.” The entry for “Fatalism,” (also the title of his influential 1962 Philosophical Review article that even critics called “ingenious”), included a reference for “odiousness of” followed by another for “sublimity of.” His works were widely anthologized and translated into many foreign languages.

Deeply influenced by the ancients, disdainful of Kant, and admiring of Schopenhauer, Richard made his own philosophical way, without regard for popular trends or conventional academic expectations. This distanced him from some but endeared him to others. He marveled at how some philosophers could discuss seriously whether earthworms have souls but scoff at an examination of love and marriage. He didn’t exempt his own work from criticism and came to dismiss some of it as of little account when he turned his back on the analytic tradition that had nurtured him. Not only his philosophical views but also his moral convictions underwent constant re-examination. Although a commissioned officer on a submarine in World War II, he became a convinced pacifist by the end of his life. “I was late coming to it,” he said in his final days. He loved dialectic and thrived on philosophical discussion. In a story that Thales would have understood, he told how he and Chisholm once became so absorbed in discussing the Absolute while returning to Brown University from a conference in New York that they ran out of gas.

An internationally-known apiarist, Richard authored books on bee-keeping and wrote regularly for bee journals. Bee enthusiasts travelling to the Northeast often went out of their way to visit him. His near-legendary honey stand at the roadside in front of his country home operated on an honor system, secured only by gentle solicitations to honesty posted on its walls.

Among the many philosophers who studied under him as graduate students were those with interests as diverse as Norman Bowie, Steven Cahn, Myles Brand, Keith Lehrer, Eric Mack and Peter van Inwagen. A festschrift in his honor, entitled Time and Cause: Essays Presented to Richard Taylor was edited by Peter in 1980. A collection of his works, entitled Reflective Wisdom: Richard Taylor on Issues that Matter, was edited by John Donnelly in 1989. But it may be that his greatest impact was upon undergraduates. A few days before his death, a student from 25 years before described how Richard would stroll into the lecture hall accompanied by his dog, prepare himself a cup of tea, then proceed to discuss philosophy with the class in unpretentious language. Students would applaud his courses at the end of the semester. “He was,” she said simply, “an incredible teacher.”


Robert Holmes teaches philosophy at the University of Rochester.

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