William P. Alston (1921-2009)
September 14, 2009 — 13:32

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: General  Comments: 7

I heard late last night about William P. Alston’s death earlier in the day, strangely not through any departmental channels but through a friend who never met him. He was one of the professors I’ve most respected in my entire academic career. He wrote his dissertation with Wilfred Sellars Charles Hartshorne on the work of Alfred North Whitehead but spent most of his career on philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. Along with Alvin Goldman and Alvin Plantinga, he helped spearhead the externalist/reliabilist revolution in epistemology, a tradition that I think took things in the right direction. He also was one of the most important figures in the revival of philosophy of religion in the last four decades from a point where it had become looked upon as a joke to a point where some of the most important philosophers today are Christians or other theists. Alston himself was not a Christian when he began his philosophical career, a path shared with several other notable Christian philosophers (Norman Kretzmann and Peter van Inwagen come to mind).

It was always encouraging to me to think about how successful he was in philosophy given his personality and philosophical temperament, which I think are similar to mine in a number of ways that I’m not like most of my philosophical colleagues. He wasn’t a system-builder. He wrote about what he had something to say about but wasn’t trying to put together a comprehensive philosophical view on every issue he could have something to say about.

Most of his work didn’t involve coming up with brilliant views on cutting-edge issues that no one had ever thought of before (although I think there are a few occasions of that in his work, especially in his most recent work in epistemology). He tended to favor traditional views, sometimes so traditional that the majority in philosophy had left the view so far behind that they considered it a joke until people like him came along to disabuse them of such notions by defending the views in novel ways. His defense of the Theory of Appearing is a good example of this.

Some of the most important philosophical figures are noteworthy for one or both of those reasons (system-building and novel views). Alston, however, filled a role of simply doing good philosophy, often in small but important details. He might see a fallacious argument that was nonetheless popular and apply an important distinction, perhaps one known to the medievals but often ignored by contemporary philosophers, to show why the argument fails. He found elements of competing views that might be compatible and explained why a moderating position might be better than either original view. He applied new arguments in epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, or metaphysics to some problem in philosophy of religion to show why a new trend in a completely different area makes Christian belief more favorable (e.g. his application of functionalism, a recent view in materialist philosophy of mind, to explain how language about God can be literally true even if not used in exactly the same sense as the same terms are used for us).

It was clear to me that his long-time colleague and friend Jonathan Bennett had little interest in a lot of the issues in philosophical theology that Alston spent a good deal of time on. In one instance in their Locke/Leibniz class, Bennett dismissed an objection I was raising against his criticism of Leibniz because he didn’t want to get into the particular theological issue of God’s relation to time, whereas Alston had been nodding along with my objection the whole time. Yet Bennett had tremendous respect for Alston and had been so thoroughly impressed with Alston’s argument in Perceiving God that he insisted he publish the bits that weren’t about God separately so as to get a wider audience, which resulted in his The Reliability of Sense Perception. Bennett had so much respect for Alston that he insisted on having Alston teach four of the six sessions on Locke in his Locke/Leibniz seminar whenever Alston was available to do it, and he tried for two decades to get Alston to publish his fascinating paper on how Locke’s philosophy of language in a relatively obscure section of the Essay requires innate ideas, which he famously rejects earlier in the Essay.

Several directions in his work were influential in my own thinking:

(1) His discussion of the Euthyphro problem seems to me to get it right. Divine command theorists shouldn’t think in terms of God simply willing or commanding morality, thus making it true, but morality isn’t an external limitation on God. It derives from God’s nature. Thomas Aquinas never explicitly discusses this problem as far as I’ve been able to find, but Alston’s take on this issue derives from views Aquinas clearly held, and he seems to me to strike the right balance.

(2) Alston first helped me see how libertarians on the issue of free will can maintain a high view of divine sovereignty. I’m still a Calvinist, but I think I understand now how someone can accept libertarian freedom while maintaining as high a degree of divine sovereignty in terms of what actually happens as a Calvinist will insist on. In fact, I think you have to go all the way to open theism to deny any divine responsibility for anything that occurs.

(3) One of Alston’s idiosyncratic views is that God has no beliefs. Taking his start from Kant’s claim that God has no obligations, because you can’t have obligations if you’re morally perfect and incapable of doing wrong, Alston concluded that God must also have no beliefs, since beliefs imply the possibility of doing wrong. God’s knowledge isn’t via having true beliefs of a certain sort but by direct awareness. Since this requires direct awareness of the future for truths about the future, it also implies either divine atemporality or at least causal relations between the future and God’s knowledge, which I think is the best way to solve the problem of divine foreknowledge. So you get a very interesting and novel argument for divine atemporality, as Greg Ganssle’s dissertation written under Alston’s supervision showed in great depth. I think Alston is exactly right on this.

(4) I came to understand reliabilism (and more generally externalism) in epistemology for the first time under Alston’s tutelage. I’d been exposed to it before, but I think I was epistemologically tone-deaf as an undergrad. I never had much patience with coherence theories of knowledge, which Alston spent a lot of time undermining in his epistemology classes, so I followed his arguments easily on that issue, but when we got to issues of internalism and externalism it took a lot more work on my part to figure out what was going on, and I found his work on those issues to be thoroughly convincing once I really got the problems and understood the arguments.

(5) His suggestion that value judgments have epistemological significance seems to me to be a largely-ignored side of epistemology, and his beginning steps to apply it to religious epistemology seemed to me to get something right. Value judgments might inappropriately incline us toward some metaphysical claim, but they might also provide epistemic support. He suggested examples of how value judgments do affect our inclinations on questions about religion. A sense of autonomy might lead someone to prefer a world with no God, or a sense of meaning in life inclines someone else to prefer a being who sovereign control over the universe involves good purposes for everything that happens. Perhaps value judgments lead us to ignore good arguments or to favor arguments that don’t have good support. On the other hand, we might have good reasons to have our value judgments, and might they not therefore serve as more support for a metaphysical view that makes more sense given such presuppositions? Alston’s discussion of this was highly suggestive even if it left most of the work still to be done.

He was always especially careful to describe something exactly while being very polite and cordial in correcting someone. But you knew when he was raising an objection that he wasn’t going to get it wrong, and it was tremendously difficult for anyone to find anything wrong with anything he said.

I’ll always remember his good humor. There was a running joke in our department. New students were often told to say to him that they’d heard he learned logic from Carnap. It had to be worded that way, because his stock response was, “More l like I didn’t learn logic from Carnap!”

I can’t remember how many times I heard him say in class, with a big smile on his face, “It’s our old friend the de dicto/de re distinction”, which he regularly trotted out to show a fallacy in some contemporary philosopher’s argument that Thomas Aquinas would easily have spotted.

I also thought it noteworthy that it was very hard to get an A on a paper with him by agreeing with him. The students who challenged his views tended to get better grades. But you better not have gotten him wrong. It was better to agree with him and get him right than to get him or any author we were reading wrong. But those who got him right and still disagreed always earned better grades. There was no possibility of favoritism because he agreed with you, and I’ve always tried to do the same with my own students.

Above all, I will remember him as a humble man, whose significant influence was never lost on him but who nonetheless recognized himself as having achieved all he did only by God’s grace and who knew that he could always learn more, even from young philosophers.

[This post is cross-posted at Parableman.]

  • Jeremy Pierce

    I’m not sure why this post isn’t showing up on the main page.

    September 14, 2009 — 14:22
  • Mike Almeida

    You posted to the News page rather than the Home page. See up top.

    September 14, 2009 — 16:24
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Thanks, Mike. I didn’t know selecting the category News would pull it from the main page. I had also selected General, so I’m surprised it wouldn’t have it in both. It’s where I wanted it now.

    September 14, 2009 — 21:01
  • Matthew Mullins

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with Alston! I feel fortunate to have had the benefit of working with some of the capable students who benefited from Alston’s attention. I’ve always appreciated Alston’s written work, especially his encouraging words in “A Philosopher’s Way Back to Faith”, nonetheless I suspect I missed a lot in not knowing the man.

    September 15, 2009 — 5:53
  • Ted

    Jeremy, this is very nice. Thanks for posting this. It sounds like Alston was still very active in the department after his ‘retirement.’

    September 15, 2009 — 15:37
  • Yes, he was around for a while after his retirement. I arrived in 1997, though, and his first retirement was something like the late 80s or early 90s. He continued to teach full-time for much of his first retirement. He only taught one course after his second, and that was because the department was desperate and he wanted one last hurrah. It’s been years since he was around very much.
    He was still teaching some classes when I arrived. During my time he did a seminar on his realism book, Locke/Leibniz with Bennett, two different instances of his 600-level grad survey of epistemology, and philosophical theology (the attributes of God — he also had an arguments for and against God’s existence version, which he did the year before I arrived). I wasn’t in his last class, because it was the epistemology one, which I’d already done a couple years before, but I took three of his last six classes.
    The Christian Scholarship Group didn’t continue much beyond his last class, because the reason he stopped teaching was because his hearing aid wasn’t doing a good enough job allowing him to hear students as his hearing loss increased. I’m not sure exactly when that was, but I think it was somewhere around 2000. He showed up for Dean Zimmerman’s job talk around that time, but I don’t think he even came to Lewis and Armstrong when they came to town the same weekend a year or so later. He never attended the metaphysics conferences Dean started around that time. He’d pop into the office once a week or so, because he still had a computer on campus that he was using for email, and he was writing his final epistemology book during that time. I did see him once in a while if we happened to be in on the same day, but he didn’t really attend department functions after 2000 or so, and his appearances got less frequent as time went on.

    September 15, 2009 — 17:44
  • Andrew Moon

    Hey Jeremy, I didn’t write this earlier, but I appreciate the memories that both you and Tom Senor shared. I really enjoy hearing these stories.

    September 17, 2009 — 17:08