In Memoriam: James F. Ross
A decade before the founding of the Society of Christian Philosophers, before Christian philosophy became an accepted mode of doing analytic philosophy, there were only a handful of such philosophers providing the compass and forging the tools which would establish the direction, rigor, integrity, and fecundity of the craft of Christian philosophy in the analytic tradition. The brave, bold, and brilliant originality of his scholarship coupled with his respect for the Thomistic natural theological orientation secures Jim Ross’s position as an incomparable pioneer in contemporary theistic philosophy.
Of his many works, consider the two bookends of his impressive career: Philosophical Theology and Thought and World: Hidden Necessities. His Philosophical Theology (published in 1968) wherein he employed the tools of modal logic for feasible arguments for God’s existence and the divine attribute of omnipotence, and his persuasive argument against the Principle of Sufficient Reason, still stand as models of philosophical analysis.
Thought and World: Hidden Necessities (published in 2008), is actually a condensed prÃ©cis of his work since 1980. Given the range and depth of his scholarship, it is a dense and difficult piece of metaphysics from a broadly Aristotelian-based perspective. It is philosophical argumentation with nothing soft to cut it: it is like drinking pure hard philosophy and serious contemporary metaphysicians ignore it at their own expense.
Both of those works, along with Portraying Analogy (published in 1981), exhibited Jim’s combination of boldness and insight. In some respects, his works were not focused on the ‘hottest’ or most philosophically fashionable topics but they always penetrated to the heart of vitally important issues and they did so in ways that will have enduring importance. Jim had the kind of independence of mind that obliged him to pursue what mattered most, rather than surfing whatever wave was cresting at the time.
There was humor in Jim’s intellectual personality; he could make philosophy fun, while never losing sight of the deep significance of the philosophical project as a human undertaking. Even though his writing was sometimes dense (he once remarked, “I think like William James and write like Immanuel Kant”) there was a rare combination of rigor and elegance in his thought. And there was a rare combination of challenge and encouragement in his teaching. He could expose a student’s intellectual immaturity in ways that might sting but he never meant merely to wound; the tough-love was a much-needed reminder that there isn’t a very good reason to be leisurely or complacent about pushing oneself beyond what had thus far seemed good enough. It could be a bit of a wild ride but it always led somewhere well worth going.
Ross’s work deserves wider attention than it has attained so far. Our feeling is that this is because Jim did philosophy and taught philosophy in a way that involved a kind of delight and excitement, taking pleasure in intellectual surprises and discoveries, even when dealing with the most serious and difficult issues. There was a special kind of spark in his approach, and perhaps not enough of his contemporaries noticed and appreciated the illumination it brought with it. But his students did. One of the things he often reminded us of in his classes was that God’s creation is His play—and there is surely nothing contrary to this play’s being serious or sublime.
The world has lost a great philosopher, we have lost a great teacher and friend, and Jim, in his impish way, may be even having fun with this. However, in my sadness, I find that hard to appreciate.
Jonathan Jacobs (Colgate University) and John Zeis (Canisius College)
In Memoriam: James F. Ross