Gareth B. Matthews (1929-2011)
April 19, 2011 — 12:38

Author: Ed Weirenga  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 5

Gary Matthews was a brilliant man, but, more importantly, he was kind and wise and had serious moral commitments. I met him in the fall of 1971, when I arrived at University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a graduate student. Gary had moved to UMass from Minnesota a year or two earlier. His philosophical interests were extensive, ranging from Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine, to the medievals, to Descartes, to Gilbert Ryle. Gary made major contributions to the literature on all of these figures and on the philosophical issues they addressed. He practically invented the topic of the philosophy of children. The most recent paper of his that I have seen is “Augustine and Ibn Sina on Souls in the Afterlife,” a paper he wrote with the intention of presenting it at an international conference in Iran this spring. Sadly, his illness prevented him from attending the conference. This paper, like many before it, draws out interesting and insightful comparisons between philosophers, all the while keeping a focus on the important philosophical issues at stake.
While I was at UMass, I took courses from Gary on Plato and on action theory. (I’m pretty sure that was the subject of the second course–I have a more vivid recollection of an anecdote he told about a rabbi and his wife on the subject of sympathetic understanding of incompatible positions than I do about the topics of the course.) Gary also graciously consented to serve as the director of my dissertation, on the metaphysics of events; that he agreed to do so gives further evidence of the range of his interests. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Gary’s role at UMass in those days was his participation in colloquia. When there was a visiting speaker, Gary usually sat near the front of the room, and he always asked the first question. The question was always insightful, and one could learn from it. I never understood, however, how, in a room full of young hot shots, all of them intently trying to construct counterexamples to something the speaker said, Gary always managed to get his question out first. The only exception was the day Richard Cartwright read his paper, “Scattered Objects.” Gary didn’t have a question. But no one else did, either; so the colloquium adjourned with absolutely no discussion of the paper.

Although I took courses with Gary and met with him regularly to discuss my dissertation, it was only after I left Amherst that I feel that I came to know him. Several times he and his lovely wife Mary invited me to stay with them during UMass reunion weekends (of which Gary was, for many years, the main organizer). What clinched our friendship, however, was Gary’s interest in my children. Once when he gave a paper at Rochester, he had dinner at my house and met my children. He took a remarkably sincere interest in them, engaging them in conversation and treating them with real respect. When my daughter was small, I thought she was the most wonderful child in history (with one possible exception). I collected what I thought were her most brilliant remarks and occasionally sent Gary a batch, for possible use in his work on philosophy and children. When my son was born, I thought he was pretty special, too. But I didn’t take as many notes, except for one time: when he was three, he said, “If you were me, you wouldn’t like bananas, either. But then who would be the daddy?” I sent this one to Gary, and it became the basis of a chapter of his Dialogues with Children. It always irked my daughter that none of her precocious comments found their way into Gary’s writing. I attributed this to more than simple sibling rivalry, however, for she wanted to contribute to a dialogue with that kind man who was so engaging.
Other former students of Gary’s have posted comments in the day since we learned of his death. They say such things as that they will miss him, that he was warm and affectionate, that they learned so much from him, or that he encouraged them in their work. It’s a testament to his influence that Gary drew such admiration and affection from generations of students as well as colleagues. I’ll miss the twinkle in his eyes that gave away the delight he took in a philosophical puzzle and the big hugs he gave when you hadn’t seen him for a while.

  • Trent Dougherty

    Thanks Ed, I knew you would write something so great.
    Kris McDaniel–a U-Mass grad–also noted Gary’s hugs:
    “Gary Matthews was one of the gentlest people I have ever met. I cannot remember a time in which he ever made an unkind or mean-spirited remark about anyone. He was always quick with a smile and a hug, and, seriously, Gary gave the best hugs. One time, while a graduate student en route to a gathering at Gary’s house, I formulated what I called “the Gary Matthews paradox”. In a nutshell, the paradox is this: because Gary is such a wise and decent person, it would make sense to wear a “What would Gary Matthews do?” t-shirt. But Gary Matthews would not wear such a t-shirt. I wish I had more of Gary’s kindness in me.” (used with permission)
    These reflections agree with all my interactions with Gary. Once, when he visited Rochester to give a colloquium, some of my kids were around–as usual–and he seemed at least as interested in what they had to say as any philosopher in the room.
    I still give his great little Augustine book to any students–from Frosh to Grad–who express interest in learning more about Augustine. When the Augustine Lectio–What a great event!–was at U-Mass, he hosted it of course, and he was clearly in his element in the hospitality department. We had some plans to write something about philosophy and children together, and I hope I can honor his legacy with something that would please him.
    Gary Matthews, Requiescat in pace.

    April 19, 2011 — 15:23
  • Adrian Bardon

    Very sorry, as a former grad student of Gary’s, to hear of his passing. In addition to being an excellent guy, he made contributions in many areas, including exciting innovations re discussing philosophy with children.

    April 19, 2011 — 16:41
  • Sean D. Kelly

    I’m very sorry to hear of Gary’s passing. Although I didn’t know him well, the interactions I had with him over the last few years were terrific. I have been trying to get some philosophy for kids programs up and running in the Boston area, and when I began he seemed like the natural person to go to for help. He was extremely gracious and generous in the process, and we’re much farther along than we would have been without him. He was a very calm and reassuring presence, and I’m sad to know he’s gone.

    April 19, 2011 — 20:47
  • Matthew Baddorf

    My condolences on your loss, Ed. From the sound of things, I should add Gareth Matthews to my list of philosophical heroes.

    April 20, 2011 — 10:03
  • Georges Dicker

    In the mid-80’s I attended a lecture that Professor Matthews gave at UMass on the Ontological Argument. Most of the audience members were non-philosophers–young professors of English there for a summer seminar. I will never forget the lecture. It was luminously clear and delivered in a wonderfully friendly way. His passing is a great loss.

    July 23, 2011 — 9:33