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.