Philippa Foot (1920-2010)

With great sorrow, I mark the passing of Philippa Foot, the great Oxford moral philosopher and my teacher at UCLA.  I took my first class in ethics from her, and I took every possible other class with her.  I will not try to summarize her philosophical method or her importance in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of the second half of the 20th century.  At some point I will take some time to reflect on her legacy, and also on what it meant to be her student in the early 1980s at UCLA.

For the moment, I will simply refer you over to another of Philippa’s students in the same years as I, my dear friend Larry Solum, the distinguished jurisprudentialist of the University of Illinois law school, writing at Legal Theory Blog.  Larry and I took many of Philippa’s classes together, and with another of our undergraduate friends, the Hobbes scholar Sharon A. Lloyd, we spent long hours discussing the many questions raised.  He speaks for me.

Philippa Foot, for many years associated with Somerville College, Oxford and also with the University of California Los Angeles as the Griffin Professor of Philosophy, passed away yesterday, October 3, 2010. Foot was a giant of moral philosophy. Her books include Natural Goodness, Virtues and Vices: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, and Moral Dilemmas: and other topics in moral philosophy. She will be remembered for many things, including the famous Trolley Problem. Her essay “Virtues and Vices” (in the anthology of the same name) was among the most important steps in the development of contemporary virtue ethics–a movement that Foot explicitly disavowed. The question, “Why be moral?,” occupied Foot for most of her long career, and her work on this topic is widely acknowledged as of fundamental importance.

Philippa Foot was my teacher at UCLA in the late 1970s and early 1980s; after law school, I returned to Los Angeles and sat in on her graduate seminars on several occasions.  Foot was a deep thinker, capable of sustained and critical self-examination that is rare in any discipline.  I remember Foot remarking of a single sentence in a famous piece by Tim Scanlon that she was sure that Scanlon must have spent years thinking about that sentence: I am not sure that Scanlon did, but it would have been characteristic of Foot to do so.  On another occasion, I remember attending a seminar in which the first week’s reading was Thomas Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism.  A deep discussion of a single paragraph stretched from session to session–this was Foot at her best, refusing to move on until the philosophical problem was wrestled to the ground.

Foot was as critical of her students as she was of her own work.  She was willing to engage at length in philosophical discourse with undergraduates, but would dismiss an ill-conceived remark with barely concealed disdain.  Along with Rogers Albritton, Foot is among the two teachers that I count as most influential in my own intellectual development.  There were many fine moral and political philosophers at UCLA.  I learned much from Jean Hampton, Greg Kavka, Thomas Hill, and Warren Quinn.  But it was Rogers and Philippa who were my role models–who defined the kind of thinker I wanted to be.

At the dinner table tonight, I tried to explain to my high school daughter why Philippa Foot had been such an important teacher for me.  It wasn’t so much the positions as a way of thinking and talking about them.  It does not travel well to a high school student, I guess.

It happens to be a strange and poignant time to try and explain that to one’s offspring – my daughter and I are going to UCLA and Pomona College on college visits next week.  My daughter, who has spent her life in tiny private schools, is intimidated by the great public universities – Cal and UCLA, for example.  She fears that every class will have 600 hundred students watching by video monitor.  My own experience at UCLA – as an older student, to be sure – was that I found in the philosophy department one of the world’s great philosophy faculties, offering an education in modestly sized upper level and graduate courses, with access to the greatest minds in the field, reading my very modest efforts as a matter of course.  Philippa took time with me, heaven knows why.

I wasn’t going to reminisce tonight, but I will add this.  Philippa sat patiently through the presentation of a distinguished professor of constitutional one afternoon and, as she made clear, gained something out of the discussion of abortion and the law.  As she remarked in my class the next day, the law offered a great many concrete examples, and she had learned the value of casuistry from Aquinas.  But, she added, with a hint of acidity, she never understood the “mania of American constitutional law professors for thinking that meta-theories of ethics or law could settle particular normative cases.  There’s no single necessary path down from the meta-theory to normative judgments, but law professors always want there to be.”

So I hope my daughter will take some time to stroll through the philosophy department at Dodd Hall at UCLA; I hope perhaps she will be able to talk with professors there – my old friend Andrew Hsu, for one, or Gavin Lawrence.  It is a department that still rings today with rigorous argumentation and profound thought of the things of value to human beings: the measure of the humanities, I suppose.  And I hope if she does so, she might discern the echo of Philippa Foot’s measured tones still echoing in the halls and classrooms.  And my greatest hope is that she might have a teacher like Philippa, who fulfilled for generations of students the promise and purpose of higher education in the humanities.  Ave atque vale.

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