The chauffeur

Growing old is such a strange thing. You don’t need to do anything for it to happen. Just sit and wait, occupy your time, and one day you look up and realise that you’ve attained seniority. A compensation of aging, I’ve found, is being able to regale younger colleagues and PhD students with my stories of meeting famous philosophers of the past. It sounds like history of philosophy to them but, at the time, I was just talking with fellow thinkers at conferences and other venues. As I’ve had yet another birthday this week (56), and been driving visiting family around, I was led to reflect on which famous philosophers I’ve chauffeured in the past.

I was still young and attending a Joint Session conference in the early 90s when I heard that Dorothy Emmet needed a lift. It wasn’t far but I think she would have been around 89 at the time. Dorothy was a much loved and popular figure and, despite her age, still very active philosophically. I saw her give a paper once. I don’t know her work so much, though, and this recollection has made me resolve to seek out some of her books. She was very grateful for the lift and, as a grad student, I was delighted to say I’d had her as a passenger.

A few years later, I had my first meeting with David Lewis. Younger philosopher look in awe when I tell them I met Lewis but at the time he didn’t quite have the God-like status he holds now. Lewis was a lovely and generous man but he was also, shall we say, a bit intense. He didn’t do small talk and no one had tipped me off about it. I had to collect him at Nottingham train station and drive him to the university campus. After a few awkward questions (‘Did you have a pleasant journey?’), that elicited little response, I gave up and asked him about causation instead. Now he came to life! Not only did this topic occupy the whole car journey, we continued it back in my office for a couple of hours until he was due to speak at our seminar.

Another David I got to know very well was David Armstrong. I wrote a book about his work, which he liked, and for six months we were colleagues when he held a special professorship at Nottingham. I also visited him in Sydney a couple of times and he’s unique on my list in that both he gave me a lift in his car and I gave him a lift in mine. During his stay in the UK, I offered to drive him to a conference in Durham and thus made a journey with him that I would make permanently when I switched employers some years later. I was proud, though terrified, to be orator at the graduation ceremony in which we have him an honorary degree. I didn’t agree on philosophical details with Armstrong but I think he was an influence on my writing style and he gave me confidence that metaphysics was a worthwhile pursuit. He also had plenty of stories of his own about an even older generation.

One last significant car ride is distinctive on this list in that my passenger remains alive and active. We had a very deep and involved conversation once as I drove Richard Swinburne to a restaurant in town. Richard is a famous philosopher of religion and can defend theistic stances better than anyone I’ve met. On this occasion, we started on the existence of the soul, moved to mind-body interaction but finished on the so-called ‘always packing, never travelling’ argument, of which he was a defender and me an opponent. Neither of us gave ground, as I negotiated various traffic lights and one-way systems of the city, but I was left in no doubt of his prodigious intellect.

I would encourage early career starters in our profession to enjoy every intellectual encounter on the ride they are undertaking. Sometimes it will be hectic and events will pass by in a blur. If you are lucky enough to spend a prolonged stay in academic life, you are going to have some fantastic adventures and find some inspirational people. I know not all, but many of them are good and kind. Treasure them. Look around you. Appreciate the amazing thinkers you meet. It is easy to take them for granted when they are here but once they depart this great mortal conference venue, you will miss them and love the wisdom they generously shared.

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