George Boolos, 1940-1996

Boolos Memorial Service

October 5, 1996
Eulogy by Judith Jarvis Thomson

George came to MIT as a graduate student in the fall of 1963. He was in the newly established philosophy program’s first Ph.D. class, and indeed, was the first member of it to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from MIT. That was in the spring of 1966. I don’t really remember him very well from those years, since although I had met him in Oxford the previous year, I wasn’t at MIT when he first came, and I didn’t get to know him well until later. Word had it, however, that he was extraordinarily able. Word had it also that he was extraordinarily quick. There’s a little story about his doctoral defense that is typically George. Many of you already know it, and some of my colleagues disagree with me about the details, but I’ll tell it as I heard it from James Thomson. George had worked on his thesis with Hilary Putnam, who was here then, and with James. At the end of his defense, Hilary said “That’s all well and good internally, Mr. Boolos, but in what relation does your thesis stand to the universe?” What do you reply when your thesis supervisor asks you that question at your defense? If you’re George, then quick as a flash you reply, flatly, “It’s part of it”.

His obvious talent made a problem for us, since good graduate programs don’t hire their own products. Or anyway, they allow a decent interval of time to pass before doing so. So we put George out on loan to Columbia in the fall of 1966, and waited. Was five years decent enough? Or four? Lo, we suddenly had the dazzling moral insight that three years was really decent enough, so we took him back from Columbia in the fall of 1969. From then on until his death, he was part of us — a central figure in our program and in our lives.

I’m not competent to talk about his work; Dick Cartwright and Richard Heck will do that. And Richard will talk about George as a teacher of graduate students. I want to say something about his role in our program, and then just a bit about him personally.

George dominated our graduate program for over twenty years as chairman of our Committee on Graduate Students. As chairman of that committee, he supervised the selection process for incoming graduate students, and he discussed their prospects with them personally. He conducted the meetings every semester at which the faculty assesses the students’ work, and he kept in close touch with every student’s progress. His door was always open to them, whatever their areas of interest, and he conveyed to them a sense of our constituting a community — a community not of philosophers who happen also to be people, but of people who happen also to be philosophers, and who are therefore concerned not merely with the students’ work but with them and their lives in general.

George dominated the program in other ways too. He served on many thesis committees. He was centrally involved (with Dick Cartwright) in the development of our first-year proseminar, which is intended to provide students with an understanding of the backgrounds of twentieth century philosophy –that proseminar has been a great success with our students over the years. He was also probably unique among philosophers in being a devoted reader of dossiers submitted by candidates for appointment in the department. More important still, he was centrally involved (with Dick and James Thomson) in the growth here of a certain intellectual attitude toward work in philosophy. According to that attitude, clarity is crucial; grandeur, scope, reach, significance, importance — all that is lucky fallout if it so falls out, but not essential. The growth of that attitude had a number of attractive consequences, among them that (as it were) nobody here ever has any money in the bank. If you manage to convince people of something on Friday, that’s all well and good, but when you come in on Monday, they want to know what you did over the weekend — that is, you have to start earning your keep all over again, every week. It’s hard to live like that, but exhilarating. And of course it’s very good for graduate students. They’re here on the same footing as the faculty: we’re all in the enterprise of earning our keep together.

This intellectual attitude in George, and, accordingly, in the program, went together in him with endless patience. There are first-rate philosophers who are very good to talk about your work with, but only if you’ve already almost finished it. They have no patience with bumbling. George did. He loved the fully worked out and elegant, of course, but he also enjoyed working with you before your ideas had become clear. You could say to him “I not only don’t have a thesis to propose, I don’t even know what it is exactly that’s troubling me about such and such an idea or paper or proposal or issue. Let me think out loud about it.” (I here quote from myself, over and over again over the years.) And he would, and happily would, let you think out loud. He was wonderfully helpful in listening and offering alternative interpretations of your trouble. In all areas of philosophy — he was delighted by all of it. You had to be making a serious effort. however. He hated muzzy, murky, pretentious philosophizing. There was no malice or spite in him, but he could be bitingly funny when we got back behind closed doors in his office or mine after a colloquium at which the speaker had managed to be, not merely unclear or uninteresting, which is one of the bearable risks of colloquia, but also grandiose, which is not.

In fact, George hated muzzy, murky, pretentious anything. He hated fraud and deceit, and was himself incapable of either. He was open; you never had to worry about what he was thinking, because, whether pro or con, he always made it perfectly clear.

At the same time, he was inexhaustibly loyal: if anything good happened to you, he enjoyed it with you, and if anything bad happened to you he shared your dismay. He was marvelously witty. And he read and remembered everything it might interest or above all amuse you to know about.

Thinking ahead, I find it hard to imagine how we are to do without him. I still have an image as I write — it persists, like a vivid after-image — of George pacing slowly up and down the D-wing corridor, lost in thought, with that ratty old Oxford scarf slung around his neck, occasionally writing with the piece of invisible chalk he always had with him, on the invisible blackboard that was always within his reach. But he was instantly interruptible if you had something you wanted to try out on him, whether something about the program or about a student or about the nature of the universe. He was colleague, teacher, friend — family. And now he’s gone. His death darkened the world for all of us.

George had friends and admirers everywhere, but he was peculiarly our own here at MIT, since we are the ones who most directly profited from his work and his life. He may not himself be part of the universe any more, but he will remain in the hearts of those who were here with him and who remember him, and his contributions to the philosophy program at MIT will continue to benefit those who come here to do philosophy on down the years into the future.