Institute for Philosophy, Politics, and Law

We offer a special note of dedication to Professor John Arthur, the previous Director of PPL for the past 18 years, who died of lung cancer in 2007. Professor Arthur was beloved by generations of students and had a tremendous impact on both the philosophy profession and University life. For more information about his remarkable life and career, please see the Memorial Notice as published in the May 2007 edition of the American Philosophical Association. Professor Arthur’s life and legacy has been honored through various tributes and events, including a memorial event in Manhattan for PPL alumni, Summer 2008. The Committee for Philosophy and Law also sponsored a special session in honor of his latest book, Race, Equality and the Burdens of History, which he completed during his final months. The session was held at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, April 2009, and the commentaries will be published in a forthcoming edition of the APA Newsletter in Philosophy and Law.

American Philosophical Association
Proceedings And Addresses May 2007
(Volume 80, Issue 5)
Memorial Minutes

John Arthur, 1946-2007_After a year-long battle with lung cancer, John Arthur died peacefully under hospice care at Lourdes Hospital on the morning of January 22, with his wife Amy Shapiro at his side.

For the previous 18 years, John was professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He published three books, Words That Bind, Judicial Review and the Grounds of Modern Constitutional Practice (1995), The Unfinished Constitution: Philosophy and Constitutional Practice (1989), and Race, Equality, and the Burdens of History (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press). This last book was the culmination of his long reflections and personal history with race relations in America. From 1981-1988 John taught at Tennessee State University, an historically black college. He was appalled at the conditions of the university relative to the predominately white Middle Tennessee State University a few miles away, and he organized a biracial group to file a suit against the State of Tennessee for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The group accepted a settlement that brought millions of dollars to improve Tennessee State University and a desegregation plan for the entire system of higher education in Tennessee. It was during those years that John conceived of his forthcoming book, perhaps his proudest scholarly achievement.

John was the editor or co-editor of more than 8 other books, of which one of these, Morality and Moral Controversies, is a leading introductory textbook in moral and political philosophy in the United States today. He is also the author of more than 25 articles covering many issues of public concern, of which more than a half dozen are regularly reprinted in readings books.

John was well known at Binghamton for his brilliant teaching and for his tremendous successes as the Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Law. John created this interdisciplinary program and it became one of the most popular majors on campus. John subjected his teaching and the development of this program to the highest standards of professionalism. After teaching for thirty years, John still had the enthusiasm of a new professor, and students loved him. He won multiple teaching awards. Even with lung cancer, John continued to teach into his last several months, until he could no longer stand.

John regularly took young faculty to lunch and, for many years, led a weekly reading group that met at his home. John loved to talk philosophy and debate issues over a meal and glass of wine in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. He mentored a generation of young philosophy faculty in these ways, giving them a taste of a shared philosophical life and a view of his gentle humanity.

John thought the universe was ordered by reasons, and it was the human project to participate in these reasons. This commitment was at the heart of John’s character. In this sense John had a deeply liberal spirit in the way he interacted with others. It was a joint enterprise of discovery. John carried this spirit into his political arguments. He did not care if a view was unpopular. He simply gave the argument and let the chips fall where they may. Over time John endorsed various issues that he knew others would probably not endorse, but John would argue these positions in the hope that the best reasons would prevail, whether they were his reasons or not.

This attitude is what made John such a great teacher. In the classroom he was interested in creating environments where people who deeply disagreed could argue in civil and productive ways. John would subject ideas on the left and on the right to scrutiny. This approach was part of the success of his Philosophy, Politics, and Law program—students quickly perceived the efforts at balanced political discussions.

John loved to meet students and friends over a lunch or coffee at a local diner. He was never in a hurry through a conversation; he was always measured, and he found meaning and pleasure in the simple act of conversing with others. In a separate memorial notice written for colleagues in the United Kingdom, Timothy O’Hagan wrote, “John had a gift to make friends and, more importantly, to keep them. Many who came to visit him towards the end had been close to him for decades. But it was his wife and collaborator Amy Shapiro who brought light and joy into John Arthur’s soul. He never ceased to marvel at her wit, brilliance and energy.” John and Amy were regular visitors to the University of East Anglia from 1996 to 2000. They came with Binghamton students and taught courses in political and social philosophy and constitutionalism. John often remarked that this was a second home for him, and he cherished those experiences and friendships. Over the years John also enjoyed Visiting Fellowships at Oxford University at Balliol College, University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Harvard Law School.

John faced death in the same way he faced the issues of his life. He was stoic about his own personal tragedy. He never complained. He lived his last months his own way: they were happy and joyful in simple ways. The University and the people who knew him will miss him. A memorial fund has been created in his honor. Please send donations to the John Arthur Memorial Fund, Binghamton University Foundation, P.O. Box 6000, Binghamton, NY, 13902-6000.

Steven Scalet, Binghamton University (SUNY)