Sweetman on Willard: “People liked him not just for his books and ideas, but also for his character and moral center”

May 15, 2013
Posted by Joe Gorra

Brendan Sweetman, Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University and contributor to Philosophia Christi, offers the below tribute to Dallas Willard. Brendan is the author of The Vision of Gabriel Marcel: Epistemology, Human Person, the Transcendent, which he also dedicated to Dallas:

Dallas Willard is one of the truly wise men I have known.  He had a remarkable influence on my whole approach to my work in philosophy.  Without the benefit of his expertise, guidance, inspiration and knowledge in my early career, I don’t know where I would be.  Later on, he discussed his ideas with me, used some of my ideas in his talks, wrote letters for me and also endorsed my books.  This was all in keeping with his collaborative and generous spirit.

It is fascinating to read around the internet this week all of the tributes to him from far and wide, the vast majority of which come from people who have not met him, but who know him through his books.  The Willard family should take great comfort in that.  It is also very noteworthy that people liked him not just for his books and ideas, but also for his character and moral center.  I think this is quite a rare thing among scholars. 

I remember fondly our days at USC, where I worked on my Ph.D. with him.  He was down to earth and full of humor, had a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight, and was passionately committed to philosophy as something that really mattered.  He was among the best philosophy teachers I have known, and many times in class I was afraid to look at my watch in case I would find the class was almost over!  He was also always available to talk.  We had lunch with him many times to discuss topics from our work.  He loved hamburgers and strawberry milk shakes and a good laugh!  So we often told jokes amid our serious discussions!  Once before a talk, I and my great friend and fellow student of Dallas’s, Doug Geivett, presented him with four hats, inscribed with the names of some of his favorite philosophers: (Edmund) “Husserl”, (Thomas) “Reid”, (G.E.) “Moore”.  The fourth hat was inscribed with the name of our favorite philosopher: “Willard”!  He was taken aback, but it was obvious that he was very pleased.

So farewell to Husserl, phenomenology, Christian Philosophy, realism, logical rigor, the objectivity of knowledge and value, philosophical discussions, hamburgers and laughter!; —and, of course, “the spirit of the disciplines,” which was manifested nowhere more than in his compassionate and dedicated approach to both his undergraduate and graduate students.  As a colleague said to me this week: “Dallas was one who really made a difference.”  RIP.

Dr Brendan Sweetman,
Professor of Philosophy,
Rockhurst University,
Kansas City, Missouri.
May 14th, 2013.