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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, September 18, 2009

William P. Alston, 1921-2009

The EPS honors the life and work of Christian philosopher Dr. William P. Alston, who died on September 13, 2009.

Below is an obituary received from Valerie Alston, Dr. Alston's beloved wife. And a personal tribute from Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. We welcome further personal and professional appreciations about Dr. Alston's life and work. Please submit your comments to this blog post (see below).

William Payne Alston

William Payne Alston, 87, died September 13, 2009, at the Nottingham Residential Health Care Facility in Jamesville, New York. He was born November 29, 1921 in Shreveport, Louisiana.

In 1942, Bill received a Bachelor of Music degree from Centenary College. During WWII, he served in an Army Band stationed in California. While in the service, he became interested in philosophy, and after his discharge from the Army, he entered the Graduate Program in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. His Ph.D. work led to a position at the University of Michigan, where he taught philosophy for twenty-two years and established himself as an important American philosopher. He then moved to Rutgers University and, later to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1980 he joined the faculty at Syracuse University where he completed his fifty-year career teaching and writing about philosophy. He was best known for his work in the philosophy of language, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. He published several books and over 150 articles. His many Ph.D. students play a major role in philosophy today. He was founding editor of the journals Faith and Philosophy and Journal of Philosophical Research.

Bill received the highest honors of his profession. He has been President of the Central Division American Philosophical Association, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the Society of Christian Philosophers. His international travel included trips to the Vatican as part of an eight-year project on "God's Actions in the World in the Light of Modern Science," sponsored by the Vatican Observatory. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and he received Syracuse University's Chancellor's Award for Exceptional Academic Achievement.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Valerie Alston; a daughter, Ellen (John) Donnelly of Wayne, NJ and grandchildren, Patrick & Anna Donnelly; step-children, Marsha (Gary) Dysert of Charlotte, NC, James (Nancy) Barnes of Toledo, OH, Kathleen (Blair) Person of Troy, MI; four step-grandchildren and three great step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at St. Paul's Cathedral on November 2, 2009 at 11:00 a.m. Fairchild & Meech are in charge of arrangements.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, 310 Montgomery Street, Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.


A personal tribute to William P. Alston, from Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society

On September 13, 2009, Christian philosopher William P. Alston died at the age of 87. Alston wrote prolifically on a wide range of topics in the philosophy of religion—from the problem of evil to divine action to the Spirit’s indwelling to divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Alston’s groundbreaking work is particularly noteworthy in the areas of defending meaningful religious language and articulating an epistemology of religious experience. Other significant contributions include his rigorous defense of truth in realistic terms (“alethic realism”) and of metaphysical realism.

I first heard of Bill Alston when I was a philosophy student at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois in the mid-1980s. (I was a student of Drs. Stuart Hackett and William Lane Craig back then.) During this time, I began subscribing to the Society of Christian Philosophers’ journal, Faith and Philosophy. I was aware that Alston and Al Plantinga had helped launch the SCP—a momentous achievement whose time had finally come and for which Christian philosophers everywhere will be ever grateful.

During my studies at Trinity, I had my first exposure to Alston’s writings. The very first Alston piece I read was his essay “Divine-Human Dialogue and the Nature of God” (Faith and Philosophy, January 1986). I not only appreciated the topic he tackled; I marveled that a sophisticated philosopher would give a questionnaire to adults at his church, asking them, “Do you ever feel that God speaks to you? (Not necessarily in audible words. The question could be phrased: do you ever feel that God is communicating a message to you?)” Alston tallied the results: Yes-17; No-2. Thus began my great appreciation and respect for Alston’s insight and exceptional scholarship as well as his personal devotion as a Christian.

After my studies at Trinity, I had the opportunity to meet Alston in 1988 at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He was one in an impressive line-up of presenters, which included Richard Swinburne, George Mavrodes, Stephen Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleonore Stump, and Marilyn Adams along with biblical scholars Anthony Thiselton and the late James Barr. A few of these presented papers made their way into the Faith and Philosophy October 1989 issue.

Years later, I wrote a book review of Thomas Morris’s God and the Philosophers (Oxford University Press 1994) for The Review of Metaphysics (June 1997). Alston’s autobiographical chapter gave me further insight into his experience with God personally—even speaking in tongues—through the influence of charismatic Christians. Alston discussed his attraction to the Christian community through the love he had experienced within it: “my way back [to Christ] was not by abstract philosophical reasoning, but by experience—experience of the love of God and the presence of the Spirit, as found within the community of the faithful” (p. 28). Alston has served as a model of rigorous philosophical thought as well as a deep experience of God by His Spirit. His experience reminds us that the gospel is powerful in a holistic sense: it not only has explanatory philosophical power, but it has the power to transform lives and meet the deepest of human needs.

Back in 2002/2003, I had the privilege of working with Alston on a book project. With Paul Moser, I coedited The Rationality of Theism (Routledge), and Bill led off with the superb essay, “Religious Language and Verificationism.” He concluded his piece by calling the Verificationist Criterion to be “but a paper tiger, in philosophy of religion as elsewhere.” He added, “It poses no threat to the apparently obvious truth that talk of God contains many statements about God that have objective truth-values—whether we can determine what they are or not.”

I am honored to have learned from and worked with this notable philosopher and, even more significantly, a brother in Christ and a partner in the gospel.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.


Other remembrances about Alston can be found here:

For further info, see Daniel Howard-Snyder's helpful bibliography of Alston's scholarly work (since 2006) and Daniel's 2005 biographical entry in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers.

We welcome personal and professional appreciations in honor of Dr. William P. Alston. Please submit your comments to this post!

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Blogger Gregory Ganssle said:

Bill was a good man, a great philosopher, and a fantastic adviser. I have always felt it to be an honor to have been one of his students.

Bill was conscientious to a fault. I remember turning in Chapter three of my dissertation about a week before Christmas. I was relishing a few weeks off. Two days later, at the department Christmas party, he pulled me aside to discuss it with me. He had already written extensive comments, and he had many suggestions for revision. So much for the time off!

At a Society of Christian Philosophers conference, at which he was a keynote speaker, another philosopher asked me if Bill spent time with his students at these conferences. This philosopher had had an advisor who explicitly told him that he did not talk to graduate students at conferences. Almost as soon as he told this story, Bill came up to us and said, "Greg. I was thinking about your dissertation during the last presentation" and we launched into a discussion.

Bill was a faithful Christian. During his seminar on the Nature of God, his eyes began to tear as he read some excerpts from John Donne. Thinking about God, for Bill, was always more than an academic enterprise.

The last time we saw Bill was the spring of 2007. He and Valerie had moved into an assisted living facility and his memory was beginning to decline. Valerie told Jeanie and me that his mind still came alive when he talked about philosophy. I had sent him a paper in progress, and he perked up as we discussed it. As usual, it is a better piece for the few minutes we had together.

It is already the case that for two generations of Christian philosophers, Bill Alston has been a model. His leadership in the Society of Christian Philosophers has helped reshape the contours of the entire discipline. Oh that God would honor him by raising up hundreds like him, in every field in the Academy! I am confident that the following words have already been spoken to him:

"Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master"

By Blogger Gregory Ganssle, at September 21, 2009 at 10:51 AM  

Blogger Madeleine said:

Philosophy student Jason Kumar over at Christian Theist also gave a tribute.

Thanks for the link to ours :-)

Whilst my husband is the philosopher of religion in the house I am studying towards being qualified in philosophy of law so Alston's work is also deeply valued by me. The legacy he has left us all will live on all over the world.

By Blogger Madeleine, at September 21, 2009 at 2:40 PM  

Blogger Unknown said:

Though I am a theologian and not a philosopher, I discovered William Alston while writing my dissertation on C.S.Lewis's arguments for the faith at the Universitaet Basel in the 1990's. I was working on Lewis's argument from desire and found much helpful material in Alston's writings. I thought at the time what a great "discovery" Alston was for me. I had never heard of him! A few years later I met Greg Ganssle and found out that he had done his Ph.D. at Syracuse. Immediately I knew, he must have worked under Alston.

Prof. Alston could not have known how far-reaching his work would be. May the same be true of his students and of those of us (like me) who only profited from his writings.
D. Trent Hyatt, Dir. Inst. for Biblical & Theological Studies, Budapest, Hungary.

By Blogger Unknown, at October 5, 2009 at 3:30 PM  

Blogger Tedla said:

Memories of Bill Alston
My relationship to Bill goes back to 1997 when I started long-distance correspondence with him when I was in Ethiopia. This relationship started out in a context in which I had to teach myself philosophy when and where there was no opportunity for me to get proper formal philosophical education. At the time when I approached Bill my main reason was to ask him for help (as I would do in those days when the only way for me to get access to much needed philosophy books/articles, etc., was by personally asking some people since I had no access to such things in any other way then) if he could send me some of his writings (books, journal articles, etc) so that I could continue to study philosophy until I get a chance to work in philosophy in a formal and professional setting, which did not come until 2003 when I became a grad student at Biola. That request from me to Bill started one of the most meaningful and extraordinary relationships from a philosopher of his stature to an unknown entity, me. Bill immediately responded by sending me some of his books that I asked him for copies and he eventually sent me all his published books and copies of many of his journal articles. He did that consistently even when I did not ask him for anything worrying, on my part, if I was taking a lot of his time and resources.
Bill was much more deeply involved in my life than what I tried to communicate above that I’d do an injustice to Bill’s numerous acts of extraordinary generosity to me if one thinks, after reading this short note, that this is all that Bill did to me in his irreplaceable relationship to me. When he realized that what I was trying to do to pursue my philosophical studies, all in the informal settings during those days, and when he realized that I was doing all the things I did in the midst of abject poverty and saying no to anything that would stand in my way and distract me from my commitment to study philosophy, then he decided to support me financially as well and he did that up until I moved to the US to go to graduate school. Bill did all he could to make sure that my basic needs were met so that I could devote my time and energy to pursue what I took to be my vocation. It’s my hope that someday I’ll be able to share, in some detail, the depth of Bill’s involvement in my life (along with several other philosophers’) in a work in which I documented the extraordinary kindness and generosity of some of the philosophers who might never share with others what they’ve done to me and to people like me.
I end this short note (in light of what Bill did to me) by quoting a preface in one of his emails about his comments on one of my papers that I wrote in 2002 before I ever took any serious philosophy class in a formal setting.

“Dear Tedla:

Thank you very much for sending me a copy of your paper. You do an excellent job on the whole of surveying, discussing, and appreciating the contributions of Al Plantinga and myself to the epistemology of Christian belief. This paper is, I feel sure, a harbinger of good work you will do on this topic. You demonstrate a penetrating and discerning understanding of what Al and I are up to, with a few exceptions to be enumerated below. I am very pleased that you are coming along so well with this.”

One can easily imagine how much source of encouragement Bill’s words could be to a person who was doing philosophy by himself and almost alone in an environment which was mostly antagonistic to the pursuit of philosophy as a vocation. Bill passed away without getting a chance to realize that I’m getting ready to write a dissertation on a topic which is not far from what he thought I’d do some “good work”, which I leave to others to judge. If ever I’d do any such good work I’ll never forget that the foundation for such work has already been laid by Bill’s exceptionally good work, among others.

Tedla G Woldeyohannes
St Louis University

By Blogger Tedla, at October 18, 2009 at 6:09 PM  

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