Via Leiter I see the very sad news that Brian Barry is dead. As anyone who knew him can tell you Brian was some sort of force of nature; irascible, funny, impatient, kind, clever and subtle, but sometimes obtuse and sledgehammering. A founder of analytical political philosophy, who became irritated by its unworldliness, and who moved, as far as I can tell, from the middle of the political spectrum gradually but relentlessly to the left, while the world determinedly moved the other way. And he was verbose. Polity got me to read an early version of Why Social Justice Matters, telling me that it was commissioned to be 30,000 words long…… (by the way, that manuscript was the first time I saw Unequal Childhoods cited, which means he must have read it, and written about it, within days of its publication—so much for his early advice to me that “in this life you either read, or you write, you can’t do both”).
The last time I saw him was on a flying visit to Swift, when he and Anni dropped in, almost (but not quite) without warning, for a drink. It was an unexpected pleasure to see them, and Brian dominated the conversation, as he sometimes did. He’d recently been in the States and had visited his ex-wife, to see her for the last time. She had joined a religious community, which was not quite Trappist, but committed to speaking only when necessary. Both Adam and I had to suppress a giggle that someone who must once have been surrounded by words should go to such lengths to turn her back on them.
Many readers will only know him for his public performances, which were often witty, but also usually pugnacious and sometimes ill-tempered. Even I, who knew him not well, but well enough, and was on the receiving end of a great deal of kindness and support from him, found the following story, which I can’t attribute for an obvious reason, surprising. At a post-lecture party, a female graduate student (from whom I heard this) found herself in a corner with a male professor who started making very unwelcome advances that were not obvious from a distance. Brian, from across a crowded room, noticed, and quietly made his way to them, and subtly engaged said professor in conversation. He never spoke to her about the incident, which she interpreted not as him feeling uncomfortable, but as his being sensitive to the fact that she didn’t want to discuss it.
Brian told me once that he planned to stop writing at 70, and I think he more or less kept to that. So it is although a sad loss for philosophy, we probably haven’t lost writings we’d otherwise have seen. But it is a terribly sad loss for Anni, and for his many friends all over the world. And for that matter, for the world that moved right while he moved left. (Text edited in response to kidbitzer’s comment).
(UPDATES—at djw’s request, here’s the link to our post on WSJM, by Tom, not me! See also djw’s posting of a delicious, and unfortunately but typically prescient, passage from Brian’s review of Anarchy, State and Utopia). Further Update: please keep commenting. In a few days I’ll post again with links to the current thread, and to as many of the nice memories gradually emerging on the web as I can manage, and will tell Anni to have a look, because I know that she will be very pleased to see what so many people are saying. In the meantime here are Stuart White’s comments at Next Left).