Remembering Brian Barry

by Harry on March 25, 2009

I”m reliably informed that Brian’s funeral is today, and I know a number CT readers will be there. The post here announcing his death (in my typically abrupt way) generated a wonderful set of touching remembrances (including Anni’s moving thanks to the commenters). Since that post is closed to comments, and at least one person has asked to add his, I thought I’d take the opportunity to link to various memories on the web, and open up again for anyone who wants to add their memories. Stuart White; Norman Geras; The British Humanist Association; Chris Brooke; Colin at Oxford Sociology; Jacob Levy. I was disappointed to see that he has not merited an obituary in the grauniad. But then I realised that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to belong to a club that contained Jane Goody, whoever she was.
UPDATE: A reader has (rightly) complained about the nastiness of my references to Jade Goody. I apologise. And recommend the extraordinarily good obit of her I linked to.



Jeff McMahan 03.25.09 at 6:28 pm

Shortly after I read of Brian’s death, I wrote to Bob Goodin for information and in our exchanges I cited an anecdote, which I’ll recycle here.

In the early 80’s Brian and I were both at a conference at St. Andrews. We sat down together to hear a lecture by Antony Flew: one of his anti-Rawls, anti-egalitarian screeds. Brian saw that I was carrying a copy of a new book on international intervention edited by Hedley Bull and asked to see it. As Flew gave his lecture, Brian read the book – he seemed, indeed, to have read the entire book by the time Flew had finished – though all the while muttering critical remarks about Flew’s argument under his breath. At one point Flew announced that the principal cause of poverty in the third world was that people in those areas just couldn’t control their own fecundity – at which point, without lifting his eyes from the page, Brian said, not entirely sotto voce, “Pity the Flews were so fecund!” and went on placidly with his reading.

Although I never knew Brian well, he was immensely kind and generous to me when I was just starting out in philosophy. He commissioned my first published essay (a review essay) for Ethics, offered me a position at Cal Tech, and wrote a letter of reference for me even though he had never taught me. I owe him a lot. We all do.


peter 03.25.09 at 9:40 pm

With the Grauniad, there’s always hope. I am repeatedly surprised there to read obituaries of people whom I’d thought had died months earlier, only to see by the date of death that in fact they had. Perhaps this is a wooden-spoon measure of fame — famous enough to warrant a guardian obit, but not so famous that the obit appears at the time you die.


rea 03.25.09 at 9:40 pm

Jade, not Jane, Goody, for whom nothing in her life became her like the leaving of it.


harry b 03.25.09 at 10:02 pm

rea — I know (unfortunately), I was mimicking the prime-minister….


josh 03.26.09 at 4:03 am

As Peter says, the Graun obit page can be delayed and unpredictable. This probably does have something to do with their bumping up more “newsworthy” obits (their idea of newsworthy can be a bit strange). Also because they don’t seem to emulate the Times’s practice of having obits on file ahead of time, which can cause delays if no-one steps forward to do the obit quickly.
(The Graun obit editors are perfectly nice chaps to work with, though)


Chris Bertram 03.26.09 at 8:54 am

So far as I can see, no newspapers have published obituaries at all. Which is fairly extraordinary, given Brian’s importance in political philosophy in five decades.


David Morrice 03.26.09 at 4:52 pm

After reading the sad news of Brian Barry’s death in the original CT post I told my students, who have been reading Culture and Equality in their course on difference and democracy. A number of them expressed the view that not only did Brian Barry write better than most academics, he made political theory relevant to issues and problems in the so-called real world of politics. For this great service to teaching and learning, which is, I suppose, a great contribution to citizenship, he deserves our gratitude.


dust 03.26.09 at 6:08 pm

The New York Times ought to have an obituary, since he taught at Columbia for a few years. The Columbia polisci department has no notice (yet). There ought to be some memories from his Columbia years.


Judith Evans 03.26.09 at 6:25 pm

I missed the earlier post, and, being badly out of touch, did not know till I read it. The extent of my distress surprises me. I do have remembrances but feel unable to post them as yet. Requiescat.


Tom Hurka 03.27.09 at 9:35 am

One of my first publications was in Ethics, while Brian was editor. What I submitted was, I think, around 35 typescript pages — long for those days though pretty standard today. Anyway, his response was that there was a pretty good 10 page paper in there. I initially thought that was impossible but did the editing and he was right — the shorter version was much better. A good lesson learnt, and I’ve long been grateful.


Jim Johnson 03.28.09 at 10:03 pm

I just want to add my voice briefly here. I studied with Brian in Chicago in the early 1980s and he was extremely encouraging of my clumsy efforts at doing political theory. I attribute to Brian my own preoccupation with sorting out the basic mechanisms that animate big theories in order to see whether they are plausible (or at least to see what would have to be the case if they are to be plausible).

Brian held a weekly seminar for graduate students in his home and allowed us to present our work (as well as to meet the rich and famous who would also come to give papers). That seminar continued on at Russell Hardin’s home once Brian left for Pasadena. At both venues the reading group provided myself and many peers with a glimpse of how faculty ought to interact with their students – no quarter given for bad argument or other nuttiness, but encouragement to do better over time. And, of course, Brian was instrumental at recruiting Hardin and later Elster to Chicago.


anonymous 03.31.09 at 2:17 am

Comments on this entry are closed.