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Bill Tait (1929-2024)

Of course it would have to happen that Bill Tait (William W. Tait, long-time philosophy professor at the University of Chicago) would die a few days after Howard Stein. Both of them would have found it hilarious. (Someone suggested to me that Howard might have said, “See, he can’t live without me!”) Bill was born a day later than Howard, and he never let anyone forget it. In their later years (for all I know, in their earlier years also), Bill was physically a lot fitter than Howard. While I was a graduate student, Howard always had to take his back support everywhere and generally came across as not in very good shape (though he also came across as an Old Testament prophet), while Bill was still mountain climbing and biking. As he would put it, “Howard’s a day older than me, and boy, that day really shows, doesn’t it?”

It showed in other predictable ways; Bill often gave parties in his apartment on Everett, to which all sorts of unexpected and interesting characters were invited, to the point where it just never occurred to me any more to ask (myself) when encountering anyone there, “What the hell are you doing here?” The parties were never quite the same, either; they always differed interestingly from each other in their sizes and compositions, in ways suggesting that perhaps Rebecca (Bill’s partner, who lived — still lives — in the apartment next door on the same floor, and was always present at the parties) had a hand in the invitations. Then there were also the reading groups. The longest-running one, and the one I most immediately remember, was about Dummett’s Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, the long-awaited sequel to Frege: Philosophy of Language. Also present were Steve Awodey, Erich Reck, Mike Price, and (sometimes) Leonard Linsky. The meetings were characterized by Bill’s steadily increasing impatience with both Dummett and Frege, and eventuated in Bill’s ill-tempered “Frege vs. Cantor and Dedekind” in the Linsky Festschrift (Early Analytic Philosophy) that he edited and I published. I do remember that the original version — which we discussed in the reading group — was significantly more ill-tempered than what was eventually published. In any case, the upshot is that when I think back on my overly extended graduate school years in Hyde Park, Bill’s apartment is one of the sites I mainly visualize, as much as Steve Awodey’s on 53rd (the scene of other reading groups), or the Anscombe Lounge in the Classics Building (where the philosophy department was then located), or the Seminary Co-op (when it was still in the basement of the building on the corner of 58th and University, and run by Jack Cella) or the Regenstein.

(Howard’s apartment, in contrast, I was only ever in long after I ceased being a graduate student; he never gave parties or held reading groups — which one wouldn’t expect of an Old Testament prophet anyway, I guess. I remember seeing on his desk a paperback re-issue of the Adam & Tannery edition of the complete Descartes. When I exclaimed at this — knowing well his attitude to Descartes — he made a face and muttered, “Well, as Luther said, you must keep the devil ever before you!”)

After his retirement, Bill maintained regular contact not just with Howard, but also with Leonard; they formed what they called the “Old Fogies Club” whose motto was “Forgotten but not gone” (I can’t remember whether they ever actually had the intended T-shirts made.) Now, suddenly, all three of them are gone. As for the “forgotten”, I think that referred not to the wider world, but to their former department, which all three felt comprehensively alienated from. (Which didn’t prevent Bill from inviting a number of its members to the party he gave at his place after my viva, I was glad to see.) We had the Old Fogies — and their partners, Rebecca West (professor of Italian literature) and Alexandra Bellow (professor of mathematics, who figures prominently under a fictional name in her former husband’s novel The Dean’s December) — over to dinner at our place once. It was lively; perhaps a bit too much so. The political disagreements that led to a cooling-off of relations among the three (mainly Leonard from the other two) were very much in evidence, with Leonard aggressively promoting — and quoting from — the later anti-Islamic provocations of Oriana Fallaci. To put things in perspective: Leonard had grown up in the Fairfax neighborhood of LA, and his brother had died in the 1948 Israeli war of independence. Still, during this period (early oughts), he seemingly lost all restraint, and would bombard anyone he knew with his latest revelations from Fallaci; once I randomly encountered him on the street somewhere, and he launched into it before we could even say hello or anything; I was in a hurry, but it was a huge effort to interrupt him in his flow and get him to acknowledge that I needed to go. A few years later, when he heroically bore the burden of caring for his increasingly dementia-ridden wife Joanie, Bill told me that this gruelling ordeal had finally turned Leonard into a better person.

Bill didn’t have all that high an opinion of Carnap (I don’t think he knew much about him). Nonetheless, though he was initially my supervisor (I had wanted to work on Cantor and Russell), he didn’t object when I wandered off to work on Carnap with Howard, and even insisted on staying on the committee. (It just meant that he made sure to direct the occasional rude remark about Carnap toward me once in a while.) Still, he once, in the context of arguing that the university needed to give more priority and respect to philosophy — not the way it used to with Hutchins, under the baleful influence of Mortimer Adler, but in an enlightened way — suggested that more recognition should be given to the department’s past, which it had little (apart from Adler) to be ashamed of. For instance, he thought, the central roundabout in the middle of the main university quadrangle should be renamed “Carnap Circle”. When someone hesitantly objected, he immediately shot back, “Well, can you name anyone who ever taught here who could possibly deserve it more?”

At Bill’s retirement in 2000, there was a conference in his honor, but unlike the conferences for Leonard and Howard, this one wasn’t published, as no one could be found to edit it at the time. Erich Reck made up for that a few years ago with an entirely new batch of papers by students (including himself and Steve Awodey, my contemporaries) and colleagues (including Charles Parsons, Warren Goldfarb, Tom Ricketts, Geoff Hellman, Sol Feferman, and Michael Friedman — an impressive lineup). This volume was supposed to include a paper by Howard about Christoffel’s theory of numbers (already announced in the program for a conference in Pittsburgh in 1995, but not delivered), which kept being promised but never materialized.

The last time I saw Bill was six or seven years ago. I’d come up to his apartment and as I sat there and we talked, at the familiar table in his dining room, snow began to fall outside, which also felt very familiar. The years in between dropped away; Bill himself had hardly changed; the parties and reading groups felt very recent, as if they were still going on in those walls. But he complained that the three flights of stairs up to his apartment were getting increasingly hard to negotiate and that he and Rebecca were looking for other places to live. So I realized that it might after all be the last time I would be sitting in that familiar place, with the familiar snow falling outside the familiar window, and I shouldn’t be so complacent. And as I now know, with sad finality, it was in fact the last time.

I haven’t really said anything about Bill’s work. Richard Zach has a very good obituary (with a great photo) that goes into some detail on Bill’s contributions to logic, but one could easily get the impression from it — despite Richard’s explicit words to the contrary — that Bill wasn’t all that interested in more general problems of philosophy, and that would be very misleading. I was especially enthusiastic about Bill’s paper at the Boolos Memorial Conference at Notre Dame in 1998, “Beyond the Axioms” (later published in Philosophia Mathematica), in which he apologizes for offering something so potentially vague and inexact in memory of Boolos, who tended to like precision. (And several members of the audience there worried about Bill’s dangerous proximity in that paper to what Jon Barwise had called “the black plague of postmodernism,” which in their view he hadn’t after all, despite his protestations, quite managed to ward off.) To me this paper seems very aligned with my (i.e. Howard’s) understanding of Carnap, and Carnap’s understanding of Hilbert; Bill was surprised when I pointed this out to him. He was working on a larger project — focused on Wittgenstein — along those lines, and in fact signed a contract to publish it with Open Court, but I guess nothing ever came of that, unfortunately.

One thought on “Bill Tait (1929-2024)

  1. I recently organized the transport of Bill’s library from Chicago to CMU. I had originally planned to go and get it myself in the old VW-Bus, but it turned out to be a lot more work than I could handle that way. I’m sorry I didn’t make the trip, though, because it would have been nice to visit the old apartment on Everett.
    I learned type theory from Bill – not Russell’s theory, but the Martin-Löf/Bill Howard style of dependent types that are so important nowadays, and in my current work. At the time, I had no idea what was behind this seemingly obscure system, which Bill said was actually the only “real logic”. Trying to understand it – and to reconcile it with the topos theory that I was learning from Saunders at the same time – was one of those challenges that leads a student to think hard about something, and maybe even learn something new.
    Another thing I learned from Bill, and from Leonard Linsky (that I’m a little ashamed to admit : – ), is an appreciation for *certain aspects of* Wittgenstein’s later work. Bill seemed to be naturally predisposed *not* to appreciate Wittgenstein’s unsystematic and shaggy mode of exposition, but nonetheless willing to tolerate it for the sake of some insights that were apparently hard, if not impossible, to express more precisely. I personally have less patience than he had for that style of philosophizing, but I learned to appreciate and respect his choice to pursue it.

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