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Paul Ziff Remembered
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Paul Ziff Remembered


Douglas Dempster

Paul Ziff, the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, died on January 9, 2003. He was 82. The Philosophy Department of UNC, Chapel Hill, has mounted a tribute web site in honor of his life and works. The site includes several images of Ziff’s water colors and ink drawings, including a self-portrait, a chronology of his professional life, and a survey of his publications by Douglas Stalker. The site, edited by Claire Miller, long-time administrative assistant at Chapel Hill, also includes reminiscences by current and former colleagues and students.

Ziff began his career as an artist in New York City, his home, in the late 30’s. He studied art at Columbia University, New York Master’s Institute of Art, and after serving in the Coast Guard during WWII, he completed his BFA at Cornell University in 1949. While he was a life-long practicing artist, his studies at Cornell marked a turning point in his career. He spent two more years at Cornell doing graduate study in philosophy, receiving his PhD in 1951. Over the next 18 years, he held tenure-track or visiting appointments at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. In 1970, he was appointed the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor, at UNC, Chapel Hill, where he taught for 18 years, retiring in 1988.

According to Stalker, Paul Ziff authored 6 books, 38 articles, 5 discussion pieces, and 14 book reviews. His articles were published in leading journals, including the Philosophical Review, Mind, the Journal of Philosophy, and Analysis, among others. Ziff was widely known for his writings in aesthetics, an enduring interest throughout his career, (“Art and the Object of Art,” 1951; “The Task of Defining a Work of Art,” 1953; “Reasons in Art Criticism,” 1958; “On What a Painting Represents,” 1960; “The Cow on the Roof,” 1973; “Anything Viewed,” 1979; “Art and Sociobiology,” 1981) but was equally well known for his work in the philosophy of language (Semantic Analysis, 1960; “On Understanding Understanding Utterances,” 1964; “On H.P. Grice’s Account of Meaning,” 1967; “What is Said,” 1972; “About Proper Names,” 1977) and the philosophy of mind (“About Behaviourism,” 1958; “The Feelings of Robots,” 1959; “The Simplicity of Other Minds,” 1965; Understanding Understanding, 1972). His work was widely anthologized, reviewed, and cited.

Ziff’s public, professional persona was famously abrasive and combative. He was a master of the lethal counter example, earning him a typically unflattering entry in the Philosophical Lexicon. However, many colleagues and students that knew him well learned that there was rarely anything gratuitous or personal in his sharp manner. He was inexhaustibly creative, unflaggingly analytical, irreverently and proudly iconoclastic, and, in the end, always as hard on his own claims as he was on those he criticized. “Say nothing false” was, literally, his first, stern “commandment” to his colleagues and students. He was often chagrined at the relaxed standards of others.

Less well known is that he was also a remarkably generous colleague, teacher, and advisor, a fact attested to by colleagues and former students contributing to the tribute site. For one example, it was commonplace for Paul to provide a room in his own home for advisees struggling through graduate school, sometimes because they needed a free room, and sometimes because he believed that some of us needed his undivided attention. He mentored and befriended as much as he taught. He was relentless in cross-examination, but never pedantic, never imposing his own views on his students. He taught a philosophical disposition or attitude more than methods or doctrine.

He also insisted that his students should be as cultured and widely read as he – an imposing expectation. He asked us to strive, next to truthfulness, for originality and elegance in expression.

“Sometimes and mainly and mostly and for the most part and the main part and so principally and even chiefly as a janitor tending a conceptual zoo. Sweeping out categories combing concepts finding fuddles cauterizing confusions pulling out monkey wrenches turning cages into fields finding fodder grinding raw beef into edible articled patties polishing tools and implements and instruments sorting sifting counting sand. But it’s so hard to get anywhere when you have a neat an’ orderly mind. The first thing you have to do of course the very first is to make sure the slops stay in the bucket. That you don’t empty them everywhere. You keep them in the bucket. You don’t have to stir it. You just keep them in the bucket. That’s the thing. You keep the slops in the bucket. Don’t tip the bucket over! No! Don’t stir the bucket. Just keep it in the corner. Sum ergo cogito.” (Paul Ziff, “Epilogue: How I See Philosophy,” Antiaesthetics: An Appreciation of the Cow with the Subtle Nose, Reidel, 1984.)

 

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