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Peter Goldie Remembered
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Peter Goldie Remembered

Elisabeth Schellekens

Peter Goldie (1946-2011)

Most of those who met Peter Goldie will remember their first impression of him. Here was a man whose piercing eyes revealed a sharp intellect and powerfully focused energy. His unflinching gaze had an intensity which not everybody could meet. As his PhD student, I used frequently to be asked by my peers what it was like to work with such an intimidating person. My answer was always the same: he might not suffer fools lightly, but he is in fact incredibly helpful, kind, understanding, funny and, above all, generous.

Peter’s character was in fact full of these apparent paradoxes. He was a profoundly emotional man who lived his feelings thoroughly and thoughtfully, and yet the only change that registered on his face might be a slight tightening of the lips, or a momentary glint in the eye. His direct conversational manner, very confident and ‘to the point’, nonetheless concealed a certain shyness that could on occasion transmute to impatience. He was always deeply modest in relation to the thinkers and scholars he studied and wrote about, but was at the same time keenly aware of his own intellectual abilities. He could be irreverent and ironic, but was incapable of being disrespectful. He always approached any new project with humility and circumspection, conscious – as indeed everyone who encountered him also was – of the fact that he would make a success of it.

These qualities were of course originally displayed in Peter’s first career, in the corridors of financial power in the City of London. He qualified as a chartered accountant aged 22 at the firm of Edward Moore and Sons, rising to become a partner there only three years later – their youngest ever. A few years later, he joined the merchant bank Guinness Mahon as director, eventually becoming chief executive of Abaco Investments before turning 40.

Peter’s second career as a philosopher began in 1990, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at UCL, at the age of 44. He graduated with first class honours before moving to Oxford where he took a B.Phil. – winning the highly coveted Jowett Prize – and then completing his D.Phil under the supervision of Bernard Williams. Subsequently he spent two years lecturing at Magdalen College before taking an appointment at King’s College London in 1998. In 2005 he was appointed Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester.

I first started working with Peter towards the end of my first year as a PhD student at King’s. My main focus at the time was on Meta-Ethics but after three or four months it became clear that my research was taking me in the direction of Aesthetics, an area which had hitherto only been of secondary interest for Peter. He approached our new field of enquiry with a voracious appetite, his reading on the subject easily equalling mine, and there was never any sense in which he felt the urge to refer me to a more established expert in the field.

This kind of thing was typical of Peter. I remember him offering a fellow PhD student, who had found herself stranded without a supervisor, towards the end of her third year of research on the philosophy of economics, to read up on the subject just in order to help her complete her thesis. Whether he was literally discovering an area at the same time as his student or simply inspiring that sense of discovery in them, he always took seriously the questions and problems brought to him by students and colleagues, junior and senior alike. Above all, one never had a sense that there was an area of philosophy he “didn’t do”, a rare virtue in these times of increasing specialisation.

I never knew Peter while he worked in the financial world, although I have met one or two people who did, but one common thread running through his two careers is abundantly clear: he was brilliant at seeing opportunities and seizing them. Getting to grips with a new area of knowledge, he would lose no time in sizing up the “market”, so to speak, sensing immediately which areas would benefit from better exploration, which questions needed answering, and so forth. It was thanks to this kind of insight that our joint work on the philosophy of conceptual art, for example, got underway. Or later, when we developed aspects of my thesis into a research project on neuro-aesthetics and what we called ‘aesthetic psychology’, his acuity in seeing where links needed to be uncovered or strengthened was invaluable. In terms of his own research, he always navigated the field between philosophy and psychology with great dexterity, weighing seriously the questions and answers provided by neighbouring disciplines such as evolutionary psychology and neuroscience but never becoming so absorbed by it that his own line of inquiry would lose its integrity.

Many of Peter’s philosophical interests derived from his love of literature, and perhaps in particular the work of Musil and Conrad. Quotations from these authors litter his work on the emotions, with Peter always choosing examples whose nicety and profundity would add weight and bring clarification to many important points in the philosophy of the emotions and in that of the philosophy of mind and moral psychology more widely. A particular point to which he often returned was his insistence on the importance of narrative in relation to our self-understanding and our own access to our emotions and other mental states. As he put it in one of his more recent publications, examining the subject of grief:

“The emotion of grief is a kind of process – a complex pattern of activity and passivity, inner and outer, which unfolds over time, and the unfolding pattern over time is explanatorily prior to what is the case at any particular moment… The pattern of a particular grieving is best understood and explained through a narrative account… because narrative accounts in such cases have very powerful explanatory, revelatory, and expressive powers … It is because grief is a process of this kind, narratable in this way, that its parts ‘hang together into a coherent whole’ “. (Ratio, June 2011, pp.136-7)

His love of literature also surfaced at less obviously appropriate moments. During conference papers which he felt to be lacking of interest, he was in the habit of scribbling down a quotation on the back of a hand-out, passing it over to quiz me on its origin. They made for interesting reading, but guessing was never very challenging: it was always either Conrad or Musil.

His taste for the good things in life extended outwards, to the theatre and opera house, to the worlds of fine wine, vodka, cricket and – perhaps most unusual for a philosopher – fast cars. In music one of his greatest loves was always Handel, though we once developed a theory that a preference for Handel over Bach would equate, in philosophy, to a preference for Hume over Kant, and vice versa. I’m not sure if the model was supposed to carry over into a preference for Maseratis over Ferraris, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

In both his person and his writing style, one of Peter’s great gifts was to very quickly build up a personal relationship with his colleagues and readers, giving them a sense of that he could identify with them deep down. It is no wonder that his first, and perhaps last, philosophical love lay with the subject of the emotions. But beyond any lasting philosophical implications his work and teaching will prove to have had – and I think few would deny these will be significant – it is clear that as a man and as a writer that he touched people deeply. As but one of many to have worked closely with Peter over the last decade or so, I received nearly 150 messages of support after his death, some even from people I had never heard of. If grief is, as Peter argued, a process, it will no doubt be one which our academic community is only beginning. We have not just lost a valued colleague but also a very dear friend.

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