Josh Parsons (1973-2017)


[The following remembrance of Josh Parsons is written by Elizabeth Barnes, Ross Cameron, and Robbie Williams]

Josh Parsons, our beloved friend, mentor, and role-model, died on April 11, 2017. He was 44. Our thoughts are with his family, and most especially with his wife, Hannah Burgess.

Josh received his PhD from ANU in 2001. He then held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of St. Andrews, followed by appointments at UC Davis, Otago University, and Oxford University. He resigned his position at Oxford in 2016 in order to pursue an alternative career path—a choice which he discussed in a blog post—but he always maintained his deep love of philosophy.

Josh’s philosophical interests were incredibly diverse—spanning metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and ethics. He had a genuine passion for all things philosophical. If there was a piece of philosophy you were interested in, Josh would talk to you about it—and have insightful things to say.

His many contributions to philosophy will have long-lasting reach. To take one example, his paper ‘Theories of Location’ set out a new way to talk and think about how objects occupy space and time. It has set the terms of the subsequent debate to the extent that it is hard to remember how we thought about these issues prior to Josh’s work. It is an achievement that resonates through a number of areas of philosophy. Issues which had previously been primarily described metaphorically—for example the debate between those who think that objects are always wholly present versus those who think that they are spread out across time—are made more precise, and more options are revealed, when viewed through the lens Josh gave us.

What was particularly striking about Josh, though, was not just the philosophy he did—it was how he did it. Josh did philosophy out of love. And he did it with kindness. He was never aggressive or condescending. He asked questions out of genuine curiosity, not out of a desire to show off or tear down. He was as eager to talk philosophy with first-year grad students as he was famous full professors. For all that his interests were often very abstract, his approach to them was deeply humane and charitable. If you came to Josh with an idea, he would be interested because you were interested, and he would want to help you make it the best it could be.

It was this approach to philosophy that made Josh such an extraordinary teacher and mentor. He could explain opaque things about the profession – this is how you revise and resubmit a paper, this is what to do when you give a talk, etc.—in a way that seemed to make tractable the previously-incomprehensible. But he also wasn’t afraid to tell you when he thought professional norms were silly, or to gently mock them while explaining them. And he always encouraged you to be yourself—to do the philosophy that you love, in the way that made you happy.

This made sense, if you knew Josh, because there has probably never been a person who was more unapologetically himself. He loved obscure 80s post-punk. He wore patterned skinny jeans and quirky t-shirts. He had a bizarrely comprehensive knowledge of the avian species of the world. He built his own computers. He would invent a cocktail in your honor and would be able to tell you why every ingredient suited you. He loved playing bridge with friends, even when the friends were terrible at it. He gave every flag in the world a letter grade, and developed a comprehensive methodology for the project. And then, later, he gave the symptoms of depression letter grades too, because he brought the same off-beat, irreverent humor and humaneness to all parts of his life.

He was incredibly full of life. He is gone far too soon. And the world feels a little less magical without him.

Josh, thank you for everything you taught us, all the time and care you invested in us, all the ways you made us laugh, and all the ways you inspired us. We love you. We miss you.

Elizabeth Barnes
Ross Cameron
Robbie Williams

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