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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Nicky Drake
Nicky Drake
3 years ago

I met Josh a few times when he returned to Wellington after leaving his job at Oxford, both when he taught there briefly at Victoria University, including a course I TA’d for, and afterward, when he had a non-academic job but still attended philosophy colloquia at Vic. I was very impressed by his honest, open, and friendly nature, by his sharp intellect, and by his unique and endearing personality. I was very fond of Josh, and am very sad at his passing. My heart goes out to Hannah. Report

Jc Beall
3 years ago

Gill Russell conveyed this news to me earlier today. I learned from Gill that very recently (in March 2016) Josh expressed genuine fondness for me. The crushing juxtaposition of his death with the touching news of his fondness left me feeling feelings for which I’ve no name. Immediately upon reading Gill’s email I responded as follows:

QUOTE:
Holy shit….. This is such a horrible kick in the guts, and such a damn loss from the world. Josh was easily one of the most brilliant philosophers I ever met, and one of the most engaging personalities I knew in Australasia. I sit here typing out loud, seeing his unique smile — at once both a charming smirk and also the mark of a deeply driven belly laugh…. He was not afraid to think of new ideas that struck many “established minds” as uninteresting. Josh saws things that many of us overlook. Those who never met him will never know how much they missed. Those of us who knew him feel the loss. And we will feel it…for a long time. Shit… I just wish this weren’t true. My heart feels for Hannah. Shit…

It means so much to me that Josh expressed a fondness for me. He will never know how fond of him I was.
:UNQUOTE

I’m so happy that Elizabeth, Ross and Robbie wrote and shared their memories. Over dinner in Dunedin a few years back Josh named each them among his most valued interlocutors in St Andrews. To them I say: thank you. Report

Jon Cogburn
Jon Cogburn
3 years ago

Thank you for writing through your heartbreak to share all of this.
In so many ways he was the best of us.Report

Mike McLeod
Mike McLeod
3 years ago

Josh was a dear friend and mentor, and I am deeply saddened today, after learning of his passing. Thanks for your comments above Jc, I think the highlights of my philosophical career were when all of our paths overlapped at Otago, involving our Logic reading group at Otago. Much love to Hannah, and Josh’s family.Report

Gonzalo R-P
Gonzalo R-P
3 years ago

This is very sad and shocking. I remember him as philosophically admirable, an excellent colleague, and a very kind person. Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

Thank you for this, Elizabeth, Ross, and Robbie. ‘

As someone who works on many of the same topics Josh worked on — including the really obscure and nerdy ones — I heartily second your remarks about his influence on the field. I have personally benefited from studying his work, listening to his talks at various conferences, and receiving his comments on my own work for about 15 years. He was a model philosophical interlocutor: serious yet funny, filled with love for philosophy, and critical yet caring.

Josh was a wonderful person. I will treasure my memories of him.

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Daniel Hill
Daniel Hill
3 years ago

Thank you for a moving heart-felt obituary, Elizabeth, Ross, and Robbie.Report

Aleph
3 years ago

Academic philosophy is a profession that eats its young. RIP Josh Parsons.Report

Bruno Verbeek
Bruno Verbeek
3 years ago

Oh no… What terrible news! I overlapped with Josh at the ANU in the early 2000s. He was a bright fun person. I will miss him.Report

michaela
michaela
3 years ago

Thank you Elizabeth, Ross, and Robbie, for writing this.
The last time I saw Josh was, I think, in Oxford in 2015, where he delivered comments on a paper of mine at their grad conference. He also sent me nine pages of comments, complete with multiple diagrams, beforehand. I still haven’t figured out how to respond to them. I was struck–but not surprised–by how much work he was willing to put into comments on a grad student paper that he could have easily half-assed.

But I wanted to say something else, since much of what I have to say about Josh (how kind, funny he was, what a great philosopher he was, how much he didn’t care if you were a nobody or a somebody, that he was a fashion inspiration) has and will be said many times.

Josh’s willingness to be completely honest about what was going on in his internal life–not just with his closest friends, but with everyone he knew–was unbelievably brave. He was really a model human in this respect. And he helped me immensely–some of which he must have known, for some of it we talked about, but some of which he must not have–by being willing to say the things that he did. I can only imagine that he helped other people as well. I wish everyone was as brave about things about themselves that make them vulnerable to the world; we would all be much better off for it.
Report

Michael Lynch
Michael Lynch
3 years ago

Thank you for this lovely piece. Josh was a special person and a wonderful philosopher. I spent a-lot of time talking philosophy with him when we were both in St. Andrews and learned so much from him. Report

Helen De Cruz
3 years ago

Josh made a contribution to my tumblr of philosophers outside of academia. I have posted it today. He hoped it would help philosophers who, like him, wanted to make the step outside of academia. https://doingthingswithphilosophy.tumblr.com/post/159529901769/josh-parsonsReport

Agustin Rayo
Agustin Rayo
3 years ago

Josh and I overlapped at St Andrews between 2001 and 2004, when we were both Arché postdocs. We were very close during those years, and the memories that come flooding in are too many to digest. I remember his “aerie”, on the corner of Market and Church Streets, where high-quality Scotch was always in good supply. I remember little pearls of wisdom (“sometimes you’re so cold that only a hot bath can make it better”). I remember lunches at the Greyfriers: it was there that he attempted to persuade me to use “octopodes” instead of “octopuses”. We sometimes traveled together. On one occasion, as we boarded a train to London, I mentioned that I had no idea how computer-hardware works. Never has a five-and-a-half hour journey felt so short. He started with the transistor, and was describing the mechanical implementation of machine language as we arrived at King’s Cross. Josh taught me about the color of the eggs of the double-wattled cassowary, and how to play Contract Bridge, and how to hook up two computers using an Ethernet cable, and all about the mating habits of the blue-footed booby. I am so sad that he will never teach me anything again. Report

Rae
Rae
3 years ago

Hi Elizabeth, Ross and Robbie. Thanks very much for posting this in remembrance of Josh. A mutual friend from Victoria University of Wellington days in the ’90s contacted me this morning with the awful and shocking news. We’d fallen out of touch, he was an ex-boyfriend, but when we last emailed each other it was on good terms. And the person you describe above is so awfully like the person I remember, that I realise all over again that this isn’t a weird, sad dream and is a very weird, sad, real day. I was glad to read and hear, but not surprised to know he’d done great things with philosophy – it was always his passion. It’s not right that he’s gone. Report

Willy
Willy
3 years ago

I knew Josh as a toddler, boy, and young man, meeting up with him again for just a moment before he flew off to Oxford, a flash of old friendship.

Farewell friend, I wish you had made it home, you were a gem.Report

WXY789
WXY789
3 years ago

I knew Josh at Oxford, not only as an exceptional academic, but also as a brilliant, humane, and hilarious teacher. Everything about Josh, from his cool clothing to his prop-filled lectures, cut through the pomp of Oxford like a knife. This is a great loss.Report

Nathan Young
Nathan Young
2 years ago

I didn’t know josh but was really sad to hear his passing. I loved his flag website which I often showed to people. It’s very hard to find these days (you can see it here https://web.archive.org/web/20061215101120/http://www.otago.ac.nz:80/philosophy/Staff/JoshParsons/flags/meth.html) and I wondered if I might be able to have permission to publish it on my own server as something funny and beautiful, because funny and beautiful things should be kept around. Report