William Talbott (1949-2023)

William Talbott, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Washington, has died.

Professor Talbott was known for his work in political philosophy (especially human rights) and epistemology. He is the author of Learning from Our Mistakes: Epistemology for the Real World (2021), Human Rights and Human Well-Being (2010), Which Rights Should Be Universal? (2005), and The Reliability of the Cognitive Mechanism (1990), among other works, which you learn more about here and here. He was a founding member of the Human Interactions and Normative Innovations (HI-NORM) research group, and a translation of his Which Rights Should Be Universal? was named the 2011 Human Rights Book of the Year by the Korea Human Rights Foundation.

Professor Talbott joined the University of Washington faculty in 1989. He completed his PhD at Harvard University and his undergraduate degree at Princeton University.

His colleagues write: “We treasure our memories of Bill as a brilliant philosopher, inspiring teacher, generous friend, and exemplary human being.  We will never stop learning from his wisdom and his example.”

He died on May 17th.

Below is a video of Professor Talbott discussing his most recent book, Learning from Our Mistakes: Epistemology for the Real World.

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Gary Watson
1 year ago

Bill Talbott’s premature death is a sad moment for our profession. Bill and I overlapped at Princeton, I as a graduate student, he as an undergraduate who was on his way to do graduate work at Harvard. Bill was one of those conspicuously talented undergraduates who could comfortably hang with the graduate students, fitting right in, rather than annoying them. If I remember correctly, at that time he and I discussed a view he’d developed, in which he defended a rule-consequentialist interpretation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The view seemed wrong to me, but forcefully and confidently argued. As it turned out, it was the seed of his two important books on human rights. Apart from a few encounters at professional meetings, we were not in touch over the years but I continued to hear of his impressive philosophical achievements, as well as his admirable moral and political stances. (E.g. He interrupted his career path twice, (1) to do alternative service to military involvement in the Vietnam war; and (2) by defying the deeply entrenched sexist assumption that, in cases of conflict the male’s career should prevail over that of his female spouse.)
After I recently moved back to Seattle, I looked forward to renewing and deepening our acquaintance, only to learn of Bill’s terminal illness. We exchanged email messages. When I told him I was reading his recent book, Learning from our Mistakes, he suggested that we continue our talks by zoom. We met four times in April and early May, while he was in home hospice care, He was remarkably lucid and cheerful throughout, clearly enjoying our reminiscences and, even more, our discussion of the Deductive Paradigm, the main bete noire of his illuminating book. I feel grateful for having had the chance to renew our relationship, and moved and inspired by Bill’s wonderful calm, love of life, and absense of self-pity.

Tim Smith
Tim Smith
Reply to  Gary Watson
1 year ago


Thanks for this. I will pick up Learning from our Mistakes. I will read this summer with sympathy for Bill’s loved ones which clearly includes you.

Take care,