John F. Malcolm (1931-2023)

John F. Malcolm, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, Davis, died last September.

David Copp sent in the following obituary, written by several people affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at UC Davis, including Professor Malcolm himself.

John F. Malcolm (1931-2023)

Professor John F. Malcolm passed away peacefully on September 10, 2023, in his home in Davis, California, at the age of 92.

Originally from Canada, he spent most of his academic career in the Philosophy Department at the University of California, Davis. There, until he retired in 1994, he was central to its program in Ancient Philosophy. He is remembered for his brilliance, his love of classical scholarship, his old-school, exacting professorial standards, his generosity, and his highly unconventional sense of humor. He was an avid traveler and skier, with a special fondness for beautiful classic automobiles. He also played classical music on his keyboard. In addition to being a historian of philosophy, he also extensively investigated his family history in Scotland, Ireland and Canada, tracing it as far back as 1602.

Professor Malcolm’s major academic work was his 1992 book, Plato on the Self-Predication of Forms: Early and Middle Dialogues (Oxford University Press), but his scholarship went beyond philosophy. Fluent in ancient Greek and Latin, he also studied Russian and Sanskrit. Shortly before his death, he was studying a text on the Hebrew language. His students and colleagues would agree that he was one of a kind. His uniqueness extended to his writing his own obituary, which follows:

J. Malcolm was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1931. He lived in Storthoaks, a small hamlet in the south-eastern part of that province where his father was a United Church minister on a mission field. In 1936 he (an only child) and his parents moved to eastern Canada, eventually settling in Bailieboro, Ontario, a small community near Rice Lake. After graduating from high school in Peterboro, he went to the alma mater of his parents, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He received his B.A. in 1952 and then spent two years studying abroad in St Andrews, Scotland, and Marburg, Germany. He returned to Queen’s for an M.A. (on Kant’s ethics) and after a year in Rome went to Princeton for his Ph.D. in Greek philosophy under Gregory Vlastos. His first teaching position was at Huron College, London, Ontario. After three years there he went for a year to Oxford to study with G.E.L Owen. Then he taught for two years at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and from there came to the University of California at Davis, where he remained for the rest of his academic career. His main areas of interest were the metaphysical doctrines of Plato and Aristotle. He was a regular participant in a reading group on Ancient Greek Philosophy at Stanford/Berkeley and at Davis.

He had no children and for most of his life was unmarried. While at high school he would spend several months a year on a farm, and, as an undergraduate, during the four month summer vacation, he was employed at such jobs as replacing railroad rails and rotating aluminum remelt furnaces. In light of these experiences, he successfully avoided any extended physical labor thereafter. His vision of the best life attainable by human beings was one of privilege without responsibility—an ideal more to be recognized than realized.


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George Gale
George Gale
22 days ago

I was Davis’ first PhD. I took every course Malcolm gave. Tough, but superb. What he did with “The Parmenides” exploded my head.