Richard J. Blackwell Has Died

Science, Religion and Authority: Lessons from the Galileo Affair

Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible

Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial: Including the First English Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatus syllepticus

(Some books authored by Richard J. Blackwell.)

I just found out that my graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell, died last month. He was 92. Here is an obituary with a photograph. I have kept in touch with him regularly through the years, but I hadn’t seen him in person in a long time. (In the photo he looks exactly as I remember him.)

In a previous post, I wrote about his profound influence on my intellectual development and his extraordinary generosity as a human being. He had a hearty laugh and was so calm. When I was stressed out as a graduate student I would walk into his office and talk to him. He would sit there, feet propped up on his desk, a picture of relaxation, and I immediately felt calmer—it was better than taking a Xanax!

And I still recall this handwritten letter he wrote to me so many years ago containing his sage advice:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

Now I want to tell a story that, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never told anyone. For my dissertation, I had to translate some previous untranslated French. I got a book called French for Reading and Translation and studied it assiduously for many months. Along with my French dictionary, I translated several passages from Jean Piaget’s Introduction to Genetic Epistemology. I submitted the relevant chapter to Professor Blackwell and awaited his response.

When we met to discuss the chapter, Professor Blackwell told me that my translations were bad. As best as I remember he said something like,

“John, your translations are childish. It’s as if you had the book in one hand and a dictionary in the other and just substituted words.”

And I’m thinking to myself “how else would you do it?”

Then he handed me 4 or 5 hand-written pages with his translations. (Professor Blackwell had a solid grounding in Latin and could translate in multiple languages.) Looking back he must have assumed my translations would be bad so he did his own beforehand. Reading them, I realized their professional quality as compared to my amateurish ones.

I then asked, “what do I do with these?” I’ll always remember his response “Just put them in there.” So Richard Blackwell did the translations in my dissertation.

Now I only hope that some official doesn’t find this post all these years later and take away my Ph.D.! But if they did it wouldn’t matter to me. It’s the love of learning that was nurtured under his tutelage that has stayed with all the decades.

So for one final time, I would thank Professor Blackwell for his immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have been his student and will never forget him as long as I live.

Goodbye Professor

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11 thoughts on “Richard J. Blackwell Has Died

  1. R.I.P professor. If any of us see further it’s because we have stood on the giant shoulders of those that came before us. We may have been born “Tabula Rasa” but a precious few mentors enabled us to advance a little further. It’s been observed often that behind a successful man there’s a woman. I know that behind most of us there has been a teacher, professor or other mentor.

  2. Doc,
    Well, you turned a sad passing to a living laughable moment. I suspect your professor would be proud. I once wrote a paper on “flashbulb” memories and it referenced high-profile events, i.e. Kennedy assassination, and events of the sort. We often fail to realize that some of the most innocuous events shape us also. After reading your piece, I recall a conversation with my intro to Philosophy professor and a discussion about the” soul”. The young cocksure Jason was hellbent on guarding his ideas and I was reaching into every ammo box and attempting to justify my ignorance to the point I became a purveyor of cosmic ideas as a weak effort to enforce my ideas and perspective. My professor leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms, paused for a moment, exhaled, and uttered the simplest of phrases. “It’s possible, hell anything is possible, but is it plausible?” Those words have guided me in the years since.
    It pains me to know that those we respect and love pass. Perhaps one day science will solve that problem. I offer my condolences.

  3. thanks for your kind words Jason. It’s possible OJ was innocent. Maybe he had an unknown twin with the same DNA who committed the murder and is now back hiding in a cave! That all may be possible but it isn’t at all plausible. Nobody should believe such nonsense.

  4. ha ha, the story of the translation I find funny. Turns out Mr Blackwell was a bit of a rule breaker and “corrupted the youth” 🙂. Reminds me of a certain philosopher…

    (As for translating, I really can’t see how else I could do it without a dictionary. That was how I translated my first English book, a guitar method. )

    R.I.P. Mr Blackwell.

  5. “behind a successful man there’s a woman”

    Unfortunately, behind the Gipper stood Nancy; behind Donald stands Melania.

  6. I made (what I thought was) a funny analogy between Socrates and Professor Richard J Blackwell, in that Socrates did not conform to expected norms or didn’t abide by “rules”, and was thought of as a “corrupter of youth”, and Professor Blackwell “broke the rules” (not saying that in a negative sense) and “corrupted the young” by handling them his own translation.

    Anyways, it was just a joke. I hope it wasn’t found to be in bad taste, but if it was, I sincerely apologize. Professor Blackwell obviously cared about you.

  7. no, i just misread the comment. i just reread it and I get it. I have a lot of email and comments and post, etc. and i just read it too quickly.

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