The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Ed Gettier: Remembrance, by Hilary Kornblith

by Hilary Kornblith

Some of my fondest memories of Ed come from when I first arrived in the department.  I had decided that my first graduate seminar, that first semester, would be on the role of intuition in philosophy.  I thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to the grad students since it might be of pretty broad interest, drawing students who weren’t otherwise especially interested in epistemology.  Ed came to my office shortly before the term started and he said, “I have something embarrassing to ask you.”  And I wondered immediately what I could have done—so soon!—to cause him embarrassment.  But he just wanted to ask if he could sit in on the seminar.  Of course, I told him I’d be delighted to have him sit in, even if, privately, I was slightly terrified.  Here was the source of perhaps the most powerful intuition in philosophy, and I was planning to spend a semester arguing that intuitions are of extremely little philosophical value.  But no sooner did he ask for permission to sit in than he immediately followed up by saying that he promised not to ask any questions.  I told him that I wanted him to ask questions, but he again assured me that he wouldn’t.

Ed kept to his promise for the first few sessions of the seminar, often walking me back to the office after class and saying a few words about the class, sometimes even coming into my office.  But these comments were always very brief.  And then I hit on a strategy to get him to say something in class.  I spent one class session make ever stronger and more controversial claims, and I could see him getting more and more agitated, until the dam broke and he challenged me at some length.  And we had this terrific back and forth from which I not only learned a lot, but, I think, the whole seminar profited, seeing how people on either side of a certain issue would elaborate their positions.  And Ed walked me back to my office afterwards and said he was so sorry, and that it would never happen again.  I assured him that I wanted it to happen again, and, as the semester wore on, and he became more comfortable with me, he did contribute more and more.

Over the years, he continued to sit in on my seminars, and he clearly became more comfortable with me and with engaging in discussion in seminar.  He was great.  He never really defended any positive views.  He didn’t feel comfortable doing that.  But he did feel comfortable raising various sorts of concerns and challenges.

I was also teaching intro to logic that first term and Ed offered his services as a tutor.  He said that he didn’t want students who weren’t willing to work, but I shouldn’t interpret that as meaning that he didn’t want students who were performing badly.  He made clear that he’d like to work with students who were getting a D or an F, as long as they were willing to put in the work.  I gave him two students—one of whom received a D and other of whom received an F on the first exam—and he worked with them for hours each week.  They both ended up with an A in the course.  Ed was just a very gentle and patient teacher, and he liked introducing students to logic.  I don’t think either of the students realized that their logic tutor was this fantastically famous guy.  But Ed certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to say a word about that, so I didn’t.