Gareth Evans — philosophy’s lost prodigy

During his short life, Evans was a figure of contention. Although his output was limited, his untimely death was a huge blow to British philosophy.

Gareth Evans. Credit: Antonia Phillips
Gareth Evans. Credit: Antonia Phillips

University College, Oxford, October 1964: the economics fellow, David Stout, has assembled the twelve freshmen PPE students for their first class. This is an unusual procedure as lectures and individual tutorials are the normal means of teaching, but Stout is preoccupied with persuading any government and political party that will listen of the virtues of something called ‘value added tax’ and wants to meet all the students together. I am one of them and I have done none of the preparation for this class, being entirely preoccupied with such matters as rugby and new friends, but I am hoping that my ‘A’ and ‘S’ level economics from fifteen months earlier will enable me to get by. Actually, there are only eleven of us. Enter the twelfth to the traditional sarcastic remark from the tutor. The new arrival has long black hair and a black beard and wears a black scholar’s gown. With his hooked nose and rimless spectacles he seems like an edgy and hyperactive raven. He is carrying all six of the books recommended for the class which he deposits unceremoniously on the floor. ‘So this is economics?’ he demands and David Stout replies that these books are about welfare economics which is regarded by many as the foundation of the subject. ‘It’s based on a mistake,’ snaps the raven and the rest of the class is devoted to the tutor defending his subject from aggressive interrogation. It is increasingly obvious that the raven is at least the intellectual equal of the tutor.

Dr. Johnson said of Edmund Burke, ‘You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen’. I have met a lot of famous and interesting people, some of whom I’ve taught, but I never met anyone who instantly suggested a kind of brilliance as Gareth Evans did. Oxford was then the epicentre of Anglophone philosophy and the great men and women of the field were keen to meet him: Sir ‘Freddy’ AyerDerek Parfit, Elizabeth AnscombeMichael Dummett… it reminded me of the young Jesus in the temple as described in Luke, Chapter 2. In his second year he was quietly informed that there would be a college fellowship for him in due course.

Gareth came to Oxford from Dulwich College in South London. His father was an official of the Central Council for Physical Recreation and his uncle Gwynfor was president of Plaid Cymru and while we were still undergraduates in 1966 he became MP for Carmarthen. (It has often been said that Gareth had a deep sense of Welshness despite being a Londoner; I never saw this, but his whole style was very un-English in its assertiveness and intensity.) When he graduated with what was said to be the best marks on record (though I’ve heard that claim made about several people) he spent brief periods as a research student at Harvard, Berkeley and Christ Church, Oxford before taking up his fellowship at his old college. In 1978 while visiting his friend and fellow philosopher Hugo Margáin Charles, the son of the former Mexican ambassador to the UK, he was kidnapped and shot trying to escape. He nearly died of loss of blood; his friend did die. Two years later he contracted a rapidly developing form of lung cancer and died in 1982 at the age of thirty four. A week before his death he married Antonia Phillips.

The obituaries all used some phrase along the lines of ‘a huge loss to British philosophy’. He had actually published very little: ten papers, some of them quite short. Yet he is also said to have influenced the direction of several branches of philosophy including logic, metaphysics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. He was most widely known for filmed dialogues made with our tutor, Sir Peter Strawson, for the Open University of which ‘What is Truth?’ is the best known. I think he was conscious of the absence of publication because he seemed distinctly irritated when I published a book before him though in no respect would I have considered us to be rivals; he was a perfectionist working with very complex ideas and I was neither of these things.

Two years after his death his college colleague, John McDowell, edited and published the book Gareth had been working on, The Varieties of ReferenceThe combination of editor and author has always made me smile because John was as quiet and self-effacing as Gareth was not. I was there when they met because the newly appointed McDowell had to give Gareth and myself a revision tutorial in ethics. He asked us what we would consider to be an acceptable example of John Stuart Mill’s category of a purely ‘self-regarding’ act. ‘Wanking,’ barked Gareth who then went on to list an impressive range of ways in which masturbation might be interpreted as an ‘other-regarding’ act under certain circumstances.

Reviewers of Varieties were unanimous that it was an important book but an extremely difficult one which nobody could read easily and only excellent philosophers could read at all. It concerns the ways in which language can correspond to the world and represent it. It is therefore about the nature of thought and its relation to ‘reality’; the philosopher with whom Gareth shared his idea of what the core problems of philosophy were was Bertrand Russell whose Principia Mathematica is equally abstruse and unread. Russell eventually wrote the highly accessible Problems of Philosophy which has been handed to a million eighteen-year-olds to see if they really like the subject. He wrote it when he was forty. Perhaps an older Gareth might also have written something highly accessible, but it wasn’t going to happen for a while.

And perhaps not at all. Compromise or purely instrumental writing were not the sort of actions which came naturally to Gareth. Forty years later, I imagine we would place him on several spectrums. Take, for example, the story of Gareth and table football. During our first year the college introduced a table into the beer cellar. Gareth became ferociously good at the game; he usually played with me and we rarely lost. Then one day when, unusually, I was sitting at the big desk which we shared at the far end of the college library and he wasn’t, he came to find me urgently. He explained to me that we had to disable the football table somehow because his elder brother, Hugh, was playing too much and it was going to cost him in terms of degree classification. I might have asked what on earth was the force of ‘we’ in these circumstances, but many years later when I actually read Don Quixote I realised that I was playing the Sancho Panza role and that being a ‘we’ with Gareth was always going to be more interesting than not. So ‘we’ seized all the balls from the table and threw them off Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell river.

But the next day he took me aside and insisted that what we had done was wrong because many people enjoyed the game and were not addicted to it. So we hired a boat and rowed down the Cherwell. This was, at least, a genuine two man job, one rowing and the other finding balls. Amazingly we found all nine of them; they had floated to the banks and were mostly highly visible, cleaned and white amongst black tree roots. We returned them to the beer cellar and nothing more was ever said about the matter.

When we were in our final year we had very different lifestyles even though we still sat together in the library; I had a lot of other activities besides academic work and spent much less time in the library than he did. One day, when I was later than usual, he seized me by the arm and uttered what was to become a classic line in soap operas: ‘We need to talk’. So we did — or he did, in the Fellows’ Garden outside the library. Gareth paced up and down and told me he was worrying about me a lot. I had to realise, he said, that I was extremely stupid and would need to work very hard to get any kind of degree. I wasn’t in the least offended and I explained to him that actually it wasn’t that I was extremely stupid, it was that he was extremely clever and that I wasn’t much bothered about the degree. (This was the truth, though I was entirely wrong not to be bothered.) The incident ended with Gareth expressing the view that at least he had done his duty as he saw it by raising the matter.

Other people were not so happy to be told at whatever level of frankness that they were stupid. Although most of his fellow undergraduates thought of him as a sort of mad genius it was clear that that some of the more intellectually pretentious found him offensive. I remember, for instance, the glee with which the Dean of the college took me aside and showed me the confidential finals marks in which I had scored higher than Gareth in one of the philosophy papers. Years later when I was trying to raise money for a scholarship in his name (he already has an eponymous lecture series) several people more or less replied that commemorating Gareth was the last thing they would want to do. It is clear from his record as a teacher that a limited number of pupils found him brilliant and inspiring, but many found him sharp and fearful.

We generally say of the dead that they will not be forgotten, but some are recalled much more readily and regularly than others; Gareth is well remembered by his friends forty years on, particularly by me and his contemporaries from Dulwich. I think that only a handful of philosophers are qualified to assess the value of his published work and that the question of his influence is extremely elusive, but I can say with certainty that I owe him a debt. He made intellectual activity exhilarating and he taught me that everything people believe can and must be questioned and for that I will always be grateful.


Lincoln Allison