Remembering Professor Robert Coburn


It is with great sadness we share that Professor Robert Coburn passed away on July 27, 2018. Bob was a beloved and vital member of the department and his memory will remain vibrant for many years to come. His deep voice and broad smile, friendship, and good judgment were cherished by his colleagues and added tremendously to the department.

The memorial will be held on October 13th at 1:00pm at The Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st Street, Seattle, WA 98105.

His colleagues, Clark Shores and David Keyt, prepared this obituary reflecting on his professional career, which is followed by reminiscences from former students and colleagues:

Notes on the Professional Life of Bob Coburn

Bob was well prepared for the professorship he assumed at the UW in 1971.  He had a B.A. from Yale, a divinity degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School, a Ph.D. from Harvard, and fourteen years of teaching experience at the University of Chicago.  He remained at the UW for the rest of his career, except for a brief visiting appointment at the University of Bergen in Norway in 1986.

As a philosopher, Bob will be particularly remembered for his jewel of a book, The Strangeness of the Ordinary: Issues and Problems in Contemporary Metaphysics.  The title came from a remark once made about the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy was one of Bob’s primary interests. As its title suggests, The Strangeness of the Ordinary is an exploration of ideas that we use every day and assume we understand—ideas such as free will, the passage of time, and that there is an objective truth about reality—but which on close examination turn out to be deeply perplexing.  The book is a tour de force of professional philosophy and one that a professional philosopher can turn to when they need a refresher on one of the topics it covers. At the same time, the book is accessible (with a bit of effort) to readers who are not specialists, partly because of its extraordinary clarity and partly because of the way each chapter starts from an ordinary, familiar concept and then methodically unfolds its inherent strangeness.  In the preface to the book, Bob, a little mischievously, explains that metaphysics might well be characterized in the same way that the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once characterized mathematics, as being, like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, “very charming,” “a little mad,” but “quite essential to the play.”  Whitehead was one of Bob’s special interests as an undergraduate at Yale, and when Bob was a student at the University of Chicago he studied under Charles Hartshorne, a noted follower of Whitehead.

In addition to his book, Bob’s professional activity included some fifty articles, reviews, and contributions to anthologies, as well as over fifty presentations at professional conferences and many universities.  His publications and presentations were in a wide variety of fields, including metaphysics (e.g., personal identity), epistemology (knowledge, belief, memory), ethics (moral relativism, feeding the hungry), and the philosophy of religion (the concept of God, the philosophical theology of Paul Tillich, Wittgenstein’s views on religious belief).

The breadth and depth of Bob’s philosophical knowledge made him a valued contributor to the Department’s colloquia.  In departmental meetings, his smiling collegiality would regularly cool the passions in the room.

As a teacher, Bob will be remembered for the lucidity of his lectures and seminars, and for the feedback he gave students on their written work.  That feedback was frequently voluminous and insightful—and hence sometimes unintentionally painful even though generous.  

David Haugen writes that “some students may have found Bob a bit intimidating at first, but they soon discovered a kind and caring teacher beneath the formidable intelligence.  He cared about his students and was dedicated to them.”

Another former student, Carol Simon, writes that the words she associates most with Bob are rigor and delight, and that “Bob loved exploring possibilities and interrogating ideas. His comments on my papers were almost all questions. Perhaps the most frequent was ‘Where's the argument for this?’ Bob lit up when exploring ideas and always leaned in to listen intently when someone was speaking. “

Echoing the theme of rigor, Scott Lehmann, who took classes from Bob at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, remarks that Bob had a reputation for being an exacting teacher and a full-time philosopher, and that students who wrote dissertations under his direction could expect to be some time at it. Scott also says that Bob’s comments on his papers, although critical, managed to be nonetheless encouraging. 

Ann Baker, a former student who later became a faculty colleague at UW, writes that “Bob treated the whole project of student work and his grading it as part of the effort to gain insight, so the student didn’t feel judged or dismissed in spite of the fact that the work itself was being judged and often criticized. While Bob had exceedingly high standards for good work, he was able to convey the impression that he fully expected the students to rise to the occasion and learn how to get closer and closer to satisfying those high standards. And that is why he was a very popular teacher in spite of being so intellectually demanding.”

Another former student, Deborah Smith, tells a story about how one day she received Bob’s feedback on a chapter of her dissertation.  To her surprise, there was one page that had no comments or corrections of any sort on it.  This was so uncharacteristic of Bob’s usual highly critical style that she confronted him about it, and asked him whether he’d actually read that page.  “He laughed,” she says, “and said that, although he’d tried hard, he couldn’t think of a single comment or correction to make on that page.  I was so proud that I put the page up on my refrigerator for several months.”  She goes on to say that now she is paying Bob’s dedication forward with her own students, and that she has “earned a reputation for writing three to five single-spaced pages of comments on a ten to fifteen-page paper.  The students really seem to appreciate this effort and often come back and ask me to ‘do my thing’ on a draft that they’re hoping to submit to a conference or use as a writing sample.

Finally, Bob will be remembered for his wonderful deep voice, his laugh, and his wry sense of humor. An illustration of his humor is a story about an occasion when Bob had a medical emergency—he fainted and collapsed, and an aid car was summoned. By the time it arrived, he had regained consciousness.  As the medical technicians were carrying him out on a stretcher to the ambulance, he inquired what they thought he might be suffering from. Not surprisingly, the technicians were cautious. “Hard to tell, could be anything,” one of them said. Bob eyed him quizzically and replied, “Maybe tuberculosis?”

Bob will be remembered for this quick, dark wit, as well as for his philosophical acuity and depth, his qualities as a teacher and colleague, and his personal warmth. 

Farewell, Bob.  We will miss you, and we will remember you with great fondness.

Reminiscences from former students and colleagues

From David Haugen (former student)

I have such fond memories of Bob.  RC was a wonderful philosophy professor.  I loved his classes and seminars; they were always deep and substantial.  Some students may have found him a bit intimidating at first, but they soon discovered a kind and caring teacher beneath the formidable intelligence.  He cared about his students and was dedicated to them.  I remember meetings about my dissertation when, due to his bad back, he could neither sit or stand.  But the meetings went on, with RC discussing my latest chapter flat on his back.  (I don't have first-hand experience with this, but I've been told by reliable sources that one of his favorite comments on papers was: "I have no idea what you are trying to say here.")  He was a deep and rigorous thinker, and never followed philosophical fads and fashions.  He had integrity and decency.  This came out in his actions and, strange as it might sound, his writing.  He had a keen BS detector, and was never satisfied with the merely glib or clever.  I think he was fascinated by the problems of philosophy, and conveyed that to his students and made us fascinated too.  He thought of philosophy as the attempt to see to the bottom of things, to understand what's really going on; and my sense is that he devoted his life to doing just that.  He had a wonderful sense of humor--I can still hear his laugh.

From Deborah C. Smith (former student)

Bob always provided detailed written feedback on all of my course papers and draft chapters of my dissertation.  His typed comments were loaded with indications of where my argumentation needed to be shored up or where objections could be anticipated and needed to be addressed.  I also fondly remember such handwritten comments as ‘makes no sense as written’ and ‘English?’.  One day, I received his feedback on a chapter and there was a single page with no comments or corrections of any sort on it.  I confronted Bob and asked him whether he’d actually read that page.  He laughed and said that, although he’d tried hard, he couldn’t think of a single comment or correction to make on that page.  I was so proud that I put the page up on my refrigerator for several months.  Although it sometimes felt like getting kicked in the gut to read them, I benefited so much from Bob’s detailed comments.  I’m now paying it forward with my students and have earned a reputation for writing three to five single-spaced pages of comments on a ten to fifteen page paper.  The students really seem to appreciate this effort and often come back and ask me to “do my thing” on a draft that they’re hoping to submit to a conference or use as a writing sample.

I learned early on that, when Bob and I would get together to discuss his comments on draft chapters of my dissertation, I needed to record our interactions so that I wouldn’t forget an important insight.  (I find it difficult to take notes while I’m actively engaged in a conversation.)  I bought a voice activated tape recorder to use on these occasions.  One day, we were discussing how I might respond to an objection that Larry BonJour had raised to one of my arguments.  As I experienced the discussion in real time, Bob and I had a lively philosophical debate about the strength and weaknesses of various potential responses.  I was excited to listen to the tape and start incorporating some of what we’d discussed into my draft.  However, when I went to listen to the hour and a half or so recording, about forty minutes of it seemed to be taken up with: click, [Bob’s voice] ‘um… um…’, click … click, [Bob’s voice] ‘um… um…’, click.  For whatever reason, I’ve kept all of those tapes.

When I was getting Bob’s input on whether or not I should take a semester long visiting instructor gig I’d been offered at the University of Idaho, he helpfully suggested that we make a list of the pros and cons.  At his prompting, we put ‘derails your dissertation for a while’ on both the con and the pro list.  I was surprised that he thought there would be any benefit to taking some time off from my dissertation.  In hindsight, I think the distance it gave me on my project did turn out to be a pro and I completed my dissertation within a year of returning to Seattle.

Bob was such a gentle and caring person.  I remember being both touched and somewhat confused by the fact that his stated (and clearly non-philosophical) reason for rejecting David Lewis’ thesis of a plurality of worlds was that he hated the idea that he had an infinite number of counterparts who were suffering terribly.  I tried to cheer him up by pointing out that he would also have an infinite number of counterparts who were living incredibly happy lives.  That didn’t seem to matter to him.  He was solely focused on the pain of his unfortunate counterparts.  He really seemed deeply troubled by it.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I am who I am philosophically because of Bob Coburn.  From him, I learned to begin by sketching the detailed logical space of a problem before committing myself to any position.  I learned to be philosophically cautious and not make stronger claims than needed.  I learned to be philosophically daring and not limit myself to traditional points of view.  I learned that the key to good writing is re-writing.  I learned not to be afraid to reject a stance that I had previously committed myself to when the evidence warrants it.  Indeed, by the time the oral defense of my dissertation was scheduled, I had already come to suspect that the view that I was defending was not ultimately philosophically viable.  In more than a few of the articles I have published since coming to Kent State, I defend the exact opposite of the thesis that I had put forward in my dissertation.  I think that Bob would be proud.  Although his work was in a different sub-field of metaphysics, I believe that anyone who knew Bob would see his influence clearly evidenced in my own published work.  I am truly grateful for all that he taught me.

From Ann Baker (former student and colleague)

When Bob Coburn taught a class, he was always passionate about the topic—whether he was teaching metaphysics (his specialty) or Wittgenstein or political philosophy or whatever else he might teach. He invited the students to think with him, showing them how exciting the search for philosophical insight could be. And he was so good to talk to in office hours. You could take your graded paper or exam into his office and he would walk you through the work, explaining what was good about your answers and what was not so good. He treated the whole project of student work and his grading it as part of the effort to gain insight, so the student didn’t feel judged or dismissed in spite of the fact that the work itself was being judged and often criticized. While Bob had exceedingly high standards for good work, he was able to convey the impression that he fully expected the students to rise to the occasion and learn how to get closer and closer to satisfying those high standards. And that is why he was a very popular teacher in spite of being so intellectually demanding. One of his most popular classes was a junior level class he called Personal Values and Human Good. He changed this course every time he taught it, but it always focused on important elements of a good life.

Bob’s published work shows how deep and integrated his philosophical interests were. Multiple papers and his book all point to an expertise in metaphysics, but he also published many papers in philosophy of mind, epistemology, logic, philosophy of religion, ethics (about both normative and foundational issues), and political philosophy. His breadth and depth of philosophical knowledge made him an important contributor to the departmental faculty discussion group, no matter what was being discussed.

From Carol Simon (former student)

The words that I associate most with Bob are rigor and delight. He loved exploring possibilities and interrogating ideas. His comments on my papers were almost all questions. Perhaps the most frequent was "Where's the argument for this?" Bob lit up when exploring ideas and always leaned in to listen intently when someone was speaking. He was such a dedicated teacher that even severe back problems could not keep him from meeting his classes.

From Syd Lamb (friend since childhood)

Bob and I were in the same Boy Scout troop in Denver, way back in the forties. Then we were in the same high school, East High School, in Denver. Then we both went to Yale in the fall of 1947, graduated in 1951. We were roommates all four years. In our sophomore year we also had Doug Blue (a.k.a. Swami Atmatattvananda) as a roommate. Doug and Bob both became philosophy majors and good lifelong friends. They were both interested in Alfred North Whitehead, whom they studied about with Paul Weiss. They were also fans of Professor Robert Calhoun. After graduation they both went to U of Chicago Divinity School, where they studied with Charles Hartshorn (sp.?), a follower of Whitehead. And then Bob went to Harvard for a PhD in Philosophy.

Bob was a very serious student at Yale, studied hard, became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He stimulated my thinking in many conversations. I too was very interested in philosophy, and still am, and so Bob and I had a lot to talk about. He was a good roommate and always intellectually stimulating.

From Marc Cohen (former colleague)

A striking thing about Bob was his unusual combination of optimism and pessimism. He had a persistent belief that the state of the world was bleak, and that some kind of crisis loomed at all times, whether it was an imminent nuclear war or an invasion of killer bees. These ominous forebodings tended to fill me with dread. Bob, sensing that his words were having this effect, invariably concluded with a broad grin and a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well enjoy ourselves as best we can.” He was the sunniest pessimist I’ve ever known. He could find something to laugh about in any situation.

Here’s an example: on one occasion Bob suffered some kind of medical emergency—he fainted or collapsed, and EMTs were summoned. By the time they arrived, he had regained consciousness, and as they ministered to him, he inquired what they thought he might be suffering from. Not surprisingly, the EMTs were cautious. “Hard to tell, could be anything,” one of them said. Bob eyed him quizzically and replied, “Maybe tuberculosis?”

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