In Memoriam Fred F. Wilson (1937-2023)

Published: January 13, 2023

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The Department of Philosophy is deeply saddened by the death of our colleague, Professor Emeritus FRSC Fred F. Wilson, on Tuesday, January 10, 2023, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Wilson—an indefatigable scholar and dedicated teacher who also found time for a series of active service roles—worked in, and helped shape, the department for 38 years, from 1965 to 2003.

Wilson, an expert on the writings of John Stuart Mill and David Hume, came to academic philosophy after completing an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at McMaster University in 1960. Changing scholarly direction, he went to the University of Iowa to study under the supervision of Gustav Bergmann, a member of the Vienna Circle. He graduated with a PhD in Philosophy in 1965.

That same year the Hamilton native returned to Ontario to accept a tenure-track position at the University of Toronto. He received tenure, and a promotion to associate professor, in 1969. While at U of T, Wilson emerged a prolific writer and scholarly editor, with more than 150 publications on a wide range of topics to his name, among them Carnap and Goodman: Two Formalists (Martinue Nijhoff, 1967; with A. Hausman), Hume’s Defence of Casual Inference (University of Toronto Press, 1997), The Logic and Methodology of Science in Early Modern Thought: Seven Studies (University of Toronto Press, 1999), Socrates, Lucretius, Camus: Two Philosophical Traditions on Death (Edwin Mellen, 2001), Body, Mind, and Self in Hume’s Critical Realism (Ontos, 2008), and The External World and Our Knowledge of It: Hume’s Critical Realism, an Exposition and a Defence (University of Toronto Press, 2008).

In 1994, Wilson’s contributions to his field resulted in his being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Above all, however, Wilson enjoyed teaching, mentoring, and debating with students, something he continued doing long past his official retirement.

His engagement in the classroom and on the page did not keep him from also pursuing demanding administrative duties: he served on many committees and organizations at U of T and beyond, including several terms as president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and as president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Professor Emeritus John G. Slater, in his Minerva’s Aviary: Philosophy at Toronto, 1843–2003, labeled Wilson’s skill at showing up with verve wherever he committed himself “eloquent testimony to his ability to parcel his time effectively.”

Verve is also what another colleague, Professor Emeritus Wayne Sumner, remembers vividly about Wilson. The two arrived as young professors at U of T around the same time, easily settling into what Sumner describes as “the cohort of feisty junior faculty who thought they knew how philosophy should be done and how the department should be modernized.” Among other things, they organized a discussion group, the Vicious Circle, in which he remembers Wilson “not hesitating to express his convictions . . . . To tell the truth, I was a little bit afraid of him.” The two men became good friends anyway. Says Sumner, “I greatly admired his straight-ahead, no-nonsense way of approaching problems, whether philosophical or administrative. He slowed down only once Parkinson’s began to take its toll. I was very fond of him and will miss him greatly.”

It is a sentiment the Department of Philosophy shares, and we hold in our thoughts Wilson’s family and many friends during this difficult time of loss.

A memorial service for Fred Wilson is planned for 10:00 AM at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel (2401 Steeles Avenue W.) on Sunday, January 15, 2023. Memorial donations may be made to Parkinson Canada or the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Please see the obituary in the Globe and Mail for further details.