In Memoriam John G. Slater (1930-2022)

Published: February 27, 2023

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The Department of Philosophy mourns the death of Professor Emeritus John Greer Slater, a formidable scholar of Bertrand Russell, former chair of the department, esteemed teacher, and cherished colleague. Slater passed away from complications of COVID-19 on November 19, 2022.

Born in the United States on June 1, 1930, Slater pursued his post-secondary studies at the University of Florida (BA 1955) and the University of Michigan (MA 1956, PhD 1961), completing a dissertation titled “A Methodological Study of Ordinary Language Philosophy.”

Teaching appointments during and after his doctoral studies took him to the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and the University of Houston. He was in Texas at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, a fact that prompted him to leave the United States for Canada. According to his own telling, Slater longed for a different political climate north of the border after witnessing celebrations of Kennedy’s murder in his city of residence.

Appointed as an associate professor with tenure to the Graduate Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, Slater arrived in Canada in September 1964. After years of dedicated service, teaching, and scholarship, he would see his promotion to full professor in 1988. He officially retired in 1995.

Only five years after his arrival, Slater was appointed chair of the department (1969–1974), facilitating what his colleague Professor Emeritus Wayne Sumner describes as “a time of momentous change.” In Sumner’s words, “What was developed and instituted then, in the space of a year or so, looks remarkably like the curriculum and the democratic decision-making structures that we have now. It is no overstatement to say that John oversaw a renaissance in the history of the department. He was very much the right man at the right time for that process.”

Slater’s commitment to departmental advancement led to three further terms as acting chair (1981–1982, 1984–1985, and 1994–1995), as well as to other administrative roles in a wide variety of department committees.

As a scholar, Slater worked in logic and early analytic philosophy, becoming a renowned expert in the life and writings of Bertrand Russell. He was a founding editor of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, editing five volumes and co-editing a sixth. He also published widely, including Pragmatism and Purpose: Essays Presented to Thomas A. Goudge (1981), which he edited, Bertrand Russell (1994), and an extensive history of the Department of Philosophy, Minerva’s Aviary: Philosophy at Toronto, 1843–2003 (2005). The fruits of his exhaustive bibliographical investigations resulted in the two-volume Bibliography of Modern British Philosophers (2004) and three volumes of the Bibliography of Modern American Philosophers (2005).

Sumner remembers well the genesis of Minerva’s Aviary. Desiring an update to the history of the department (to 1974) circulating in mimeographed form and written mostly by Tom Goudge, Sumner admits that he “envisioned John would provide some coverage of the main developments of the succeeding two decades—perhaps another 30 or 40 pages in the same form. In my naïveté, I thought this task should not require more than six months or so to complete.” But Slater tackled the assignment with “customary scholarly thoroughness,” and Minerva’s Aviary appeared some twenty years later, well after his retirement.

In the final months of his life, Slater composed an as of yet unpublished autobiography—typing with one finger on each hand because of arthritis, as his friend and McMaster colleague Kenneth Blackwell noted. “Patience was a virtue John had in spades,” Blackwell offers.

Slater’s care and enthusiasm translated into his teaching as well. Stephen Yablo, David W. Skinner Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), describes a course on Russell he took with Slater as “a peak experience” that influenced the course of his own career.

Yet Russell and analytic philosophy represented more for Slater than just objects of scholarship and teaching. Over the years, he avidly assembled a comprehensive book and print-material collection—the world’s largest—of works by and about the British polymath. The collection, which comprises about 10,000 items, includes rare pamphlets, translations of Russell’s work into any possible language, pirated editions, and the like. It helped establish the University of Toronto as a major resource for Russell studies.

Slater also amassed 12,500 other, sometimes obscure, works of American, British, Canadian, and Australian philosophy originally published between 1870 and the final years of the 20th century. He donated these to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to form the eponymous John G. Slater Collection.

His good friend and fellow book-collector F. Michael Walsh, who sometimes joined forces with Slater on his book-hunting trips, remembers a “patient completist” who spared no effort to check even the farthest reaches of a used bookstore to locate his treasures. While the men differed in their collecting interests (the Walsh Philosophy Collection, also housed at the Fisher, includes books printed between the 15th and 20th centuries), there was some overlap. “If we both wanted something, I mostly yielded to John,” says Walsh—but he did manage to acquire two titles Slater had desired but could never procure: a tiny book on logic by Josiah Royce that he had written for his students at Berkeley and a text on modern symbolic logic penned in Portuguese by Willard Van Orman Quine during his teaching stint in Brazil. In keeping with his famously generous spirit, Slater did not begrudge his friend the rare finds. “John was genuinely happy that I got them,” Walsh says, adding, “and especially pleased that because one of us succeeded at purchasing them, the Fisher would end up with a copy.”

No matter whom one asks, the figure of John G. Slater emerges as a diligent, patient, hardworking, and generous man full of stories who cared deeply about people and ideas. In the words of University Professor Cheryl Misak, “John knew everything about the history of analytic philosophy and his collection of books on the topic was staggering. The Slater Collection in our Fisher Rare Book Library is a true legacy, as is his superb work on Russell. But more personally, and perhaps more importantly, John was a warm, steady, sparkling, and kind presence in the department for as long as anyone can remember.”

Sumner agrees: “The contributions that John made to the life and development of the department are obvious. But I will remember him most for his large, book-lined office at 215 Huron Street, where the door was always open, and for his congeniality as a colleague.” Everyone who knew him dearly misses that reliable equanimity.