Dewi “DZ” Phillips

by Richard on July 27, 2006

I was very sad to learn of the death of Prof. D. Z. Phillips on Tuesday. He had an exceptional mind and was surely one of Swansea’s finest scholars. As well as being the Rush Rhees Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Swansea, he was also Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in the USA.

Swansea University has an obituary.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 07.27.06 at 3:59 pm

A huge loss of an outstanding philosopher, a plucky polemicist, a scintillating raconteur and a unique character. But how good that DZ (pronounced Dee Zed) died on the earth of his beloved Abertawe (the Welsh for Swansea) - and not in the spiritual wasteland of California! - and how fitting that he collapsed in the university library.

I shall always treasure DZ’s letter of thanks for my anti-theodicy hymn (posted on Connexions a while back). I had sent him a copy - and then waited to be slaughtered by return post. Instead DZ wrote that if he had had the hymn when he recently lectured to a packed hall at Swansea on the topic, he would have ditched his lecture and had us just sing the hymn. High praise indeed!

At least DZ won’t have any problems of communication in heaven, as in this part of the world we all know that the angels speak Welsh (and, of course, play a mean harp!)! May Dewi have many many happy hours talking turkey with Hume and Wittgenstein, Flannery O’Connor and R.S. Thomas, et. many al. DZ once wrote (in an essay typically engagingly entitled “From Coffee to Carmelites”): “Philosophers are reluctant to admit that there is anything which passes beyond human understanding.” QED - and RIP.


David 07.29.06 at 5:47 am

What a loss for us all. I own DZ’s book, “R.S Thomas - Poet of the Hidden God,” and I deeply admire his ability to integrate philosophy, theology, and literature. I greatly miss Wales (after my one trip in 2003), and reading DZ and RS always reminds me of that beautiful land.

Kim, any chance you might offer a link to that hymn? I would very much like to read it.


Richard 07.29.06 at 8:50 am

Was it this one, Kim?


Kim 07.29.06 at 1:46 pm

Hi David.

Richard’s “this one” is indeed the link.

The Thomas book is brilliant, isn’t it? I got my copy just over a year ago -through Amazon via the US! A prophet without honour and all that. I hope that DZ’s death will inspire the re-issue of some of his less accessible work.

You’re spot-on about DZ’s “ability to integrate philosophy, theology, and literature” - though DZ would deny the “theology” bit! I think I am right that SCM Press has just re-printed From Fantasy to Faith: The Philosophy of Religion and Twentieth Century Literature (1991), a wonderful book that demonstrates how exceptional Dewi was at what most of us take for granted: he could read - read not just widely but thickly - with an eye to art’s mediation of religious sense.


Robert Bolger 07.31.06 at 8:22 pm

I was currently writing my dissertation with Professor Phillips and will miss his academic insights greatly. However, I will mostly miss his friendship, kindness, and ability to make my life a bit less “heavy.” It was a pleasure having him in my life.
Ffarwel fy nghyfaill (I hope the Welsh is correct).

P.S: Even though I ma in California, I agree with Kim and am happy that D.Z. left this earth from Swansea and not “the spiritual wasteland of California.”


Phil Olsson 08.02.06 at 12:53 am

Along with Robert (hey Bobby!), D.Z. was my graduate advisor at CGU and I was honored to spend a short stint in the company of such a witty Welshman, such a prolific writer, such a spirited scholar. As an academic, I appreciated both his ability and his eagerness to bring together people of differing perspectives in order to give their voices a public hearing. And the way he peppered his conversation with stories and jokes — complete with hand motions and twinkling eyes — made me proud of the small strain of Welsh blood I have in me. It was good knowing you Professor Phillips.


Keith Lane 08.03.06 at 6:53 pm

I was D.Z.’s research assistant for two years and was working on my dissertation (over which he was chair) when he died. I simply can’t tell in this space all the funny, interesting, quirky things he said and did. His philosophical influence on me–the way he taught me to do philosophy will stay with me for a lifetime.

One short incident fitting for this blog:

I remember driving D.Z. to and then sitting across from him at The Olive Garden shortly after Peter Winch died. I don’t think we were alone, but there was a moment only I oberved when the grief of the whole thing sort of welled up in him. He had been talking about it on the way there–how he’d lost perhaps the only real conversation partner with respect to Wittgenstein–a friend he could speak with fully. At the restaurant, when others were engaged in converstaion, for a few moments he was on the verge of tears. He saw me see him looking out the window. “Hell of a blow” he said.

I feel the same way. He truly is missed.

In Memoriam:

There was always at least one more question I would like to have asked D.Z. Phillips during one of his presentations, sometimes a thought that came later. What about this? What about that? Is it confused to think such and such? Sometimes I would find occasion to ask, other times no. Now the possibility for such conversations has, with D.Z., departed. My own faith says further conversations with D.Z. will be possible, though in that place, the questions D.Z. brought to our attention will not have the meaning they do now. Philosophy was something for this life. (I should note, of course, that D.Z. might well have said I am confused in my talking of a place in the way I do. Fair enough. I’d need to find an answer to show him why I think it isn’t.)

D.Z.’s questions could be annoying—always something that put my way of thinking up for examination. Others might have answers to the questions his descriptions brought to the fore. Some dismissed them. But if D.Z. raised an issue, and if it home for me, it didn’t matter whether others dismissed it our not. It made me question and examine and to look for a way to answer him in the context in which he brought up the question.

Some questions he asked are simply not asked by others. Certainly no one asked the questions in the same way he did. Wittgenstein stated that a question or objection was only a question when it arose—when it was a question for you. D.Z. is gone and I wonder now whether, in many cases, a question is only a question for you when there is someone to ask the question of you and demand a carefully considered response.

Those of us who were his students may continue questioning in the same tradition of philosophy that D.Z. followed, but his questions were his questions. Ours will be different. His only request would be that, what ever question we face, we pick it up and make it our own—‘run with it’ as he so often encouraged in his comments on papers. We will honor his memory every time we give questions the kind of attention that D.Z. hoped we would.

Rest in Peace.


Robert Bolger 08.05.06 at 1:00 am

Thanks for your wonderful message. The story about D.Z. and Winch was heartwarming, and a comfort to read. I also am feeling that his death is a “hell of a blow.” My last conversation with D.Z. (in Portland at the APA) in March was at a Starbuck’s and centered around the topic of death eternal life (something we spoke about alot due to my fear of death and my hypochondria). I had recently read an essay of his riding the bus home one day in Seattle, and I related to him how it gave me great (albeit fleeting) comfort reagrding my fears about death. He spoke to me about the way that “eternal” was used in a religious context in regards to concepts such as “eternal life.” It wasn’t overly profound, just D.Z. making sense of language use in a way that often goes unnoticed in much of philosophy today. However, at the time it his words again touched due to the comfort that they offered me. I am not sure if it was the comfort of his words or the comfort of his presence, but I felt, as Wittgenstein would say, “absolutely safe.” I don’t feel that now, even though I read (and reread) his words on the written page. Somehow they seemed better coming from him personally. That, of course is not representative of a lack in his writing, but A lack I feel created by his absence. I think I can say, without worry of metaphysical confusion, that D.Z. is with God in eternity.


Ceri 09.24.06 at 10:01 pm

I would like to thank every person on this page for their warm and loving messages regarding my grandfather. Needless to say my family and I miss him but messages and letters containing words such as these have eased the pain and led us to remember him the way he would have liked - a joker, a lover of paintings and fine art, scotch drinker and philosopher. His greatness will live on in the achievements of his children and grandchildren. Finally, he loved all his students and workmates in the U.S. and, as I am sure you all heard a thousand tales of his family and homeland, we heard many funny and loving stories about all of you.

Diolch yn fawr i chi gyd am eich cariad a chyfeillgarwch
Ceri John Phillips


Keith Lane 09.26.06 at 10:05 pm


Thanks for posting. In 1996 or 97, one of D.Z.’s sons flew to California with family (wife and children). That night I had driven D.Z. to the airport and stayed around long enough to make sure that his son was not overly tired and could drive back to Claremont safely. It was something to watch the face of the children (clearly tired from a long flight) light up when they saw their grandfather. And make no mistake, D.Z. grew brighter as well. Might you have been in that group, Ceri?

(Robert, thanks for your comments as well. You may or may not read this beforehand, but there is a Memorial Service in Claremont on October 4. I plan to be there and it will be good to honor D.Z. and to meet folks from past years.)


DBen Rees 11.02.06 at 8:24 pm

We the Liverpool Welsh heard the versatile D.Z in his books but not face to face which was a great loss.I read today in Welsh a wonderful eulogy to him by Walford Gealey,another phiolosopher,in the monthly issue of Barn (opinion) where he gives us a glimpse of his greatness.I hope these few words will be posted by one who knew him.D.Ben Rees


Devin Leonardi 11.16.10 at 12:47 am

I don’t know who will see this, I don’t know if I will get a reply, but I feel the need express my admiration for a truly brilliant individual and a truly insightful philosopher. I have recently discovered DZ Phillips through a philosophy I am taking at the University of Willamette in Salem Oregon and have found his writing to be truly remarkable. His views of the skeptic directly relate with my own and I have yet to find a single skeptic that could reply when I have introduced this argument pertaining to Minds and the External Wold, Chapter 2 of his book, Introducing Philosophy:

The skeptic’s main mistake, according to DZ Phillips is to solicit reason or justification where is not required. In his attempt to contest the skeptic view Phillips conveys that the circumstances, or context, of ideas are tremendously important in realizing, “when it does or does not make sense to ask for evidence or statements” and that circumstances “are equally central in determining conditions of intelligibility” (21). He illustrates vividly the skeptic’s tendency to deteriorate claims and explains that “any statement about the external world can always be doubted” unless favorable circumstance is apparent; thus revealing that there is no room for doubt and proving skepticism to be an “unintelligible” method of evaluation that confines a person within their own ideas. Through this representation of skeptic error Phillips is able to explicitly refute the conventional skeptic’s attempt to question the legitimacy of ideas and the possibility of any sort of real knowledge.


Richard 11.16.10 at 1:19 am

Thank you for stopping by, Devin. DZ was indeed a remarkable man.

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