Professor D.Z. Phillips

Prolific philosopher of religion

Dewi Zephaniah Phillips, philosopher: born Morriston, Glamorgan 24 November 1934; Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, Queen's College, Dundee 1961-62, Lecturer 1962-63; Lecturer in Philosophy, University College of North Wales, Bangor 1963-65; Lecturer in Philosophy, University College, Swansea (later University of Wales, Swansea) 1965-67, Senior Lecturer 1967-71, Professor 1971-96, Rush Rhees Research Professor 1996-2001 (Emeritus); Danforth Professor of Philosophy of Religion, Claremont Graduate School, California 1992-2006; Editor, Philosophical Investigations 1982-2006; married 1959 Monica Hanford (three sons); died Swansea 25 July 2006.

D.Z. Phillips was one of the brightest lights in Anglo-American philosophy. For over 40 years he produced a stream of books, articles and conference papers, mainly in the philosophy of religion, but also in ethics.

His first, and perhaps still most influential, book was The Concept of Prayer, published in 1965. Philosophy of religion started to make a comeback in British philosophy in the 1950s, after a period when it had been neglected because of the Logical Positivists' attack on the meaningfulness of metaphysics and theology (popularised by A.J. Ayer in his Language, Truth and Logic in 1936).

The posthumous publication of the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, starting with his Philosophical Investigations in 1953, played an important role here. Phillips' The Concept of Prayer was the first book to really apply Wittgenstein's work to the philosophy of religion. It showed not only philosophical acumen but also religious sensitivity, reflecting the influence not only of Wittgenstein but of Kierkegaard and Simone Weil (this trio of thinkers influenced Phillips throughout his life).

A stream of books followed. I would pick out especially Death and Immortality (1970), Faith after Foundationalism (1988), Wittgenstein and Religion (1993), Recovering Religious Concepts (2000), and The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (2004). In his books Phillips was often fighting on two fronts: against sceptics who dismissed religious beliefs as meaningless, false or based on insufficient evidence; and against some fellow Christian philosophers who sought to buttress their religious beliefs by giving them a philosophical foundation, for example by demonstrating the existence of God or by constructing theodicies to answer the problem of evil.

He thought that the latter philosophers were in danger of reducing philosophy of religion to apologetics and so introducing an impurity into the subject, whereas he thought that its primary goal is to help us understand religion. It seemed to him that both sceptics and apologists often misunderstood the reality of God and the nature of religious belief, because they relied on too uniform concepts of existence, evidence, reality, and so forth. He criticised similar oversimplifications in his writings on ethics, for example Interventions in Ethics (1992).

Not surprisingly, he was attacked from both sides. Sceptics accused him of begging the question by resorting to what one critic called "Wittgensteinian Fideism"; while some of his fellow Christian philosophers accused him of denying the reality of God by reducing Him to a concept or of rejecting some central religious beliefs, like the possibility of life after death in his Death and Immortality. Certainly his own position could be elusive: at times it seemed clearer what he was rejecting than what he believed. But he was a doughty controversialist, quick- witted and ready to take on his critics verbally at conferences and in writing.

The youngest of three sons, Dewi Zephaniah Phillips was born near Swansea in 1934. He was educated first at Swansea Grammar School and then at University College, Swansea, where he graduated with first-class honours in philosophy in 1956. He had intended to be ordained as a Congregational minister, but decided in 1958 to study for a BPhil in Oxford.

After teaching at two other British universities, he returned to Swansea as a lecturer in philosophy in 1965, and became Professor and Head of Department in 1971. In 1992 he was appointed Danforth Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, California, a post he held until his death, and which he combined with his other professorship until 1996, when he became Rush Rhees Research Professor at Swansea.

Phillips was proud of his roots: he published in Welsh as well as in English, and he wrote a book on R.S. Thomas (R.S. Thomas: poet of the hidden God, 1986). That book exemplified too his interest in the arts and literature, also manifested in his encouragement of artistic endeavours in Swansea, and in his book From Fantasy to Faith (1991), which discussed the religious and ethical issues raised in a wide range of literary works.

Phillips became well known in the United States especially after taking up his chair at Claremont; and also on the continent of Europe through his enthusiastic participation, intellectually and socially, in the European Society for Philosophy of Religion conferences. I recall the first of these at Lund in 1976, when he and Professor Ninian Smart entertained a roomful of us relaxing after the final session of the day with a constant stream of jokes.

It was this combination of intelligence, warmth and sense of humour that endeared him to so many, including those who usually disagreed with him. He was generous in supporting fellow scholars, including some of his critics; and he devoted much of his later years at Swansea to editing and publishing the work of his former teacher and colleague Rush Rhees. Here was a truly Socratic philosopher, with a vivid personality and a warm heart, who despised the unexamined life and took on all comers.

Patrick Sherry