Professor C. B. Martin: Philosopher noted for the depth and originality of his thinking

By Paul Snowdon
Tuesday 02 December 2008 01:00

With the death of Professor C. B. Martin – universally known as Charlie – philosophy has lost one of its most original, profound and important thinkers. Martin spent the first part of his career in Australia, when it was one of the most creative centres in philosophy, and he was at the centre of that centre. After that he was based in Calgary, working on problems in metaphysics, especially truth and causation, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of science.

He did not publish much, though the appearance of The Mind in Nature (2007) has remedied that somewhat. However, nothing he published was less than superb, and he had a colossal influence on the subject primarily through his dialogues with others, who invariably recognised him as an incomparable philosopher. Encounters with Martin rarely left you believing what you had before they occurred. His ideas would then move slowly outwards, but often they were no longer tied to him.

Charles Burton Martin was born in Chelsea, a Boston suburb, in May 1924. His background was religious, and with his precocious verbal talent he became a child preacher (a form of religious life in that area that figured in Henry James's novel The Bostonians). This experience may have contributed to Martin's lecturing style, which was linguistically vivid and highly dramatic. He went to Boston University and then to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a doctoral student. There he worked with John Wisdom on the philosophy of religion, in the process losing his faith.

Martin's earliest papers, which were frequently reprinted, were much discussed contributions to the lively debate going on at the time about religion. His first book, Religious Belief (1959), was the result of his reflections. Cambridge philosophy at that time was strongly pro-Wittgenstein, but Martin formed the view that Wittgenstein's later thought was in many respects seriously misguided. According to him, the very best philosopher in Cambridge, and indeed whom he ever encountered, was Bertrand Russell, who was giving some lectures, which Martin was more or less the only person interested enough to attend. He spent time also in Oxford, without being swept away by Oxonian fashions. However, he did fall in love with these old academic cities and he often revisited Britain during his life.

Martin's first post, in 1954, was at Adelaide University, under Jack Smart. He then became professor at Sydney University in 1966, leaving in 1971. Contrary to his own initial feelings, Martin's move to Australia was excellent for him. Philosophy there was thriving. There were intense debates about materialism and experience, and about science and causation, amongst a group of very talented philosophers, including J.J.C. Smart, John Armstrong and Ullin T. Place.

Martin played a crucial role in these debates, and virtually every book and paper coming from there acknowledged his influence. Martin was opposed to the materialism being developed, favouring emergentism – the way in which complex patterns arise from simple interactions – but he also developed profound views about causation, opposing the dominant regularity theory, more or less before anyone else, and regarding the notion of causation as central to our psychological concepts, again before virtually everyone else. He can also be credited with originating the theory of truth-makers at that time.

But apart from his dazzling paper on memory in 1966, and one on Peter Strawson (which was secretly removed from his room by the editors of a volume in order to wrest it from his grasp), Martin promulgated his views in letters and talks. He published in 1968, with Armstrong, a collection of essays by others on Locke and Berkeley. Martin's greatest hero was Locke. He admired Locke's manifest desire for truth, his argumentative care, and his regard for science. Martin more or less accepted Locke's world picture, including at a certain level his theory of experience, though Martin preferred talk of images to talk of ideas. He would often ring people in the early hours to read them passages from Locke.

By 1971 Martin's life in Australia had encountered problems and he moved to Calgary. He had not, of course, spent all the previous 17 years in Australia, and had visited Harvard a number of times at the invitation of W.V.O. Quine. It is to Quine's credit that despite considerable disagreement he recognised the quality of Martin's mind. The nature of their fall-out perhaps reflects less well on Quine. As Martin told the story, he found himself inebriated and without any means of paying in an expensive Boston restaurant. Martin responded by getting the restaurant to ring Quine; Quine rescued Martin but never spoke to him again.

Once at Calgary Martin re-established his life, married his third wife Olga Borysuk, and resumed his philosophical reflections in a new environment. He began to allow more of his work to be published, on truth, substance, and intentionality. It was a measure of Martin's growing reputation that in 1989 John Heil edited a book of essays, Cause, Mind and Reality, dedicated to Martin. In 1995, thanks to the editorial talents of Tim Crane, a version of Martin's theories about dispositions and causation finally emerged, in a book, Dispositions – A Debate, in which he argues about such issues with Armstrong and Place. Martin championed the view that categorical properties and dispositions are fundamentally inseparable and coeval. This account, which he called the Limit view, has attracted considerable attention. He presents the most sophisticated version in his last book.

Martin remained a member of the Calgary department until 2001, when he retired to Medicine Hat. His health deteriorated. However, he continued working, and he was enabled by John Heil's help to publish, in 2008, his final book The Mind in Nature. In it Martin starts, as it were, from the bottom, by presenting his theory of dispositions, initially for simple physical systems, but then, building on that account, a conception of the mind and of the physical world. There is much of Martin's thinking that the book does not contain, but it is a fitting culmination to his intellectual life.

Martin was a large man in every sense. He was passionate about food and art, which he collected. Indeed to hear him talk about Henri Matisse or about Alexander Calder was a revelation. He wrote moving poetry, and was an excellent draughtsman, publishing a book of humorous philosophical drawings. He dressed flamboyantly, and presented to the world, in appearance, speech and action, a unique and striking surface. He loved and was proud of his extended family of children and grandchildren, and also of his wife, Olga. His character was complex and multi-faceted. Above all, he was one of the deepest philosophical thinkers of his time.

Charles Burton Martin, philosopher: born Boston, Massachusetts May 1924; Lecturer, then Reader, Adelaide University 1954-66; Professor of Philosophy, Sydney University, 1966-71; Professor of Philosophy, Calgary University 1971-2001 (Emeritus); three times married; died Medicine Hat, Alberta 23 October 2008.

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