WATLING, John Leonard (1923 - 2004)
by Peter Cave
John Watling was born on 18 December 1923 in East Sheen, near London, and died on 10 July 2004 in Petersham. His mother, taking God to be no better than Santa Claus, brought John up as an atheist. After gardening at a pacifist land community centre, he entered University College London in 1946, took first class honours in psychology and, through James Thomson's stimulus, attended A. J. Ayer's logic seminars. Watling worked on induction, knowledge and probability, receiving a doctorate in 1953. He became one of 'Ayer's boys', that is, one of the talented young philosophers that awoke University College's philosophy department from its impoverished slumbers. Watling remained with the department, contributing to its radically rising stock, until retirement in 1985. He became Reader in 1970 and Head of Department in 1983. He retained throughout both his atheism and pacifism - and feelings for the natural world, with a special love for mountains and Ireland. He was a practical man who built boats, yet who was also sensitive to Proust, wild flowers and humanity.
Watling's greatest admiration was for G.E. Moore, with his careful attention to commonsense, getting things right and resistance to squeezing thought into ill-fitting logicians' footwear. Although Watling wrote on Descartes - he deals meticulously with the cogito, exposing its errors - and published valuable work on Russell's early philosophy, stressing the significance of Russell's retreat from propositions, his papers deal mainly with contemporary philosophical concerns. He was an early advocate of a reliability theory of knowledge, and an original explorer of subjunctive conditionals and their irreducibility to the truth functional. Responding to Zeno's tortoise paradox, he argues that an infinite number of tasks can be finished in finite time. The performance of every task involves performing one more task than any finite number, not one more task than an infinite number and, indeed, not one last task.
In opposition to Ayer and others, Watling, in 'The Importance of "If"', stresses the significance of non-truth-functional conditional facts about which we can have knowledge. In assessing plans, we need to know what would happen if. - not what will happen. From 'Either she will not run or the bus will stop' one might conclude that if she runs, the bus will stop; it might be the case, though, that were she to run, the bus would not stop. Watling clears away confusions here, though in 'Are Causes Events or Facts?' he challenges Donald Davidson's anomalous monism, concluding that the causal relation paradoxically cannot hold between causes and effects. Although particulars can be terms of a causal relationship - the sun and earth stand in such a relationship - they themselves are neither causes nor effects.
Watling was a devoted and inspiring teacher. This partly explains why his output failed to do justice to his breadth and depth and why his work did not receive the attention it deserved, save from colleagues who recognized his powerful philosophical acumen. His writings are subtle, meticulous and often original, with much to recommend them - as are his values.
Archive of the Philosophical Papers of John L. Watling
With funding from the British Academy an archive of John Watling's philosophical papers is now available online.
Click here to enter the archive.