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Dolan in Philosophy
John Dolan, R.I.P.


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Earlier this month, the discipline of philosophy lost one of its finest teachers and the pro-life movement lost one of its most brilliant intellectuals. John M. Dolan, professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, died on September 14 after a courageous ten-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 68 years old.

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Together with the late Cambridge University philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the eminent physician and scientist Dr. Hymie Gordon of the Mayo Clinic, Dolan co-founded the Program in Human Rights and Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health at the University of Minnesota. For Dolan (a lapsed Catholic, at the time), Gordon (an orthodox Jew), and Anscombe (a convert to Catholicism) “human rights” meant the rights of every human being–including the unborn. Together, the three scholars provided a powerful witness for the sanctity of human life and the Hippocratic tradition of medicine.

While an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the 1950s, Dolan worked full-time for three years on the waterfront and was a member of the International Longshoreman’s Union. He earned his doctorate at Stanford, where he studied with the distinguished philosopher Donald Davidson. He went on to teach and conduct research in mathematics, computer science, philosophy, and computational linguistics at Brooklyn College, MIT, the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller University, and Swarthmore College, before settling at the University of Minnesota.

In part under the influence of Anscombe and Gordon, Dolan’s interests in medical ethics, and especially in beginning- and end-of-life issues, deepened. When most academics began moving in the direction of support for abortion and some began to think favorably about euthanasia, Dolan raised his voice in defense of the pro-life ethic. His arguments were marked by careful attention to scientific facts and strict logical rigor. He was a master dialectician, but he argued for truth, never merely for victory. He treated opponents with civility and respect, regarding them as collaborators in the quest for richer understanding.

Dolan’s pro-life convictions were no more popular at the University of Minnesota than they would have been at any other prominent contemporary institution of higher learning in the era of Roe v. Wade, but the sheer power of his intellect elicited the respect (and, in some cases, fear) of his colleagues. He was prepared to take on all comers. Few came.

Dolan was the author of several articles as well as a book on logic entitled Inference and Imagination. His greatest gift, however, was for teaching. In the classroom he was, by all accounts, inspiring. He insisted that successful teaching was a matter of “drawing out” rather than “putting in.” His advice to teachers summed up his philosophy of education in a sentence: “Remember, you are teaching fish to swim.” He analogized learning to the growth of a plant: it “springs and prevails through its own inner force. The role of external stimuli matters less than the plant’s inner constitution.”

Returning to the practice of Catholicism later in his life, Dolan explained that his lapse from the faith had been caused by arrogance. (This self-accusation was jarring to those who knew him, for he was not an arrogant man.) “I thought I didn’t need God,” he told me in a quiet conversation one evening after I had delivered the inaugural Hymie Gordon Lecture in the Program in Human Rights and Medicine. “I had everything worked out, I thought I knew everything.” (The truth is, he did know an astonishing amount. Here might be the place to mention that on top of all his other interests, he also studied meteorology.) Eventually, he came round to the conviction that all of us are dependent on the God who created us, sustains us, and loves us; he concluded that it was high time for him to get himself to confession and back to mass.

Among Dolan’s dearest friends was the great philosopher Saul Kripke. Dolan and Kripke got to know each other as faculty members at the Rockefeller University before the department of philosophy there was closed and its members scattered to universities around the country. The two shared interests in mathematics, logic, philosophy of language, and ideas generally. After the Jesuit philosopher Kevin Flannery of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome arranged for Dolan to meet Pope John Paul II on a visit to Rome, Dolan repaid Fr. Flannery by arranging for him to have lunch with Kripke in Princeton. Dolan and Flannery each considered that the other had given him a wonderful gift.

Dolan did not fit comfortably into any political or ideological camp. He supported George W. Bush (reluctantly) on pro-life grounds, but strongly opposed the decision to invade Iraq and the administration’s policies on the treatment of prisoners. He also had differences with the Republicans on taxes, energy, and the environment. He had been active in the anti-Vietnam war movement and managed to retain friendships with people on the left even after the left chose to embrace abortion. One of his friends, despite many disagreements (though not, perhaps, about abortion), was Noam Chomsky. Chomsky did not break the friendship even when it became clear that Dolan was moving in a more conservative direction in some areas. Nor did Dolan walk away as Chomsky’s anti-Americanism grew more strident. A certain mutual tolerance prevailed between them. Before Hymie Gordon’s death, Dolan offered to introduce the great physician to Chomsky. “No,” replied Gordon–a passionate supporter of the state of Israel–”it would not be a successful meeting. I would throttle him.”

I held John Dolan in esteem for his brilliance, his intellectual and personal integrity, and his exceptional fidelity and generosity in friendship.

“May the angels take him by the hand, and at the gate of heaven, may the martyrs greet him. May they lead him into the holy city of Jerusalem, the holy place of God. May the choirs of angels sing in joy to welcome him, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may he find eternal peace.”

Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.



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