Storrs McCall: A Remembrance

In 1981—forty years ago this term—I started my B.A. at McGill. Being a new philosophy student, I naturally took the Introduction to Philosophy taught by Storrs McCall. The class was held in the huge lecture theatre of the Frank Dawson Adams building, and, being an anxious sort of kid, I sat at the back where I would be no more than a speck in Professor McCall’s visual field should he get it into his head to call on someone to answer a question. I need not have worried. Professor McCall had no interest in putting anyone on the spot. He was just there to have a conversation about interesting ideas, and somehow that’s what he managed to do even though there were 200 people in the room. He would talk for a while about Plato’s theory of knowledge or Bertrand Russell’s views on induction and then chat with us about it; that’s how it felt anyway. To this day I don’t understand how he managed to make that lecture hall feel so small and intimate. Perhaps it was his gentle voice, or the fact that he often looked like someone who had just been reminded of a particularly good joke.

A portion of the course was devoted to the topic of free will—one of Storrs’s research interests, I later discovered—and one lecture really made its mark on me. This was his lecture on “compatibilism.” Compatibilism is the philosophical view that understands freedom of action much as common sense does. To act freely, according to the compatibilist, is nothing more than to act according to one’s desires and without external hindrance. When I order an espresso to go, for example, I act freely in a way that a prisoner or a man without a wallet cannot. To illustrate the view, Professor McCall asked us to suppose for a moment that he had had enough lecturing for one day and decided to leave the class early. “I might put on my hat and coat” he said—and here he actually put on his hat and coat—“and try to walk out the door. If on getting to the door”—here he approached the door—“the Principal walks in and says: ‘McCall, get back in there and finish that lecture!’ then I am not free. But if I can walk out the door”—by this point he was at the door—“I am free.” And with that, he smiled and waved at us and—exhibiting his freedom—walked out the door. Of course, we all waited for him to come back and finish the lecture, but after a minute or two with no sign of Professor McCall, it began to dawn on us that he wasn’t coming back. That a teacher could do something so outrageous (as it then seemed) just to make a point about free will was hardly believable. The effect of my incredulity was that I remember that lecture as if it happened yesterday. How many things does one remember with perfect clarity after forty years? Learning to ride a bike? A first kiss? The birth of a child? For me (and for so many others in Storrs’s classes, I’m sure) that lecture—and the philosophical view it illustrated—is one of them. When a philosophy lecture can compete with a first kiss, something magical has happened.


Storrs McCall pictureWithout the convenience of email, I lost touch with Storrs when I left Montreal for graduate school. But a few years after starting my Ph.D., someone knocked on my door, and there was Storrs with his characteristic impish smile. Just passing through for a conference, he said. I don’t remember much from that occasion (apart from the odd detail that I had nothing in my fridge other than diet coke which Storrs declined. “I can’t abide diet coke,” he said; inexplicably, I remember those words verbatim.) But I have a clear memory of Storrs’s genial manner and the ease with which we talked. I also remember the gratitude I felt for the exceptional kindness of a teacher who went out of his way to visit a former student.

I came back to McGill in 2006, and soon after I arrived, Storrs said that we must teach something together. And so we did – a graduate seminar on mental causation. I was filled with pride to be able to teach alongside one of my own teachers and a master of the art. A few years later, Storrs fell ill, and he asked me to take one of his classes in the Introduction to Philosophy. It was the lecture on compatibilism. I gave the lecture, leaving the class half-way through, and I stayed by the doors of the lecture theatre for a few minutes so I could hear the murmurs and the laughter as the students realized I wasn’t coming back. It was a moment of pure, crystalline joy.


Storrs McCall's fatherMy father always says that the bigger they are, the nicer they are, and Storrs’s life provides ample support for this view. He was larger-than-life; always cheerful and full of optimism; and particularly kind and generous to younger colleagues and students. His intellectual vision was no less capacious. Philosophy is becoming more professionalized, and young philosophers are being encouraged to follow the science model and work on ever more specialized problems. In contrast, Storrs was an old-fashioned philosopher whose interests ran from logic and its history, to the philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and he made important contributions to many of these fields. He saw no question as beyond his scope and was always ready to turn his hand to a new problem if it captured his imagination.

Forty-one years after sitting in Professor McCall’s Introduction to Philosophy, I am due to teach my version of the course again, and the topic of freedom will be on the syllabus. This time around, however, I will give Storrs’s lecture on compatibilism rather than my own. And although I won’t be able to pull it off with anything like his grace and flair, I will put on my hat and coat and, exhibiting my freedom, walk out of the lecture theatre with a wave and a smile. I will probably stay by the doors of the lecture theatre for a few minutes to enjoy the murmurs and the laughter again, and I will remember Storrs with gratitude and affection as I do.

Ian Gold is the chair of the Department of Philosophy.

Back to top