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Remembering Henry Allison

In profound sorrow, the North American Kant Society (NAKS) mourns the loss of Henry E. Allison, a brilliant mind who made an indelible mark on the field of Kantian studies and the wider community of early modern philosophy. As a former esteemed member of the NAKS Board of Trustees, Professor Allison's contributions have enriched our understanding of Kant's philosophy, leaving an enduring legacy that will continue to shape Kant's scholarship for generations to come.

In memory of Professor Allison, we invite our members who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him to share their memories. We invite you to consider the significance of Professor Allison's work and his impact on you and our community. Your comments, memories, and reflections will not only honor a remarkable human being, but will also highlight the profound influence he had on our understanding of Kant.

To access the option for posting, please note that you must log in as a NAKS member. Once you have logged in, you will see the link for contributing.

Let us come together to honor Henry E. Allison's life and legacy!

________________________


VANKS Special Edition

Join us on July 5th, at 1pm ET, for this brief commemoration of former Board member Henry Allison's life and work.   Zoom invitation below:

Join Zoom Meeting
https://princeton.zoom.us/j/93319551127?pwd=cnhHZnNadUhJQ1hsMVd2elMxUVArQT09

Meeting ID: 933 1955 1127
Passcode: 926190


  • 04 Jul 2023 9:43 PM | Linda Palmer

    I first met Henry Allison at UCSD, having come down from UC Irvine to attend his Kant seminars and to ask him, with much trepidation, if he would sit on my dissertation committee. I had an idea about Kant's Third Critique; about beauty and cognition. Professor Allison was frankly not very encouraging but kindly said he would read my prospectus... and then to my immense delight he agreed. I was incredibly fortunate, much more so than I even knew (at the time I too had no idea he was the greatest living Kant scholar) but gradually came to understand over the next years. Henry's seminars were gold. Here was the best education imaginable in Kant's work, and the model of a scholar and philosopher. Henry's care for the work, historical perspective, passionate attention to detail and command of the texts were legendary and inspiring. And hs interpretations of Kant's notoriously difficult texts made them make sense! He could be crusty and sometimes terrifying, but always fair. In later years it was always a great pleasure to see him at conferences and enjoy a famous martini with him. We did not always agree but always, always discussions with him were wonderful, his comments illuminating and incisive. He was bemused, I think, by my interest in merely empirical neuroscience, but tolerant even of such strange pursuits and always encouraging. In 2020 the global pandemic blocked a much-anticipated visit to see Henry and Norma in their home in Sacramento – I think of that missed visit with immense sadness but also pleasure in what might have and should have been, imagining the conversations, laughter, and philosophy. Henry was the real deal, and I will forever be grateful to have known him.

  • 04 Jul 2023 1:07 PM | David Hills

    I’m only a part-time Kantian and saw less of Henry over the years than most of you. We met many years ago at the Pacific APA when I was trying to go public for the first time with views about the Third Critique that were still pretty wet behind the ears. Then and thereafter he was unfailingly welcoming, gracious, and patient with my beginner’s mind.

    But I knew him mostly from his books and am endlessly grateful for the exemplary thoroughness with which they address the texts they take up. There aren’t any strategic silences in these books. Henry seemed determined to leave no puzzle unaddressed and no serious alternative reading unacknowledged. He contributed mightily to robust, respectful mutual knowledge among those who aspire to understand and learn from Kant’s work.

  • 02 Jul 2023 5:02 AM | Sally S. Sedgwick

    To add to the many moving remembrances that have already been posted:  I write as an enthusiastic fan of Henry's work.  I am most familiar with his writings on Kant, to which I return again and again because of their extraordinarily high quality.   I did not know Henry well personally, but I have been profoundly influenced by his treatment of Kant and have recommended his work widely.   Few write about Kant with such care and clarity.   Henry's work has always seemed to me to exemplify the best kind of writing in the history of philosophy.  Here's hoping that his already considerable influence continues to grow. 

  • 27 Jun 2023 3:54 PM | Huaping Lu-Adler (Administrator)

    I was Henry’s last doctoral student. I met him in 2008, when I was finishing my second year at UC Davis. I sat in Henry’s seminar on Hume and Kant (his very last graduate seminar). On the last day of the seminar, Henry and his wife Norma invited the students to their house in Sacramento. They treated us to a delicious dinner with plenty of drinks. I sat next to Henry at the dinner table. We talked to each other the entire evening. And we clicked. Now I wanted to study more Kant with Henry—not because I was into Kant (I was more into Frege and Rousseau and analytic philosophy more generally), but because I had the feeling that Henry was the kind of scholar and person I wanted to become (at that time I still had no idea that he was the greatest and most influential Kant scholar alive). In the following academic year, Henry and I discussed the first Critique and related texts in his study. He took our weekly study sessions very seriously. He would prepare a “lesson plan” for every session. He was also openminded in our discussions. He addressed me as though I were an intellectual equal, in spite of the fact that I had little prior knowledge of Kant’s work. Henry was generous and kind in that way.

    Henry was never dogmatic in his teaching. What I learned from him were not so much doctrinal truths as methodological principles. For example, he taught me how to read Kant systematically and contextually, partly by identifying what philosophical problems Kant might be addressing when he made such and such claims. And Henry encouraged me to find my own voice as an interpreter of Kant, even (or especially) if it meant saying very controversial things (“what’s not controversial is not worth saying” was his common refrain).

    I miss Henry terribly. I miss the way he said “hello” when I called. He will forever have a special place in my heart. I will try my best to honor his way of being, both as a person and as a scholar.

  • 25 Jun 2023 5:10 AM | Adrian M. S. Piper

    I met Henry at an APA while I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s. He was at UCSD at that time. He had read my early articles on Hegel's Philosophy of Right, "Property and the Limits of the Self," and on Kant and Hume in "Two Conceptions of the Self," both of which provided ample fodder for extended heated discussion: He was put off by my analytic approach, but intrigued by the arguments. We made good sparring partners, and he was surprised by my familiarity with the first Critique. His attempts to recruit me to UCSD began before I was denied tenure at Michigan, but that misfortune only redoubled his efforts. He worked very hard to bring me to UCSD. I owe entirely to him my one-semester sojourn  there as tenured Associate Professor. I was always  grateful to him for that, even after internecine tensions within the Department created a climate  I found too hostile to endure. He never forgave me for failing to endure it, and I never forgave myself for failing him. Had it not been for the 8th International Kant Congress at the University of Memphis in 1995, our friendship would have been irretrievably lost despite my repeated apologies. Happily, it turned out at the Congress that he was an excellent dancer with a great sense of rhythm. That saved us, cemented our mutual regard, and reanimated our exchanges, both at the Congress and thereafter. It was only in those later years that I discovered his crusty and sardonic sense of humor, and learned to cherish it.

    Henry was the first, and  one of only three academic philosophers in the field to publicly acknowledge and cite my published work in academic philosophy. He was a man with a spine who didn't care what anyone else thought, God bless him. I miss him terribly.

  • 22 Jun 2023 5:20 PM | Kenneth F. Rogerson

    I was a graduate student at UCSD from 1975-1981.  And I was Henry's first Kant, Ph.D. student.  This was an interesting time to be at UCSD since Henry was at that time working on Kant's Transcendental Idealism ( to be published in 1983).  His two quarter Kant seminars were a right of passage for student interested in Kant or history of philosophy more generally.  They were even more interesting since Henry was at that time working through his interpretation of Kant's idealism.

    Henry could be a challenge to work with.  I remember the experience I had working with him on my dissertation.  After considerable labor, I brought him a first draft of the first chapter.  After a short period of time, he gave the draft back with a sea of comments in red  ink.  I revised once, twice, maybe three times.  Finally, Henry said that it wasn't perfect, but I should move on.  Then I did what I thought was the wise thing.  I gave him a draft of the whole thing -- six chapters.  I got back the draft and it had no more comments than the first chapter alone.  Finally, I got him to sign off on the dissertation when I was offered a one year instructor job at UCSD but only on the condition that I have degree in hand.  That was enough to get Henry to push me through.

    Henry earned a reputation for being a task master.  And this perhaps explains why in his 45+ year long career he only managed to produce about a dozen Ph.D. students.  Although, or perhaps because, we're a small group, we're pretty cohesive.  Since leaving San Diego I would see Henry every couple of years at one conference or another and there would always be three or four other former students around.  The order of the day would be Henry's chosen drink of a vodka martini -- no vermouth.

    In 2020 the Pacific APA was to  be in San Francisco  At that time Henry was living in Sacramento.  He invited me and a few others,  who were planning to attend the meeting, to drive over to his home and meet up.  Unfortunately, the meeting was cancelled due to Covid.  This would be the last chance I would have to see Henry.

    We will miss Henry greatly.  He had an extremely important impact on our lives.

  • 20 Jun 2023 11:59 AM | Lawrence Pasternack

    I first met Henry in the Spring of 1995, as he was spending a semester at B.U. before taking on a more permanent position there. I was at the time gearing up for my dissertation, which ultimately was narrowed to Kant through his influence.

    That influence in a way began about four years prior, while he was visiting Yale. I was then in the midst of my master's degree in religion, with my plan being to spend two years studying theology before returning to philosophy for my Ph.D. Although I was starting to form an interest in Kant, I was too intimidated to take his seminar, having not read much of Kant’s beyond the Groundwork. What I did, instead, was read half a dozen or so commentaries on the first Critique, ultimately finding his 1983 book the most compelling.

    One of my fondest recollections of Henry, which as well might have been my very first direct encounter with him, was when I assisted him in setting up the computer that B.U. bought him. It was his first computer running Windows and using a mouse. When he asked what the mouse was for, I explained to him that you use it to point to items such as an icon or word. He then picked it up, raising it from the table, and pointed it at the monitor. This memory still brings a smile to my face.

    After I graduated, Henry and I did not stay in touch beyond the occasional email or chat at the APA, often years apart. After a chance conversation with Paul Guyer about Henry a few months ago, I wrote Henry an email to get back in touch. I am not sure if he was in a position to have read it, but concerned that he was not, I never sent it. This may be a lesson for us, to not assume there will always be a tomorrow.


  • 15 Jun 2023 4:08 AM | Camilla Serck-Hanssen

    Henry's Transcendental Idealism is the reason why I became a philosopher. I was just going to take a one year course in philosophy and then go to law school. But my interest in Kant became too strong and Henry's works convinced me that Kant scholarship was my vocation. It felt like a miracle when Henry called to offer me a fellowship and a place in the PhD program at UCSD. It was a big and scary step for a BA student from Oslo. But I only have good memories of Henry  as a Doctorvater. Demanding of course, but also generous and gentle. I am forever grateful for all he taught me, for dinners with Norma,  late evenings with lots of Kant and plenty of drinks. Henry was fun to be with and always so amazingly sharp, even after the cocktails. When I returned to Oslo for my first permanent job, Henry took on a part time professorship there.  He came for some weeks each year and taught an intensive MA course.  Our friendship developed and deepened during those years. I introduced him to Norwegian Aquavit, and in the long white summer nights in Oslo we would talk not only about Kant but life and drink aquavit until midnight. RIP dear Henry, somewhere there beyond space and time.

  • 14 Jun 2023 7:18 PM | Paul Guyer

    As many will know, Henry and I argued over many issues in Kant inte irpretation, over the "interpretation and defense" of transcendental idealism, as he called it; over whether his interpretation of transcendental idealism could support Kant's theory of free will; over whether Kant had a successful deduction of the claim of judgments of taste to speak with a "universal voice"; and more.  I always wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff in Kant's philosophy; Henry was more disposed to think that it was all wheat, and did his best to prove that.  But this was all just philosophical business as usual; arguing with each other is how we make interpretive and philosophical progress.  It was never anything personal.  I think that we always treated each other with respect, and as we got to know each other more personally over the years, we enjoyed lovely times together.

    One that I will never forget was a Brazilian Kant Congress to which we were both invited, perhaps in the late 1990s.  We were told that it was going to be in a mountain resort four hours or so from Rio, that we would be bussed there at the beginning of the conference and bussed out again at the end, and that because of these travel arrangements, if we agreed to come we would be bound to stay for the whole conference.  Being both Kantians and Americans, both Henry and I took this commitment seriously, while various others did not.  After several days, Henry and I discovered that we were the only foreigners left.  And since neither of us understood Portuguese, there were a lot of talks it made no sense for us to attend, so we both had a lot of time on our hands.  There was really only one diversion for us at this so-called resort: the bar.  We both enjoyed Scotch, and we made a good dent in their supply.  After that, no matter how we continued to argue about Kant interpretation, Henry and I were always good friends.

    Henry was a great scholar.  He knew Kant inside and out, and had an unparalleled command of the secondary literature.  Whether you agreed with him or not, he had something interesting to say about almost everything in Kant.  And not just Kant: he had exceptional breadth, and he also wrote excellent books on Spinoza, Hume, and even G.E. Lessing.  His edition of the Kant-Eberhard controversy was and remains invaluable, and the volume of Theoretical Philosophy after 1781 that he edited for the Cambridge Edition is equally valuable.  Henry had a long and productive life, publishing his final book on Kant's treatment of freedom throughout his career just three years ago, thus already well into his eighties.  Nevertheless, I will miss continuing to be challenged by him; we will all miss him in our various ways.

  • 14 Jun 2023 12:21 PM | Allen W. Wood

    The world of Kant scholarship will not be the same. Henry E. Allison has just passed away at age 86. Henry’s book Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (first edition, 1983, second revised edition, 2015) is still the most influential piece of Kant scholarship to appear since World War II. Henry is best known for his work on Kant, having written on every aspect of his philosophy. But Henry’s very last book was a new edition of his book on Spinoza, in which he showed careful study of recent literature. And his dissertation, directed by Aron Gurwitsch at the New School for Social Research, was on Lessing. Henry was for many years Professor at the University of California at San Diego, where there is an endowed chair bearing his name. Then he was at Boston University for a decade, and for a time also at the University of California at Davis. I became friends with Henry in the 1980s and most years since 2000, my wife Rega and I spent a day or two together with Henry and his wife Norma at their home in Sacramento, enjoying their company while Henry and I continued to argue about Kant. In 2020 I reviewed Henry’s  very last book on Kant. My review aired longstanding disagreements with Henry. But its concluding paragraph went like this: “Just yesterday I was talking with a prospective philosophy graduate student who has a strong interest in Kant… What I told him was this: You need to start reading through Kant's works, perhaps in chronological order, at least what is offered in English in the Cambridge edition. But you may also need to accompany this with an informed and philosophically acute account of what you are reading. Is there such a thing, all in one place? I told him Henry Allison's brand new book is what I would recommend. Even where I think it is wrong, what you will get is an expert view argued by someone who has spent his life studying these texts and now shares with us the cumulative results of that study. I know of no other book that does this with the breathtaking scope of this one. In the world of Kant studies, this book may be almost as irreplaceable as its author.”

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