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Emeritus professor of philosophy William Payne Alston dies

September 18, 2009

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Professor emeritus of philosophy William Payne Alston, 87, a major figure in Syracuse University’s philosophy department whose teaching career spanned 50 years, died Sept. 13 at the Nottingham Residential Health Care Facility in Jamesville, N.Y.

He was born Nov. 29, 1921, in Shreveport, La.

AlstonIn 1942, Alston received a bachelor of music degree from Centenary College. During World War II, he served in a U.S. Army band stationed in California. While in the service, he became interested in philosophy.

After his discharge from the Army, Alston was admitted into the graduate program in philosophy at the University of Chicago. After receiving his Ph.D., he taught at the University of Michigan for 22 years. He then spent five years at Rutgers University and four years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1980, Alston joined the SU faculty. He ended his 50-year teaching career in 1992 as professor emeritus. For many years afterward, he maintained an active correspondence with a large number of colleagues and former students.

“Bill Alston was a major intellectual force in our department, in our college, in our university and in the world,” says Mark Brown, associate professor and chair of SU’s philosophy department. “He led the delegation of American philosophers on its visit to the USSR, at the invitation of Soviet scholars, in 1987. He participated in a symposium on Chinese-American Philosophy and Religious Studies at Beijing University in 1994. He was selected to participate in an eight-year project, sponsored by the Vatican Observatory, on ‘God’s Actions in the World in the Light of Modern Science.’”

With his late philosophy department colleague Stewart Thau, Alston founded a singing group known as the Madrigal Singers, who sang together regularly and who for many years performed at the philosophy department’s December holiday party.

During his very active career, Alston was president of the American Philosophical Association, of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and of the Society of Christian Philosophers. He was involved in an eight-year project on “God’s Actions in the World in the Light of Modern Science,” sponsored by the Vatican Observatory. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and he received SU’s Chancellor’s Award for Exceptional Academic Achievement.

He was founding editor of the journals Faith and Philosophy and Journal of Philosophical Research. He also served, at various times, in editorial positions for Philosophy Research Archives, Nous, Monist, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Journal of Critical Analysis.

Alston was best known for his work in the philosophy of language, epistemology and the philosophy of religion. He was author of eight books and editor or co-editor of three others. His published articles numbered more than 150, several of which were widely republished and are still considered classics.

Alston is survived by his wife of 46 years, Valerie; a daughter, Ellen (John) Donnelly of Wayne, N.J.; and grandchildren Patrick and Anna Donnelly; step-children Marsha (Gary) Dysert of Charlotte, N.C., James (Nancy) Barnes of Toledo, Ohio, and Kathleen (Blair) Person of Troy, Mich.; four step-grandchildren; and three step-greatgrandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse on Nov. 2 at 11 a.m. Fairchild & Meech is in charge of arrangements.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 310 Montgomery St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.

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