Hugh supervised my PhD at Cambridge in the early 1970s. In my thesis (on the metaphysics of time) I defended an anti-realist conception of the future, and the arguments which I advanced were ones with which Hugh was (to put it no more strongly) unsympathetic. He was nevertheless personally supportive, and always a generous, engaging and witty companion. Hugh was rigorous and sternly uncompromising in his supervisory role, about which he quoted his own PhD supervisor, Mary Hesse, who said that the role of an academic supervisor in philosophy is “to test a student’s arguments to destruction”. This he did on numerous occasions and I spent many hours contemplating the wreckage after supervisory sessions with Hugh.1 He was a powerful formative force and an indelible influence on my life.
Just before returning to Australia in late 1974 I shared a farewell lunch with Hugh (at which Cambridge pub I forget). At the end of the lunch I presented Hugh with a gift, which consisted of a collection of clock parts embedded in a clear acrylic matrix.2 The underlying suggestion (which Hugh immediately grasped) was that here was a clock—Hugh’s sort of clock—which could be exhaustively described with his preferred tenseless lexicon, but which was incapable of telling the time. Hugh gazed intently at the object, an eyebrow quizzically raised, and said nothing for at least twenty seconds. It’s the only time that I ever saw Hugh speechless for such a protracted period. He may have been endeavouring to think of some withering riposte, but on this occasion (and in my experience it was the only occasion) nothing came. I’m sure that he would have had something ready if anyone tried that stunt on him again. After a long pause he just expressed his thanks. This was the only time that I slowed Hugh down (a bit) and it wasn’t the result of anything I wrote, or said, but the result of me taking something out of my pocket. Hugh had been “moored”.3 It’s the only time that I’ve ever moored anyone. It was a very satisfying moment.
June 27, 2020
1. The term “hughmellorating” is an apt descriptor for encounters with Hugh. See Dan Dennett, The Philosophical Lexicon 2008 edn. . At this stage of his career (to deploy his other entry in the Lexicon) Hugh showed no sign of “melloring”.
2. Hugh used an image of this gift for the dust jacket of the first edition of Real Time (reproduced below).
3. Another term from Dennett’s Philosophical Lexicon, op cit.