As we get on in life, we begin to collect first deaths: first grandparent to die, first parent, first friend. For many of us who have devoted much of our lives to intellectual pursuits, there is another category that is as important as these: teacher. I don't mean just someone who stands in the official role of teacher, someone with whom we took a class, but someone who guided our intellectual development, nurtured our intellectual autonomy, someone whose voice pops into our head at crucial and unexpected moments as we think through issues. For me, Joe Camp was such a person, and he is my first such teacher-death. (Adding to the pain of this moment is that it brings fresh to my mind also the untimely death of Joe's former partner Tamara Horowitz, with whom I took a class, but who I think of more as a dear friend and one of the finest humans I have known.)
Above all, Joe was a teacher. I hesitate even to use that word, because it is so often taken in a shallow way that would utterly miss the point. Indeed, if one thinks of "teaching" as conveying information, then one misses Joe's excellence entirely. More than once I thought that Joe was the reincarnation of Socrates: a midwife of the mind, who lead students to understanding beyond what they thought themselves capable of.
In the Spring of 1983, I was deciding between Pitt, Princeton, and UCLA for grad school. I went out for a visit to Pitt and sat in on Joe's proseminar in M&E. I'd never heard of this guy and had no idea what to expect. Amazingly, the topic that evening was the causal theory of reference. (My writing sample had been a paper, soon to come out in Phil Studies, on the causal theory of reference.) And after a few introductory questions, Joe focused on me, demanding that I clarify my criticisms, then expand, then stop and figure out why anyone cared about any of the issues I was raising. This socratic interrogation went on for an hour and a half - right up until break, and at the end, I not only decided that I had previously been fiddling around with superficial details, but thought I saw what it was in the tangle of complications that really mattered. A good part of my work ever since, including my first book published 10 years later, has been a long exercise in trying to become clear on all that, in trying to respond adequately to Joe's first interrogation.
Of course the other students explained at break that they were as surprised as I was that the causal theory of reference was the topic that night. It wasn't what they'd read, or what was on the syllabus, but they reckoned that Joe had decided that I ought to come to Pitt, and that his showing me what teaching could be like was the best way to bring that about. No, they didn't mind, because beyond being the subject of such an interrogation, watching others go through it was how one learned from Joe.
Yes, that clinched my decision.
Joe did not direct many dissertations in his time at Pitt. That wasn't his role. He wasn't the guy with the shiny new theory that a student would contribute to in their research. Joe was, rather, the paradigmatic second-reader: the one who would make the work of a Gauthier student, a Belnap student, a Haugeland student, or a Brandom student better. From the 70s to the 90s, Joe was on close to half the dissertation committees at Pitt. I suspect one could find legitimate grounds to include him as co-author on a good percentage of the early publications of each of those philosophers, but he is so included on exactly one paper.
I want to say things like: I have never met a person who was smarter than Joe, nor someone who taught me more. But comparisons like that don't capture what I want to convey. One aspect of conversations with Joe - one probably related to the fact that he rarely spent his time honing his own positions - was that he could channel other great philosophers. Joe had no agenda. When we wanted to figure out what Sellars was on about, we did not try to talk to Wilfrid who would, likely as not, bite our heads off. We went to Joe's office, and he played Sellars - not Brandom's Sellars, or Rorty's Sellars, though he could play those too if you wanted, but Sellars. At other times, he played Locke, or Augustine, or Carnap, or Quine, or - well, whomever it was most useful to your intellectual development for him to play.
But for all I owe Joe as a teacher of philosophy, however much better I am at this profession for the countless hours I spent in his office, there is another gift that he gave me through those years of conversation that I treasure even more. Upon arriving at Pitt, I was obviously passionate about philosophy, but I was also coming into a serious commitment to activist politics. I had, in the previous year, come to think that I could not live in this world without devoting a great deal of time to changing it. And the two commitments led to some real tension in my life. I was terribly insecure among the amazingly talented graduate students at Pitt in the mid-80s, and the thought of competing with them while spending half my evenings at organizing meetings, and a number of weekends in jail was daunting. In the midst of all this, Joe started nabbing me in the hallway, not to talk about perception or foundationalism, but about the role of the CIA in Chile, or the economics of US nuclear weapons policy. And over the course of these discussions - and of course with the model of his own utterly unconventional life - what he made me see was that it wasn't a competition, that I wasn't trying to do better than others at some set thing, but that I was building a life that worked for me. Whatever the balance, whatever the interconnections between my politics and my philosophy, it would be ok - ok with Joe, and ok with me.
A man who suffered through polio-induced scoliosis, and who nearly died in early middle age because his collapsing spine was crushing his internal organs - to be saved by a massive experimental reconstructive operation, did not have an easy life. Joe lived through more physical pain than most of us will ever witness. But he was one of the most infectuously joyful persons I've ever met. I can still see his smile - a smile on that weirdly misshapen face that is unlike any other I have seen. 'Impish' is a word that always springs to mind. He was both one of the most physically grotesque and one of the most physically beautiful people I've seen.
At a colloquium my first year at pitt, Joe asked the first question. He had come in late, hunchbacked, horribly tobacco stained teeth, wearing filthy jeans, yellow farmer boots, and a down coat held together with duct tape, carrying a large shopping bag full of god only knows what. (Probably mostly philosophy books, but one could not tell that from looking.) The speaker's face clearly expressed bafflement that the Pitt department was allowing some mentally ill homeless person to ask a question. That expression turned to outright shock as the question began, roughly: "You ever go fishin'? I don't mean some bullshit fly-fishin'. I mean real motherfucking fishing for some fucking nasty-ass fish. You know, fucking Pike fishing. Did ya? Well, never mind. Suppose you did..." (Joe used the word 'fuck' more times than any human who ever has, or ever will, live. That, too, was part of who he was.)
Some minutes later, the question ended, and the response - again, roughly - was "Oh, I see. I guess my paper is just wrong."
To which Joe smiled, and said "Don't worry. Nobody's figured this shit out yet. We'll keep working on it. Hey Nuel, is there some fucking whiskey?"
Joe, my friend and teacher, I miss you in this world. I wish there had been a way to keep in touch much more often, but just knowing that you were out there made things better. I'm so not ok with this - and I know you aren't either - which is as it should be. Making peace with things like death is over-rated. The world is worse for having lost you, and I see little consolation for that, but knowing you was one of the best things in my life.