Obituary of William J. Talbott Jr.
William J. Talbott Jr., Philosophy Professor of Human Rights and Epistemology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
A seeker of truth and justice, a devoted husband and father, an innovative and respected author and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, Bill Talbott passed away peacefully on May 17, 2023, at the age of 74, at Evergreen Hospice in Kirkland, WA, after a nearly-four-year fight with lung cancer.
Bill was a beloved philosophy professor, revered for both his scholarship and his teaching. His inviting teaching style instilled a love of philosophy in generations of students, and earned him a distinguished teaching award from the university. He taught and wrote on a wide range of philosophical topics, primarily in epistemology and moral and political philosophy, including the philosophy of human rights, rational choice theory, and the philosophy of law. Across philosophical domains, Bill resisted the idea that acceptance of human fallibility requires one to embrace relativism or skepticism about human beings’ hope for rational belief or moral progress.
He is the author of four books. His most recent, Learning from Our Mistakes: Epistemology for the Real World (Oxford 2021), has been widely acclaimed in the field of epistemology. The book presents an original conceptualization of rational belief as making sense of clues about what to believe and cultivating a good learner’s ability to correct one’s mistakes. It’s a radical alternative to much of Western epistemology, which has failed to produce a model that can distinguish between rational and irrational belief. The book also provides useful insights for understanding real-world problems, such as prejudiced beliefs, inequity in the U.S. criminal justice system, and the proliferation of tribal and fascist epistemologies. The book grew out of Bill’s earlier work in epistemology, The Reliability of the Cognitive Mechanism (Garland 1990).
Bill also made groundbreaking contributions to the philosophy of human rights. In Which Rights Should Be Universal? (Oxford 2005), Bill argued for a universal conception of human rights by showing that human beings can make genuine moral progress even though there is no infallible source of moral truth and moral reasoning does not rest on proof. The book’s Korean translation was named the Human Rights Book of the Year by the Korea Human Rights Foundation in 2011. His follow-up book, Human Rights and Human Well-Being (Oxford 2010), provided an account of moral and legal progress, and identified fourteen robust human rights that he argued should be legally guaranteed in all societies. Bill’s work in philosophy is enormously significant, and will exert growing influence on the fields of epistemology and moral and political philosophy long into the future.
Bill was born in Fort Belvoir, VA, in 1949, the eldest of four children of William Johnson Talbott, Sr., and Agnes Morancy Gilbert Talbott. He moved around frequently as a child on account of his father’s service in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Bill graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in Philosophy in 1970. After graduation, he served for two years as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, based on his moral, non-religiously-based, opposition to the war.
Bill received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1976.
After graduate school, he moved to Seattle, where he raised his two daughters and worked as a paralegal before joining the UW Philosophy Department in 1989, where he taught for 33 years until retiring due to his illness last year.
Bill was a wise, generous, and kind man, who mentored, encouraged, and empowered those around him.
Bill was a loving husband to his wife, Judy. They loved the outdoors, especially hiking on mountain trails throughout the Pacific Northwest and world, and cross-country skiing in the Methow Valley of Washington State.
Bill was also a loving and devoted father to his daughters, Kate and Rebecca, and stepdaughter, Erin, instilling in them his intellectual passions (with Kate becoming a mathematics major and professor, Rebecca a philosophy major and lawyer, and Erin working in business and philanthropy), as well as his love of the outdoors and sports, taking his daughters as children on an annual backpacking trip to the Cascades, coaching them in soccer, basketball, and t-ball, taking them to Mariners and UW women’s basketball games, and cheering on his stepdaughter in crew events.
He was an excellent bridge player, loved strategy games and puns, and never could pass a large body of water without jumping in, the colder the better. Friends and family looked forward to receiving his annual doggerel poem, and those lucky enough to spend holidays with him savored his legendary pie-making abilities.
He leaves behind his family, who miss him terribly: wife, Judy Foley; daughters, Kate Sims-Drew (Shane Drew) and Rebecca Talbott (Tyler McNish); granddaughter, Amara Drew; stepdaughter, Erin Burchfield; sisters, Madeline Talbott (Keith Kelleher) and Maria Talbott (Michael Bigham); brother, John Talbott; nieces, Aileen and Ryan Kelleher, and Roxanne Talbott-Bigham; and former wife, Margot Sims.
The family plans to hold a memorial later in the summer. Donations may be sent in Bill’s name to the Southern Poverty Law Center, splcenter.org.