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A Giant in the Field of Pre-Socratic Philosophy

A philosophy conference honors Daniel Graham, professor emeritus and eminent scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy.

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When most people think of scholarship of ancient Western philosophy, they might think of distinguished institutions like Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and so on. But thanks primarily to the work of one scholar, BYU has built itself a reputation in the world of ancient philosophy. That scholar is Professor Emeritus Daniel Graham (Ancient Philosophy).

A recent conference—Nature, Law, and Cosmos in Ancient Greek Philosophy—held by the Department of Philosophy on October 20–22, brought scholars of ancient philosophy from around the world to BYU to share current and ongoing research in the field. But the conference had another purpose: to celebrate Graham, who recently retired from BYU.

Graham may not be teaching, but he continues to produce scholarship in his retirement. His research often focuses on well-known figures such as Aristotle and Plato, though many of his greatest achievements were his translations and critical commentaries on the Greek philosophers who predated Socrates. Referred to broadly as the pre-Socratics, these philosophers rejected mythological explanations for phenomena and aimed to explain the world around them with approaches that combined science, religion, and philosophy. These philosophers were simultaneously scientists, theologians, astronomers, and poets, blurring the lines between these disciplines we nowadays consider to be distinct.

A laudatory address held on October 7 offered some time for Graham’s colleagues and fellow scholars to express their praise and appreciation for his exceptional career of scholarship and teaching. The address featured remarks by John Armstrong (professor at Southern Virginia University) and from BYU, J. Scott Miller (dean of the College of Humanities), Travis Anderson (associate chair of the Department of Philosophy), and Graham himself.

Graham, like the subjects of his study, is appropriately versed in disciplines beyond philosophy. Armstrong, a former student of Graham’s and now a scholar in the same field, attested that Graham is a sort of Renaissance man. “I was impressed by his knowledge of science,” he said of his first collaborations with Graham. “I just thought, ‘He knows everything.’” Armstrong also praised Graham’s intellectual curiosity: “To look at things and try to find an order (or in Dan’s case, a developmental order), whether it’s in Plato or Aristotle or the pre-Socratics, is a wonderful thing.”

Dean J. Scott Miller confirmed Graham’s dedication to philosophical inquiry, academic proficiency, and integrity in leadership positions. He cited examples of Graham putting his philosophical tools to use to make well-weighed decisions on an administrative level, saying, “He embodies what I would call the philosopher’s graces—he weighs evidence carefully, is clear in his articulations, rational in his logic, and is never a pushover when it comes to claims being made.”

Anderson expressed appreciation for Graham as a longtime colleague and an example of a teacher and scholar. “He had an enviable gift,” Anderson said, “for taking even the most difficult of philosophical subjects and teaching them with simplicity and clarity. When he left, I felt his absence acutely; it was as if he left a hole in the department that will never quite be filled.”

Graham concluded the conference as the final speaker. A soft-spoken, modest scholar, Graham offered thanks to his advisors and colleagues who helped him progress in his own career. “It’s been wonderful to work with colleagues and students here,” he said, “and all of you in this area, and nationally and internationally. . . . It’s been wonderful to have a community of scholars.”