- In Memoriam:John W. Yolton 1921-2005
John Yolton died a few days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. He was one of the most distinguished historians of philosophy of his generation. Early in his studies he had found Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding a challenging book that raised as many puzzles as it answered and it was his engagement with that work that dominated his intellectual enquires from his MA studies until his latest book, published last year, The Two Intellectual Worlds of John Locke. Man, Person, and Spirits in the "Essay." It was his fifteenth authored book. His first book was his Oxford D. Phil. Thesis, John Locke and the Way of Ideas, published nearly fifty years ago in 1956. If Locke and Ideas were to dominate his writings, they were not exclusive of other interests. His second book was The Philosophy of A.S. Eddington. Others, not Locke-centered, were to follow. In later years he has focussed especially on the problem for all readers of Locke and other early modern philosophers including Descartes, Berkeley and Hume, as to the nature of their commitment to ideas. Did they really hold that ideas are objects that intervene between the perceiving mind and the outside world, or is the standard reification of ideas simply a mistaken reading of their argument? Yolton, since at least the early 1980s, has argued that to reify ideas in the standard way is based on a false reading of the texts. His reading has not always been accepted by historians of philosophy but there are signs that that might be changing and some books and articles published in the last five years or so reveal distinct signs of a Yolton influence.
John Yolton was not only a prolific writer he was also a highly regarded editor, not only of Locke texts but also of important collections of papers such as John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (1969) and The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment (1992) to which he contributed [End Page 419] a prodigious number of entries. But perhaps as important as his writing was Yolton's teaching. Nobody who sat in on one of his classes could not but be impressed with the way in which he was able to hold a class's attention to a text of Descartes, Locke or Hume and engage first year or graduate students in a scrutiny of the text, perhaps only a paragraph or even a sentence long, teasing out its ambiguities and its place in an argument, to the obvious enlightenment of students who until then had found early modern philosophical prose dull and uncaptivating. It is no surprise to find that he supervised a large number of scholars of the early modern period who have gone on to make important contributions to the history of philosophy and intellectual history.
John Yolton was always enormously generous with his time. His graduate students became extensions of the Yolton family. So also did younger scholars. Any book or paper sent him was always to receive careful attention and detailed comment, always fair but never patronising. He was also very active as a member of many editorial boards, including the Journal of the History of Ideas and the Clarendon Locke Board. John was appointed to the Board of Consulting Editors of the JHI in 1977. At the beginning of 1987 he was elected to the Board of Editors and he was still a member of that Board at the time of his death. During his membership on both boards he provided an enormous amount of editorial help, evaluating scores of submitted papers. He was especially active during the years that the Journal's editorial office was located at Rutgers University. In 1991 John was elected vice president of the Board of Directors, the governing body of the JHI. He served as vice president until the summer of 1998. He was chairman of the Clarendon Locke Board for nine years as well as, at the same time, being its general editor.
John Yolton and his wife, Jean, a Locke scholar in her own right, were regular participants at conferences, but in recent years their travelling...