Julian C. Boyd
Professor of English, Emeritus
1931 – 2005
Julian C. Boyd, a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus of English and a 1993 winner of Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award, died of cancer April 5th, 2005, at his Berkeley home. He was 73.
A native of Bogalusa, a small town on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, Boyd began college at Georgetown University and earned a B.A. in English from Williams College in 1952, an M.A. in English in 1954 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and a Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965. He joined the Department of English at Berkeley in 1964 as an assistant professor.
He was hired by the English department as a linguist at the height of intense interest in the study of linguistics, when linguistics served as the model that was supposed to give the humanities a “scientific” basis. Students and faculty from Europe, England and the United States became excited at the possibilities of linguistics, and Professor Boyd responded to that excitement with his own brand of passionate interest in the topic and in his students. The Berkeley English department had, for some decades, emphasized linguistics as an important aspect of the teaching of literature. For instance, Noam Chomsky was the department’s visiting Beckman Professor in 1966, and Boyd subscribed to the philosophical implications of transformational linguistics at the time. Although he was referred to as a linguist, he preferred to be called a “philosophical grammarian.” In his thinking, teaching, and writing, he developed a close association with Professor John Searle of the Department of Philosophy. Boyd thought of himself as a student of the British philosophical analytical tradition of speech act theory as inspired by J. L. Austin and Professor Searle. His important essays include “The Semantics of Modal Verbs,” (coauthored with J. P. Thorne), “Shall and Will” (coauthored with Zelda Boyd), and “The Act in Question.” He coauthored the 12-volume Roberts English Series, for grades 3-9, adopted by schools throughout the nation. He also edited collections such as Speech Act Theory: Ten Years Later and Meaning.
Boyd developed an expertise in the day-to-day use of English and the modal auxiliary "helping" verbs that are used with main verbs to express shades of time and mood, in the belief that ordinary language use embodies some of the deepest problems philosophers have dealt with in their traditions. He was a scholar of sentences that used modal operators such as “necessarily” or “possibly” or that were qualified by modals such as “can,” “may,” “might,” “will,” “shall,” “would,” “should,” “must,” or “ought to.” Professor Boyd’s students came out of his classes confident in their ability to make the proper distinctions between the use of “shall” and “will.” One aspect of modal logic was once pronounced by a Cambridge University philosopher as the hardest problem in all of philosophy. Professor Boyd’s desire was fixated on that hard knot. He had a classic philosophical passion to get at the truth of things, especially the truth of the meaning of words and sentences. He was called upon to provide expert testimony and research about the meaning of words in roughly 40 court cases, including murder trials, and he wrote numerous articles about language and meaning.
He taught thousands of students on campus before, and after, retiring in 1994, and many of his inspired students went on to achieve major careers in the academy on their own. Students recognized and valued his passionate engagement with the issues and with his students as well as the rigorous thinking he demanded of them. When Boyd was awarded UC Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award, he wrote that he took seriously the idea that teachers are role models for their students. "I try to present myself to them as someone who enjoys doing what he's doing, who loves learning, who loves teaching, who is compassionate, and who listens," he wrote.
"The only way I have found to teach what I call philosophical grammar is through painstaking analyses of individual sentences," Boyd wrote. "This means lengthy, tactful, and ...patient questioning and listening….Sometimes getting the students to notice and to make distinctions requires drastic means, and I am not above trying to startle, and even confound."
Frederick Crews, a Berkeley professor emeritus, said he was on the panel that picked the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award when Boyd was chosen. “Unbelievable!” Crews recalled. “In several years' service on that committee, and in 31 years on the tenure staff of the English Department, I never saw a set of comparable evaluations … Julian's students unanimously adored him. Their write-ups had an unabating religious fervor. Nearly all of them said the same thing: that taking a course from Julian was a life-changing event and the apex of their Berkeley experience.” Crews said that Boyd genuinely loved his students and they knew it: “Thus, though his intellectual standards were always high, it was his unadulterated friendship that made his classes unique.”
When Boyd was chosen to be the commencement speaker for the class of 1994, he told the students that “The so-called Great Conversation [of humanity] is indeed endless, not in the sense of endlessly repetitive, but in the sense of endlessly creative in exactly the way that Chomsky characterizes language itself – that is, as making infinite use of finite means.”
Genuinely gracious and concerned in all his dealings, he exuded charm and delight towards colleagues and friends within and outside academe. In his 25 years’ involvement in the recovery movement (Alcoholics Anonymous), he was a touchstone for hundreds who found in him a friend and a brother.
Professor Boyd was a member of the Linguistic Society of America, Modern Language Association, American Philosophical Association, The Mind Society, Berkeley Linguistic Society, Philological Association of the Pacific Coast, Semiotic Society of America and the Semiotic Circle.
He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Melanie Lewis; sons Stephen Boyd of Palo Alto, California, and Michael Boyd of Santa Monica, California; a sister, Elizabeth Boyd Aldrich of Richmond, Virginia; and four grandchildren.
Morton D. Paley