IN MEMORY OF OLIVER A. JOHNSON
(The following resolution was unanimously endorsed by the
Assembly of the Senate at its meeting of May 24, 2000)
In recognition of his many contributions to the University
of California, the Assembly of the Senate hereby notes with great regret the
passing of Oliver A. Johnson.
Professor Johnson served as the Chair of the Assembly and
Academic Council in 1981-82; as Vice Chair of the Assembly and Council in 1980-81;
and as Chair of the Riverside Divisiion of the Academic Senate from 1963 to
1966, performing with great distinction in all these posts. He brought to his
Senate work a combination of outstanding character, keen insight, and great
understanding of the University. In addition, he endowed an award, which bears
his name, to honor exceptional Senate leaders. Surely, Professor Johnson himself
must be counted as a member of this select group.
Professor Johnson’s work for the Senate will long survive
him. The Assembly of the Senate hereby expresses its gratitude to Oliver A.
Johnson for his devotion to the University of California and his tireless efforts
to make it a better institution.
Oliver A. Johnson
Department of Philosophy, Riverside
Oliver A. Johnson, Professor of Philosophy, following four
and one-half years on kidney dialysis, died unexpectedly of a heart attack
on March 22, 2000 in Temecula, California. Oliver was born in Everett, Washington,
February 16, 1923 of Swedish parents. He attended Linfield College in McMinnville,
Oregon from which he received his B.A. degree in absentia in 1944. From 1943
to 1946, he served with the U.S. Navy and was an officer on an L.S.T. in the
South Pacific participating in many operations including the Battle of Leyte
After doing graduate work in philosophy at the University
of Oregon and later at Oxford University in England, Professor Johnson received
his M.A. (1950) and his Ph.D. (1951) from Yale University, writing under Brand
Blanchard, one of America’s leading philosophers of that period. He taught
at Yale during the 1951-52 academic year, followed by a year as a Fellow of
the Institute for Philosophical Research (directed by Mortimer J. Adler) in
San Francisco. In July 1953 he joined the faculty at the University of California,
Riverside, as an assistant professor and charter member of the faculty, one
year before the campus opened in the fall of 1954. In 1965 he was promoted
to full professor. He retired from the faculty in 1989.
During the early years of the campus, one of his first assignments
was to work with John Beatty of the History faculty to create the History of
Western Civilization course. This was not an easy task, but one that was quite
successful as this course became one for which the campus was well known for
a number of years.
Founding a campus is not easy and starting UCR was no exception.
The founding years provided many occasions for intense disagreements between
some members of the Philosophy staff, but Oliver invariably intervened to mediate,
resolve and smooth over disputes. A campus colleague, recalling Oliver in this
role noted, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
In his research, Professor Johnson, not one to pursue faddish
topics, concentrating instead on fundamental philosophic issues, established
an international reputation for his work in ethics and epistemology. He argued
for the rule of reason in ethics and sought clarity, rigor and lucid exposition
in his views on epistemology.
His work in ethics appeared in journal articles and in three
scholarly books: Rightness and Goodness (1959); Moral Knowledge (1966); and
The Moral Life (1969). He edited a historical anthology Ethics (1958, 1965,
1974, 1978) that was one of the most widely used books in the field.
Professor Johnson's work in ethics concerned two topics: normative
ethics and metaethics. In the former area, he argued for a type of naturalism
in which the values of life are interpreted in terms of the maximum satisfaction
of human needs and desires. Combined with a metaethical view that emphasizes
the primacy of moral obligation, this theory yielded a way of understanding
the moral dimension of life without need of any appeal either to intuition
or religion. Throughout his work he argued for a conception of morality in
which, for any individual living in a society to act morally is the same as
to act rationally. Thus, the perennial practical question "Why ought I to be
moral?" he argued, can be decisively answered, since it is reducible to the
question "Why ought I to be rational?"
His work in epistemology concerned itself with the foundations
of knowledge, with special emphasis on the basic question: Is knowledge possible?
In wrestling with this question he devoted much of his attention to epistemological
skepticism, dealing with such historical skeptics as Sextus Empiricus and David
Hume, as well as contemporary writers. His rejection of skepticism argued that,
the skeptics to the contrary notwithstanding, our ability to know certain things
is logically demonstrable. Nevertheless, he was sympathetic to the strongly
(but not absolutely) skeptical view that the scope of human knowledge is much
more sharply restricted than many are prepared to concede.
His work in epistemology, which concentrated on the foundations
of knowledge, was articulated in journal articles and two scholarly books:
The Problem of Knowledge (1974) and Skepticism and Cognitivism (1978). Following
retirement, he published The Eternal Now. Altogether Professor Johnson published
six scholarly books and one monograph, edited or co-edited five more books,
including Heritage of Western Civilization (1958, 1966, 1971, 1976, 1982, 1987,
1991, and 1995), Sources of World Civilization (!994 and 2000), and the The
Individual and the Universe (1981), in addition to numerous journal articles,
essays, book reviews, and book chapters.
For his research contributions, the UCR Academic Senate selected
him as the Faculty Research Lecturer in 1982.
Dedicated to the learning process, Oliver Johnson was an excellent
teacher, challenging even introductory students by the Socratic method. He
particularly enjoyed making students squirm under Socratic examination of ideas
and arguing both sides of particularly knotty issues.
His outstanding record of service to his department, the campus,
and the field of philosophy exemplified his commitment to the university and
the profession. He chaired the department for many years and was the leader
in developing philosophy holdings in the research library as well as creating
a departmental library that bears his name. He served as Chair of the Riverside
Division from 1963 to 1966, and served on numerous local and systemwide senate
committees. His Senate service culminated with a six-year term on the University
of California Academic Council.
In the 1980s, he participated on a UC committee that took
a quite critical look at the ties of the University of California to nuclear
research at the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories administered by
the University of California.
His Senate contributions continued after retirement as he
endowed a bi-annual UC systemwide Academic Senate award to recognize the meritorious
service contributions of others.
Perhaps his most significant service contribution was as Secretary-Treasurer
of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, and as a
member of the APA's national Board of Officers, 1970-71 to 1981-82. Using these
offices, Professor Johnson was instrumental in bringing the Pacific Division
from the brink of dissolution to a position of influence within the profession.
Today, many regard the annual meetings of the Pacific Division of the APA as
among the most interesting in the profession.
Beyond the academy, he enjoyed tennis, baseball, reading history
and sailing. Many weekends he would take his family or friends sailing on local
lakes or in the nearby Pacific Ocean. His passion for travel, both domestic
and foreign, led him to live in and travel throughout Europe with his family
and fueled his keen interest in western civilization.
Professor Johnson is survived by his wife of 54 years, Carol;
three daughters, Julie Katayama of Oceanside, Elizabeth Eckman of Philadelphia,
and Melinda Johnson-Wright of Fremont, CA; a son, Stuart of Breaux Bridge,
LA.; eight grandchildren; a sister, Katherine Brooks of Turlock; a brother,
Gordon of Turlock; and numerous nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.
Carl F. Cranor