Hugh J. Silverman Passes Away

Late last week I received grievous news that Hugh, a professor of philosophy and comparative literature at Stony Brook, passed away after suffering from cancer. Hugh was my undergraduate advisor and championed me getting into the graduate programs of my choice, which turned out to be DePaul University. His impact on me is indelible, and whenever I teach certain figures in Continental philosophy, I think of the courses with him where I first heard their names.

Intellectuals make their impact in different ways: some through books, some through blogs (now), and some through organization. I worked with Hugh as registration coordinator for 12 (!) IAPL conferences [it happened that I got the news as I was packing up stuff in my house, which at the moment was years of IAPL t-shirts Hugh had given me], and there wasn’t a minor detail that Hugh didn’t look after. I made my best friends in the academy at IAPLs, which also gave me the opportunity to travel the world while an undergrad and graduate student–something I could never have done otherwise. He brought together top flight intellectuals from different disciplines in a way no other conference does on a regular basis. And all along he would introduce me to the plenary speakers, be they Zizek or Kearney or Caputo or whomever, or even a young Graham Harman, who was from DePaul, but I only first met on an IAPL panel in 2002.

My first IAPL was a “turning of the century” conference held in Naples on the cusp of 2000. My girlfriend and I flew there and did the registration during the day, and danced and drank with a selection of some of the best intellectuals in the evening. One of my favorite Hugh stories was that I knew from him that people tend to cancel when conferences are overseas (previously IAPL had been in North America; after 2000 it would be mostly abroad). As such, I brought with me a selection of (what I thought were) my best papers, and next thing I know, in this palace in the heart of Naples, I was giving a paper on a critical race reading of journalists accounts of Africa in a room far more worthy than my paper. It is still probably the fanciest place I’ve given a presentation. Hugh didn’t even blink when I requested a slot (he laughed when I told him the wide selection of papers I brought to fit just about any panel), and in the early years of graduate school, he asked me to take on organizing “Close Encounters” (i.e., life and works) sessions of such people as Kearney, Caputo, and Dominique Janicaud. Arriving in my mid-twenties, I was on a first-name basis with people I would never have known otherwise, and this led to my first publications.

He also invited me to the International Philosophical Seminar in Alto Adige in northern Italy several times as a graduate student. With only a select 12-14 participants, each person gave an hour long presentation on a given book of a living author. I presented my first work on Agamben there and I recall well some of the best intellectual exchanges I’ve ever seen happening there. (This is also a place to mention Hugh’s fearsome ability with languages: we were in the German-speaking part of Italy, where he would seamlessly move among English, French, Italian, and German, and he seemed to pick up a hundred new words with each walk down the street.)

These last few years, as I moved from one institution to another, I did not keep in touch with Hugh as much as I had for so many years. But I got several kind emails this week about his regard for me, which made me feel a bit better for not telling Hugh about his influence over me–personally and professionally. There was always a group of us who knew Hugh well and would talk about him at SPEP or whatever conference, and now I know those talks will be far grimmer in the coming future, but perhaps with a smile that, as one person has a great way of putting it, will say “Oh, Hugh” or “Oh, that was Hugh.”

I could discuss Hugh’s work–his important studies in hermeneutics and deconstruction in the early 80s were instrumental in bringing such discussions about Derrida et al. into philosophy programs–but maybe I’ll leave with one story that comes to mind this week. Several years ago, Michael Naas let me know Hugh was coming to Chicago. We basically looked at each other–what to do with Dad, basically, while he was in town? So we took him to a Cubs afternoon game. Hugh was a daily watcher of Yankees games (we shared a love for this most-hated team–the only time, I guess, we would defend a form of empire), but it turned out he hadn’t stepped into a baseball stadium since long before the Braves moved to Atlanta. We circled the stadium, and Hugh was just giddy looking at the place across the street where his grandfather had once owned a lumber yard. He also was just great with my son Brad while watching the game, and he asked me for several years when we’d next get to a game. We didn’t get that chance. Which is another way of saying I’m still getting over the shock of his death and the impossible mourning this moment provides.


    1. I’ve heard the sad news today. I’m grateful for having met him, and will remember.

  1. This is a moving memorial for Hugh J. Silverman. Thanks for your memories, Peter. I do hope to meet again once at a Conference and – in remembering – to say: “Oh, Hugh” or “Oh, that was Hugh.”

  2. I have just heard the sad news. I met Hugh two or three times in Australia, and he examined my doctoral thesis a couple of years ago. A generous man.

  3. In half an hour I’ll cross Stony Brook campus to attend Hugh’s memorial service and hear more stories of our lost colleague. He has left a great gap in our department and in the life of the university, not to mention in the profession at large and in very man lives. I loved the image of Peter and Michael Naas looking at one another–“What to do with Dad?”–and then taking Hugh to a Cubs game, and am very familiar with those annual conference conversations that always ended with: “Oh, Hugh.”

  4. Dear Peter. I just came across your blog. Thank you so much for posting this. Like you, the shock is still with me. My mind has not wrapped itself around the thought that he is gone and probably won’t until I attend an IAPL or IPS and discover that he is not there.

    It is now up to us to continue what Hugh had begun so many years ago. May we have half the enthusiasm and energy that he did.

  5. I’ve just learned about this. The Editors of Angelaki salute Hugh’s life and work. We were honoured to have him as a contributing editor of the journal. Gerard Greenway, Editor, Angelaki: journal of the theoretical humanities.

  6. I am so very shocked and sorrowed. Hugh was a close friend, and remains so, and a mentor too; I worked him with him at Stony Brook (SUNY) and on IAPL (International Association for Philosophy and Literature) over several years, reinforcing the inter-disciplinary/comparative/cross-cultural alongside a/theological and even ‘non-philosophy’ thrusts that American philosophy is just beginning to be open to (and followed closely in Australia and New Zealand and parts of Europe and Southern America). We last saw each other in Melbourne, July 2008, during the joint (“3-some”) conferences of AAP (Australasian Association of Philosophy), IAPL, and ASACP (Australasian Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy); it was a magnificent conference and we had philosophical time of worthynote. Academic life for me will never be the same without the kind of leadership Hugh provided via IAPL and in other ways for me (he opened up many a connection for me and many others indeed, and published us generously in at least two books series he edited); but most of all he introduced us – students, graduates and visiting fellows – to the burgeoning enterprise of the interface between Continental/European thinking and Asian/Comparative Philosophy with a conscience gaze from the erstwhile pursuits of philosophical theology and gender studies. The generosity that Hugh and his wife, Gerda as she is fondly called by all, and who faithfully accompanied Hugh to all IAPLs, exuded was so large, that on the freezing-cold eve of my first-ever New Year in America, they had me and my late wife, Renuka, over for a fireside gathering with Stony Brook graduates and friends, whence we watched the ‘Big Apple’ descent on Times Square, on a large screen. And he would only serve the best German beer, brewed apparently by his Boston father (a Silverman tradition of sorts).

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