Community lauds influence of late philosophy professor

Last Thursday, Sept. 27, the Vassar community gathered with the family and friends of the late Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy Marco Dees in a celebration of his life and legacy. The events consisted of a memorial service followed by a lecture by Professor Dean Zimmerman of Rutgers University, Dees’ doctoral supervisor, in which he presented some of Dees’ work on spacetime functionalism.

Speaking to the planning process and his hopes for the event, Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Philosophy Department Jeffrey Seidman said that when the department got together to begin planning the memorial, the idea to hold a lecture in Dees’ honor came from Assistant Professor Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa. She, along with Seidman and Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practice Reverend Samuel Speers, assembled an informal committee to organize the planning of these events. Seidman also emphasized that Philosophy Department Administrative Assistant Angela Smith handled the organization of all logistical concerns for the memorial.

Seidman explained the logic behind presenting a memorial lecture: “[Dees] was young, promising and full of ideas. His intellectual life wasabigpartofwhohewas.HedidaPhDin philosophy and he was just starting out on his career, so we thought in addition to a memorial for him as a well-rounded person, which we are also doing, it would be appropriate to try and get his ideas out there.”

Seidman also described the Dees family’s desire to gain a better understanding of Dees’ work: “His family, in communication with us, expressed interest in trying to understand what he was working on. Because philosophy is often esoteric and it’s got a technical jargon, we thought both for the family and also for us, and for the wider world, it would be a nice way to honor him, to try to engage with some of the ideas that he was working on before he passed away.”

He added, “I hope people are able to come away with a glimmering of what it is that Professor Dees was thinking about.” Even for his students and colleagues who are already familiar with the philosophic vocabulary, the lecture was intended to cultivate a more specific understanding of Dees’ work.

A memorial service was held in the Aula prior to the lecture. With contributions from students, colleagues, family and friends, the event aimed to celebrate the multifaceted life of Dees. He was a lover of nature, and reflections from his “adventure buddies” (their own term) demonstrated the intersection of this aspect of his personality with his philosophical work.

One speaker at the service told the story of a sort of game she would play with Dees when they went on adventures, which he called “a priori biology.”

For the non-philosophical, “a priori” refers to knowledge gleaned from theoretical deduction rather than experience. The game consisted of pointing out a particular plant or animal and wildly speculating as to its chain of evolution and the other organisms to which it was related, sometimes with hilarious results.

The memorial also featured the thoughts of some of Dees’ students. Seidman described his preparation for his reflection at the memorial: “The number of students [I reached out to] who said that he inspired them, or opened their eyes to something new, or in several cases, said they have decided to be philosophy majors as a result of taking that first class with him was astounding … He touched a lot of people in a way that I suspect will be with them 30 years from now, when they’re in their careers and they’re doing other things.”

In a reception following the memorial, students came together in remembrance of Dees, as well as to share their personal stories with the Dees family.

Connor McShaffrey ’21 recalled, “I remember early on in class, I started to wonder how in depth he’d get with things, so I asked how quantum physics would affect an argument he was presenting. He got the most excited expression and started over, explaining everything from that standpoint.”

At the reception, Karen Nakayama ’21 and I got the opportunity to speak with one of Professor Dees’ brothers. We shared some of our most vivid memories with him, such as the time Professor Dees walked into Rocky 312, slapped the front desk loudly and posed the question: “Did my hand just touch the desk?” He told us that our stories meant a lot to him and the rest of the family, as they reflected an important part of Dees’ life that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Following the reception, the event moved into Rocky 200, where many students had already assembled. After an introduction by Seidman, Zimmerman began his lecture: “It’s an honor to be talking about Marco’s ideas…I think this is something he would’ve liked.” He suggested that by engaging with Dees’ work, students could briefly move from the physical world into the Platonic realm of ideas and not focus on the tragedy at hand.

“Marco may be gone,” he said, “but his ideas are here still.” As he began to describe the foundations of Dees’ views on spacetime and read from some of Dees’ papers, Zimmerman’s words came to life. The language of the writing perfectly matched the way Dees spoke in class, verbal tics and all.

Zimmerman explained how Dees posited the view that space and time are not the constitutive elements of reality, a view called primitivism, which indicates that spacetime is the prime, most basic structure of the universe. Instead, space and time are themselves governed by something else; Dees thought that this something else was the causal structure of the universe.

He condensed this view into a neat slogan, “Spacetime is what spacetime does,” that encapsulates the functionalist view. He posited that primitivism gives rise to redundancy, and thus is not the best description of the nature of the universe.

Zimmerman used various means to explain these concepts to an audience of both philosophers—including many professors from the department, as well as students—and those with no background in philosophy.

After the lecture, Nakayama noted that his chalk drawing on the blackboard, intending to depict a world in which topology differed from our own, reminded her particularly of class with Dees: “When [Zimmerman] started drawing stick figures on the board, all I could think was, ‘This is exactly how Professor Dees would’ve explained this.’”

The lecture was, in many ways, a kind of mental time travel back to sitting in class, listening to Dees explain abstruse ideas with his trademark enthusiasm.

At the end of the lecture, after taking a few questions, Zimmerman ended his sojourn into the Platonic realm. “If I could just add one more thing,” he said, “it’s times like this, when we have questions that we can’t figure out answers to, that we just want to go ask Marco.”

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