Justin Smith on William Gass over at n+1:
WILLIAM HOWARD GASS, who died on December 6 at the age of 93, is one of the very few philosophers of the 20th century to transcend the essential boringness of that social identity. What university committees did he serve on? What was his teaching load? What was the “impact factor” of the journals he published in? Who cares. Gass, who completed his dissertation under the supervision of the analytic philosopher Max Black at Cornell University in 1954, and who worked for a short time with (to the extent that one could work with) Ludwig Wittgenstein, also wrote what is perhaps the greatest, bleakest, most rigorous, and finely calibrated American novel of his era, 1995’s The Tunnel. Impact factor: either “incalculable,” or “n/a,” depending on your view of disciplinary boundaries.
Yet his literary output must not be seen as an abandonment of his earlier trajectory. Idiosyncrasy is the integrity of genius, it is sometimes said. Gass was writing philosophy the only way he could. His principal preoccupation in philosophy was with metaphor, which you might think is a perfect point at which to bring philosophy and literature into conversation. You might think this, until you read Black on the subject, writing around the same time Gass was completing his graduate work under him: “To draw attention to a philosopher’s metaphors,” Black observes, “is to belittle him—like praising a logician for his beautiful handwriting.” He concludes that while metaphors are unavoidable and might sometimes be harnessed for salutary ends, they are, in general, dangerous, “and perhaps especially in philosophy.”