Philosophy has been a lifelong passion for Michael and Virginia Walsh. That passion inspired them to create the Michael & Virginia Walsh Chair in History of Philosophy, the first endowed chair at the Department of Philosophy.
Through a generous donation from Michael and Virginia, which was matched by the Faculty of Arts & Science, a $5 million endowment will be created to support the new position at the Department of Philosophy.
“The humanities don’t get the support they should,” Michael says. “We've always tried to concentrate our support for higher education in those particular areas.”
“As a Quaker, I try to use what resources I have to address anger, bias and other big challenges in our increasingly complex world,” Virginia says. “Supporting academic excellence, clear thinking and historical perspective seems a good way to do that.”
Top researchers from across the country and beyond will be considered for the new chair, which will help drive forward the study of philosophy’s past.
"The new chair will increase our international visibility even further and give a new impulse to teaching and research in this important area of philosophy,” says Martin Pickavé, chair and graduate chair of the Department of Philosophy. “It is wonderful that the Walshes are investing in its future here at U of T.”
According to Michael, philosophical works from the past are often as relevant today as they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
“We don't read people like Plato and Aristotle just as historical artifacts as you might if you're doing history of science,” Michael says. “Quite often, when you're dealing with a current philosophical problem or question, you might very well read ancient philosophers or medieval philosophers to get insight and ideas.”
Studying philosophy during her university days left a profound mark on Virginia, who says it has influenced all her efforts later in life, from raising a family and teaching children with special needs, to working with committees, groups and individuals.
“I have found that knowing how to approach questions from all angles has been invaluable for everything I do and have done,” she says.
For Michael, who enjoyed a long career in investment banking, U of T helped him rediscover his love of philosophy when he was in his 40s. He took classes at the Department of Philosophy before he made the decision to take a break in his business career to complete a doctorate in the subject at his alma mater, the University of Guelph.
U of T has unique strength; indeed, it has one of the best philosophy departments in the world and has always excelled in historical studies in the subject. It has outstanding students and teachers with broad research interests. As well, the Fisher Library really is a resource for not just Toronto students, but for researchers throughout Ontario, Canada and abroad.
“I'm one of those people who all my life has been puzzled by those big questions. What philosophers sometimes talk about as the ‘riddle of the world,’” Michael says.
Michael’s love for philosophy easily combined with his love of books, and he began collecting philosophy books when he was a graduate student at the University of London.
“It was like going to heaven because London had all these wonderful shops selling rare books,” he says. “I didn't have any money, but I could still window shop.”
In the intervening years, Michael frequented rare bookstores in Toronto and whenever he travelled to cities like London, Los Angeles and New York for his work. Michael gratefully points out that his wife, Virginia — who, though interested in philosophy, is by no means a rare book enthusiast — has been incredibly supportive of his interests throughout their lives.
“One of the things you learn as a collector of anything, whether it be pictures or whatever, is that when you have an opportunity to buy something that’s really rare, you may regret letting it go,” Michael says.
Michael’s collection grew to the point where it now numbers roughly 13,000 books, some of which come from the early days of printing. The oldest books in his collection date back to the fifteenth century with first printings of authors such as Thomas Aquinas.
Michael was a founding member of the “Friends of the Fisher” and had known for a while that he wanted to donate his collection to U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. More recently, the Walshes established an endowment to enable future purchases for the collection.
“U of T has unique strength; indeed, it has one of the best philosophy departments in the world and has always excelled in historical studies in the subject,” Michael says. “It has outstanding students and teachers with broad research interests. As well, the Fisher Library really is a resource for not just Toronto students, but for researchers throughout Ontario, Canada and abroad.”
Next summer, Michael will be curating an exhibition of books by Immanuel Kant and other German philosophers at the Fisher Library. Kant has a special place in Michael’s heart because it was during a course on Kant that Michael and Virginia first met.
“Indeed, if it weren’t for Kant, we never would have gotten married,” he says.
Both Michael and Virginia are committed to passing on their love of philosophy and the other humanities to the next generation. Many of their efforts, including Michael’s upcoming Kant exhibition, work toward that ultimate goal.
“If there are graduate and undergraduate students as well as their professors who draw some inspiration from attending the exhibition, that will be a great reward for building the Walsh Philosophy Collection,” Michael says. “And if there are students drawn to philosophy because of this new chair, that will be an even greater reward.”