Skip to content
Home » All Posts » Longtime Pacific professor, Jim Heffernan, remembered for making philosophy accessible to students

Longtime Pacific professor, Jim Heffernan, remembered for making philosophy accessible to students

James “Jim” Daniel Heffernan, a former University of the Pacific philosophy professor and chair who used innovative approaches to engage and energize students, passed away on Thanksgiving Day, November 25.

Heffernan taught philosophy at Pacific from 1972-2014 and served as chair of the department for over two decades. During the span of his career, he amassed generations of admiring students through his humor, intelligence and unique ability to connect advanced philosophical concepts to everyday life. He described his career as “a 42-year love affair with teaching philosophy.”

“Jim made a difference in students’ lives because he cared about their learning and modeled habits of intellectual openness, clear thinking, a passion for life-long learning, compassion for others and a sense of humor that fostered human solidarity,” said Lou Matz, professor and chair of philosophy.

An avid nature lover, Heffernan helped develop the environmental studies program at Pacific and started a course on environmental ethics, which remains popular with students today. He also pioneered a cross-disciplinary course on artificial intelligence with the mathematics department.

As a professor, Heffernan was dedicated to making philosophy accessible to all students. He was an early adopter of using technology in the classroom and often incorporated movie clips and pop culture references into lectures to make philosophy personally relevant to his students.

Heffernan grew up in upstate New York, where he also attended Le Moyne College. He started out as a chemistry major but was ultimately more intrigued by his philosophy classes, where he enjoyed pondering big questions like the existence of God. He even left university to attend a Jesuit seminary for a few years before deciding the priesthood wasn’t his path.

Heffernan earned his BA in chemistry and an MA in philosophy from Fordham University. After graduating, he accepted a job offer at IBM, where he spent several years as a computer programmer. His experience at IBM eventually led him to fuse his interests in technology and philosophy through a Ph.D. at Notre Dame University in philosophy of artificial intelligence.

Heffernan is survived by his wife, Maria, his son, Daniel, his younger sisters Geraldine “Sari” and Patricia, his younger brother, Joseph and grandchildren, William and Cassidy. A memorial celebration is planned for early 2022.

Share your memories and stories of Professor Heffernan in the comments below.

11 thoughts on “Longtime Pacific professor, Jim Heffernan, remembered for making philosophy accessible to students”

  1. I took introduction to logic and epistemology with Professor Heffernan, and he was an engaging, witty, and passionate teacher. He would tell jokes like: "The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said: if you ain’t cowboy, you ain’t $*@#. So…if I’m not a cowboy, then I’m not $*@#?" or "Nihilists fear nothing." His sense of humor was contagious, and he often cracked himself up with his own jokes. He made philosophy fun by infusing it with his sense of humor, and I don’t think I’m the only student who shared his love of Monty Python. I also admired him for the way he would become so immersed in teaching philosophy. He once accidentally walked right of the stage in a classroom in WPC while lecturing. We were all worried that he was hurt, but he just got right back up on stage and continued.

    He was generous with his time, and so we’d often talk after class (he usually had a small following of students hanging around after class). And, on one occasion, as we were walking though the parking lot, he was so consumed with what he was discussing that he stumbled over a concrete parking block. Again, he was okay, but that really stuck with me too, because it made me feel like it was okay for me to lose myself so completely in an intellectual activity that I was passionate about. When Professor Heffernan learned that I was an English major, he introduced me to speech act theory, which led to an obsession I now have with sociolinguistics and philosophy of language. He encouraged and supported me when applying to grad school. And, he’s the reason I’m a (minimalist) realist. He will be sorely missed.

  2. Jim was one of the first non-chemistry faculty to befriend me when I came to Pacific in 1994. I really enjoyed talking with him and learning from him.

  3. Jim was a gentle and kind soul with a razor wit. He was a long time member of the redwood deck faculty group who spent many lunches discussing the University and its administration. Soon after I joined Pacific, I began to interlope on these meetings to find out what many of the University’s sagest and most seasoned faculty were thinking and to enjoy their repartee. Once, Jim’s casual comment about the group became its motto, first emblazoned on our official tee shirts and then later, on chunks of the redwood planking after the deck was razed: "Take nothing but abuse; Leave nothing but your dignity". I see that relic every day on the wall of my office and recall Jim.

  4. I don’t think I can write out my thoughts all over again… it would be too sad. So forgive me for copying and pasting what I wrote here (

    There are no words that make a stranger a friend. I can’t make Jim Heffernan matter to you if you didn’t know him. Which makes this kind of eulogy — the kind meant for strangers — a narcissistic exercise. Who is this for, except for me? But here I am anyway. Jim Heffernan is dead, and he mattered to me.
    In 2006, I earned my Bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific, in philosophy. I hadn’t chosen the subject consciously. I had taken so many courses that by the time I was forced to choose, philosophy had chosen me.
    The school’s memorial page quotes Heff describing his own career as, “a 42-year love affair with teaching philosophy.”

    I had taken — I think this is true — every class he taught. I started with formal logic (which, illogically, I loved). Then Intro to Philosophy. Then his favorite, “The Meaning of Life.” He started the first class by announcing to a room full of sophomores, “If you are here to discover the meaning of life, you are in the wrong class.” I remember feeling disappointed. But I stayed and, despite the warning, walked away comforted.

    Each of us had to pick one philosopher from the syllabus, and defend their worldview. I chose Albert Camus, because I had read and loved The Stranger. I had no idea what was in store for me. When I started reading his dense, sometimes bleak philosophy, I thought perhaps I was in over my head. But I wasn’t, not really. I came to class the next day and passionately argued for the absurdist view of life: we can’t know how, when, or why we will die, and instead of being scared shitless by this, we can be empowered. Life can be anything we want.

    Heff made me read my summary aloud twice.

    “Listen to this!” he said. “It’s important!”

    I am told that Heff died on Thanksgiving Day, 2021. That he had a urinary tract infection, which became a worse infection, which killed him. Some tiny microbe took down a mountain of a man, six feet at least and burly. He always had a snow white beard. As far as I know, he was born looking like Santa Claus.

    Roughly 35,000 Americans will die this year of antibiotic-resistant infections. It will seem pointless, random, tiny, to the people they leave behind. They will find themselves telling one another: did you have any idea how common this is? No, they’ll say, they had no idea.

    Heff made philosophy insanely easy. He was a notoriously easy grader, and word got around. You’d be mistaken if you counted this against him. He made the material fun, interesting, digestible. He didn’t care if we remembered the names of dead men; he cared if we remembered their theories, their arguments, and the ways we could fold these into our lives. Once, he got the entire room worked into a frenzy, arguing over the nature of the human thumb.

    (Can a thumb really be a thumb if it is not attached to a hand? Me: Yes. Heff: No.)

    Heff was fun and funny. He loved that I called him Heff, because it made him sound like Hugh Hefner, a comparison he could not earn. He had been married since before I was born, for one thing. I only learned from the school’s memorial that he had once considered becoming a Jesuit priest. He had never mentioned it. Not once in all that “meaning of life” talk. Not once, as I argued passionately for Albert Camus’s view, that life was short, pointless, and thus brim-full of meaning.

    (“Listen to this! It’s important!”)

    When graduation was around the corner, it occurred to me that someone would be giving the graduation address. I told Heff, and also Dr. Matz, my other favorite philosophy professor, that I wanted to audition to be the speaker. They enthusiastically nominated me, and to my surprise I found myself auditioning for a panel that included Heff himself. When I was done with my five-minute sample speech, he nodded to the others in the room.
    “Told ya,” he said. I got the job.

    At the end of that day, I imagine most of the graduates got drunk at parties with other people born in the 80s. Not me: I went to a 6 pm dinner with my parents, a few friends my age, and my two favorite professors, Heff and Dr. Matz. When Dr. Matz wrote to tell me that Heff died, he included a photo from that day, 15 years ago. He had kept it all that time.

    “I know he adored you,” said Dr. Matz, who is still working on his 15-year campaign to get me to call him Lou. “As do I.”

    A good teacher is a bit like a good editor: you don’t notice their work if they are doing it well. Heff isn’t active in my everyday life… not as himself, anyway. He edited the tape together, got the movie rolling. He got philosophy so active in my life that I cannot imagine doing the work I do today if it weren’t for the kind of expansive, deliberate thought he welcomed in his classroom, even when I found my colleagues’ opinions despicable or ignorant.

    There was an unspoken rule in Heff’s classroom: if they are here, willing to engage, you must honor their engagement. Believe as you do in your virtues, but fight for them. In short, he kept me from fearing dissent.

    (Listen to this! It’s important!)

    “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it.” — Albert Camus

    Goodnight, Heff. You will be missed often.

  5. Jim was a good colleague and friend and truly admired by so many students. When he learned I had minored in philosophy for both BA and MA that opened up some great conversations, especially around the philosophical pieces included in early editions of the reader for Mentor Seminars. I came to Pacific as a doctoral student in English the same year he joined the faculty. After 5 years teaching elsewhere, I came back to Pacific from 1982 to 2012 and during that time got to know and admire Jim’s teaching, wide reading, and computer savvy. His passing, like that of Dave Fletcher and John Phillips before him, leaves me sad to think about the loss to his family, friends, and all of the Pacific community who knew him.
    Douglas Tedards

  6. Even Monty Python misses you, Jim… the corner and the deck are in mourning for you…. You never did pick up the picture that fell from the wall and lodged behind your desk when we had that earthquake…. There are more important things in your life. While we shared space in the “Philosophy Lodge” I witnessed scores of dedicated students seeking your advice and sometimes consolation. You were unique and irreplaceable… I miss you too. Bob Dash

  7. Even Monty Python misses you, Jim…. And those of us from the Cynics Corner still “take nothing but abuse, leave nothing but your dignity”. “If you came here to feel good about yourself, you’re in the wrong place.” You exemplify how humor and intellect can be enlightening for those you mentored.

  8. Dr. Heffernan was one of my all-time favorite teachers. I loved his logic and environmental philosophy classes especially. He introduced me to Edward O. Wilson in the latter, and he remains one of my favorite thinkers from my college years. He truly had the best laugh I’ve ever heard (I can still hear it in my head 17 years later!). He exuded both joy and an intense curiosity about everything. He genuinely cared about his students and their opinions; he never acted as if he didn’t have more to learn or consider. I appreciated that deeply and have tried to emulate that way of being as I’ve moved through my life. I’m sure he’s infinitely more special to his own family and close personal friends, but I’ll always remember his spirit and I’ve thought of him often in the years since I had the privilege of taking one of his classes. May his memory continue to be a blessing to those who knew him best. ~Sarah Schuppisser

  9. Dr. Heffernan was such a wonderful professor, and I have fond memories of his Meaning of Life and Epistemology courses. He was also great to talk to after class, which he always had great insights about contemporary debates and helpful recommendations of what to read in order to go deeper into a topic. Yet, he always incorporated jokes in his conversations and lectures that made philosophy fun and not intimidating. He will be greatly missed, but he has certainly made a significant impact on many students during his time at University of the Pacific.

  10. My very first philosophy class at Pacific was Professor Heffernan’s Intro to Philosophy class. I enjoyed it so much that Philosophy became my second major at Pacific. I asked him to be my advisor and he did not hesitate. He taught my first philosophy class and my last philosophy class, Meaning of Life. It was a degree worth pursuing and Professor Heffernan still stands out in my memory even a decade since my graduation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *