Stranger Fruit

In Memoriam Marjorie Grene

The following was posted to the mailing list for the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) by Dick Burian. I felt it worth reposting here.

Marjorie Grene passed away March 16 at age 98 after a brief illness. Marjorie Glicksman Grene, born Dec. 13, 1910, was an important historian of philosophy (with books on Aristotle, Descartes, and various existentialist philosophers), epistemologist (with a special emphasis on perception and the contextual relations of knowers to the world around them) and philosopher of science, especially biology, on which she wrote several books. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in zoology at Wellesley, she studied with such figures as Heidegger and Jaspers as an American-German exchange student 1931-33 and David Prall, Alfred North Whitehead, and C.I. Lewis at Harvard. Her doctorate in philosophy was awarded by Radcliffe in 1935 since women were not then formally admitted to Harvard. From 1937-1944 she was an instructor at the University of Chicago, where she participated in the seminars run by Rudolf Carnap and Carl (Peter) Hempel. From 1944 to1957 she continued to publish, but her main occupations were raising her family and helping to run a farm, first in the US, then in Ireland. In 1950 she met Michael Polanyi and served as his research assistant (largely by correspondence) for the conversion of his 1950 Gifford Lectures into his well-known book, Personal Knowledge. Thanks in part to this work, she held temporary positions at the University of Manchester (1957-8) and then at the University of Leeds (1958-60),before becoming a Lecturer in Philosophy at Queens University, Belfast (1960-65). She returned to the US, first as a faculty member, then as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis, which she built into a major department, with strengths in history of philosophy and philosophy of science.

Philosophically, one of the most salient threads in her work is her view of philosophy as a continuous dialogue involving the thought of all major philosophers in the main philosophical traditions, with a strong contextualist twist. She insisted on the necessity of interpreting philosophers both within the context of their own times and places (else one would misunderstand them in important ways) and from the perspective of one’s own context (in which their thought is brought to bear on a new set of problems, highlighted by a different physical, social, technological, and conceptual background). In epistemology, she was firmly anti-Cartesian, insisting that humans are embodied beings whose characteristics are built in interaction with and in reaction to their physical and social environment. She maintains that human beings should be understood in light of their animal lineage and in terms of an analysis of perception greatly influenced by the perceptual psychology of J.J. Gibson.

In philosophy of biology, she was influenced by several European biologists (e.g., Adolf Portmann, Bernhard Rensch, and Rupert Riedl) and many colleagues at UC Davis. Of special importance was her encounter with the evolutionary synthesis, especially in the work of Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky (who spent the end of his career at UC Davis), and her Davis colleague G. Ledyard Stebbins. In keeping with her larger philosophical views, she treated biological knowledge as a dialectic involving the history of biology and the shifting problems and technologies encountered in different settings. In particular, she insisted on the need to include the treatment of problems of form, function, and evolution as part of the setting for the problems encountered in all current biological disciplines – and the problem of human well-being in dealing with biomedical sciences. She ran at least five summer seminars for the NEH and two summer institutes for the Council of Philosophical Studies and was influential in founding the informal group that eventually formed the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, of which she and Ernst Mayr were Honorary Presidents.

Due to her foreshortened career, after her mandatory retirement from UC Davis Prof. Grene found it financially and intellectually desirable to continue working in academic settings. From fall 1978 until spring 1986 she held visiting positions in twelve colleges and universities plus a research fellowship (1985-86) at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1988, when her daughter Ruth moved from Cornell University to Virginia Tech, Prof. Grene moved from Ithaca, NY to Blacksburg, VA where she was named as an Honorary University Distinguished Professor and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Science Studies at Virginia Tech. She played a significant role in both of these units for many years, participating in colloquia, tutoring students, and collaborating with various colleagues. She remained intellectually active until about 2005, publishing her last major book, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History, written with David Depew, with Cambridge University Press in 2004. She served as the President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association (1971-72), the Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Lecturer in 1991-92, delivering the lectures at the UC Davis, was awarded honorary degrees by Tulane University and the University of Dijon, and received many additional honors. Several Festschrifts have been devoted to her work including volume 29 of the Library of Living Philosophers, the first to be devoted to the work of a woman (L.E. Hahn. and R.E. Auxier (eds.), The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene, Chicago and La Salle, IL,: Open Court, 2002), and J. Gayon and R.M. Burian (eds.), 2007, Conceptions de la Science: Hier, Aujourd’hui, Demain. Hommage à Marjorie Grene, Brussels: Ousia.

Marjorie Grene is survived by her daughter Ruth, who is on the Virginia Tech faculty in Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, her son Nicholas, who is the Professor of English Literature in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin, his wife Eleanor, six grandchildren, Sophia, Hannah, Jessica, Clement, Nick and Lucy Grene and one great-granddaughter, Nazyia Terry.

As of this date, memorial plans are somewhat fluid, but Prof. Grene was cremated and her remains have been returned to Ireland. To allow her Irish family to participate in the memorial service in Blacksburg, a memorial service is tentatively scheduled for May 3. Beyond that, decisions are still being shaped about the family’s wishes. Inquiries can be sent to the Department of Philosophy, Virginia Tech.


  1. #1 Lars
    March 27, 2009

    She was very much in evidence around the Biology Department at Virginia Tech in the late 80s. A quiet presence at seminars etc. Sorry hear that she’s gone.

  2. #2 Andy
    March 30, 2009

    Just posted something about this on our own blog, egghead — linking to the NYT obituary and others.