Follow this link for his most recent contribution to The World’s Fair.
The philosopher Marjorie Grene passed away on Monday, 16 March, at the age of 98. Grene’s life is difficult to sum up in a few words, and I don’t want to do that anyhow, since plenty of others have and surely will in much better fashion than I can muster. But since I imagine most will be unfamiliar with her work, I quote here from a letter composed by Richard Burian, a dear friend and colleague:
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.
This is the more traditional way of simply saying: she was a badass. Grene didn’t just study philosophy (at a time when women did not regularly study philosophy) – she lived it with some of the greatest names of the twentieth century. Seriously, if you made a list of influential thinkers of the past century, you could go through it with a pen and check off close to every name as a mentor, colleague, or student of Grene. This extends beyond the realm of philosophy. While she could wax philosophical about the ancients better than anyone else I know, she wasn’t stuck there like so many others who study them. Instead, she devoted much of her life post-retirement (30 years ago, mind you) deeply engaged in the biological world, bouncing between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries drawing out the long dialogue that constitutes the life sciences.
But when I saw the notice that Marjorie had passed away, these were not the things that came to mind. I recalled the first time I met her (ok, really it was the second). It was my first semester in graduate school at Virginia Tech – the end of the semester to be precise. A special symposium had been organized to celebrate Marjorie’s 90th birthday. The event gathered together a family-sized group of historians and philosophers (mostly) of biology to discuss scholarship and honor Marjorie.
I had met Marjorie in brief passing at the beginning of the term at an event our chair held to welcome the new year. I was encouraged to go and introduce myself to Marjorie, but I really didn’t have anything to talk about with her. So I mentioned a course I was auditing on science and religion (being taught by an ag economics professor who happened to be a deacon – it was bizarre) and the ways in which he was using Aristotelian and Platonic categories to guide some of the pertinent arguments. She flipped. I had clearly said something so asinine as to have insulted the entire history of philosophy. I slunk away.
So this was now my second chance. The day had already gotten off to an awkward start. Richard Rorty was scheduled to deliver the opening talk (if I recall correctly), but had been delayed in Chicago overnight because of bad weather. This meant 1) a reshuffling of the schedule and 2) the grad student originally scheduled to pick him up at the airport (45 minutes away in Roanoke) had already left town. Somehow I landed the job of escorting Rorty (mind you, I had little idea who this guy was at the time) to the seminar in my 1995 Honda Civic – with a manual transmission. Why mention this last part? Because every time I shifted into 5th I punched Richard Rorty in the knee. Every time. Add to this a driving rain storm. I kept thinking: “I’ll forever be known as the guy that killed Richard Rorty.” Now add to this that they guy hadn’t eaten in something like 20 hours and so I offer to get him a sandwich at his fastfood chain of choice and then realized that I didn’t have any cash on me so Richard Rorty had to buy his own sandwich. And now I need to get him to the symposium, stat.
And I did – alive, if bruised.
And so Rorty comes in to deliver a talk in which he basically says all philosophy is hooey. Everyone in the room gets pissed. They all shout (in a very polite way) and argue and then they all shake hands and head of to dinner.
And now I have to drive Marjorie and her escorts to the dinner. Marjorie is fuming. I learn that she’s agreed not to make comments during the symposium, saving her thoughts for a final capstone to be delivered the next day. So instead she lets it out in the car during the 5 minutes it takes us to cross campus. I also learn that she and Rorty are very old acquaintances and that he tells stories about having similar conversations in her kitchen while she was lecturing at the University of Chicago. I’m kind of confused at this point. I’m even more confused the next day when she systematically eviscerates his paper. I’m struck by two things: 1) how can people seem so cordial when they are ripping each other apart? And 2) how can this 90 year old woman so completely tear these people apart? She’s 90 for crying out loud!
That remains my most vivid memory of Marjorie, though I have many more that are equally dear to me. Like the time I walked beside her on the way out of a seminar room after a job talk and watched her shaking her head and then saying out loud to me something to the effect of the uselessness of philosophy. Or the time she stopped by my office holding a bucket of left over Halloween candy and asked me in the sweetest voice I’d ever heard if I wanted some candy. How could this kindly grandmother be so feared?
All of which speaks to the tremendous diversity of this amazing woman’s life. (And few have captured this as well as this interview for The Believer.)
I’ll miss her.
Addendum: This obituary ran in the L.A. Times and Washington Post on Monday, March 23rd.