Marjorie Grene, In Memoriam: The Passing of an Intellectual Giant

This post was written by guest contributor Jody Roberts.
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.

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I think everyone will miss her, even those who never met her in person. I had my Marjorie experiences mostly in classes, but your story beats any of mine.

excellent vignette jody - it's difficult to capture Marjorie's intense brilliance (i don't think i could even try), but i think in the long run it's these discrete recollections that may help humanity cobble together a glimmer of what a sheer force of nature she was, both in intellect and conversation.



Thank you, Jody.

I hope someone is writing her bio. She was larger than life and, as much as she would hate my saying this: her life was emblematic of brilliant women in the professions during the length of the 20th century. She was the most original, clearest an powerful thinker I have ever met, you would leave her classes floating on the power of ideas thinking that this is what philosophy is. She had utter command of the entire body of western philosophy, of ancient Greek literature, of the history of science and biology and would synthesize them originally during class. She critiqued every students comments and ideas as seriously as she did Rorty's as described above. (She once told me I regularly came up with ideas that clowns have been perpetrating in intellectual circuses for decades. Somehow- maybe because I was 19 at the time- I took it as a compliment.) Hopefully she is in a place now where no one will ever mention sociobiology- or any word that ends in "-ism".

I am, alas, nearing retirement, but when I was young (77-78) I was immensely lucky to be chosen by Marjorie for a year-long seminar at UC-Davis and Berkeley. There were maybe a dozen of us. She was the kind of philosopher who could jolt you out of your prejudices. Indeed, one of her most remarkable features was that she feared (in the Biblical sense) no one and nothing. About W.V. Quine she said, "How can someone so deeply misguided write so well?" When I foolishly opined that Rescher must have had a few good ideas, since he published so much and so often, she rejoined, "You must be out of your mind. Some of the worst philosophers manage to get in print all the time." She put the seminar through Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception and took the view that he had found the key to doing serious and productive philosophy. She claimed that his insights were enormously powerful, but never took the form of arguments. I tried to rebut by presenting a passage which seemed to me to be an argument, and a pretty good one at that. The group dissolved into near chaos, some claiming that it was indeed an argument and a bad one (Marjorie being refuted on both counts), others that it was no argument at all and deeply insightful (Marjorie being supported on both counts). I was one of two who thought she was wrong on one and right on the other. A year after the seminar, when I was back in West Virginia (my last year there, as it turned out), I arranged for her to speak at the West Virginia Philosophical Society Meetings. I made the mistake of sending her tickets, and she got off the plane in a huff. But in the drive back to Buckhannon she brightened up quickly. We sang John Denver songs for fifty miles. The next day she had something encouraging to say about my view of Leibniz' concept of a simple substance. Marjorie was an absolute original, a fertile and courageous thinker who passed judgment on everything and everyone, including herself. She thought the discipline demanded it, and one shouldn't be in it if one feared and resisted criticism.

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