Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher was just awarded the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. Here is the introduction I gave for him on this occasion.

Introduction of Nicholas Rescher for the Aquinas Medal

It is my great honor to introduce Professor Nicholas Rescher to receive the highest honor of this Association, the Aquinas Medal. Professor Rescher is University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been the President of both the American Catholic Philosophical Association as well as of the American Philosophical Association. He is an honorary member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and is an elected member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada and the Institut International de Philosophie, and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

Nicholas Rescher was born in Germany in 1928, and in 1938 his family emigrated to the United States, after his father’s law practice was ruined by his opposition to Nazis. He did his undergraduate studies at Queens College in Flushing, right after the Second World War, graduating at the age of 21. He immediately enrolled as a graduate student at Princeton, where he completed the first draft of his doctoral dissertation on Leibniz—on whom he had not taken any classes—by spring of the same academic year, and got his Ph.D. a year later, in 1951, at the age of 22. For a year he held an instructorship at Princeton.

Then the Korean War interrupted his academic career. Von Neumann’s attempts to ensure his talents be better utilized by the military notwithstanding, Dr. Rescher was drafted into the Marine Corps. Fortunately, he was able to get work with the Marine Corps Institute’s correspondence education program, among other things grading calculus exams. Next, from 1954 to 1956, Dr. Rescher worked for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, and notably was a co-inventor of the Delphi Method of forecasting.

In 1957, at age 28, Dr. Rescher resumed his university career, first teaching at Lehigh University, and then, starting in 1961, at the University of Pittsburgh, which had just begun its legendary project of creating a top philosophy Department, having just hired Adolf Gruenbaum, with Dr. Rescher’s hiring being followed by those of Kurt and Annette Baier, Nuel Belnap and Wilfrid Sellars. Professor Rescher has remained on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh to this day, though starting in the 1970s, he also began visiting Oxford in the summers.

Professor Rescher’s prodigious academic output is legendary. Indeed, a colleague offered me the following argument to prove that Rescher wrote an infinite number of books: However many of his books you have read, there are some you haven’t.

Actually, the number is finite, though the mistake is easily excused. Between 1955 and 2006, Professor Rescher has published approximately 110 books and over 350 articles, averaging to about 2.3 books and 6.7 articles per year.

Like Leibniz, Rescher believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Best in what way, we may ask? Through the optimal balance between diversity and unity. And Professor Rescher’s scholarly work is a microcosm of the world in this regard, unique in contemporary philosophy in regard to both aspects individually and in combination.

First, diversity. Professor Rescher has written books in epistemology, metaphysics, pragmatism, process philosophy, philosophy of science and technology, ethics, social philosophy, logic and metaphilosophy. In the history of philosophy he has published books on figures including Galen, Alexander of Aphrodisias, al Kindi, al Farabi, Leibniz, Kant, Pascal and Peirce.

But what is most noteworthy is not quantity and diversity by itself, but the deep unity underlying the work. The thread joining all of it is an pragmatic world view that places our human concerns at the forefront. However this pragmatism is not technological in nature. For our human concerns are not just to survive, but to live deeply: to know, to feel, to act. The more we know, the more questions we can ask, and so the human task is in principle one that cannot be brought to completion. Nor is the pragmatism dogmatic, but methodological and at one remove from first order epistemic considerations. Truth is not defined by pragmatic concerns, nor do we simply assume something to be true because it is useful to do so, but pragmatic concerns guide our choice of epistemic practices—we engage in those practices of inquiry that in fact are useful for prediction and control.[1] What Rescher has produced is a grand philosophical system, pragmatic in nature, and comprehensive in outlook, like that of his great hero and the subject of a significant portion of his scholarship, Leibniz.

But unlike in Leibniz’s approach, a down-to-earth, humble, bottom-up approach keeps Professor Rescher from invoking God in his philosophical work when this can be avoided. Ultimately, however, Professor Rescher was drawn, in his words, toward the community of the world’s “theistically committed Platos and Plotinuses, its Anselms and Aquinases, its Leibnizes and Hegels [—] those who saw humanity as subject to transcendent aspirations and obligations—and for whom forms of worship and religious styles of thought really mattered.”[2] And so he is not only the most catholic with a lowercase ‘c’ in his interests among his philosophical contemporaries, but he is a Catholic with a capital ‘C’, a man radiating a serenity tied to a loving and diligent search for truth in communion with others, both his contemporaries and the Aquinases and Leibnizes of the past.

His catholicity makes it possible for students and colleagues to discuss anything whatsoever with him. He combines personal warmth with an old-fashioned courtesy that comes naturally to him, both offering and automatically inviting respect. It would not occur to us as graduate students to call him anything but a formal “Dr. or Professor Rescher”. But then, after a successful doctoral defense, we would be told—and here I quote the last line of an email from him which I will always treasure—“P.S. At this point, do please call me Nick.”

I would like to end with a quote from the last section of Nick’s 2002 autobiography, and express my wish and prayer for the continued truth of it in his case:

The ennui of the accustomed explains not only why elderly people like to travel, but also why they incline to live vicariously in the doing of the young. However, this is far less of a problem with someone whose life is dedicated to learning, for there lies before one an endless horizon of more things to learn about. To be sure, it might seem that, very abstractly considered, learning and thinking themselves are "more of the same." But that is altogether false because, concretely considered, the idea at issue is always something new, something fresh.

I give you Nick Rescher, Aquinas Medalist, who will give us something new, something fresh. [1] Rationality in Pragmatic Perspective, pp. 21-22. [2] “In Matters of Religion”, p. 132.

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