Mon Mar 5, 2012

Obituaries for Philosophers in the New York Times since 2000

The philosopher Ruth Marcus died two weeks ago, but—as Brian Leiter noted—no obituary for her has appeared in a major newspaper. Michael Della Rocca and some colleagues have circulated a letter calling on the New York Times to rectify this, which I agree they should. In the comments over at Feminist Philosophers, Catarina asks how many of the philosophers who did get an obituary in the NYT were women. In partial answer, I looked at the number of obituaries that have appeared in the Times since 2000 of people who were described primarily as philosophers. Sometimes they might have had other occupations as well (e.g., theologian; anthropologist), and sometimes professional philosophers might question the occupational designation (i.e., perhaps they were seen out in the world as philosophers but less so within the discipline). But my criterion was, did the Times describe them as a philosopher in the first sentence or so of the obituary? If they did, I counted them.

By that measure, forty six philosophers have gotten an obituary in the New York Times since 2000. Of these, five were women. They were Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Philippa Foot, Mary Daly, Marjorie Grene, and G.E.M. Anscombe. Here’s the full list:

  • Frank Cioffi, February 2012
  • Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, December 2011
  • Philippa Foot, October 2010
  • Matthew Lipman, January 2011
  • Dennis Dutton, January 2011
  • Raimon Panikkar, September 2010
  • Antony Flew, April 2010
  • Mary Daly, January 2010
  • John Edwin Smith, December 2009
  • Stephen Toulmin, December 2009
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, November 2009
  • Leszek Kolakowski, July 2009
  • Marjorie Grene, March 2009
  • Arne Naess, January 2009
  • R.J. Neuhaus, January 2009
  • Richard Rorty, June 2007
  • Carl von Weizsäcker, May 2007
  • Murray Bookchin, August 2006
  • Alexander Zinoviev, May 2006
  • J-F Revel, May 2006
  • Paul Ricoeur, May 2005
  • Jacques Derrida, October 2004
  • Sidney Morgenbesser, August 2004
  • Stuart Hampshire, June 2004
  • Joel Feinberg, April 2004
  • Richard Wollheim, November 2003
  • James Rachels, September 2003
  • Donald Davidson, Steptember 2003
  • Bernard Williams, June 2003
  • John Rawls, November 2002
  • Norman Brown, October 2002
  • Paul Weiss, July 2002
  • Walter Wurzburger, April 2002
  • Jerrold Katz, February 2002
  • R.M. Hare, February 2002
  • Robert Nozick, January 2002
  • David Lewis, October 2001
  • Mortimer Adler, June 2001
  • Howard Kahane, May 2001
  • Wesley Salmon, May 2001
  • G.E.M. Anscombe, January 2001
  • Sebastian de Grazia, January 2001
  • W.V.O. Quine, December 2000
  • Charles Hartshorne, October 2000
  • Gerald Whitrow, June 2000

I did this count quite quickly, so I welcome any corrections to it.

Update: Sergio Tenenbaum writes to point out that Michael Dummett received an extensive memorial in the Times’s philosophy blog, The Stone. I searched within the formal obituary section so I missed that one. (I also, incidentally, omitted Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II, whose philosophical careers were also mentioned in their obituaries.)

A couple of people have also written speculating on what might explain the size of the gap. I don’t have a strong view for this particular case, though apparently the Times public editor has made the argument that it’s just another “pipeline problem”, i.e. an artifact of the very small number of women in the cohort. Some correspondents suggested this, too. It could be, I suppose, though I think that calculating the “expected rate” in cases like this is actually pretty tricky. There’s all kinds of selection at work. So, you could think the difference is fully explained by the fact that there are just fewer women in the older cohorts, with a correspondingly lower rate of obituaries as a consequence, and the Times selecting even-handedly on the far end of the pipeline. The pipeline argument is relevant to the general size of the gap, but of course much less relevant to any particular case where someone was “in the pipeline” right to the end, such as Marcus.

On the other hand, it’s not too hard to imagine a world where the sort of women who were actually able to succeed at a level comparable to their male peers between the 1930s and 1970s, while facing all the explicit and implicit obstacles of sexism and so on, might be rather different and maybe more intrinsically interesting sorts of people as a result. On this view by the time you get to the end of the pipeline the pool of women has already been really heavily selected on with only a few quite remarkable characters surviving. In that case picking in proportion to the sex composition of the population at the end means you ignore a lot of women who deserve an obit, because they’re way more likely to be more interesting than even most of their very accomplished male peers.

On the third hand, in cases like this it’s very difficult to establish the criteria that the Times uses to select in the first place. There’s no strong reason to think that it’s just neutral with respect to the population of potential obituary candidates. So all the action might just be on that side.

In any event, I think Marcus deserves an obituary on the merits, and it’s been disappointing not to see one in a major newspaper.