10 thoughts on “Ruth Barcan Marcus, 1921-2012

  1. Always sad to hear, although she led a very long and influential life. I hope it’s not out of place to share a memory, even if it’s slightly goofy.

    As undergraduates, a friend and I skipped classes for the better part of a week to go to APA Central in Chicago (2006?). I was thrilled to find out that Ruth Barcan Marcus was in attendance, since I was studying her work in modal logic at the time. Her presence practically commanded every session she attended, and I think it was clear that she no longer cared a whit what others thought. I remember her developing a cough during one talk, rising without a word and inching her way down the aisle until she reached the speaker’s podium, pouring herself a glass of water from the pitcher using the speaker’s glass, drinking it while the flustered speaker attempted to continue, then returning slowly to her seat. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do, but it’s something that very few people would even have considered, and struck me as very bold but also very funny.

    She never hesitated to spar, sometimes brusquely, with philosophers perhaps a third her age. I think her hearing was perhaps beginning to give way by then, and she spoke in a kind of 90dB monotone bark. At one point she asked a speaker to explain the so-and-so theory. The speaker launched into a vigorous defense of the so-and-so theory until Marcus cut him short: “I DON’T WANT TO DEBATE IT, I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE THEORY IS!” (Who among us can truly claim the guts to say that at a conference?) Even now, six years later, when my friends and I talk philosophy and one of us feels like we are getting snowed over, we quote Marcus at the offender.

    It probably took me until the second or third day to work up the courage to ask her a question, since I was a lowly undergraduate and she, one of my living philosophical heroes. I asked her something about the logical omniscience of chickens, which unleashed a scouring attack of Dennett’s view on the matter (this had been the topic of a previous session). I barely remember the rest of the conversation, since I was struggling not to pass out from sheer awe, but getting the honor to debate the logical omniscience of chickens with Ruth Barcan Marcus was my favorite memory of that conference or any other.

    Now that I write it out, I wonder how clear it is that these memories are actually charitable reminiscences (!), but they certainly are. Her faculties were razor-honed even at the end of her career, and the persona of queen regnant of logic that she seemed to inhabit was somehow both terrifying and charming. It must sound hyperbolic, but meeting her in person was absolutely thrilling, and remains with me now as one of my fondest memories of that time.

  2. Synapseandsyntax: thanks so much. Do save your description!

    I’m not going to pretend I can add to it.

  3. I had the honor of editing Marjorie Grene’s Festschrift and of interacting, again, with Ruth at that time. But I’d known her earlier from my days at the University of Chicago. She was then at Circle Campus and would come down often. It is fair to say that EVERYONE at U of Chicago admired her greatly. And for us graduate students it was an education to see her in action,. Always incisive, fearless, and yet a philosopher of great personal warmth. This extended to the 75th convocation of the founding of the university. Various luminaries spoke throughout the year, including Quine. At this session, sitting next to Leonard Linsky a great friend of hers, she interrupted Quine at one point with the remark, “Van, are you stilling pushing that old line?” Quine, who could not see the audience given the lights on him, replied “Ruth, that must be you.” She held her own, and more, with the best of them.

  4. Ruth was one of the greats. I only overlapped with her in her emerita years at Yale, but she was still a presence around the department, and still a source of trepidation to visiting speakers.

    I once heard a story that Bernard Williams had disparaged the pretensions of another logician (let’s call him “Mason”) to be a giant of logic by asking, with a sneer, “oh really? and what does Mason’s Theorem say?” The point being that there is no Mason’s Theorem, nor Mason’s Lemma, nor Mason’s anything.

    Ruth had a Formula. And a converse Formula. And those perennial monuments are only one aspect of her legacy.

    Rest in peace, Ruth.

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