Ruth Barcan Marcus deserves proper recognition

From Michael Della Rocca:

Dear Friends and admirers of Ruth Marcus,

Forgive the mass e-mailing, any duplications, or omissions. As you
know, Ruth Marcus died over two weeks ago and an obituary has yet to
appear in the New York Times. This failure to recognize one of the most
prominent and pioneering philosophers of the last 60 years is
appalling. There have been multiple communications between Yale and
also NYU (Ruth’s undergraduate alma mater) with the obituary editors at
the Times. The Times has received a wealth of information from these
sources and still no obituary. I fear that they have decided or are in
the process of deciding that Ruth is not a significant enough figure to
warrant the recognition of an obituary in the Times. Don’t get me
started on this — it’s simply outrageous. Don Garrett, Diana Raffman
and I have sent to the Times’ obituary editors a strongly worded
message — see below. If you would like to endorse the sentiments in
this message please let me know and we will pass on this information to
the Times. I plan to be in touch with them again soon. Or if you would
like to write a message of your own to the Times that would be great.
The obituary editors are Bill McDonald and Jack
Kadden .

If there are other philosophers you know of who might be interested in
helping out here, please feel free to forward this message and to
encourage them to be in touch with me or Diana or Don.

Don, Diana, and I will be in touch directly with the APA leadership
about this matter so that they may contact the Times too.

Michael (and Diana and Don)

here is the message that was sent yesterday to the Obituary editors at
the Times:

Dear Mr. McDonald and Mr. Kadden,

Because time is crucial in this matter, we will be brief, direct, and

Ruth Barcan Marcus — who died, as we believe you know, on Sunday,
February 19th — was one of the central figures in philosophy over the
last 65 years. Her work advanced in multifarious ways our
understanding of logic, metaphysics, philosophy of language, and moral
philosophy. Her results in logic in the 1940’s alone — work whose
significance is still being plumbed — is sufficient for her to have a
permanent place in the pantheon of logicians. Her discovery of the
Barcan formula forever changed the way in which we must reason about
necessity, possibility, and identity. The seminal essays in which she
introduced the formula quite simply created a new field of logic —
quantified modal logic — a field which continues to thrive. Her
subsequent development of this work changed our understanding of the
reference of words and proper names and made possible much of the most
important work in the philosophy of language down to the present day.
Her pursuits in moral philosophy — embodied in what is perhaps her most
widely-cited paper, “Moral Dilemmas” — changed the way philosophers
approach the topic of moral obligation. (This paper was a focus of the
recent obituary in the _Economist_.) All of this is enough to be worthy
of recognition in the Times.

But this brief summary of Marcus’ scholarly contributions does not even
begin to touch on her powerful role in philosophy and in academia
general. She was one of the few women in philosophy and especially in
logic at a time was sexism was rampant in the field. She persevered and
succeeded not only in establishing herself in the field but in helping
to bring about changes in hiring practices so that appointments in
philosophy were no longer governed by the “old boys network”. For this
and other roles she played, the American Philosophical Association
recently awarded her the Quinn Prize for service to the profession.

I know that you have already received much information about Marcus’
accomplishments and accolades. So we will not say more about them
here. But we feel obliged to point out that the fact that an obituary
has not yet appeared in the Times indicates that you have not yet
decided whether to publish such an obituary or that — absurdly — you
have already decided not to do so. This is, in our opinion,
outrageous. The Times has, we are happy to note, provided timely
recognition of many prominent philosophers in its obituary section in
recent years. (A list of several such obituaries was sent to you by
Michael Della Rocca through Yale.) None of these other philosophers has
been more significant both to philosophy and to the profession of
philosophy than Marcus. And many of those who were recognized by the
Times were, we must say, figures who were not nearly as significant in
these respects as Marcus was. If the Times were to fail to recognize
Marcus, this would be not only an embarrassment for the Times, but it
would reveal that the Times is woefully out of touch with what are the
most significant developments within philosophy over the last
half-century or more. We do not expect the Times’ authors and editors
to be philosophers themselves, but we — as well as the cultural and
intellectual community at large — do expect the Times to be aware of
the most basic accomplishments in central academic fields, including
developments in philosophy, the oldest and most fundamental field of
intellectual inquiry.

We hope that the Times has not failed in its responsibilities. There is
still time to rectify this scandalous omission. We urge you to do so.


Michael Della Rocca
Andrew Downey Orrick Professor
Yale University

Don Garrett
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy

Diana Raffman
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto

18 thoughts on “Ruth Barcan Marcus deserves proper recognition

  1. I’m glad to see this letter. I’ve been following this story somewhat loosely, but my initial question was basically ‘how often are *any* philosophers recognized with an obituary in the Times or other major publications?’. If Della Rocca has compiled a significant list, then it’s extremely unfortunate that Barcan Marcus hasn’t yet been recognized.

  2. It would be *very* interesting to hear how many of the philosophers who did get an obituary at the NYT were women…

  3. How desperate is it to petition a newspaper to write something about a dead person?

    When I’ll be dead, please don’t pull of something similar, will you?

  4. I suppose there is something puzzling about the desire for the dead to be properly recognised, but this isn’t the place for such puzzling. (It’s also puzzling to make gravestones, wear black, etc. But the funeral’s the wrong place to ask about that.) The desire to properly recognise the dead is a widespread human desire, and we’re acting on it.

    Also, this is about not only RBM but also a widespread pattern of failing to recognise the achievements of women philosophers, and an important topic to many of us at this blog.

    Can I ask you also to bear in mind that this blog does have readers who have personal connections to RBM and who are therefore finding this a difficult time? I know humour is kind of your way of being, but please be careful around this topic, OK?

  5. This is indeed outrageous and sad. I actually didn’t know Ruth had died. Perhaps the NYT crew is too ignorant to know that the Barcan in the Barcan formula is in fact Ruth Barcan Marcus. Certainly, from the time I was a graduate student in the 60’s it has always been clear that Ruth was indeed one of the major figures of the field, as well as a fascinating, many-sided, and exciting personality. Please add my name to those communicated to the NYT.
    Ronald de Sousa, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto.

  6. Folks, I believe Ruth Marcus deserves an obituary. I’m even friends with a family member of hers. But golly, it often takes many weeks for obituaries to appear. I remain regretful that my father never got an obituary, though he deserved one. Probably if I had campaigned more, he would have. So by all means, campaign. But please don’t get too over-heated, let alone accusatory, about this.

  7. The only issues for the NYT should be that (i) it is one of a few truly “national” newpapers devoted to surveying important non-parochial aspects of culture, (ii) it prides itself on journalism based on rigorous and rational standards of reporting, (iii) its decision to run obits is guided by the impact of the deceased on the public sphere either locally in NY or nationally in rationally measured ways (sometimes for ill as much as good), and (iv) whether Barcan-Marcus measures up for consideration based on (iii). The many contributions she made professionally and personally to philosophy–and very much for its betterment–require by any reasonable standard that the NYT reach the same conclusions as set out in the letter. Otherwise the NYT is not fulfilling its role by (i)-(iii).

  8. Jenny, thanks for pointing out that some readers of this blog had personal connections to Ruth.

    I am deeply saddened by the loss, and therefore not ready to write a full tribute, but one thing that might be worth noting is that it is highly probable that the NYT is failing to meet basic standards for rigor and rationality for some fairly crass political reasons in this particular case.

    I had the privilege of knowing Ruth for the last eight years of her life. At one of our first teas at the “Lizzie”, the Elizabethan Club at Yale, she brought a copy of the NYT obituary for Jacques Derrida, available online here: As the obit notes, “Mr. Derrida’s credibility was… damaged by a 1987 scandal involving Paul de Man, a Yale University professor who was the most acclaimed exponent of deconstruction in the United States. Four years after Mr. de Man’s death, it was revealed that he had contributed numerous pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic articles to a newspaper in Belgium, where he was born, while it was under German occupation during World War II. In defending his dead colleague, Mr. Derrida, a Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. de Man’s anti-Semitism.” Ruth was one of those people. The story is too complex and personal for me to relate here, but suffice to say: Ruth’s quiet involvement in unveiling the scandal — and in shaping the consequences of the revelation — was audacious, brilliant, and relentless.

    And, despite the fact that Derrida’s NYT obituary is less than flattering, Ruth felt that the editors had made an error in even choosing to publish it.

    So I find it particularly sad that the same newspaper has not published an obituary for her. While she would rise above the insult, I am also sure that she would consider it more than a mere formality.

  9. Don’t obituaries often take a while to appear? I remember when Peter Lipton died a few years ago, the obituaries in UK newspapers took between 1 and 3 months to appear. I know Lipton was never as famous as Marcus, but that kind of timescale isn’t unusual in the UK, particularly for subjects unknown to the people at the newspaper.

    The point here is that talking (as the Della Rocca et al. letter does) about a ‘scandalous omission’ might be counterproductive at this stage.

  10. @Kieran: awesome! Very useful list, not only to come to grips to the gender dimension of the thing, but also to try to figure out the criteria they seem to be using at the NYT for philosophical obituaries.

  11. I think people should know that the decisions about who among the famous and influential will receive an obituary are almost certainly made long before the relevant people die. A very close friend of mine, whom I will not name, was tasked by a very prestigious publication, which I will describe only as one one of considerable national/international reach, to write an obituary for a very major contemporary figure, in a field I will not name. This was a fair number of years ago now. But here’s the rub. The person was and is still living. The obituary is to be perhaps slightly updated once the person actually dies. But once the person dies, the obituary will almost instantly appear. So here’s a dirty little secret, I gather. If you are a prominent enough person, and already of a certain age, somebody out there has probably already been asked and may have already written your obituary — at least a first draft of it. Obviously, Ruth was not on the NYT radar screen at all in the same way. If she had been they probably would have commissioned an obituary writer for her ages ago. Not to say they can’t or shouldn’t change their minds. But this is probably an oversight from a long time ago.

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