Department of Philosophy

In Memoriam

Marjorie Glicksman Grene (1910-2009)

A memorial gathering for Prof. Grene was held at Virginia Tech on Sunday 3 May, 2009. A recording of the service is online, as well as the program and a slideshow presented by Ruth Grene.

The following notice by Richard Burian and Roger Ariew is forthcoming as an éloge in Isis. For other notices see the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

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 and of science (with books on Aristotle, Descartes, as well as various existentialist philosophers), epistemologist (with a special emphasis on perception and the contextual relations of knowers to the world around them) and historian 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, and was a colleague of Bertrand Russell who visited the Philosophy Department during this time. From 1944 to 1957, while unemployed in academia, she published a number of works. In 1948 she produced Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism and in 1957 Heidegger. These critical studies were important in bringing continental philosophy to the attention of the English-speaking world; Prof. Grene continued this line of research with Sartre (1973) and Philosophy In and Out of Europe (1976). Notwithstanding her expertise in existentialism and continental philosophy, her main occupations from the mid-forties to mid-fifties 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 history and philosophy of science.

Philosophically, one of the most salient threads in her work is her view of philosophy as a continuous dialogue involving the thought of all major philosophers in the main philosophical traditions, with a strong contextualist twist. She insisted on the necessity of interpreting philosophers both within the context of their own times and places (else one would misunderstand them in important ways) and from the perspective of one’s own context (in which their thought is brought to bear on a new set of problems, highlighted by a different physical, social, technological, and conceptual background). As she states in her Descartes, “we want on the one hand to put our questions into historical context and on the other to illuminate history, to comprehend and criticize the arguments of dead philosophers in the light of what seems to us live issues here and now.” (1) Part of her argument was that much of what was written on Descartes, especially in English, was so narrowly confined to particular contemporary debate that “the real Descartes is simply left aside altogether.” But “since we are products of our past, that means that we miss not only Descartes in his own terms, but ourselves, too.” (2) Her book discusses Descartes’ philosophy in relation to that of his contemporaries; she pens chapters on Descartes and the School; The Gassendi case; The Port Royal Connection. The topic of her published Marquette University Aquinas Lecture was Descartes Among the Scholastics (1991). In her epilogue to the edited collection Descartes and His Contemporaries, Prof. Grene returns to the consideration of the history of philosophy, this time considered as conversation. Again, she is clear that for this practice, “it is necessary, as in any conversation, to enter into the universe of discourse of one’s interlocutor. … We have to set aside some of our own immediate philosophical concerns and learn to enter in imagination into the language and beliefs of the participants in the case in question.” (3) According to Prof. Grene, we must try to understand what the philosopher was saying in terms of the dialogue that the philosopher was conducting with his contemporaries or predecessors. But the notion of a dialogue (most generally, of the history of philosophy and science understood in contextual perspective) can be generalized further: “if we see Descartes in dialogue with the School or with others who oppose the School, though on very different grounds from his, we see Locke in dialogue with Descartes, as well as with the honorable Mr. Boyle or the incomparable Newton. …. And in the last analysis we see philosophy itself as a conversation stretching from Elea to Oxford or from Meletus to San Diego. Some episodes are richer, some poorer, some more fruitful, some more arid than others. But it is in our place in that history that we develop our own philosophical reflections.” (4) As one can see, for Prof. Grene, history of philosophy is inextricably intertwined with history of science.

Still, in her work on Descartes, Prof. Grene could still allow herself the following criticism of his philosophy or in general any philosophy indebted to his:

What he [Descartes] suspends in Meditation One and reinstates in Meditation Six is a dim surrogate for body: more shapes and sizes, not growth and digestion and fatigue, comfort and discomfort—everything that the lived body at once is and means. … To be aware of myself is always and essentially to become sentient of my bodily existence, located here and now in this both biological and social space (Merleau-Ponty, 1944 passim). … It is the notion of separate mind that is unintelligible. It is not even a fact that needs explanation or apology. One can explain, historically, why Descartes the mathematician should have found it so clear. But there is no philosophical excuse for it whatsoever. It is distressing to acknowledge how much contemporary philosophizing is still based on his illusory Cartesian certainty. (5)

As we have just glimpsed, Prof. Grene was firmly anti-Cartesian in epistemology, insisting that humans are embodied beings whose characteristics are built in interaction with and in reaction to their physical and social environment. She maintains that human beings should be understood in light of their animal lineage and in terms of an analysis of perception greatly influenced by the perceptual psychology of J. J. Gibson. Prof. Grene considered her work with Polanyi together with her studies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Helmuth Plessner as contributing to her epistemic insights and anticipating some aspects of Gibson’s ecological realism. Indeed, she displayed her naturalistic epistemology as early as in The Knower and the Known (1966), in which her intention was to produce some of the elements in the history of philosophy that could lead to a philosophy like Polanyi’s.

In philosophy of biology, Prof. Grene was influenced by several European biologists (e.g., Adolf Portmann, Bernhard Rensch, and Rupert Riedl) and many colleagues at UC Davis. Of special importance was her encounter with the evolutionary synthesis, especially in the work of Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky (who spent the end of his career at UC Davis), and her Davis colleague G. Ledyard Stebbins. In keeping with her larger philosophical views, she treated biological knowledge as a dialectic involving the history of biology and the shifting problems and technologies encountered in different settings. In particular, she insisted on the need to include the treatment of problems of form, function, and evolution as part of the setting for the problems encountered in all current biological disciplines—and the problem of human well-being in dealing with biomedical sciences.

One can see these themes as early as in her A Portrait of Aristotle (1963). Prof. Grene interpreted Aristotle as a metaphysician motivated by researches in biology instead of thinking of him in the traditional way, as a logician-metaphysician. Looking back on the lessons in biology she learned from Aristotle, she identified what she thought were three important methodological ones, attacking some prevalent modern misconceptions: (i) “the inadequacy of one-leveled atomism” for understanding complex systems, (ii) the notion that “the subject-matter and method of science are everywhere the same” and (iii) “the insistence that science must renounce any claim to seeking contact with reality.” The first lesson related to the subject-matter of biology and to “the question of the reducibility or irreducibility to chemistry and physics.” The second, “a reminder of the good Kantian principle that we can have no systematic knowledge of the whole of nature,” which she thought should help “to liberate biology, or thinking about biology, from the over-abstract and reductive demands imposed by taking one science, classical physics, as the ideal of all.” And the third “should release the biologist to admit the insights into the concrete manifold of his subject-matter, from which his work originates and in which, however abstract and sophisticated it may become, it still is anchored.” (6) It is safe to say that these methodological lessons learned from history were repeated in her later work in the history and philosophy of biology, from Approaches to a Philosophical Biology (1969), to Interactions: The Biological Context of Social Systems, with Niles Eldredge, (1992) and Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History, with David Depew (2004).

In addition to her teaching and research, Prof. Grene worked to expand research opportunities and interests of philosophers and interested parties from other disciplines.  With support from the Ford Foundation, she and Michael Polanyi organized an international interdisciplinary Study Group on the Unity of Knowledge that met irregularly for five years, some fruits of which are collected in Interpretations of Life and Mind (1971), which she edited.  She also ran five summer seminars for the NEH and two summer institutes for the Council of Philosophical Studies, one of triggered the informal meetings that founded the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, of which she and Ernst Mayr were Honorary Presidents.

Due to her foreshortened career, after her mandatory retirement from UC Davis Prof. Grene found it financially and intellectually desirable to continue working in academic settings. From fall 1978 until spring 1986 she held visiting positions in twelve colleges and universities plus a research fellowship (1985-86) at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1988, when her daughter Ruth moved from Cornell University to Virginia Tech, Prof. Grene moved from Ithaca, NY to Blacksburg, VA where she was named as an Honorary University Distinguished Professor and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Science Studies at Virginia Tech. She played a significant role in both of these units for many years, participating in colloquia, tutoring students, and collaborating with various colleagues. In A Philosophical Testament (1995) she invites her readers not only to trace her footsteps, but also to participate in the continuing conversation that constitutes philosophy.  She remained intellectually active until about 2005, publishing her last major book, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History (2004) with David Depew. She served as the President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association (1971-72), an Advisory Editor for Isis (2000-02), the Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Lecturer in 1991-92, delivering the lectures at the UC Davis, was awarded honorary degrees by Tulane University and the University of Dijon, and received many additional honors. Several Festschrifts have been devoted to her work including volume 29 of the Library of Living Philosophers, the first to be devoted to the work of a woman (L.E. Hahn. and R.E. Auxier (eds.), The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene, Chicago and La Salle, IL,: Open Court, 2002), and J. Gayon and R.M. Burian (eds.), 2007, Conceptions de la Science: Hier, Aujourd'hui, Demain. Hommage à Marjorie Grene, Brussels: Ousia.

Marjorie Grene is survived by her daughter Ruth, who is on the Virginia Tech faculty in Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, her son Nicholas, who is the Professor of English Literature in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin, his wife Eleanor, six grandchildren, Sophia, Hannah, Jessica, Clement, Nick and Lucy Grene and one great-granddaughter, Nazyia Terry.

Richard Burian, Virginia Tech
Roger Ariew, University of South Florida

(1) Marjorie Grene, Descartes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 3
(2) Ibid.
(3) Marjorie Grene, “Epilogue,” in Roger Ariew and Marjorie Grene, eds., Descartes and His Contemporaries: Meditations, Objections, and Replies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p, 226.
(4) Ibid., p. 237.
(5) Grene, Descartes, pp. 20-21.
(6) Marjorie Grene, "Aristotle and Modern Biology," Journal of the History of Ideas 33 (1972): 424.