Marjorie Grene dies at 98; historian of philosophy known as independent thinker

Marjorie Grene was a formidable and independent thinker with a famously cantankerous style. Her chief contribution was the leading role she played in founding the field of philosophy of biology. She also wrote influential texts on existentialism.
(Virginia Tech)

When the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers chose Marjorie Grene as the subject of the 29th volume in its series, the feisty 90-something thinker and writer downplayed her selection with characteristic self-deprecation. “I think,” she told a reporter in 2003, “they just desperately wanted a woman.”

Grene, who was 98 when she died Monday in Blacksburg, Va., after a short illness, was the first woman chosen for the series, which previously featured such intellectual heavyweights as John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, George Santayana, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and Jean-Paul Sartre.

A historian of philosophy, Grene knew Russell and studied with Whitehead as well as with existential theorists Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers in a career that cut across seven decades. She left her mark as a formidable and independent thinker with a famously cantankerous style, who could “disarm or slay an opponent with a single phrase or question,” Randall E. Auxier, editor of the Library of Living Philosophers, wrote in a preface to “The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene,” published in 2002.

Her chief contribution was the leading role she played in founding the field of philosophy of biology, which focuses on topics such as evolutionary theory and genetics.

She also wrote influential texts on existentialism that were “pivotal in bringing existentialism to the attention of the English-speaking world,” said Michael Wedin, a philosophy professor at UC Davis, where Grene taught for 13 years starting in 1965.

She was the author of widely admired books on Aristotle, whom she lionized, and Descartes, whom she loathed. Her well-known critiques of Descartes, whose ideas form the foundation of Western philosophy, placed her outside the mainstream of her profession, but she was accustomed to operating on its margins.

Born Marjorie Glicksman in Milwaukee on Dec. 13, 1910, she studied zoology at Wellesley College, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1931. She then went to Germany as a graduate student, taking seminars with Heidegger and Jaspers before returning to the United States in 1933. She met Whitehead when she pursued a doctorate at Radcliffe College, “the nearest a woman could get to Harvard in those days,” when Harvard would not grant degrees to women, she noted in an autobiographical essay several years ago.

Because of the Depression and the prevailing view in her field that “women were not considered suitable candidates for positions in philosophy,” she drifted for a few years, studying Kierkegaard in Denmark and directing a women’s residence at a junior college in southern Illinois. In 1937 she found a job as a teaching assistant and later as an instructor at the University of Chicago, where she met her husband, David Grene, who taught classics and became eminent in the field. They were married in 1938.

She remained at the university until 1944 -- “still wartime, with few jobs and few students,” she later wrote -- when she was fired.

She spent the next 15 years in academic exile, “something of a scandal in philosophical circles,” Wedin said. She worked on her husband’s farms in Illinois until 1952 and after that in his native Ireland, where they raised their two children, Ruth and Nicholas, who survive her along with six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

David Grene, whom she divorced in 1961, died in 2002. She never remarried.

She was not entirely grumpy about being a farmer’s wife. “My mother always said that she enjoyed being ‘Mrs. Grene of Clash,’ ” Clash being the tiny village 40 miles south of Dublin where she lived full time for 12 years, said Ruth Grene, a professor of plant physiology at Virginia Tech, where her mother was honorary distinguished professor of philosophy from 1988 until her death. But in between slaughtering chickens and feeding pigs, the philosopher-mother-farm wife produced two books, “Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism” (1948) and “Heidegger” (1957). She recalled that every time she wrote about existentialists, “I said, ‘Ugh, never again,’ ” but she accepted the assignments to keep up some semblance of a career. Her work became one of the major conduits through which Sartre’s ideas became known in the United States.

During this period, Grene also met Hungarian British scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi, providing crucial research for his book, “Personal Knowledge.” Her work with Polanyi led her to consider metaphysical and ethical issues in science, particularly biology, tackling questions as fundamental as what constitutes a person. She later was a founding member of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, the largest such organization of scientists, historians and philosophers.

“The crossing of those boundaries is something she accomplished wonderfully well,” said Richard Burian, a philosopher of science at Virginia Tech. “She insisted that philosophy is a dialogue with its own history and every other discipline there is.”

At Virginia Tech, Grene was known to stroll the corridors of the philosophy department handing out cookies and candy. The treats perhaps took a little of the edge off her notoriously sharp tongue, which she let loose on everything from bread pudding to mistranslations of Kant.

She saved her most sustained hostility for “the Cogito,” as philosophers call Descartes’ celebrated declaration, usually translated in English as “I think, therefore I am.” Her refusal to accept what she acknowledged as “the unique starting point of philosophy” was vintage Grene.

She was, as family and friends attest, no one’s disciple. She wrote limericks about philosophy that poked fun at its personages, such as in this verse about a spat between philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper and his insufficiently reverent student, W.W. Bartley III:

W.W. Bartley the Third

For heretical views was given the bird.

A disciple of Popper, the famous Sir Karl,

He found that the chief had got into a snarl.

For if inductivism’s original sin,

Then where does discovery’s logic come in!

And how do we tell except by our noses,

Real science from pseudo, and knowledge from poses?