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History of Stanford's Philosophy Department

Donovan Wishon, John Perry, and R. Lanier Anderson


I. Origins

The early days of philosophy at Stanford were exciting and, at times, tumultuous. The first fourteen years following the University’s founding in 1885 saw only minimal instruction in philosophy, provided on occasion by members of the psychology department. The University sought to hire Harvard’s Josiah Royce as a professor of philosophy in the early 1890s, but he declined. In 1899, Stanford hired Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, a student of Royce and William James, as its first primary instructor in philosophy. But Lovejoy resigned the position in protest in 1901 after the dismissal of a colleague, the economist and sociologist E.A. Ross, for his controversial public stance on Chinese immigrant labor. For the next several years, the university relied on visiting scholars to teach its philosophy curriculum. The most notable visitor was the philosopher and psychologist William James, who was invited to lecture in philosophy for the winter term of 1906. Stanford’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, offered James a professorship, but after serious deliberation James declined to focus on his writing. Jordan also attempted, unsuccessfully, to recruit Ralph Barton Perry and John Dewey to the position. Jordan was forced to put the search on hold after the 1906 earthquake, and soon afterward James returned to Harvard, having been much impressed by the earthquake. In fact, the devastation was so significant that no courses were offered in philosophy during the 1906-7 academic year. The following year, Jordan finally filled the open post with the little-known philosopher Henry Waldgrave Stuart, a former student of Dewey at Chicago and professor at Wake Forest College.

(Photographs by Dorothea Lange)



II. Early Years

In the three decades after Stuart was hired, philosophy at Stanford enjoyed slow but steady growth. Stuart, together with George Holland Sabine, taught courses in ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, evolutionary theory, and the history of philosophy. In 1914, Harold Chapman Brown, a philosopher of science who had studied with Royce, took over Sabine’s position after he moved to Cornell. For roughly twenty years, Stuart and Brown constituted the core of Stanford Philosophy—they would remain colleagues until Brown’s death in 1944. This twenty year span was formative for philosophy at Stanford. In 1921, the Department offered its first graduate courses and became an official major. In 1923, the program expanded to include a Master of Arts in philosophy and a Ph.D. minor. Then in 1936, the Department began to offer the Ph.D. in philosophy. The same year marked Stuart’s attainment of Emeritus status.  

The 1930-40s saw continued gradual growth. Stuart and Brown were joined by philosophers such as David Elton Trueblood, John Robert Reid, Jeffrey Smith, and John Leland Mothershead, Jr. Still, Stanford Philosophy remained fairly modest in faculty size and scholarly recognition (although both Stuart and Brown served as Presidents of the APA Pacific Division).


III. The Suppes Era  

Stanford’s Philosophy Department experienced a rapid flourishing in the 1950-60s. In 1950, the department made two key hires. First, John Goheen was hired as the new Chair of the department. And second, Patrick Suppes, a student of Ernest Nagel, was hired as an instructor in logic and the philosophy of science. Suppes’ indelible presence in the Department spanned sixty-four years (42 years on the full-time faculty, after which he remained deeply engaged as Emeritus Professor until his recent death in 2014). His foundational work across numerous fields in philosophy and in the sciences earned him many honors, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Medal of Science, and the Lakatos Award. In 1951, the department made another significant hire in Donald Davidson, who would go on to become one of the most influential philosophers of language, mind, and action in the second half of the twentieth century. 



Three years later, Stanford hired Clarence Irving Lewis, the famous logician, epistemologist, and ethicist, after his retirement from Harvard. Then, in the following decade, the department added Philip Rhinelander (ethics, law), David S. Nivison (Chinese philosophy), Solomon Feferman (mathematical logic), Georg Kreisel (mathematical logic), Jaakko Hintikka (mathematical and philosophical logic), Harvey Friedman (mathematical logic), Dagfinn Føllesdal (philosophy of language, phenomenology, logic), and Julius Moravcsik (ancient philosophy, philosophy of language), all of whom would go on to be eminent scholars in their fields. By the end of the 1960s, Stanford Philosophy had a highly distinguished reputation, particularly in logic, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, and the history of philosophy. The department was also closely connected with other disciplines, especially psychology, linguistics, and the social and physical sciences, and it played a key role in the establishment of Stanford’s highly distinguished Linguistics Department. During this period the department clearly reflected Patrick Suppes’ vision of philosophy as a culturally engaged practice rooted in close attention to, and collaboration with, ongoing work in the sciences. That vision had distinctive implications about the relative importance of the parts of philosophy—it was responsible for Stanford’s heavy investment in philosophy of science, logic, and foundations, and it is fair to say that Suppes’ influence at Stanford continues to this day.

IV.  The Moravcsik/Perry/Bratman Era


Julius Moravcsik joined Stanford in 1968 and immediately became a force in shaping the Department. He advocated broadening the Department’s strengths beyond the “pinnacles of excellence” in logic and the philosophy of science, without sacrificing those strengths. He also argued for improving undergraduate offerings in traditional areas and introductory classes. Under his leadership, Stanford Philosophy both broadened and strengthened during the 1970s and 1980s. Stanford built its reputation in philosophy of science with the hires of Nancy Cartwright in 1973 and Ian Hacking in 1975. In 1973, Stanford also improved in the philosophy of language with the addition of Thomas Wasow (linguistics).

Moravcsik made two more key hires in 1974; the first was Michael Bratman, a student of Davidson and a specialist in the philosophy of action and moral psychology. The second was John Perry, who would make significant contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Both have been key fixtures in Stanford’s Philosophy Department over the last four decades and helped to raise its prominence in the “core” areas of philosophy. The two also collaborated in the development of central areas of our undergraduate curriculum, fulfilling Moravcsik’s ambitions in that area. In addition, the department continued to maintain its distinction in logic with the addition of Jon Barwise in 1978 and John Etchemendy (currently Provost of Stanford) in 1983.  The 1980s also saw significant hires in moral and political philosophy with Sir Stuart Hampshire in 1984 and Debra Satz in 1988, and in the philosophy of science with John Dupré in 1982 and Peter Galison in 1985, along with the historically oriented Wilbur Knorr in 1979.  By the end of the 1980s, Stanford’s philosophy department was first-rate in both the quality of its faculty and the breadth of its instruction.

Barwise, Perry, Suppes, and Wasow were key players in the founding of The Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI) in 1983, which immediately became a major center for the development of the research program known as “situation semantics,” and continues to support a wide range of interdisciplinary research on language and information processing by humans and computers. The Center deepened the Department’s interdisciplinary connections, especially with Linguistics, Psychology, and Computer Science, and its members were crucially involved in the formation of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford.  For over 30 years now, CSLI has been a major center of intellectual activity not only for us and our sister departments, but for the wider Silicon Valley community.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw a special flowering of work in the Department’s traditional area of strength in the philosophy of science. Animated by Suppes’ longstanding concern to pursue philosophy through deep engagement with the details of the natural and social sciences, work by Suppes, Cartwright, Hacking, Dupré, and Galison coalesced into a recognizable “Stanford School” in the philosophy of science, which has proved to have immense and lasting influence in the field. An exciting group of Ph.D. students trained at Stanford during those years, and Peter Godfrey-Smith arrived in 1993 to join the group. Its work has often been associated with the theme of the “disunity of science,” but a number of other themes were also extremely important, including close engagement with empirical work, careful analyses of the role and functioning of models within science, mathematically sophisticated understandings of scientific problems, important elements of pragmatism and anti-foundationalism, deep historical understanding of interactions between philosophy and science, and illuminating discussion of the social conditions of scientific investigation. Many of these strands remain important to ongoing work in Stanford’s strong philosophy of science group today.

V. Recent History

In the last two and a half decades, Stanford’s philosophy department has continued its tradition of excellence in scholarship and instruction. Fred Dretske arrived at Stanford in 1988, and formed an active research group with Perry, Godfrey-Smith, and others (later including Ken Taylor and Mark Crimmins) at the intersection of epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. Later on, Joshua Cohen arrived to join Debra Satz and form (with colleagues from Political Science, Education, and other units) an important group in political philosophy, and throughout this period, an especially strong group of colleagues and students surrounding Michael Bratman has made Stanford a center for work in the philosophy of action.  In the recent past, the Department also welcomed prominent scholars such as Grigori Mints (mathematical logic), Solomon Feferman (logic, philosophy of mathematics), Elliot Sober (philosophy of biology), Allen Wood (Kant, Hegel, Marx), and Rega Wood (mediaeval philosophy and science). Beginning in the 1990s, the Department invested more heavily in the history of philosophy: Christopher Bobonich and Alan Code have built an outstanding program in ancient philosophy, continuing the tradition established by Moravcik and Knorr, and Allen Wood was joined by Michael Friedman, Graciela de Pierris, and R. Lanier Anderson to form a dynamic group in Kant studies, which also receives major contributions from David Hills and Tamar Schapiro. At the same time, Stanford scholars continue to extend the legacy of Perry’s work here in core areas of current philosophy, where Taylor, Crimmins, and Krista Lawlor maintain exciting research programs touching on singular thought, propositional attitudes, the semantics/pragmatics boundary, self-knowledge, and many related areas of epistemology and the philosophies of language and mind.

Today, Stanford is home to many distinguished faculty members. Long-time members still active in the department include Dagfinn Føllesdal, John Perry, Michael Bratman, Thomas Wasow, and Debra Satz. Other senior members of more recent arrival include Taylor, Bobonich, Anderson, Crimmins, Lawlor, Friedman, de Pierris, Cohen, and Code, as well as Ray Briggs (metaphysics, epistemology, logic), Helen Longino (philosophy of science, feminist philosophy), Thomas Ryckman (philosophy of science), Brian Skyrms (probability, game theory), and Johan van Benthem (logic), who carry forward Stanford’s legacy in the philosophy of science and formal philosophy, and Nadeem Hussain (ethics and meta-ethics, nineteenth-century philosophy) and David Hills (aesthetics, history of modern philosophy), who form a strong group in ethics and value theory.  In addition, Stanford also hosts a strong core of rising junior faculty, including Anna-Sara Malmgren (epistemology, philosophy of mind), Jorah Dannenberg (ethics), Thomas Icard (logic, formal philosophy), Juliana Bidadanure (political theory), Rosa Cao (philosophy of science, philosophy of mind) and Barry Maguire (ethics, epistemology, political philosophy).

At present, the Philosophy Department is a thriving part of Stanford’s intellectual community.  Many of the department’s current faculty members are active in Stanford’s interdisciplinary research centers, such as the CSLI, the Center for Ethics and Society, the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, the Philosophy and Literature Initiative, and the Humanities Center.  In line with this interdisciplinary spirit, the department co-sponsors regular talks and events with its fellow departments of psychology, linguistics, symbolic systems, political science, classics, and the literature and arts departments.  Stanford Philosophy is also home to major efforts to bring serious philosophy to the wider public, including the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the popular weekly talk-radio show “Philosophy Talk,” hosted by John Perry (emeritus), Debra Satz, Josh Landy and Ken Taylor.