Saul Kripke, Eminent Philosopher and Professor, Dies at 81

September 20, 2022

Kripke taught at the Graduate Center for 20 years, and, through the Saul Kripke Center, published a significant volume of work.

Saul Kripke
Saul Kripke, considered one of the most important philosophers of the last 50 years, taught at the CUNY Graduate Center from 2002 to 2022. (Photo credit: Michael DiVito)

Saul Aaron Kripke, a towering figure in analytical philosophy and longtime distinguished professor of Philosophy and Computer Science at the CUNY Graduate Center, died on September 15. He was 81.

A Facebook announcement of his death by the Saul Kripke Center brought an outpouring of condolences from scholars and philosophers around the world, who called him “one of the best modern philosophers,” “a man of high intellect” with “a brilliant mind.” 

“One of the Most Penetrating Minds of Our Time” 

From a young age, Kripke exerted significant influence on the fields of philosophy, logic, and mathematics. The New York Times, in a 1977 article published when Kripke was just 36, called him “one of the most penetrating minds of our time” and “one of the two or three most eminent philosophers in the English-speaking world.” The Times noted that his contributions to philosophy expanded the boundaries of analytical philosophy, “where philosophical reasoning intermingles with abstract mathematic theory.” 

“He has worked in the field of modal logic,” the Times wrote, “a branch of formal logic that has introduced ways to distinguish kinds of true statements — between statements that are ‘possibly’ true and those that are ‘necessarily’ true. The basic question is, if something is true, could it have been otherwise?”

Kripke is best known for Naming and Necessity, the book version of three seminal papers he gave at Princeton in 1970. Graduate Center Distinguished Professor Michael Devitt (Philosophy), who met Kripke while in graduate school at Harvard and later recruited him to the Graduate Center, called the book “undoubtedly one of the most remarkable philosophical works of the 20th century.” 

Devitt first heard Kripke deliver the ideas in his book in 1967, in a class at Harvard. “These lectures — so clear, so brilliant — had a profound effect on me,” Devitt wrote in a tribute to the book in the journal Theoria. “In particular, Kripke’s view of proper names was the main inspiration for my dissertation.” 

Devitt explained, in a nutshell, that Kripke challenged the notion that anyone who uses terms, especially proper names, must be able to correctly identify what the terms refer to. Rather, people can use terms like ‘Einstein,’ ‘springbok,’ perhaps even ‘computer,’ despite being too ignorant or wrong to provide identifying descriptions of their referents. We can use terms successfully, Devitt said, “not because we know much about the referent but because we’re linked to the referent by a great social chain of communication.” 

In the book, Devitt said, Kripke also made assertions about metaphysics and essentialism, some of which drew criticism. In Devitt’s assessment, though, Kripke had “privileged access to reality.” Devitt wrote in the 2021 paper, “From my naturalistic perspective, he got so much right!”

From Prodigy to Prominent Philosopher

Kripke was born on November 13, 1940, in Bay Shore on Long Island, and grew up largely in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father, Myer Kripke, was a rabbi. His mother, Dorothy, wrote children’s books. By many accounts, he was a prodigy. He learned ancient Hebrew on his own by age 6 and intuitively understood algebra in fourth grade. 

Kripke published an influential paper in modal logic before starting as an undergraduate mathematics major at Harvard. He lectured at Yale and MIT while still an undergraduate and joined the Society of Fellows at Harvard a year after he graduated, in 1963. In 1966, with no doctorate, he became both a lecturer at Harvard and a member of the faculty at Rockefeller University. He served as the McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton from 1977 to 1998. 

Four years later, in 2002, Devitt, then the executive officer of the Philosophy program at the Graduate Center, lured him as a visiting professor. In 2003, Kripke was appointed a full professor and in 2004, he became a distinguished professor. 

Professor Nickolas Pappas (GC/City College of New York, Philosophy), the current executive officer of the Philosophy program, recalls that Kripke taught or co-taught a course most semesters. He was even co-teaching a fall 2022 course commemorating the 50th anniversary of his book, Naming and Necessity at Fifty.

Before the pandemic, Kripke came to the Philosophy program’s weekly colloquia, where, Pappas said, he would often raise a seemingly simple point and then draw a surprising conclusion. Pappas likened Kripke to Archimedes, or the way Plutarch described the proofs that Archimedes produced: “No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.” 

“In a way, you find that in Kripke’s work too,” Pappas said. “At least, that’s my experience. He could just lay it out so clearly that you think, ‘Oh, I would have come up with that.’ Of course, you never did.”

Largely Unpublished Before the Graduate Center

Saul Kripke
Distinguished Professor Saul Kripke (Photo credit: Romina Padró)

Devitt remembers that Kripke lectured without notes. “He read widely; he didn’t take notes on what he was reading,” Devitt said. “But he would think about what he was reading, and it all got stored away in his mind.”

This lack of note taking hindered Kripke from publishing his work. “He had terrific problems publishing anything in philosophy all his life,” Devitt said. “When he got to the Graduate Center, I estimated that 90% of his work had not been published. He was already probably, in analytic philosophy, the most famous philosopher in the world, but most of his work had not been published.” 

A friend of Kripke’s had been keeping an archive of his work at his house. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to somehow get him publishing all this incredible amount of work,’” Devitt said.

With that idea, Devitt set out to start the Saul Kripke Center. He secured a grant from Kripke’s father, a friend of Warren Buffet’s. He and his wife had invested their savings with Buffet and turned $67,000 into more than $25 million, much of which they gave away. The Graduate Center received a little over $1 million to start the Saul Kripke Center, Devitt said.

He explained: “What we’ve done at the Graduate Center is put in place the infrastructure to help Saul publish, and if I may say so, we’ve done a fabulous job. If you look at Saul’s career, you’ll see that since he’s been with us at the Graduate Center, he’s published a ton of stuff. In the previous 20 years, there was hardly anything.”

Learn more about the Saul Kripke Center

Professor Gary Ostertag (Philosophy), a Ph.D. alumnus of the Graduate Center, directed the Saul Kripke Center from 2009 to 2014. He worked with Kripke to publish several papers as well as two books, Philosophical Troubles:Collected Papers and Reference and Existence: The John Locke Lectures. The filmmaker Errol Morris, who wrote essays about Kripke in The New York Times, wrote in a blurb for the cover of Reference and Existence: “His writing (even though it has often come in part from spoken lectures) is like no other — equal parts perverse, funny, brilliant, and surprising. I think of him as not so much an heir to Russell and Wittgenstein, but to Poe and Twain.” Ostertag agreed that Kripke’s work had a literary quality that was rare in the field of philosophy. 

One of the great achievements of the center, Ostertag said, was not just archiving and transcribing Kripke’s material, but running it by him to ensure it was to his liking. “Poor Saul never got a break,” he said. 

Ostertag remembers studying Kripke’s Naming and Necessity while a student at the Graduate Center. “He just had this mythical status,” Ostertag said. Years later, as the center director, Ostertag found Kripke easy to work with. “He was proud of his achievements, but he was a very easy person to talk to. And he didn’t constantly have to remind you how important he was,” Ostertag said. 

Romina Padró (Ph.D. ’15, Philosophy), the current director of the Saul Kripke Center and an alumna of the Graduate Center, said in a 2016 interview with the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) Ireland that about 70% of Kripke's work remained unpublished, existing only on reel-to-reel or cassette tapes, stretching back to the 1970s, or as manuscripts, notes, letters, and transcriptions of lectures from the late 1950s onwards — thousands of pages and hours of tapes. The center, she said, was making a digital archive of the material and tracking down letters, students’ notes, alternative versions of lectures, and more materials that were missing from the archive. 

Padró started working with Kripke before the center was established in 2007. “It is actually a lot of fun to work with him,” she said in the 2016 interview. “He really enjoys doing philosophy and he does it in a way that probably most people don’t, letting himself be genuinely surprised by philosophical problems.” 

His enthusiasm, she said, was contagious. “He really cares about what he is arguing and working with him constantly reminds me that the whole point of doing philosophy is really to enjoy the process of thinking about the issues and trying to remain true to, as he would probably say here, ‘your own intuitions.’”

Read obituaries published in The New York Times (September 22, 2022) and the Guardian (September 21, 2022). 

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