In Memoriam: Adolf Grünbaum

15 May 1923 – 15 November 2018

Adolf GrünbaumAdolf Grünbaum had a profound impact on philosophy of science. Grünbaum, President of the PSA from 1965-1970, originated the biennial meeting structure beginning in 1968 at a meeting he hosted in Pittsburgh, PA. He recently commented on the 50th anniversary blog for our Seattle Biennial Meeting, November 1-4, 2018: “Over the last 50 years, I have seen a stronger integration of science into the study of philosophy. Without that scientific foundation, our understanding of the world in which we live would be tremendously impoverished.”

Grünbaum was born in Cologne, Germany and suffered as a Jewish child under the Nazis. He and his family immigrated to, in his words, the “life-saving US” in 1938, five years after Hitler took power and eight months before Kristallnacht. At age fifteen, Grünbaum had to learn English, which he did at a Bronx high school where he became friends with Robert S. Cohen, and later followed Cohen to Wesleyan where he received a BA with high distinction in both Philosophy and Mathematics.

In 1943, for a short time, Grünbaum worked in a war research unit on vacuum tube development and radar, but then was drafted into the Army where he received US citizenship before being trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland in military combat intelligence. Due to his fluency in German, as a Ritchie Boy from 1944 to 1946, Grünbaum was sent to the Wannsee Villa where he interrogated Nazi officers.

Grünbaum went on to Yale University where he received an M.S. in physics (1948) and his Ph.D. on “The Philosophy of Continuity,” with Carl G. Hempel as his dissertation director (1951). In 1949, he married Thelma. Their mutual devotion was evident by their inside jokes, and her frequent presence in the audience reading the text of the paper Adolf was presenting, ready to help out if needed. They had a daughter, Barbara, born in 1957.

In his first academic appointment, Grünbaum quickly rose from assistant professor to named chair at Lehigh University (1950-1960). In 1960 he was appointed Andrew Mellon Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, a title he held until his death at the age of 95. The University of Pittsburgh administrators wisely waived the 40-year-old age requirement for the Mellon Chair in order to award it when Grünbaum was only 37. At the University of Pittsburgh he founded and was the first director of The Center for the Philosophy of Science. He was instrumental in building a world-class faculty in the Department of Philosophy, including the appointments of Nicholas Rescher, Wilfrid Sellars, Gerald Massey, Carl G. Hempel, and Wesley C. Salmon. In 2003, Grünbaum became Primary Research Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy Science. He was also a research professor in the Department of Psychiatry. Grünbaum inspired and encouraged dozens of students in his more than 60-year career, serving on many dissertation committees and notably supervising the PhD dissertations of Alberto Coffa, Philip Quinn, and Bas van Fraassen.

Adolf Grünbaum’s research issued in more than 400 publications (which includes 12 books) in philosophical problems of space, time, and cosmology; on the nature of scientific methodology, especially on rational inference; and on the foundations of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. “Adolf Grünbaum’s Philosophical Problems of Space and Time (1963, revised 1973) set the agenda for studies of these topics for mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy. It was an agenda with a pronounced point of view: a firm empiricism combined with a rigorous understanding of contemporary space-time physics.” wrote Hoefer and Cartwright in a 1993 Festschrift for Grünbaum. Wes Salmon, in a 1965 review in Science, wrote “So remarkable is the scope of this book that it is difficult to think of any important philosophical problem of space or time that is not treated, or to find any important contributor whose views are not taken into account.” Many have celebrated Grünbaum’s adept combination of detail and scope, and his attention to the mutual dependence of actual science and philosophical understanding.

In the 1970’s Grünbaum developed trenchant critiques of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, including rejecting Popper’s claim that psychoanalysis is non-scientific. This inspired Grünbaum to point his critical gaze to the details of psychoanalysis, to expose its conceptual foundations and defend its scientific status, not just against Popper, but also against those, like Habermas and Ricoeur, who defended a hermeneutic view. His views were expressed in his 1984 The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. Here again we see Grünbaum’s signature approach. As von Eckhardt put it in a 1985 article, “Grünbaum’s contribution in … psychoanalytic epistemology … is unparalleled on … (two) counts. Not only does he bring to bear a very great sophistication in the philosophy of science, but in addition he has done his psychoanalytic homework.”

Adolf Grünbaum’s contributions to philosophy of science were varied. He not only shaped discussions of space and time, of how scientists reason empirically, including by what empirical standards clinical sciences like psychiatry should be judged, he also shaped the professional landscape in which philosophy of science has thrived in the US and internationally. In addition to serving as president of the PSA, he also was president of the APA (1982-3), of the Division of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (2004-5), and of the International Union itself (2006-7). His scholarship was recognized by a number of organizations. Grünbaum was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a member of Academie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences. He was awarded the Senior US Scientist Humboldt Prize, the Italian Fregene Prize for science, the University of Parma Silver Medal, the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale University, and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

On a personal note, Adolf Grünbaum taught one of my first seminars when I was a new graduate student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in 1977. He welcomed questions from students, but we learned quickly you asked one at your own peril. Grünbaum, with a smile on his face, would dissect your question, pointing out the false assumptions you were making, expose every inch of what you clearly did not understand, and lead you meticulously to a better question. In this process students were treated with the same intellectual seriousness as the professional philosophers Grünbaum critically engaged in print, and held to the same high standards he applied to himself. I learned a lesson from Adolf I try to pass on to my students, that a combination of boundless curiosity and rigorous critical analysis is essential to becoming a successful philosopher of science. And it always helps to do it with a smile. More recently, I had the great pleasure of knowing Adolf not just as my teacher, but also as my colleague and friend.

Sandra D. Mitchell, Distinguished Professor
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh
President of the PSA, 2016-2018
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