Monday, August 23, 2004
Obituary: Rogers Albritton, UCLA Philosophy Professor
Date: May 29, 2002
Contact: Stuart Wolpert ( [email protected] )
Rogers Albritton, one of the most admired philosophers of his generation and a member of UCLA's faculty from 1973 until his retirement in 1991, died Tuesday night, May 21. He was 78 years old.
"Rogers had the finest philosophical mind I have ever encountered," said his UCLA philosophy colleague Gavin Lawrence. "He never rushed to a facile answer and was a wonderful sounding board. When you discussed a philosophical issue with Rogers, you had the sense that he had walked down this road many times before, and knew it thoroughly, like walking through the countryside with a guide who knows every inch of the landscape and can show you where every path leads."
"Rogers was an influential and internationally renowned figure," said John Carriero, professor and chair of philosophy at UCLA. "He was widely admired by philosophers who didn't agree on much else. Doing philosophy with Rogers was thrilling and unforgettable. Through the sheer force of his philosophical presence, Rogers affected as many philosophers, and affected them as deeply, as any other thinker of his generation. He had this impact on philosophers of strikingly different casts of minds and philosophical persuasions."
Albritton's philosophical interests covered an unusually wide range of fields, including ancient philosophy, philosophy of mind, free will, skepticism, metaphysics and the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. For a university professor, Albritton was highly unusual in that he published very rarely, just a few times in more than 35 years.
"Albritton advocated no particular philosophical doctrines; he just wandered through the world coming across philosophical knots, untying them and moving on without leaving a manual on how he did it," said his colleague, UCLA philosophy professor David Kaplan. "He also uncovered knots in places where philosophers had thought there were none. His high position in philosophy is based on the sheer power of his thought." Kaplan noted that Socrates never published his ideas either.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Albritton earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1955 and taught philosophy at Cornell before joining Harvard's faculty in 1956. He chaired Harvard's philosophy department from 1963 to 1970. He came to UCLA in 1972 on a one-year experimental basis, and remained there until his death, chairing UCLA's philosophy department from 1979 to 1981. He was president of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1984–85.
Albritton attended St. John's College in Annapolis in 1940. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, attaining the rank of sergeant. In 1945 he returned to St. John's and completed his bachelor's degree, writing his senior thesis defending lyric poetry from logical positivism.
Albritton was legendary for his love of discussing philosophy throughout the night and sometimes into the morning.
"We all use the word 'knowledge,' but as soon as a philosopher asks what knowledge is, we find ourselves in a terrible mess," Albritton said in a 1986 interview. "I think free will is like that. Philosophers have tried to define what this freedom is, and they are all wrong. Some definitions are shallow; others are deeper, but when you examine them closely, you find they don't make any clear sense. The idea that we can neatly define our terms and get on with it is a recipe for messing things up. Whenever a philosopher tries to define a term, another philosopher comes up with a good reason why the definition is silly."
A former graduate student recalled an 11-hour discussion with Albritton, and said, "I can't think of any other philosopher, living or dead, I would rather bounce ideas off of; one conversation with Rogers can illuminate a philosophical problem to such an extent that everything I've thought about it before seems irrelevant."
Carriero recalls the day he was interviewed for a faculty position at UCLA. "I gave a talk to the faculty in the department at 3 p.m.," Carriero said. "Rogers and I had dinner, and talked until well after midnight. The conversation was extraordinarily valuable to me. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted, but he could have gone on for another few hours, although at the time his emphysema required him to be hooked up to a portable oxygen tank that he carried with him as we talked."
"When I went out to dinner with Rogers, I told my wife I won't be home before 4 a.m.," Lawrence said. "We talked many times through the night."
Albritton's colleagues and students praised his personal characteristics, as well as his subtle, agile mind. "Rogers was totally honest, full of integrity, very witty with a wonderful sense of humor, modest, and generous with his time," Lawrence said. "He used humor as a philosophical weapon to show mistakes in reasoning."
Kaplan said, "Every conversation with Rogers was a voyage of discovery, and with his ever-present wry wit, one couldn't imagine a more delightful dinner companion."
Albritton died of pneumonia at UCLA's Medical Center following years of suffering from emphysema. His colleagues who visited him said they discussed philosophy with him in his final days.
"In the hospital, he was puzzled by a passage in Isaiah on the problem of evil," Carriero said. "I went home and read what (13th-century philosopher Thomas) Aquinas had to say about the passage so that I could report back to him."
In the classroom, Albritton was known for actually doing philosophy in real time, grappling right in front of his students with philosophical debates that have resisted solutions for many centuries.
"The reasons these disputes never end," he once said, "is that both sides are right about important things. I am inclined to think there is truth and nonsense on both sides, but the truth is very hard to find."
The undergraduate and graduate courses he taught at UCLA included history of Greek philosophy, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, Wittgenstein and Descartes. He continued to teach into the mid-1990s, even after he retired.
Albritton is survived by his sister, Heloise Frame, and her children Matthew, Margaret Lipton, James Jr., Shannah Whitney, Martha Lynch, David, and Ruth Zinkievich.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to a memorial fund that is being established at UCLA (UCLA Foundation/Rogers Albritton Memorial Fund) with proceeds to benefit the philosophy department's reading room: UCLA, College of Letters and Science Development, 1332 Murphy Hall, Los Angeles, 90095–1413.