Ruth Barcan Marcus (1921-2012)

Sad news from Leiter that Ruth Barcan Marcus has died. I was lucky to meet Marcus once very briefly, and I described this encounter at Feminist Philosophers in a comment that a moderator suggested I repost (edited slightly for clarity):

Always sad to hear, although she led a very long and influential life. I hope it’s not out of place to share a memory, even if it’s slightly goofy.

As undergraduates, a friend and I skipped classes for the better part of a week to take a road trip to APA Central in Chicago in 2006. I was thrilled to find out that Ruth Barcan Marcus was in attendance, since I was studying her work in modal logic at the time. Her presence practically commanded every session she attended, and I think it was clear that she no longer cared a whit what others thought. I remember her developing a cough during one talk, rising without a word and inching her way down the aisle until she reached the speaker’s podium, pouring herself a glass of water from the pitcher using the speaker’s glass, drinking it while the flustered speaker attempted to continue, then returning slowly to her seat. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do, but it’s something that very few people would even have considered, and struck me as very bold but also very funny.

She never hesitated to spar, sometimes brusquely, with philosophers perhaps a third her age. I think her hearing was perhaps beginning to give way by then, and she spoke in a kind of 90dB monotone bark. At one point she asked a speaker to explain the so-and-so theory. The speaker launched into a vigorous defense of the so-and-so theory until Marcus cut him short: “I DON’T WANT TO DEBATE IT, I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE THEORY IS!” (Who among us can truly claim the guts to say that at a conference?) Even now, six years later, when my friends and I talk philosophy and one of us feels like we are getting snowed over, we quote Marcus at the offender.

It probably took me until the second or third day to work up the courage to ask her a question, since I was a lowly undergraduate and she, one of my living philosophical heroes. I asked her something about the logical omniscience of chickens, which unleashed a scouring attack of Dennett’s view on the matter (this had been the topic of a previous session). I barely remember the rest of the conversation, since I was struggling not to pass out from sheer awe, but getting the honor to debate the logical omniscience of chickens with Ruth Barcan Marcus was my favorite memory of that conference or any other.

Her faculties were razor-honed even at the end of her career, and the persona of queen regnant of logic that she seemed to inhabit was somehow both terrifying and charming. It must sound hyperbolic, but meeting her in person was absolutely thrilling, and remains with me now as one of my fondest memories of that time.


3 Responses to Ruth Barcan Marcus (1921-2012)

  1. Tristan Haze says:

    The water story is hilarious!

  2. synapseandsyntax says:

    Imagine the audience of distinguished philosophers all trying to keep their poker faces. I almost fell out of my seat.

  3. Libby Marcus says:

    Of the many reminiscences of my mother that I have heard over the weeks since her death, this is one of my most favorite. Thanks.

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