Saul Kripke
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Saul Kripke

Saul Kripke turned 65

By Charles McGrath
The New York Times, January 28, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

Saul Kripke turned 65 on November 13, 2005.

In January 2006, the philosophy program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York convened a two-day conference celebrating his birthday and work.

He gave a lecture called "The First Person."

In 2001, Kripke was awarded the Schock Prize, philosophy's equivalent of the Nobel. He is thought to be the world's greatest living philosopher, perhaps the greatest since Wittgenstein. Unlike Wittgenstein, who was small, slender and hawklike, Kripke looks the way a philosopher ought to look: pink-faced, white-bearded, rumpled, squinty. He carries his books and papers in a plastic shopping bag.

A rabbi's son, Saul Aaron Kripke was born in New York and grew up in Omaha. By all accounts he was a true prodigy. In the fourth grade he discovered algebra, and by the end of grammar school he had mastered geometry and calculus and taken up philosophy. While still a teenager he wrote a series of papers that eventually transformed the study of modal logic. One of them, or so the legend goes, earned a letter from the math department at Harvard, which hoped he would apply for a job until he wrote back and declined, explaining, "My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first."

The college he eventually chose was Harvard. "I wish I could have skipped college," Kripke said in an interview. "I got to know some interesting people, but I can't say I learned anything. I probably would have learned it all anyway, just reading on my own."

While still a Harvard undergrad, Kripke started teaching post-graduates down the street at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and after getting his B.A. didn't bother to acquire an advanced degree. Who could teach him anything he didn't already know? Instead, he began teaching and publishing. His 1980 book Naming and Necessity is among the most influential philosophy books of the last 50 years, and his 1982 book on Wittgenstein's philosophy is so self-assured that some scholars now refer to a sort of composite figure known as Kripkenstein.

"Before Kripke, there was a sort of drift in analytic philosophy in the direction of linguistic idealism — the idea that language is not tuned to the world," Richard Rorty, an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Stanford, said recently. "Saul almost single-handedly changed that."

Except on very rare occasions, Kripke does not actually set words down on paper. He broods, gathers a few texts, makes a loose mental outline, and then at some public occasion, a lecture or a seminar, he just wings it, talks off the top of his head. These talks are later transcribed and Kripke edits and revises them, draft after draft, before approving them for publication.

Michael Devitt, a CUNY professor and former head of the philosophy program at the Graduate Center who was instrumental in bringing Kripke there, said of the Kripkean method: "He just seems to work it all out in his head. It's as if he's got privileged access to reality."

Kripke's talk, "The First Person," dealt with the philosophical question of the meaning and reference of the pronoun "I" and got into some heady metaphysical speculation about the nature of the self. Speaking in a squeaky, high-pitched voice, he circled round and round his subject, riffing on other philosophers and occasionally darting off for a digression on, say, obesity or the theory of intelligent design. When he finished, he got a standing ovation.

Afterward, Kripke graciously endured a small onslaught of groupies. A graduate student from Rutgers, Karen Lewis, explained that it was her birthday too, and that the photo session was her present to herself. "You're my favorite 20th-century philosopher," she said. "I'm so excited!"

Kripke beamed in a way that suggested an authentic inner state of happiness.

Saul Kripke, Genius Logician

By Andreas Saugstad
February 25, 2001

Edited by Andy Ross

Saul Kripke is one of the greatest thinkers in modern philosophy. When he visited Oslo to give a lecture at my university, I met him at a local restaurant to do an interview.

Kripke has give many original contributions to philosophy, and many doctoral dissertations have been written on his work. But Kripke has also been criticized. A former student wrote a novel where the main character seems to be modeled after Kripke. In this novel, The Mind-Body Problem, the main character has a problem with the relation between the abstract and concrete. The person is, intellectually speaking very advanced, but outside the academic realm, it doesn't work.

But no one can doubt Kripke's intelligence. Early in life, his mathematical gifts were seen and he was way ahead of the others in mathematics as a pupil in school. Then he went to Harvard and later became a professor at Rockefeller University. He was later hired by Princeton University. He is now retired, but still runs the lecture circuit. He is always thinking and has just recently been visiting professor at Hebrew University in Israel. He hopes to continue visiting Hebrew University in the future.

Kripke does not care much about providing a justification for doing philosophy. When I asked him why he investigates the philosophy of language, he said he works on this topic simply because he finds it interesting. Pure intellectual curiosity drives him: "The idea that philosophy should be relevant to life is a modern idea. A lot of philosophy does not have relevance to life. Ethics and political philosophy are relevant to life. The intention of philosophy was never to be relevant to life. But ethics and political philosophy can be relevant."

I ask him whether it is a negative that philosophy now is connected to a professional career and not the unconditional search for truth it once was. His reply: "Perhaps it never was an unconditional search for truth. The great philosophers did it as a professional career. The Medieval philosophers were monks, but also professors. Descartes was not a professor, but he did a lot of teaching."

I remark that Michael Dummett claims that academics don't have any special duty to be engaged in social questions, but because they can make their own schedules they can use this privilege. Kripke replies, "I don't think there is anything special academics can do."

We turn from talking about the nature of philosophy to Kripke's religion and his relation to the Middle East, where he has been working. Hebrew University, where he has been studying, is one of the most well-known universities in the Middle East, and located in Jerusalem.

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously: "I don't have the prejudices many have today, I don't believe in a naturalist world view. I don't base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism." He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

In spite of his religious views, he does not think that the division of land in Israel-Palestine can be determined by appealing to the Bible. "I don't believe in religious groups that want to divide the country on the basis of fundamentalist principles. Politics and religion should not be mixed."

I ask him whether he thinks that the co-existence of different groups in an area is beneficial, and whether Jugoslavia and the Middle East show us that mixing different cultures can be dangerous: "There are cases where it is better to divide. I don't think it always works in practice. The problems in Europe with foreign workers that meet prejudices are that they are not integrated."

I ask him if there is a lot of racism in the Middle East. His reply: "There is racism both ways. Much of this is based on prejudices the Arabs believe in many things. Before Jews were allowed to travel to Cairo, many Arabs thought that Jews had horns. Prejudices are crucial for understanding racism."

Finally, I ask him how philosophy can contribute to promoting peace in the Middle East. His reply: "I don't think philosophy can contribute more than other disciplines. Practical philosophy may contribute here, but not all philosophers. That would have been nice, but in practice it is not possible."

Kripke is a peculiar man with a sharp intellect. He talks fast and he thinks perhaps even faster. He drinks a lot of tea and waves to get the waiter's attention. He told me many stories about Wittgenstein. But when it comes to practical issues, it is more difficult to make him talk. Still, it is a great experience to have met him.

Saul Kripke to give IU lecture

Indiana University, September 21, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Saul Kripke, considered by some to be the world's greatest living philosopher and logician, will deliver the inaugural Presidential Lecture at Indiana University, IU President Michael McRobbie announced today.

Kripke, 66, is known for his contributions to modal logic and related logics, his theory of truth and his interpretation of the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His best-known work is Naming and Necessity, published in 1980 and based on lectures that he gave while at Princeton University.

Kripke grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father was a rabbi and his mother wrote Jewish educational books for children. He began writing philosophical essays while in high school. He attended Harvard University, where he earned a degree in mathematics.

He has been a faculty member at Rockefeller, Cornell and Princeton universities. Since 2002, he has taught at the Graduate Center of CUNY in midtown Manhattan. This fall, the center established the Kripke Center to promote the study of his philosophy.

In 2001, Kripke received the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and regarded as the Nobel Prize in those fields.

The New New Philosophy

By Kwame Anthony Appiah
The New York Times, December 9, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

We philosophers know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Although we love nothing more than our thought experiments, the key word there is thought.

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. Experimental philosophy — X-phi — has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

Can you really do philosophy with clipboards and questionnaires? It seems that you can. Philosophers being a quarrelsome group, lots of rival explanations have been offered for what's going on, leading to new rounds of experiments. And to new rounds of arguments over what the experiments show.

In one of the most famous arguments of postwar philosophy of language, Saul Kripke addressed the question: how do names refer to people or things? In a theory that Bertrand Russell made canonical, a name is basically shorthand for a description that specifies the person or thing in question. Kripke was skeptical. He suggested that the way names come to refer to something is akin to baptism: once upon a time, someone or some group conferred the name on an object, and, through the causal chains of history, we borrow that original designation.

To support his case, Kripke offered a thought experiment: Suppose that Gödel’s theorem was actually the work of a fellow named Schmidt, but Gödel somehow got hold of the manuscript and thereafter was wrongly credited with its authorship. When those of us who know about "Gödel" only as the theorem's author invoke that name, whom are we referring to? According to Russell's view of reference, we're actually referring to Schmidt: "Gödel" is merely shorthand for the fellow who devised the famous theorem, and Schmidt is the creature who answers to that description. "But it seems to me that we are not," Kripke declared.

Recently, a team of philosophers led by Machery came up with situations that had the same form as Kripke's and presented them to two groups of undergraduates — one in New Jersey and another in Hong Kong. The Americans were significantly more likely to give the responses that Kripke took to be obvious; the Chinese students had intuitions that were consonant with the older theory of reference. Maybe this relates to the supposed individualism of Westerners. Whatever the explanation, it's a discomforting result.

Versions of both views — Kripke's and the one he was challenging — have plentiful adherents among philosophers. Both intuitions have their advocates, and the right answer, if there is one, isn’t necessarily to be determined by a head count. Experiments don't settle philosophical arguments.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher at Princeton University.

AR  Kripke was a young demigod when as a passionate graduate student of logic and philosophy
I experienced his lectures in London and Oxford.