MIT philosophy:
Richard Cartwright, 1925-2010
Cartwright photo

Richard Cartwright was emeritus professor of philosophy at MIT. A formidable critic, of his own work as well as others', he was known for a small number of classic papers in metaphysics and philosophy of language, but especially for his influence on colleagues and students. Skeptical of easy solutions, but at the same time deeply respectful of common sense, much of his endeavor was to see questions clearly enough to be able to begin answering them. Where the territory is ill-defined, he held, 'difference of opinion is premature'.

Cartwright took his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1945, and his Ph.D. from Brown in 1954. He then taught at Michigan, where he met his future wife, Helen Morris, herself a philosopher, and then at Wayne State. In 1967 he moved to MIT, where he was appointed to strengthen the new graduate program, and where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1996.

Cartwright's impact on philosophy at MIT, and on the graduate program in particular, was enormous. Impressed by the intensive training offered to scientists and engineers, with their frequent problem sets, Cartwright set out to offer something similar to the incoming philosophy graduate students. The result was the proseminar, a three hour twice-weekly class in which the students discussed philosophical problem sets and gave presentations on key philosophical texts under the eye of Cartwright and his colleagues. The rigor and clarity that he required left its mark on many generations of MIT students, and, indirectly, on many other graduate students at institutions where the proseminar has been emulated.

Cartwright was also a forthright administrator, serving twice as head of philosophy, and also as head of the humanities department. Here again his intolerance of cant and intellectual laziness made him a force in the administration of the humanities in general and of philosophy in particular.


Preface to Being and Saying: Essays for Richard Cartwright (MIT Press 1987), by Judith Jarvis Thomson

Richard L. Cartwright is a philosopher's philosopher. He gives no public lectures, he reviews no books for the popular press, and to the extent of my knowledge he has never declared himself on the crises of Modern Man or Modern Science. Like G.E. Moore he is provoked to philosophize not by the world but by what is said or written by other philosophers. It is to the problems that the world makes for other philosophers and to the problems philosophers make for each other that he has devoted his professional life. He has done so with a love of craftsmanship, with a hatred of the shoddy and shabby, the windy and woolly, and with a passion for the truth -- a passion simply for getting things right -- that are unmatched in current philosophy and that have perhaps been matched by no one since Moore himself, whose philosophical manner and attitude Cartwright's so much remind one of.

What have fascinated Cartwright over the years are the central, deepest problems in the philosophy of logic and language and in metaphysics. He has published little: His extraordinarily strict philosophical conscience got in the way of allowing much of his work to be printed. Some of his published essays are well known and indeed are by now classics; others are not as well known but should be. A volume containing those essays, together with others not previously in print, has been brought out by The MIT Press under the title Philosophical Essays.

Because Cartwright has published little, his influence on other philosophers is as much a product of his personal impact on his students and colleagues -- at the University of Michigan, at Wayne State University, and at MIT -- and on those who first met him at conferences and colloquia as it is a product of his written work. He is a devastating critic, and he can become positively enraged by what he thinks a willful failure to be clear or by the intellectual laziness that shows itself in a philosopher who is content with easy victory, that is, in a philosopher who is content to rebut or refute without troubling to look behind the mistake for the confusion (in a great philosopher, the mix of insight and confusion) that generated the mistake. At the same time, he has immense patience for those he thinks serious, and the standard for philosophical discourse that he imposes on himself and sets for others is for all of us who know him the standard to be aimed at.


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updated: 22 dec 10