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Morton White 1917–2016

June 08, 2016
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Christine Ferrara
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Morton White, one of America’s most distinguished philosophers and historians of ideas, died at the age of 99 on May 27 at Stonebridge at Montgomery in Skillman, New Jersey. He was Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he served as Professor from 1970 until he retired in 1987. 

White is credited with broadening the scope of topics traditionally studied by philosophers, with incisive analysis in the realms of epistemology and social and political philosophy. In his philosophy of holistic pragmatism, he bridged the positivistic gulf between analytic and synthetic truth as well as that between moral and scientific belief. He maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science.

“A most formidable intellect, White was a philosopher who was able to reach out from his specialisms in epistemology and from the narrow language analysis preoccupations of much post–World War II American philosophy, in a way few others could, to write usefully about and contribute with force and insight on a vast range of historical, legal, social and cultural issues,” said Jonathan Israel, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute. “This made him a unique asset in the large and small discussions regularly held in the Institute’s School of Historical Studies.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute and Leon Levy Professor, added, “Morty left a deep and meaningful imprint as a philosopher and intellectual historian, driven by his keen curiosity and intrepid spirit. He will be greatly missed here at the Institute.”

<a href=Morton White in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, 1981" />
Photo by Herman Landshoff, Courtesy of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center at the Institute
Morton White in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, 1981

Born in New York City on April 29, 1917, White was influenced early on by his upbringing on the Lower East Side, where his father, Robert Weisberger, owned a shoe store frequented by neighborhood politicians. The daily exposure to lively exchanges of ideas and commentary inspired White to enroll at the age of fifteen at the City College of New York to study philosophy. After completing his bachelor’s degree, White was accepted as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1936, where he obtained his A.M. in 1938 and then his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1942.

At both City College and Columbia, he taught Western intellectual history, and even elementary physics, in addition to philosophy. From 1946–48, White was Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he moved on to Harvard University, where he was Assistant Professor (1948–50) and subsequently Associate Professor (1950–53) and Professor (1953–70). While at Harvard, White also served as Chairman (1954–57) and Acting Chairman (1967–69) of the Department of Philosophy. He was a Member in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute in 1953–54, 1962–63 and in 1968.

White’s first appointment as a Member in 1953 was encouraged by the Institute’s then Director J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was seeking a scholar in American intellectual history. Oppenheimer and White had known each other from Harvard and had mutual admiration for each other’s work, despite their divergent views on analytic philosophy and related topics. White, in contrast to his philosopher colleagues at Harvard, publicly supported Oppenheimer as an “intellectual force for good” and appreciated the environment that he created for historians at the Institute. In his memoir, A Philosopher’s Story (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), White remarked, “From the moment I first came to the Institute in 1953, I longed to be there forever. The idyllic surroundings, the conveniently close residential quarters, the company of distinguished colleagues, and ideal working conditions made it seem like an academic heaven.”  White’s three visits as a Member were incredibly productive and enabled work on three books: Toward Reunion in Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1956), which is considered a milestone in analytic philosophy; Foundations of Historical Knowledge (Harper & Row, 1965); and Science and Sentiment in America: Philosophical Thought from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (Oxford University Press, 1972).

White’s influence on the field has been broad and deep through his numerous books, articles and critical reviews. One of his earliest books, Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism (Viking Press, 1949), spurred a powerful response and dialogue across the field and has since become a classic text in American intellectual history. White assessed the work of John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, who collectively opposed formalist and deductive approaches to the study of philosophy, economics, law, politics and history. In his bold critique of their similarities, White linked their views as “anti-formalist, evolutionary, historically oriented” in the face of their well-known political differences, and simultaneously illuminated understanding of American social thought in the early twentieth century.

On White’s influence, Stanley N. Katz, Lecturer with rank of Professor in Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, and President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, noted, “I am a historian, and for decades Morty seemed to me Philosophy’s ambassador to history and the humanities. His Social Thought in America demonstrated for us as historians the sort of rigor we had seldom employed in writing modern intellectual history. Morty had an uncompromisingly hard-edged analytical style, and, unlike his close friend Isaiah Berlin, took no intellectual prisoners. He held his students (he was a great teacher of philosophy) to his own standards, and they were much the better for it. He was a tough guy intellectually, and certainly one of the major beneficial influences on the humanities in this country and internationally.”

White’s later books have had a similarly profound impact on the field, stemming from his call for a broadening of the topics traditionally studied by philosophers. In From a Philosophical Point of View: Selected Studies (Princeton University Press, 2005), he asserts, “We should use this stock (of fundamental beliefs) not only while reflecting on mathematics and natural science but also while examining other institutions such as politics, art, literature, history, law, education, and religion.” Experience and morality, White argued, influence the way we think and cannot be ignored in any sophisticated philosophical study. In his book The Question of Free Will: A Holistic View (Princeton University Press, 1993), he notes, “My corporatism differs from the view of some other holists insofar as I hold that moral beliefs may be included in a tested body of beliefs that also includes nonmoral beliefs.” In promoting a philosophy of culture, White helped to change fundamental assumptions about what philosophers should study, contributing to a new holistic and all-encompassing definition of the philosopher’s mission in life.

The broader philosophy that White compellingly advocated led him to explore a more “practical” way of applying philosophy to institutions present in everyday life, as he noted in Science and Sentiment in America: “In the middle of the spectrum, however, between highly specialized epistemologists and great-souled sages, there are philosophers who have their epistemologies all right, but who keep them warm by linking them to reflections on the great disciplines and institutions of civilization.” While White maintained a strong philosophical grounding for his arguments, he used this foundation to promote a wider study of culture. In his works on the political philosophy of the American Revolution, White demonstrated how a philosophy of culture functions in practice, and how philosophy of science is most definitely not philosophy enough. In collaboration with his first wife, Lucia Perry White, he explored the theme of anti-urbanism in American thought and the role of the city in relation to societal values and attitudes in The Intellectual Versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright (Harvard University Press, 1962). The Whites were greatly influenced by numerous trips to Japan and were among the first Western academics invited there after the Pacific War in 1952, and subsequently made four more trips, the last one in 1979. During these visits, as documented in Journeys to the Japanese, 19521979 (University of British Columbia Press, 1986), the Whites developed close ties with many Japanese intellectuals and their families and were able to observe Japan and Japanese life during a pivotal time.

White’s work was acknowledged with many awards, fellowships and other honors during his lifetime, including the Woodbridge Prize in Philosophy (1943) and the Butler Medal in Philosophy (1961), both from Columbia University. He was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1950–51) and was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1959–60). He received an honorary L.H.D. degree from the City University of New York in 1975, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Antiquarian Society, the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Philosophical Society.

White was predeceased by Lucia in 1996, and by his second wife, Helen Starobin White, in 2012. He is survived by his sons, Nicholas of Cologne, Germany, and Stephen of Somerville, Massachusetts, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.