Obituary: Annette C. Baier
Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy emerita Annette C. Baier died Nov. 2, 2012, in her native New Zealand. She was 83.
Internationally known as a moral philosopher, Hume scholar and feminist, Baier earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a PhD at Oxford.
She taught in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia before coming to the United States in 1962 with her husband, philosopher Kurt Baier, when he became chair of Pitt’s philosophy department.
She taught at Carnegie Mellon before joining the Pitt faculty in 1973. She was named Distinguished Service Professor in 1993.
The Baiers retired to New Zealand in 1995, where Kurt Baier, her husband of 52 years, died in 2010. (See Nov. 24, 2010, University Times.)
Annette Baier remained active in her field and at the time of her death was affiliated with the philosophy department at Otago.
She was a past president of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association and delivered its 1995 Carus lectures, published as “The Commons of the Mind.” In many ways a pioneer in a male-dominated field, she was the first woman selected to deliver the prestigious lectures.
She also authored “Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals,” “A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s Treatise,” “Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics,” “Death and Character: Further Reflections on David Hume,” “Reflections on How We Live,” “The Cautious Jealous Virtue: Hume on Justice” and “The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume.”
Longtime philosophy department administrator Collie Henderson worked closely with Baier. “She was among my all-time favorite people,” Henderson said. “She was incredibly smart but she didn’t rub it in.”
Henderson said, “She really was delightful. I learned a great deal from her, not just intellectually, but also how to deal with people.”
Henderson remembered Baier’s ongoing desire to expand her knowledge — especially her understanding of David Hume and his writings — and her love of discussing philosophy “with anyone who wanted to sit down and talk about it.”
And while involved in her philosophical life, she at the same time was involved in everyday life. “Sometimes philosophers can be a bit eccentric in their focus. She never was,” Henderson said. “She was very much a woman of her time.”
Henderson recalled Baier as an excellent cook and a graceful hostess at many gatherings of department faculty, staff and students in the Baiers’ home. Baier also loved to travel — especially places where she could walk barefoot on a beach, Henderson said.
Baier remained physically and mentally vigorous throughout her life. “Right up until she died, she participated in a number of discussion groups at Otago,” Henderson said. “I’m glad she was able to continue to do what she loved right up until the end.”
Philosophy professor emeritus Nuel Belnap remembered Baier as a colleague who was retiring, yet direct. “She said what she had to say in a forthright way, but wasn’t even slightly pushy,” he said.
Although her work was well regarded and her Hume scholarship was world-renowned, Belnap said it appeared that it took Baier many years to appreciate her own worth.
He recalled her, even before she joined the Pitt faculty, as a sharp and incisive participant in discussion sessions, “relevant in what she had to say.”
Among her most prominent qualities was her grace, Belnap said. “She went out of her way to make people comfortable,” he said, adding that she had a keen ability to put people at ease.
Both she and her husband “were individually wonderful people” who each gave of themselves, Belnap said. “They raised the tone of the department life considerably.”
Baier also was regarded as a skillful teacher.
“She was a wonderful lecturer and had a remarkable reputation for teaching,” Belnap said.
Among her students was Donald C. Ainslie, now a faculty member at the University of Toronto. He recalled her originality and brilliant mind.
Ainslie defended his doctoral dissertation under her supervision in 1995, shortly before Baier’s retirement.
“While some of my professors would read my drafts and challenge the premises or the inferences in my argument, Annette would pose a question that was orthogonal to my way of thinking,” he said.
“These were always the hardest criticisms to address: I didn’t need to simply refine the premise or add a qualification, I had to rethink what I was trying to do. This allowed real philosophical learning, and made me a far better philosopher than I would have been otherwise.”
When Ainslie first met Baier, “she already looked somewhat grandmotherly and her eyes always shone with kindness and humor. They hid a biting wit and an unwillingness to suffer fools,” he said.
As one of her former teaching assistants, he remembers Pitt undergraduates coming to her classes expecting a gentle, older woman, “and instead finding someone who challenged them to confront their core beliefs and consider ideas that they had never previously encountered.”
Baier also served on the dissertation committee of Lynne Tirrell, now a faculty member at University of Massachusetts-Boston, who earned her PhD at Pitt in 1986.
In memorial comments posted online, Tirrell recalled how Baier’s reserved approach to judging students’ work proved intimidating to many of them. “She was neither shy nor diffident, so why such withholding?” Tirrell wrote. “We would get back papers with notes and queries, connections between what we said and some obscure but telling text by Descartes or Hume or one of their critics or compatriots. No grades, and no general qualitative assessment. Always enriching, these notes still sometimes baffled us, and often we would ask each other, ‘Do you think she liked it?’ Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Annette’s approach more and more. She was helping us to develop our own judgments, not to simply accede to hers. She was teaching us what she came to call ‘the arts of personhood,’ in this case making philosophical persons of us. And the fact that we would become self-conscious without reassuring cooing about our brilliant minds did not worry her one bit — ‘these arts include the self-consciousness which follows from mutual recognition,’ after all. She had other work to do: helping us to learn in our bones the importance of the history of our discipline, and to love the old texts for their own sakes, while carrying them in our modern hearts and minds to do new work and yield new insights.”
Tirrell remembered her teacher and longtime friend as brilliant, sophisticated, witty and cosmopolitan. “With annual hikes in the Alps, traveling the earth from end to end, befriending people everywhere, Annette had a commodious life. Coming into her own, as she really did after 50, she showed us, by example, that one’s best work may be yet to come. Those who know her writing are familiar with her insightful approach to the history of philosophy, are awed by the depth and breadth of her knowledge, and swayed by the power of her original ideas. But to those who knew her personally, Annette was a generous, compassionate and deeply loyal friend. When Annette was in your corner, you were lucky indeed, because her confidence in you was a great gift through thick and thin.”
Baier is survived by a daughter, Sarah Naylor, son-in-law Brian Naylor and four grandchildren.
—Kimberly K. Barlow