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November 24, 2010

Obituary: Kurt E. M. Baier

BaierRenowned moral philosopher Kurt E. M. Baier, Distinguished Service Professor emeritus and former chair of Pitt’s Department of Philosophy, died Oct. 24, 2010, in Dunedin, New Zealand. He was 93.

A native of Vienna, Baier studied law in Austria. His partly Jewish ancestry forced him to cut short his studies and flee in 1938 to England after the Nazi takeover of his homeland. Classified as a “friendly enemy alien” in Britain, he was deported in 1940 to an internment camp in Australia. He earned a BA and an MA at the University of Melbourne and in 1952 earned his D. Phil at Oxford under Stephen Toulmin. He later returned to Australia and taught at the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University (ANU). In 1958 he married New Zealand native Annette Stoop, a professor at the University of Sydney.

The couple came to Pittsburgh in 1962 after Baier left his position as head of the philosophy department at ANU to chair Pitt’s philosophy department. He retired from the University in 1995.

Annette Baier, herself a noted philosopher and Hume scholar, first took a faculty position at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and later joined Pitt’s philosophy department, from which she retired as Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy emerita.

Among numerous honors and professional activities, Kurt Baier was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division in 1977 and chaired the APA board 1983-86.

Baier retained his interest in law, having served as the philosophy department’s liaison to the law school. In 2001 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Karl Franzen University in Graz, Austria.

His publications include: “The Moral Point of View; Values and the Future” (edited with Nicholas Rescher); “The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality”; “Reason, Ethics, and Society: Themes from Kurt Baier, With His Responses” (edited by Jerome B. Schneewind), and “Problems of Life & Death: A Humanist Perspective.”

In eulogizing Baier, Alan Musgrave of the University of Otago (New Zealand) philosophy department noted a pair of remarkable aspects of the professor’s work. First, while Baier “relied on ordinary language as the key to understanding morality and law, the ordinary language that he relied upon was not his native German, but his second language, English. He said that he found it very difficult to lecture or discuss philosophy in German,” Musgrave stated.

“The second and more important thing is that, despite his own early experiences, he remained optimistic about the power of reason and of rational discussion to achieve a just society. He opposed the then-fashionable views that moral judgments are merely expressions of personal feelings or disguised commands that other folk do as you wish them to do. Such views, if correct, mean that moral disagreement can only be resolved by force. No, said Kurt, morality and law are human artefacts designed to achieve harmony and justice, as his favorite philosopher Thomas Hobbes had maintained.”

Baier’s arrival here in 1962 was part of the University’s rise to distinction in philosophy that began in 1960 with the appointment of Adolf Grünbaum as Mellon Professor and was magnified by the subsequent recruitment of Wilfred Sellars, Nuel Belnap, Alan Anderson and Schneewind from Yale’s philosophy department, as well as Rescher’s arrival in 1961 at the newly established Center for Philosophy of Science, among other notable additions to the faculty.

Grünbaum, who said he recommended Baier to then-Provost Charles Peake as the first chair of the “new” department, was among several colleagues who commended Baier’s fine administrative abilities.

Rescher said, “He was a good person to have at the helm when the department was growing and building itself,” citing Baier’s approachability and convivial nature. Baier went out of his way to be helpful, not only extending himself to prospective faculty but also going the extra mile to help those leaving the department find suitable positions elsewhere, Rescher said.

Belnap elaborated, “As chairman, Kurt was instrumental in generating support for the department from the provost, Charles Peake, and from the chancellor, Edward Litchfield, support which has been sustained through bad times and good. When Kurt assumed the chairmanship, there remained significant numbers of folks from the existing staff, folks who did not have national or international reputations. Kurt did a magnificent job of managing the two cohorts and, later, of finding fresh positions for the latter group, making everyone happy.

“Kurt and Adolf set a fantastically cooperative tone for the department. When it came to new hires, for instance, each would always defer to the needs and wants of the other, thus binding together those with interests in the philosophy of science and logic and those whose interests were in ethics, epistemology and other traditional areas of philosophy. Those were the days. That cooperative tone has lasted down the five decades between then and now, and to my mind is an indelible hallmark of Pitt philosophy.”

Philosophy faculty member Robert Brandom said Baier was impressive in his sensitivity and flexibility as a supervisor, adding that the professor likewise had a unique style in directing students’ dissertations. Sought after by many graduate students, Baier tailored his dissertation direction to the individual’s needs. “With some, he was incredibly directive with a lesson plan; others he turned loose onto their own resources,” Brandom recalled.

Stephen Darwall, now a philosophy faculty member at Yale and Distinguished University Professor emeritus of the University of Michigan, studied under Baier at Pitt. “Kurt Baier was my adviser at Pitt, and I can’t imagine having had a better one,” Darwall stated. “He introduced me to the whole field of philosophical ethics, which he had a magisterial knowledge of and in which he was a major player at the time. He was also a marvelous human being — gentle, yet firm, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. I remember feeling quite intimidated by the idea of graduate study in philosophy, but being reassured that such a major figure could be so kind and humane.”

Philosophy department administrator Collie Henderson likewise remembered Baier’s warmth as well as his charm and dry wit. “He was the quintessential European gentleman. A gentleman and a gentle man,” she said. “He introduced me to the world of philosophy” when she came to the department 37 years ago.

Baier’s scholarly interests in ethical issues related to law and medicine were among the more accessible areas of study in philosophy, she noted. “We all talk about these at some point, but maybe don’t realize we’re discussing a philosophical topic. His philosophy was accessible on that level,” said Henderson, who continued to assist him with manuscripts even after he and his wife returned to New Zealand in 1996. “He was a wonderful man, delightful to work with,” she said. “It always felt as if I worked with them, not for them.”

The philosophy department is planning a gathering in Baier’s memory next fall. No date has been set.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 7

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