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November 20, 1997

Carl G. Hempel

Carl G. Hempel, 92, University Professor of Philosophy at Pitt from 1976 until his retirement in 1985, died Nov. 9, 1997, at a nursing facility near his home in Princeton Township, New Jersey. A philosopher of science who refined and defended the approach known as logical positivism or logical empiricism, Hempel was the last survivor of the "Vienna Circle" of logical positivists, many of whom emigrated from Germany and Austria to the United States around the time of World War II.

Born Jan. 8, 1905, in Oranienburg, Germany, Hempel was known as "Peter" since school days. He studied mathematics, physics and philosophy at the universities of Goettingen, Heidelberg, Vienna and Berlin. He earned a Ph.D. in 1934 for his work on probability under Hans Reichenbach, one of the founders of logical empiricism.

After three years of private research and writing in Brussels, Hempel took a position as a research associate in philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1937. He taught philosophy at City College of New York, Queens College and Yale University before joining the Princeton University faculty in 1955 as the Stuart Professor of Philosophy. Hempel joined the Pitt faculty in 1976 as a University Professor of Philosophy. Mellon Professor of Philosophy Adolf GrŸnbaum said of Hempel: "He was at once one of the great philosophers of science of the 20th century and also one of the most wonderful human beings that one could encounter anywhere." GrŸnbaum said both Hempel and his wife, Diane, viewed their stay in Pittsburgh "as essentially the happiest period of his professional career." GrŸnbaum called Hempel's work on the theory of scientific explanation the point of departure for all other theories of scientific explanation in this century, including the theory of Pitt's Wesley Salmon.

"Hempel's model of scientific explanation and Wesley Salmon's are the two leading ones of the century," GrŸnbaum said. "Hempel's was the point of departure for Salmon's model, which is a rival to Hempel's. It disagrees with Hempel's model, but, as Salmon himself has emphasized, Hempel's work was his own point of departure." With Paul Oppenheim, Hempel in 1948 developed a logically precise theory known as the Deductive-Nomological, or Covering Law, Model of Explanation, which sees scientific laws and theories as systematizing otherwise unwieldy bodies of particular empirical claims.

To deal with probabilistic explanation, Hempel in 1962 articulated an Inductive-Statistical Model. He also developed models of historical and functional explanation in the biological and social sciences, as well as of historical explanation. Those models shaped all subsequent work on scientific explanation.

In the 1940s, Hempel also sought to describe the conditions under which particular reports of observation may be said to confirm general hypothesis. His famous Raven Paradox exemplifies the logical challenge: Since the hypothesis (1) "All ravens are black" can be reformulated equivalently as (2) "All non-black things are non-ravens," the report of non-black non-ravens (e.g., white shoes) would seem to confirm (1) just as would the report of black ravens. Hempel then proposed a quantitative method for determining the degree of confirmation of any hypothesis by particular statements of evidence.

Hempel was the author of the books "Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science" and "Philosophy of Natural Science," which has been translated into 10 languages.

He held Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships and served as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and as an honorary research fellow in philosophy at University College, London. He also was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Academie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences and American Philosophical Society, and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.

Hempel's first wife died in 1944. He is survived by his second wife, Diane Perlow; a son, Peter; a daughter, Toby, and two granddaughters, Hadley and Holly, all of Princeton. A University memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 7

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