In Memoriam

The department faculty below have recently passed away. Our thoughts and condolences go out to the family, friends, and colleagues of each.



Howard Stein

Howard Stein died peacefully at his home in Hyde Park on Friday, March 8, 2024, at the age of 95.  Howard was a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago from 1953 to 1960.  He subsequently taught at Brandeis University, Case Western Reserve University, Rockefeller University, and Columbia University.  In the 1960s he also worked for several years for Honeywell as a mathematician and engineer. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1980, retiring in 2000.  Howard was a National Science Foundation Science Faculty Fellow in 1958-59.  He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.  In 1989 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Howard’s 1967 paper, "Newtonian Space Time," inaugurated the modern study of the foundations of physics.  Philosophers of science had been concerned with physical theories before but Howard’s mathematical, historical and conceptual analysis of Newtonian and, in 1968, Einstein-Minkowski spacetime in terms of modern geometry set a new standard of scholarship.  By the 1990s there was a thriving community of self-identified philosophers of physics concerned with the problems and approaches to physical theory that Howard had originated in the 1960s.  The international Society for the Philosophy of Physics was founded to serve this community.

Howard was remarkable for his equal dedication to the history of philosophy and to the history of physics, as well as for his compelling writing style.  He was deeply interested in the historical origins of concepts and theories from physics.  This led him not only to early modern natural philosophers such as Descartes and Newton, but also to Plato.  A remark from one of his papers captures something of Howard’s philosophical character:  he describes Descartes as "a thinker who is one of my favorites for instructive foolishness.”

Howard’s pre-eminence in the field may not have been entirely evident to those outside it since he did not publish all of his work.  A conference in 2017 brought together philosophers of physics who had been influenced by Howard.  It resulted in a special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics in 2019.

Howard had the unique philosophical capacity to turn into gold whatever topic he worked on. From the papers on Newton to the papers on Carnap to the papers on realism, he always managed to cast new and fresh light on old problems and to make us see them from a different and novel point of view.  His ability to combine solid philosophical argument with historical accuracy and detail was unparalleled. Thanks to him we have come to re-think, among other areas, Newton’s method and its relation to metaphysics; Poincare’s conventions; and the Carnap-Quine debate about analyticity.

Apart from his seminal writings on the foundations of physics and its history, and especially Newton, there was Howard’s amazing breadth of knowledge of everything—from the Greeks to Milton to contemporary politics to music and its history—and his brute intelligence.  This intelligence, his ability to listen, absorb, and then, simply out of deep determination to understand what was being said, to raise the most probing critical questions—this character trait was most manifest in his questions at colloquia. Howard’s questions were never clever “objections,” but rather an expression of his commitment to knowledge and comprehension.  No topic lay beyond his curiosity and no opinion, text, or communication—from colleague’s writings to student questions to menus to Times editorials—were beneath his critical reflection.  Wonderful examples of Howard’s breadth and depth—and the elegance of his writing—are two letters he wrote in response to reviews in the New York Review of Books

Howard and recently deceased Professor of Philosophy Bill Tait were great friends and Philosophy Department colleagues for decades.  They were born one day apart and died within a week of each other.



William W. Tait

William W. (Bill) Tait, one of the most distinguished philosophers of mathematics in the second half of the 20th century, died in Naperville, Illinois, on March 15, 2024, at the age of 95.

Born on January 22, 1929, Bill Tait graduated from Lehigh University in 1952 and received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1958.  He began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1972, retiring in 1996.  Earlier, he taught at Stanford University (1958-64), the University of Illinois-Chicago (1965-71), and Aarhus University (1971-72).  He was Department of Philosophy chair from 1981 to 1987.  After retirement, he stayed active with his research, including giving the prestigious Skolem Lectures and Tarski Lectures.  He was a central figure in a group of faculty—including David Malament, Howard Stein, Ian Mueller, Bill Wimsatt, and Leonard Linsky—who made Chicago the place to study the philosophy and history of physics and mathematics, logic, biology, and figures like Frege and Russell.  In 2002, Bill was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Bill was a central contributor to the development of proof theory, and so also to logic and the philosophy of mathematics.  He provided an original study of functionals of transfinite type, with results that later found application in combinatory logic and the lambda calculus.  Eventually, he moved to considering the philosophical aspects of the constructivist means used in such work.  A well-known outcome was his article “Finitism” (1981), in which he argued for an understanding of Hilbertian finitism in terms of primitive recursive arithmetic.

Bill also made important and widely recognized contributions to our understanding of the relationship between classical and constructive reasoning in mathematics, with additional work on set theory (large cardinals, reflection principles) and constructive type theory (building on Curry-Howard type theory).  

From the 1980s on, Bill combined such work with carefully historical-philosophical studies of main figures in logic and the philosophy of mathematics, most notably Georg Cantor, Ernst Zermelo, and Kurt Gödel.  During this period he was also involved in broader philosophical debates, engaging with the writings of Frege and Wittgenstein on the historical side, and with Michael Dummett, Saul Kripke, and John McDowell on the contemporary side.  In these contexts, Bill made lasting contributions to both the history of the philosophy of mathematics and the history of analytic philosophy.  Bill’s interests also went deeper into the history of philosophy.  He published on Kant and on Plato, seeing them as important predecessors in the philosophy of mathematics. 

Bill was an avid climber, a marvelous colleague, and always had a twinkle in his eye.  But his sweetness was coupled with a fierce moral determination that made him, as Chair, a lion on behalf of the department and its faculty and a colossal pain to the administration.  

Bill and recently deceased Professor of Philosophy Howard Stein were great friends and Philosophy Department colleagues for decades.  They were born one day apart and died within a week of each other.