Monday, April 28, 2008

The celebrated Saul Kripke never earned more than a B.A.

One of my good friends and readers of my blog wrote to me recently expressing his surprise that the world-class philosopher, Saul Kripke, was never educated beyond the undergraduate level. "Kripke decided to write and publish rather than take up graduate studies," he wrote. "What a guy!"

The Kripke personal story is indeed impressive and intriguing, as related by Charles McGrath in a New York Times article just after Kripke had turned 65 years old in November of 2005. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York convened a two-day conference on the occasion of his his birthday in celibration of the man and his work. "In many circles, Mr. Kripke, who in 2001 was awarded the Schock Prize, philosophy's equivalent of the Nobel, is thought to be the world's greatest living philosopher, perhaps the greatest since Wittgenstein," says McGrath -- except that Wittgenstein didn't do some of his most important work while still in high school.
Mr. Kripke, a rabbi's son, grew up in Omaha, and by all accounts was a true prodigy, so brilliant and precocious that the so-called prodigies of today are by comparison mere shadows flickering on the wall of our collective cave. In the fourth grade he discovered algebra, which he later said he could have invented on his own, and by the end of grammar school he had mastered geometry and calculus and taken up philosophy. While still a teenager he wrote a series of papers that eventually transformed the study of modal logic. One of them, or so the legend goes, earned a letter from the math department at Harvard, which hoped he would apply for a job until he wrote back and declined, explaining, "My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first."

The college he eventually chose was Harvard. "I wish I could have skipped college," Mr. Kripke said in an interview. "I got to know some interesting people, but I can't say I learned anything. I probably would have learned it all anyway, just reading on my own."

While still a Harvard undergrad, Mr. Kripke started teaching post-graduates down the street at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and after getting his B.A. didn't bother to acquire an advanced degree. Who could teach him anything he didn't already know? Instead, he began teaching and publishing. His 1980 book "Naming and Necessity," based on work he began in high school, is among the most influential philosophy books of the last 50 years ....
Funny, how easy it is to forget. I remember working through parts of Naming and Necessity (1980) about twenty years ago, aware of its importance and significance as a major philosophical work. It's easy to assume that a work like that might have been written by a philosopher near the end of his career, or even by someone deceased for some time; but the fact is that Kripke was only 40 years old when he wrote it, and it was based on ideas he worked out when he was in high school, probably in the late 1950s. Since Kripke didn't waste any time on post-graduate schooling, dissertating and self-promoting, he was essentially able to complete what in effect the work of a spectacularly successful career by the time he was only 40, and he's been going strong for the 28 years since, with what appears to be as many years yet ahead of him. Setting aside the self-promotional shenanigans required of most graduate students in order to procure professional jobs, one is tempted to ask concerning the value of post-graduate education except as an inconvenient way of weeding out what the professional guild considers the candidates least likely to succeed. Yet one wonders how many Kripke's are forestalled by the prospect of having to endure six-years-to-a-decade of such nonsense before being allowed to settle down to the serious work of philosophical thinking.

[Hat tip to E.F.]