Nicholas Sturgeon (1942-2020)


Nicholas L. Sturgeon, emeritus professor of philosophy at Cornell University, has died.

Professor Sturgeon was known for his work in ethics and metaethics, in particular his naturalist moral realism, and the history of ethics. You can browse some of his writings here.

Professor Sturgeon began teaching at Cornell in 1967, and held visiting appointments over the years at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and UCLA. He was an undergraduate at Carleton College and earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1972.


UPDATE: Memorial notice from Cornell University.

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Karen Margrethe
Karen Margrethe
1 year ago

It’s a great loss. A wonderful man and superb philosopher.Report

David O. Brink
David O. Brink
1 year ago

Nick was a wonderful scholar, teacher, and mentor. His own work in metaethics and the history of ethics reflected deep and considered views and combined great originality with scrupulous argumentation and attention to the texts. He was a devoted teacher and mentor, who made students feel that their views were taken very seriously. I know I experienced these virtues firsthand. As a first-year student, Nick invited me to do a formal comment on his moral explanations paper at Cornell’s Discussion Club. I was terribly nervous, but Nick was incredibly reassuring and appreciative. His encouragement on a paper I wrote for his metaethics seminar led to my first publication. His kindness extended to opening his home to me and including me with his family and friends on multiple Thanksgivings. He made important contributions to the intellectual and social life of the philosophical community at Cornell for over five decades. He will be sorely missed by many former colleagues and students.Report

Hilary Kornblith
Hilary Kornblith
1 year ago

I can only echo the comments of Karen and David. I gave a paper to the Cornell Discussion Club when I was a graduate student, and I asked Nick to be my commentator. My paper was–how shall I put it?–in an early stage, and Nick presented a wonderfully generous account of what I was trying to get at, together with tremendously helpful and constructive criticism. Nick was always available for philosophical discussion, and just shooting the breeze over lunch in the common room. HIs classes showed a deep engagement with historical texts and contemporary work as well, delving into the issues in extraordinary detail, but always keeping the big picture front and center. Nick was a wonderfully decent, warm human being who just exuded good will. This is a great loss for the Cornell community, and for philosophy as well.Report

Elizabeth S. Radcliffe
1 year ago

I also experienced the guidance and kindness of a great intellect and warm human being in Nick. He was my mentor and dissertation supervisor at Cornell. My early days as a graduate student were rough. I entered an Ivy League grad school from a little-known state institution with a philosophy department of two. I found myself suddenly surrounded by grad students from star institutions, and I sometimes thought I had no business being there. Nick took me seriously and showed confidence in my ability to succeed at a time when I could have easily abandoned ship. He and Joanne were gracious with graduate students, often hosting BBQ’s in their backyard. I learned from Nick the craft of doing history of philosophy through a contemporary lens. He modeled philosophy in the classroom and was a meticulous commentator on philosophical writing. The professional life I’ve enjoyed for so many years I owe in part to him. I am so deeply saddened at his loss and so grateful to have known him. His body of work in ethics and history of philosophy will forever be the touchstone for meta-ethical debates.Report

Brian Penrose
Brian Penrose
1 year ago

I, too, am greatly saddened by this news; my experiences with Nick echo a number of those expressed by others. I took two graduate courses from Nick, one on metaethics and one on the history of philosophy (the Empiricists). I still consider Nick to be the person who taught me how to read and think about historical texts, and when I taught metaethics for a few years, “Moral Explanations” (as well as, I should add, some of David Brink’s early work) was a mainstay of my reading list. I was also a teaching assistant for a semester in one of Nick’s undergraduate ethics courses. Nick’s patience and care with both the material and the students was exemplary, and his manner of organizing and presenting his material has been the single biggest influence on my own teaching style. My greatest debt to Nick, however, is in his role as my PhD supervisor. My topic was well outside of Nick’s areas of specialization but due to the departure of my initial supervisor, I was in need of a supervisor. Because of both Nick’s philosophical and personal styles–he had a knack for shoring up confidence in even students who, like me, were well short on it–I asked him if he would supervise me, to which he agreed. His supervision was extraordinary. Among many other things, Nick not only read my work carefully, critically, and charitably, but he also read a lot of my source material with the same philosophical care and diligence, material which he’d never read, and probably wouldn’t have were it not for (what he took to be) his supervisory responsibilities. I’m eternally indebted to him for his efforts on my behalf and very moved by news of his passing.Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
1 year ago

I am also saddened by our loss of Nick Sturgeon. He combined all of the virtues of the faculty at Cornell during the time I was there (was it the Meiocene or Pleiocene era?). He was a brilliant philosopher who knew the history of philosophy and also contemporary philosophy. He had awesome skills as a philosopher, and awe-inspiring warmth and collegiality. He was an important reason why Cornell was such a supportive place for graduate students. (I should add that, from what I can tell, it still is!)

I took a graduate seminar from Nick my first year at Cornell. I had come from a university on the quarter system, and Cornell was/is on the semester system. I thus had never written a substantial paper for a class. I still remember Nick’s comments, after about 45 years: “This reads like two shorter papers tacked together.” He was absolutely right! He delivered the news kindly, though, and I will always remember him fondly. Allow me to note how many of Nick’s former students are contributing to this discussion–further testimony to his lasting impact on all of us, and inspiration.

When I got to Yale in my first job, and shared notes with the dozen other “junior people” (as we were called), I was surprised to learn how my colleagues’ experiences in their graduate programs were very different from mine (and not in good ways). I have been, and will always be, grateful to Cornell, and Nick was an important part of it all.Report

Stephen J Sullivan
Stephen J Sullivan
1 year ago

Nick was my biggest philosophical influence at Cornell, and I will always be grateful to him for his impact on my understanding of moral epistemology. I am sorry that his many thoughtful, insightful papers in that area were never collected into a book.Report

Phil Gasper
Phil Gasper
1 year ago

It’s nice to see so many of NIck’s former students contributing their memories. Although he didn’t publish a lot, he had a big influence on the Cornell Philosophy Department when I was there in the 1980s and, as people have noted, he was a wonderful teacher. I took or sat in on several of his classes, including the Empiricists, two-thirds of which was NIck’s incredibly detailed analysis of Locke, followed by a mad scramble to get through Berkeley and Hume. I still have my notes in a box somewhere. I was also the teaching assistant for a course that Nick regularly co-taught with Richard Boyd, my thesis supervisor, on science and society (I’ve forgotten the actual title). What I learned about the fallacies of scientific racism and biological determinism in that course has shaped my thinking ever since. As Hilary Kornblith notes, Nick was personally a very decent man. In my first semester at Cornell he invited several of us graduate students to his home for Thanksgiving because we had nowhere else to go. Later on he was extremely supportive of my political activism on campus and was one of several Philosophy Department faculty to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested during the anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s. I had very little contact with him over the past 30 years, but I was deeply saddened to hear of his death.Report

David Phillips
David Phillips
1 year ago

I too was very sorry to hear this news. Dick Boyd and Nick co-supervised my dissertation. They made a great team. Dick specialized more in the big-picture stuff, connecting ethics with other areas of philosophy. Nick was, as others have said, a wonderful close reader, and had a deep knowledge of the ethics literature. One of the courses I took from him, on the ethics of Hobbes, Butler and Hume, is the model for the upper-level class I most often teach. I found the spirit in which he taught that and other history courses exemplary: really careful textual analysis but always with an eye on issues of enduring philosophical interest.Report

Helen Taylor Salter
Helen Taylor Salter
1 year ago

My heart is saddened by this news. Although I was not a philosopher, I had the privilege of managing the production of The Philosophical Review for 10 years during the 1980s. Nick served as my boss several times during those years. He listened closely to my publishing concerns and witnessed our transition from paper recording methods to the computer era. He always had a kind word and a professional manner. When I experienced personal problems during my divorce, he offered empathy and understanding as I struggled to manage my affairs and maintain my composure. I will not forget his compassion. My condolences to his family.Report

Hille Paakkunainen
Hille Paakkunainen
1 year ago

I was sad to hear of this too. I work at Syracuse, which is relatively close to Cornell, and got to know Nick through a regional ethics reading group we had going for a few years. Nick was such a careful, charitable and knowledgeable interlocutor, and an unfailingly kind person. Even when his health started failing, he was still probably the most active group member attending meetings. He also made time, separately, to discuss my interests in normative naturalism with me. I always got the sense that Nick doesn’t care about ego, but only about the truth, goodness, and people. I loved talking about philosophy with him.Report

Daniel
Daniel
1 year ago

Many have commented on how exceptional Professor Sturgeon was as an advisor of graduate students, but he was also an outstanding teacher of undergraduates. I had the good fortune to take an upper-division ethics course with Professor Sturgeon not long before his retirement. It was one of my favorite classes at Cornell. Even at that late date he remained a model of philosophical engagement and undergraduate teaching: his impressive ability to lecture exclusively from the text was part of it, but so too was his philosophically serious while still relatable and approachable style. To this day I remember the way he carefully balanced his more critical paper comments with kindness and decency. Now a graduate student at another institution, I often think back on the way he conducted that course and try to model my own teaching and grading on it.

I remember writing to Professor Sturgeon several years after graduating, somewhat trepidatious that he wouldn’t remember me. As it turned out, he remembered certain interactions of ours better than I did! He always treated us undergraduates with respect, even at times when it wasn’t particularly deserved, and he always seemed to exude a personal warmth and generosity.

It’s hard to imagine a Sage School of Philosophy without Professor Sturgeon. My deepest sympathies and condolences to his family.Report

Paula Gottlieb
1 year ago

One of the first things I remember about my arrival at Cornell in the 80s was being told by other students that I must take Nick’s empiricism class, which I did. Like others, I still have my notes. His generous commentary on my practice job talk helped secure my present position at UW-Madison. More recently, I enjoyed meeting up with Nick at the yearly meta-ethics conferences in Madison. As an expert on moral realism (not the view that it’s a cold, harsh world out there, as he explained in his ethics class) he was a leading light, not just at the formal talks, but in conversation at lunch and dinner. He was always encouraging to younger philosophers.
He will be missed.Report

Tait Szabo
Tait Szabo
1 year ago

Professor Sturgeon was my undergraduate advisor and mentor. His Introduction to Philosophy course was my first philosophy course. He helped me through the graduate school applications process. He had a lot to do with why I am where I am today.

A couple years ago I was inspired to write to him to let him know how much he had meant to me, and we had a pleasant exchange. I’m glad I did that.Report

Don Habibi
Don Habibi
1 year ago

I took Nick Sturgeon’s seminar in ethics in the Fall of 1981. This was my first foray into the history of ethics and contemporary theory. The subject matter was difficult, but his lectures were immensely entertaining. He had a very dry sense of humor and was funny without making an effort to be funny. He was able to hold my interest and I learned much from the experience. I was impressed that several professors in the philosophy dept. attended his lectures. I took that as a sign that he had important things to teach his colleagues. Nick made very helpful comments on my papers–which he obviously read with focus and care. I made many friends in that class, who also helped bring me up to speed with the issues he presented. I also loved that he was a baseball fan. and his big poster of the great Willie McCovey of the SF Giants, who had just retired. I grew up a Dodgers fan, but still connected with him on the greatness of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Whenever I think of Nick, a smile comes to my face.Report