Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020)

Judith Jarvis Thomson, professor emerita of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the most influential moral philosophers of the past 50 years, has died.

Professor Thomson was known for her work on a variety of issues in normative ethics, applied ethics, metaethics, and metaphysics. She is the author of NormativityThe Realm of Rights, Rights, Restitution, and Risk, among many other works. One of her articles, “A Defense of Abortion,” which appeared in the inaugural issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs, may be one of the most well-known pieces of applied moral philosophy of the 20th Century.

Professor Thomson earned a BA from Barnard College and a second one from Cambridge University, where she also obtained an MA in philosophy. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1959. She taught at Barnard and Boston University before being hired by MIT in 1964.

[This post will be updated with more details at a later time.]

Below is Claudia Mills‘ wonderful introduction of Judith Jarvis Thomson before her keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in 2009 (via David Boonin):

By any measure, Judith Jarvis Thomson is one of the greatest philosophers of the past five decades. She has published scores of articles in the finest journals, on a dizzying array of topics in metaphysics, action theory, ethical theory, and applied ethics: “Time, Space, and Objects,” in Mind, “Grue,” in Journal of Philosophy, and “More Grue” in Journal of Philosophy, “Individuating Actions,” in Journal of Philosophy, (looking at her CV, you begin to wonder if JP ever published anybody else), “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” in The Monist, – major books like Rights, Restitution and RiskActs and Other EventsThe Realm of Rights.

But if she had published just one little article, her reputation as one of the towering figures of our profession would be forever secure. Because one day in 1971, the readers of a new journal called Philosophy & Public Affairs awoke to find themselves hooked up to a famous violinist—soon to become a VERY famous famous violinist—and philosophy has never been the same.

It wasn’t only the argument that was brilliant—I’ve read that “A Defense of Abortion” is the most widely anthologized article ever in the history of philosophy. It was the subject matter: philosophers could actually write about things like abortion, they could write about ethical issues in our real, actual lives. And most of all, it was the method: to take those ethical issues in our real, actual lives, and examine them in a way that allowed us some philosophical distance from our messy, emotional involvement in them, by creating marvelously detailed fabricated stories to elicit our intuitions about them more carefully and precisely.

I was asked to give this introduction because I knew Judith Jarvis Thomson not only as a brilliant thinker, but as a brilliant teacher. When I was an undergraduate at Wellesley, I took courses with Prof. Thomson through the Wellesley-MIT exchange.  Here is my notebook from the first one: 24.231. (At MIT, departments don’t have names, they have numbers, so 24 is Philosophy – I soon learned from my classmates that it was an error to refer to the course as PHIL 24.231 – PHIL was redundant, as 24 already WAS Phil.)

To take a course with Judith Jarvis Thomson was a thrilling experience. That’s the only way to describe it. I wrote down every utterance that came from her lips. We studied Hobbes, Mill, and Nozick. When I teach Hobbes now, I teach from these notes. I haven’t found any way of improving upon them.

Here is the paper assignment for our second paper for the class, due April 7, 1975. “Is there a variety of utilitarianism which is true? If so, which? And why? If not, why not?”  One student put up his hand right away: “What do you mean, ‘is true’?”  Without a word, Prof. Thomson turned to the chalkboard and wrote: “S” is true just in case S.  That was all.  Asked for further guidelines to assist us in writing the paper, she gave us this one: “No eloquence!” I felt as if she was addressing that pithy piece of advice directly to me.

Judy Thomson taught me even more about how to write than she taught me about how to do philosophy. For one paper, she commented on my tendency to switch terminology: I’d talk about “duties” for a while, and then, to add some interest, I’d vary my vocabulary a bit and start talking about “obligations.” She taught me not to do that, that the reader was going to become alarmed: wait, a new term has been introduced, why? She taught me that the point of writing was actually to SAY SOMETHING. On another paper, when I had underlined one particular point for emphasis, she told me: “You think that if you say it loudly enough, people won’t hear how false it is.” I finally wrote a paper that began with a sentence that pleased her. I still remember the sentence. It was: “Two things seem to me to be true.” She brightened upon reading it. “You just like it because it’s short,” I told her, as I knew she had disliked my long, flowery, dare I say eloquent, sentences. “I don’t just like its length,” she told me.  “I like IT!” That was a wonderful moment that I’ve carried with me for thirty-four years. I wrote a sentence that Judith Jarvis Thomson admired.

I don’t have time to talk about her warmth and generosity as a mentor to a young woman about to enter in the mid-1970s into the male-dominated world of philosophy. I will say that when I confided in her my worries about balancing graduate study in philosophy with my relationship with my MIT boyfriend, who was spending that year studying cosmic rays in Antarctica, she pronounced Antarctica an excellent place for a boyfriend to be.

Judith Jarvis Thomson changed philosophy forever. She changed her students forever, too. It’s a great honor for me to be able to introduce her to you today.

Judith Jarvis Thomson at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress. Photo by Alastair Norcross.

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