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.]


UPDATE: 
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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Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
4 months ago

I only knew her from her works and yet I feel this one personally. 🙁Report

Kelly Gaus
Kelly Gaus
4 months ago

Judy was a philosophical legend, a dedicated teacher, and a possible style icon in her LL Bean slippers. She actually taught my father in grad school, as well as me, many years later. She was philosophically voracious, a constant presence around the MIT department up until last spring (for obvious reasons), and while her comments could be brutal, they were always insightful, helpful, and coming from a place of generosity with her time. She was also actively researching—including a paper on modus ponens that she’d promised me, and that I still hope I get to read.

A couple years ago, the department was having a party in appreciation of a different faculty member, and we were all encouraged to bring snacks/treats of some sort. I believe the party was at 4pm. Judy replied-all with, “I’ll bring vermouth”—and she did, two bottles. I hope everyone celebrates her life appropriately. What a force she was.Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
4 months ago

Oh, no! So very sad to read this. I was just talking to a student about her today. Report

Laurence Bernard McCullough
Laurence Bernard McCullough
4 months ago

Emeritus, a, um is a first declension adjective. The proper title is professor emerita for Professor Thompson and any other female professor granted emeritus status by her college or university (which is not automatic in many institutions).

[Thanks. I made the correction. – JW]Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
4 months ago

Prof. Thomson is one of those philosophers whom we all feel we know through their writings. I didn’t know her personally, but love her writing and once heard her give a talk (maybe an APA presidential address?) and thought, “She talks exactly like she writes!”. I love the clarity and non-fussiness of her prose and smiled to read Claudia Mills’ discussion of the attention Prof. Thomson gave to her students’ writing. I fail all the time, but when I write, I strive to emulate Prof. Thomson’s prose style. Condolences to her friends and family. Report

Alastair Norcross
4 months ago

I remember when she came to the second RoME as a keynote, it was a great pleasure and honor to host her. I had seen her give talks before, but hadn’t had the opportunity to spend time with her. Her Defense of Abortion was the first philosophy article I read as an undergraduate, and a large part of what led me to pursue a career in philosophy. When she was in Boulder, she was having some back problems, which limited her ability to walk, much less hike (a popular activity among visitors to Boulder for the conference). On the Saturday afternoon, when others were off hiking with Ben Hale and David Boonin, my wife and I drove Judy up into the Rockies. Her enthusiasm for the sights was infectious, and her grace was charming. We stopped at a cafe near Nederland (about 50 miles from Boulder), with spectacular views. She kept thanking us for showing her such great mountain views. My views in ethics are quite different from hers, but I was flattered to discover that she had read several of my articles, and had nice things to say about them. Claudia’s introduction to her keynote talk was a model introduction, which I haven’t seen equaled (and don’t expect to), and Judy’s talk was a superb performance. I am deeply saddened to learn of her death, but still feel fortunate to have spent time with her.Report

Robert
4 months ago

I was sad to hear about Judy’s passing. At MIT, I took Proseminar II from her and Bob Stalnaker and was one of several teaching assistants for her Introduction to Problems of Philosophy class twice. She was my dissertation advisor and was thus an important influence on the book derived from my dissertation, Moral Relativism and Reasons for Action. Although I kept up with everything Judy published, I hadn’t seen her since she gave a keynote address at the 2005 Madison Metaethics Workshop.

As many others have observed in their remarks, her honesty could be brutal, but it was worth enduring and was even to be sought out. It was always motivated by sincere concern that one’s writing and philosophizing be as good as possible (“good”, of course, covers many different ways of being good in this context). And, because she was such a stellar philosopher, her advice was, if followed, highly likely to have the intended salutary effect. I will miss her precision, clarity, and rigor, her lack of patience with nonsense and fluff, and her famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) commitment to common-sense and her reliance on examples to elucidate central concepts and to test general principles.

And I will miss her wonderful sense of humor. She cautioned her Intro to Problem undergraduates against lengthy, stage-setting introductions in their papers thusly: “When I ask you what time it is, do you respond by saying, ‘Since the dawn of civilization, people have wondered about time.’? No, you tell me what time it is.” In her “More on the Metaphysics of Harm,” she says, “If you make a chair and then leave it out in the rain for several months, you will have caused it to be in dire condition. Similarly if you make a child and then leave it out in the rain for several months.” Classic Judy.

I will miss her, indeed.
Report

Marceline Noblebloodt
Marceline Noblebloodt
4 months ago

Professor Thomson was one of the first philosophers whose work I ever got into contact with, her work inspired me to start studying philosophy and ignited my love for ethics. She will be missed by many, but she will live on through her work. Rest in peace, you legend.Report

Tsung-Hsing Ho
Tsung-Hsing Ho
4 months ago

I feel sad when hearing this news. Her book, Normativity, has a tremendous impact on my dissertation. I remember that in the preface she said that she was also writing another book on normative ethics. Does anyone know that it will be published? Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
4 months ago

J.J. Thomson taught in a visiting position (half-time) at the Yale Law School during the time I was an assistant professor in the philosophy department at Yale. I admired her work so much that I decided to sit in on her jurisprudence class, which was a model of precision and rigor. It was also fun, as she added her distinctive philosophical perspective and sense of humor. After one class she asked me to come to her office (which was Robert Bork’s old office, btw) and she had extremely kind and supportive words to say to me. It meant a great deal to me, since I did know (in part from personal experience) that she could be a very tough critic. That afternoon in her office, and her kind words, have inspired me throughout my career. I’ll never forget the act of care and kindness on Judy’s part, especially because the Yale senior faculty in philosophy were not–let us say–the kindest and most supportive group..Report