Richard Boyd (1942-2021)


Richard Boyd, emeritus professor of philosophy at Cornell University, has died.

Professor Boyd worked in philosophy of science, ethics, philosophy of language, epistemology, and philosophy of mind, and was well-known for his defenses of scientific realism and moral realism. You can learn more about his work here and here.

Professor Boyd joined the faculty at Cornell in 1972. Prior to that, he had held appointments at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his Ph.D. at MIT.

UPDATE (2/25/21): Cornell University has posted an obituary here.

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Mica Rapstine
Mica Rapstine
1 month ago

It is widely known that Dick was a brilliant mind. I suspect it is much less well known that he was an extraordinarily generous and supportive mentor to students of all levels. I met him while in the process of beginning a return from an extended break from post-grad work in philosophy. Although it had been years since I was enrolled in an academic program, he warmly approved my request to audit a course he was set to teach on naturalism and objectivity at Lewis and Clark College. (Toward the end of his career, he spent a couple spring semesters away from Ithaca.) Indeed, he encouraged me to participate as fully as I would like in the course, even volunteering to comment on any writing I should decide to produce. Always willing, and seemingly even excited, to chat on the bus from campus to downtown Portland, he even met with me once just to enjoy a beer and get to know me a bit better. Once I decided to take the plunge back into grad level work in philosophy, Dick even agreed to write for my applications. I’m quite certain I hadn’t shown any exceptional talent. I think it was simply his instinct to help a person trying to get somewhere with his or her interests. I stayed in touch with him while doing MA work and, then, PhD work. He always asked with excitement what I was working on, and he would even request that I share some of the (fairly silly, no doubt) papers I had been developing. A really extraordinary model, as a philosopher and as a mentor. Rest in peace.Report

P.D. Magnus
1 month ago

I met Dick Boyd 20 or 25 years ago, when I was a grad student at UC San Diego and he came to give a talk. I met him again at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in 2004, I think. We’d see each other every other year at the PSA.
His work has been a deep and subtle influence on my thinking through the years, and he was a really nice guy.Report

David O. Brink
David O. Brink
1 month ago

Very sad to learn of the death of Richard Boyd, who was a teacher, mentor, and member of my thesis committee at Cornell University 1980-84.  My condolences to his family and many friends.  Dick was a huge presence in the Cornell Philosophy Department.  In an age of intellectual specialization and balkanization, Dick was, by contrast, the epitome of a systematic philosopher whose views spanned logic, science, mind, language, ethics, and politics.  He saw unity among disparate philosophical domains, a unity animated by his commitments to realism, naturalism, and consequentialism.  He had boundless energy, could talk a mile a minute, and was very good at articulating his systematic view in conversation.  As a teacher, Dick’s enthusiasm was infectious.  As a friend and mentor, he was always excited about the work of others, even when it was at odds with his own.  Even if you disagreed with aspects of Dick’s worldview, you could learn a lot from his eloquent defense of it and by appreciating its systematicity.  I saw Dick a handful of times after leaving graduate school, and he was remarkably constant — always excited about philosophy, whether his own views or yours.  It’s hard to accept the death of someone who was always so animated and had so much enthusiasm for the life of the mind.  It’s especially hard for me to accept Dick’s death so soon after the death of his colleague and friend, and one of my other mentors, Nicholas Sturgeon.  We have now lost two columns of Cornell Realism in six months, and philosophy has lost two excellent philosophers and good souls.    

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John Fischer
John Fischer
Reply to  David O. Brink
1 month ago

David’s post very eloquently captures what I also experienced, although my research was not in Dick’s main areas of interest. Dick once invited me to give a presention to one of his classes, and he was incredibly generous and supportive, although I’m sure it wasn’t his cup of tea (or coffee either). I agree that “philosophy has lost two excellent philosophers and good souls.”Report

Phil Gasper
Phil Gasper
1 month ago

Terribly sad news. Dick was my dissertation adviser and the reason I chose to go to Cornell as a graduate student. Later we were co-editors and collaborators on a philosophy of science anthology published by MIT. As David Brink says, he had a huge influence on the Cornell philosophy department when we were there in the 1980s and his enthusiasm was infectious. He was certainly my single biggest philosophical influence, always generous with his time and penetrating with his comments and criticisms. He was also a wonderful and very animated teacher, buzzing around the room from one board to another, and making quite sophisticated arguments intelligible to undergraduates who had never taken a philosophy class before. Dick also influenced me politically. When mass anti-apartheid protests began on campus in 1985, Dick was quite happy for me to become effectively a full-time activist for the next year. We still met and talked regularly, but now about political strategy as well as about causal theories of reference and knowledge. When I organized a campus-wide Education Against Oppression speaker series, Dick spoke twice, once on anti-racism and once on a panel on Marxism and feminism. It was totally in character that he named Black Lives Matter as one of the organizations to send contributions in his name. My sympathies to Barbara and Christopher. Dick will be very much missed.Report

Eric Lewis
Eric Lewis
1 month ago

In just a short period of time, the infamous Sage School of Philosophy softball team has lost two key members! (both hall of famers, no doubt) As the sole undergraduate on the team in the late 70’s I was relegated to centre field, but if you compiled the cv’s of the infield when it turned a double play, it would be very impressive indeed! I recall Dick more as a political sounding-board for me at the time (I spoke to him often, but never took a class). Nick was nominally my undergraduate advisor, and gave me enough rope to do as I pleased, but not quite enough to hang myself in stupidity. Both are missed indeed.Report

Elizabeth S. Radcliffe
Elizabeth S. Radcliffe
Reply to  Eric Lewis
1 month ago

I love this. I remember the softball team. The Sage School team of the ’70s and ’80’s has been retired.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
1 month ago

So sad. One of the few truly open minds in our profession. In any discussion, he always engaged as if he was willing to take any position you succeeded in convincing him of, even if was the opposite of his own. He will be sorely missed.Report

Lily Frank
1 month ago

His work on moral realism inspired me!Report