Charles H. Kahn, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, has died.
The memorial notice, below, was provided by Michael Weisberg, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Penn.
Charles H. Kahn (1928-2023)
Charles H. Kahn, one of the most important historians of philosophy in the last century, has passed away at the age of 94. Kahn’s books and articles on ancient Greek philosophy, particularly on the Presocratics and Plato, are landmarks in philosophical and classical scholarship.
Born in Louisiana, United States of America, in 1928, Kahn enrolled in the University of Chicago at the age of sixteen, where he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. After further study at the Sorbonne, he completed his doctorate in classical studies at Columbia University, then served as Assistant and Associate Professor of Classics at Columbia from 1958 to 1965. He was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, where he remained until his retirement in 2012. In addition to serving as chairman of that Philosophy Department, he held visiting appointments at other major universities, including Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford.
As a leading scholar in his field, Charles Kahn served as editor or on the editorial board of several philosophical journals, as President of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy (1976-8), as Vice President of the American Philosophical Society (1997), and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2000). His many honors include major research grants from the American Council of Learned Societies (1963/4 and 1984/5), the National Endowment for the Humanities (1974/75 and 1990/91), and the Guggenheim Foundation (1979/80).
While he wrote widely in ancient Greek philosophy, his focus was especially on Presocratics in the early decades of his career and on Plato in later decades. His doctoral dissertation, which was published as a book, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (Columbia University Press 1960), was a groundbreaking contribution to the study of pre-Socratic philosophy and is still unsurpassed today. His other books on the Presocratics include The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An edition of the fragments with translation and commentary (Cambridge University Press 1979), still widely admired among literary and philosophical scholars, and Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans. A Brief History (Hackett, 2001), which was aimed at a wider audience.
In 1973 Kahn published the monumental work, The Verb “Be” in Ancient Greek (Reidel, Dordrecht), in which he systematically studied all the uses of the verb “to be” in ancient Greek literature from Homer onwards, discovering uses and subtle nuances that had escaped the attention of scholars. The book continues to have a significant impact on our understanding of ancient Greek language and philosophy. It provoked numerous debates and responses over the years. In 2009, Oxford University Press published a collection of Kahn’s articles in reply to those responses, in a volume entitled Essays on Being.
Kahn’s enormous contribution to the study of Plato’s philosophy lies particularly in two important books. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge University Press 1996) and Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue: Return to the Philosophy of Nature (Cambridge University Press 2013). The first in particular was very widely discussed and provided both a trenchant critique, as well as compelling alternative, to a dominant paradigm in Platonic interpretation. Its enormous impact on Platonic studies made Charles Kahn one of the most important contemporary Platonists, along with the late Gregory Vlastos.
Charles is survived by his wife, sister, four daughters, son, and ten grandchildren.