Harry Frankfurt (1929-2023)

Harry Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, whose work on free will has been highly influential, has died.

Professor Frankfurt was well-known for his work on freedom and moral responsibility, love, and other subjects in moral philosophy. On the subject of free will, he is especially known for his articulation of compatibilism and the kind of examples, now referred to as “Frankfurt cases,” with which he argued against the principle of alternate possibilities. He also attained some degree of fame in popular culture when his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit,” was republished as a book in 2005, leading to various articles and television appearances (e.g., here’s his interview on The Daily Show). You can learn more about his writings here.

Professor Frankfurt joined Princeton in 1990. Prior to that, he spent over 25 years at Yale, and over a dozen years at Rockefeller University. Before that, he held appointments at SUNY Binghamton and Ohio State University.

He died on July 16th.

Obituaries elsewhere:
New York Times
Washington Post
Financial Times
Princeton University



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John Fischer
John Fischer
2 months ago

Harry Frankfurt was an extraordinarily influential philosopher.

His intellect was powerful and penetrating, and his writing elegant and, I would say, beautiful. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall many numbered or “displayed” propositions in his papers, and yet they are paradigms of careful and rigorous analytic philosophy. (Let this be a lesson to all of us.)
He was unafraid to buck the trends in philosophy and academic politics, and to speak his mind. One of the greatest things about Harry was his extraordinary and brilliant sense of humor!

Hmm. Let’s see: elegant, clear, precise writing; unbowed by the conventional wisdom and unafraid to speak his mind; and a genuine and wonderful sense of humor. This is why I loved Harry, and why he will be missed. And we really need more Harry Frankfurts in academics these days.

And that’s no bullshit.

Reply to  John Fischer
2 months ago

Did you know my dad?

John Fischer
John Fischer
Reply to  Jenny
2 months ago

Yes! (See my comment on leiterreports.)
Harry and I were colleagues at Yale from 1981 to 1988. I write a lot on his work, so we have always corresponded about that. I follow Harry’s lead on many points; indeed, I call my view (sometimes) “Frankfurt-style Compatibilism.” Then when he came to SoCal we have had many opportunities to stay in contact. He even taught a seminar at UCR on Spinoza.
My sympathies for your loss, which is also a loss for all of us. But he lived a very full life (and loved his daughters very much!!)

Mark van Roojen
2 months ago

He was at Princeton well before 2002.
My condolences to his many friends.

Liam Shields
2 months ago

I will always have a great intellectual debt to Harry Frankfurt for writing “Equality as a Moral Ideal”. Others are far better placed than I to summarise Frankfurt’s body of work and explain its brilliance. I had no personal interactions with Frankfurt, except for two emails to be explained shortly, so I cannot comment on his personality either. Others have done both.

What I can do is say something about the profound importance of one aspect of his work in my own thinking. In the academic year of 2005/6, I was taking a class on Political Concepts at the Keele University, run by Paul Bou-Habib. We were reading several chapters from Pojman and Westmoreland’s Equality: selected readings, where “Equality as a Moral Ideal” was republished. I don’t remember being initially convinced by it, but I do remember being struck by the way it was argued, the surprising nature of its conclusion (that inequality had no fundamental importance and what mattered was that everyone had enough), and how I persistently came back to it. In my final year I decided to write my undergraduate dissertation of Frankfurt’s sufficientarianism, now incorporating the work on Roger Crisp and Paula Casal, comparing it with Prioritarianism.

By then I was hooked and couldn’t imagine my future without philosophy in it. Although my encounters with other great philosophers were hugely influential and important, Frankfurt was the catalyst, Rawls and others were secondary. There’s a sense in which I owe everything to him, not because he was the only person who helped me, far from it, but because he started something, or enabled me to start something.

I have returned to “Equality as a Moral Ideal”, and subsequent papers that develop some of those ideas in the “Moral Irrelevance of Equality” and “Equality and Respect”, for my PhD, my first book, and several papers. I have done so to turn away from his way of understanding sufficiency. But there’s no way that I could have had the career I have had and done the things I had done, for instance writing Just Enough, without the publication of “Equality as a Moral Ideal”. I also think that Frankfurt’s views on equality have a depth and richness that is sometimes lost on his critics, and I find myself, even now, seeing more in that body of work that could be re-stated and defended. Perhaps this is because of the insight I gained from his first email reply to me in 2008, see below. I was particularly glad to have the opportunity to trace some of these neglected aspects of his thought in “Some Questions, and Answers, for Sufficientarians” in Fourie and Rid eds. What is Enough?

I contacted Harry Frankfurt only twice. The first time was in 2008, when I was an MA student at the University of York. I wanted to explain to him that I had decided to carry on my studies because of his work on sufficiency and that I intended to do further work on it. I also asked how he came up with the idea and if he had any reading suggestions His reply was generous and enlightening.

“Dear Mr Shields, Thank you very much for your message, and for your interest in my work. I apologize for having taken so long to respond.

I don’t really know of any pertinent literature that you might find it useful to read.

As for what led me to come up with the idea of sufficiency as an alternative to equality, I can tell you this. It struck me one day that caring about equality entails caring about what others have, and that this breeds not just envy but also inauthenticity insofar as it means setting goals based upon something other than one’s own needs and interests and capacities. I concluded that the right way to go about things is to care about oneself rather than about others and to aim at getting what is necessary to meet your own authentic goals regardless of how it compares with what others have. What you need is, simply, enough – i.e., what is sufficient – to enable you to filfill your own genuine ambitions.

I don’t know what led me to this line of thought. But I do remember the occasion on which it opened up to me, and the sense of its rightness that came with it.

Harry Frankfurt”

The second time I emailed him I was a 2nd year PhD student, and had just had my first paper accepted, “The Prospects for Sufficientarianism”. I explained the view diverged from his own, but that was inspired by it and that I was very grateful to him for writing it. He wrote,

“Dear Mr Shields, Thank you for your email, and for the news of your recent work. I was glad to hear from you, and to learn of how and what you have been doing. I hope you have no particular difficult in completing your work for the PhD, and that you are able to find suitable employment after that.

I look forward to looking through the material you attached to your message.

Good luck!

Harry Frankfurt”

I treasure these emails. Just like his philosophical writing, every detail is worthy of attention. And there must have been something to his sincere (what else?) good luck wishes because I had a relatively smooth route to finding “suitable employment”.

Most likely these emails didn’t give him a second thought but they meant to world to me. Thank you Harry Frankfurt.

Reply to  Liam Shields
2 months ago

Thank you for sharing , Liam

Daniel Dennett
2 months ago

Harry was a powerful philosopher and a wonderful friend. Most summers he and his wife Joan rented a cottage in Blue Hill where our farm was, and Harry and I would have long, thoughtful, amusing outdoor lunches at a local restaurant looking out on the bay. His love and knowledge of music enriched our concert-going at Kneisel Hall, whose director then was his old friend, the pianist Seymour Lipkin. Harry’s wise work on free will was always on my syllabus. I treasure his memory.

Reply to  Daniel Dennett
2 months ago

Hi Dan, it’s Jenny, Harry’s youngest daughter. He spoke so warmly of you and loved his time in Blue Hill and, of course with Seymour!