J.B. Schneewind (1930 – 2024)


Jerome (“Jerry”) Borges Schneewind, professor emeritus of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, well-known for his work on history of philosophy and ethics, has died.

Professor Schneewind wrote primarily on the history of philosophy, including the history of ethics. He is the author of numerous articles, edited collections, and several books, including Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (1977), The Invention of Autonomy (1998), and Essays on the History of Moral Philosophy (2009). You can read more about his work here.

Professor Schneewind was on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University from 1981 until his retirement. He also taught at the University of Chicago, Princeton, Yale University, Pittsburgh University, and Hunter College CUNY. He received his MA and PhD from Princeton University and his BA from Cornell.

Professor Schneewind was the recipient of Mellon, Guggenheim, NEH, and Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences fellowships. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Steven Gross, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, shared the following memorial notice:

The William H. Miller III Department of Philosophy mourns the passing of Jerry Schneewind, Professor of Philosophy, emeritus. Professor Schneewind was deeply admired both for his ground-breaking work in the history of ethics and for his service to the field. He was a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, and later Chair of its Board of Officers. In March 2000, the Department organized a conference in his honor on “Reading Autonomy”.


UPDATE: There is now an obituary on the Johns Hopkins University website.

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Christopher Grau
Christopher Grau
1 month ago

Jerry’s groundbreaking scholarship is widely recognized. What is not as well known is what a truly incredible teacher he was. I was fortunate enough to TA for him twice while in graduate school, and the way he could bring Kant (and other difficult authors) alive for undergraduates was nothing short of amazing.

Paul Guyer
Paul Guyer
1 month ago

Jerry Schneewind was a great scholar and a wonderful human being. His two big books, on Sidgwick and on the background to Kant’s moral philosophy, are landmarks that have endured for decades and are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. His service to the profession and to academia, including a stint as Provost at Hunter College, CUNY, was extensive. He was one of the people who hired me for my first job, and even though we then overlapped for only two years at Pitt he always encouraged my work, and became a lifelong friend. Both in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he and his wife Elizabeth opened their home to friends and colleagues in a way that is now rare. His devotion to his family was unlimited. We last saw him at the memorial for John Cooper last summer — with other deaths this past year, a generation of great philosophical scholars is passing on.

Nate Bowditch
Nate Bowditch
1 month ago

Jerry was, indeed, a great scholar and incredible teacher. He was also, for me and many others, a wonderful mentor. He modeled discipline, rigor, and intensity, but he also radiated love for a life well lived. He was demanding but generous. More than once I left his office intellectually bruised; never did I leave hopeless. And he knew his students—in ways, often better than we knew ourselves. I’m sure my academic journey was unsurprising, possibly predictable, from where Jerry was sitting. I’m lucky enough to own a hand-me-down print of a Rothko that Jerry had on his wall in Gilman Hall. It’s been on my office wall since the day I started my first full-time academic job. It will remain there.

Daniel Callcut
Daniel Callcut
1 month ago

I enjoyed many fascinating conversations with Jerry about the history of ethics. His range of knowledge was extraordinary. There is an excellent volume of essays inspired by Jerry’s work called New Essays on the History of Autonomy edited by Natalie Brender and Larry Krasnoff.

Susan Wolf
Susan Wolf
1 month ago

Jerry brought me to Hopkins when I was denied tenure at U. Maryland, saving me from a bottomless pit of self-doubt. Though it was hard not to be intimidated by his wisdom and his scholarship, he was unfailingly supportive and warm. He was a model scholar-citizen, a wonderful father, husband, and friend, and altogether exceptional human being.

Julia Driver
Julia Driver
1 month ago

Jerry was a wonderful person and a truly great mentor. I was a TA for him once while at Johns Hopkins, and he was on my committee. He pushed me, very nicely, to always work harder and do better. I remember after graduating from Hopkins I would run across people in the profession who were amazed at how much history of philosophy I knew, even though that wasn’t “my area”. That was due to Jerry, and I am very grateful to him for all the hard work he put into reading my efforts and pushing me to improve, and for the kindness he showed me.

Steven Gross
1 month ago

Johns Hopkins’ memorial notice is now posted, here: https://hub.jhu.edu/2024/01/09/jerome-schneewind-obituary/

Cynthia Freeland
Cynthia Freeland
1 month ago

I was fortunate to have Jerry Schneewind as a teacher at Pitt in around 1976 or 1977. He had not been around the department before that, I think because he was either in administration or on leave somewhere else, but he came back for one semester–perhaps contractually obligated–to teach a graduate seminar. The topic was early modern ethics, and we read Hume, Hobbes, and Spinoza. He truly was a remarkable teacher. What stood out most to me was that he quite naturally incorporated a lot of relevant background material about the relevant political and historical contexts into his lectures about each of these thinkers. Although I had truly excellent teachers in history of philosophy, I had not actually experienced an approach that interpreted a philosopher’s views in light of their own contemporary intellectual context. It had a huge impact on me and I did endeavor afterward to do more by way of setting the stage, historically speaking, for some of my own teaching of Ancient Greek philosophy, which was then my specialty. Two other things stood out. First, although I had studied Spinoza before, no one had actually taught the Ethics as a book about ETHICS–imagine that. It was always being studied as something in metaphysics or perhaps philosophy of mind. Focusing on the later books of the Ethics was so illuminating, particularly after having read Hume and Hobbes. And finally Jerry wrote the best comments on any paper I ever wrote in graduate school. I confess I don’t even remember what I wrote on. But he afforded me the sort of detailed attention that I craved. It was, sadly, all too common to get a paper back with a grade and then a one-sentence sort of throwaway comment. I was very sorry that he was not going to be around any longer during my time at Pitt. Obviously, I didn’t know him well, but he had a big impact on me.

Larry Krasnoff
Larry Krasnoff
1 month ago

When I decided to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins and study with Jerry, I had written an undergraduate thesis in French intellectual history, had studied mostly Continental philosophy, and had started thinking about analytic philosophy mainly because I enjoyed reading Richard Rorty. This made no sense to other philosophers at Hopkins or most anywhere else, but it made sense to Jerry, who was also, I came to learn, Rorty’s good friend.

They both came from a very particular generation, who spent their graduate and professional careers in analytic philosophy departments, but who first came to philosophy as undergraduates, taught by an older generation of faculty steeped in the history of philosophy. Jerry was not the kind of historian of philosophy whose project it is just to give the most coherent theoretical account of Figure X’s theory of Y. He did philosophy as a branch of intellectual history. He explained why what Sidgwick and Kant wrote was so important, by relating them to their predecessors, their cultural contexts, and their legacies. And he did it in a way that somehow managed to combine concision with comprehensiveness, every time. That’s also why he was such a great teacher, as others have already noted here.

Jerry was a model of geniality and charm, but not far beneath was a core of steely discipline and witheringly frank judgment. “I read Pufendorf for three hours this morning,” he announced in the hall one not-quite-afternoon. “It was really boring.” (Most likely he had already been swimming laps and baking bread that day, too.) “I’ve read the entire Kantian corpus 12 times,” said Jerry’s locally famous comment on someone’s term paper, “and you have failed to convince me that Kant actually thought P.” Jerry tolerated no nonsense and no slacking, but if you respected those standards, he had nothing but respect and support for you.

I don’t know how I could have made my way in philosophy without the trust Jerry showed in me, and without his example as a philosopher, a teacher, an administrator, and a person. I don’t know how philosophy will make its way without the people of Jerry’s generation we are losing, for whom philosophy was deeply embedded in intellectual history and a broad humanistic learning. I read contemporary analytic philosophers trying to be culturally and politically relevant, and it is frightening how little many of them know about the history of what they say they are talking about. I wish Jerry were still around to hold them to a different standard.

Elizabeth S. Radcliffe
30 days ago

I am late to see this news, which I am very sorry to read. Even though I did not have Jerry Schneewind as a professor, I met him in 1990 at an NEH Institute and was lucky to know him in a few contexts, including working at the APA when he was Chair of the Board. I am ever grateful for his support and for the scholarship in history of philosophy that he left with us.

Last edited 30 days ago by Elizabeth S. Radcliffe