Celebrating 125 years of Ethics at PEA Soup — with R. Lanier Anderson on Marjorie Grene

We are very happy to kick off another PEA Soup celebration of the Ethics 125th anniversary retrospective series, with this special feature of R. Lanier Anderson's essay on Marjorie Grene's "Authenticity: an Existential Virtue." And, as an additional bonus, Professor Anderson has kindly offered us some background about Grene's life and work (below the fold). Enjoy! And hope to hear our readers' reactions in the comments. 

It is a terrific pleasure to be invited to participate on PEA Soup, as part of the discussion about the special retrospective series being published in Ethics.  My piece for that series was on Marjorie Grene’s remarkable 1952 paper “Authenticity: an Existential Virtue,” and it was just as great a pleasure to have had the chance to re-engage with Grene’s work.  I encourage everyone to take a look.

Marjorie Grene (1910-2009) was a pathbreaking contributor to our field in very many ways.  She led a terrifically varied life.  Early on, she moved from undergraduate studies in biology at Wellesley, through a formative period as an exchange student in Germany in 1931-3 (where she was exposed to nascent existentialism at first hand in the lectures of Heidegger and Jaspers), and then to Ph.D. studies at Harvard in the 1930s and decisive years as an instructor in Chicago from 1938-44, where she sharpened her philosophy of science chops in the seminars of Carnap and Hempel.  She and her husband David Grene followed a dream of his and moved to a farm, first in Illinois and later in Ireland, where they raised a family while she continued to work and write on philosophy.  This paper was written during that period.  At length, Grene returned more fully to academic work, collaborating with Michael Polanyi as his research assistant on the project that became Personal Knowledge, and eventually returning to teaching.  In 1965 she moved to the Philosophy Department at UC Davis, whose intellectual personality has long maintained prominent traces of her philosophical vision, with its strong emphases in the history of philosophy and the (history of the) philosophy of science.  After mandatory retirement at Davis, Grene led a peripatetic philosophical life, visiting at twelve different institutions before settling in as Honorary University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech in 1988.  Over the course of her long career as a writer and academic, Grene made major contributions both in the philosophy of biology (and its history), and in the history of philosophy quite broadly.  She was a field-shaping and founding voice in the philosophical understanding of biology as that subfield developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the history of philosophy she made major contributions to our understanding of Aristotle and Descartes, as well as other modern philosophers, including, of course, the existentialists, who were her concern in the Ethics piece.

The breadth of Grene’s intellectual and life experiences left her with two striking traits as a philosopher, both of which are on full display in the 1952 paper.  First, Grene was an unusually sympathetic and sensitive philosophical interpreter, which helped her to see her way into the positions of other philosophers—even those very distant from her in time (Aristotle) or basic orientation (Descartes)—and this virtue made her not only a great interpreter of biology and historian of philosophy, but also a decisively important (if sometimes underappreciated) figure in the introduction of existentialist thought to North America.  Second, Grene was nothing if not an incisive critic, so her way of entering into the sympathetic engagement with a philosophical or scientific position was to take its truth claims with the utmost seriousness and subject them to the full measure of rational scrutiny.  In a lesser philosopher, these two virtues might have come into tension with one another, but Grene’s frank, no-BS approach to contextualization and assessment turned these into mutually reinforcing, rather than competing, virtues.

As I said, both virtues are on full display in her Ethics paper, and their joint operation is responsible for its being remarkable, even in the long and great history of the journal.  It is those virtues, in my view, that enable Grene to see through the dense thicket of the existentialists’ (then) new technical terminology to the core ethical issues in their work that still seem (to me) most vital today, more than sixty years later.  In the piece, I argue that those issues concern 1) the connection the existentialists saw between ethical authenticity and the value of autonomy (it matters that I am true to myself precisely if and because it matters that I am governed by my true self, and not pushed around by historical, social, or psychological factors), and 2) a related set of issues about the prospects for what we nowadays call “constitution/commitment arguments” for defending the postulated value of autonomy.  Grene didn’t call the argument by that name, of course, but in her crisp paper, she cuts right to the heart of the decisive issues nevertheless.  As I say, it was a real pleasure to re-engage with her work, and I look forward to hearing what the PEA Soup community has to say about it.