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Marjorie Glicksman Grene


Marjorie Glicksman Grene

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

UC Davis

1910 – 2009


Marjorie Glicksman Grene, best remembered as a philosopher of biology, an interpreter and critic of existentialism, and a champion of the historical legacy of Western thought died at her home in Blacksburg, Virginia on March 16, 2009. She was professor of philosophy at Davis from 1965 to 1978, where she served as chair from 1965 to 1970 and was instrumental in building the department to its position of national prominence.


Marjorie was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 13, 1910. She took her Bachelor’s degree in zoology at Wellesley College in 1931. In 1931-32 she attended Martin Heidegger’s lectures in Freiburg and the following year studied with Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg. She studied philosophy at Harvard, where she worked with David Prall, Alfred North Whitehead and C.I. Lewis; her Ph.D. was awarded by Radcliffe College in 1935, because women were not yet admitted to Harvard. From 1937 to 1944 she held an instructorship at the University of Chicago, where she participated in the famous seminars run by Rudolf Carnap and Carl (Peter) Hempel. At Chicago she met and married David Grene, a classicist well-known for his translations of Greek drama, and the two of them decamped from academe in 1944 to pursue his dream of pastoral life, first in Illinois and then from 1952 in Ireland. She would later refer to this period as her life as “an Irish pig farmer’s wife,” noting in her memoir A Philosophical Testament (1995) that “agricultural duties and critical philosophies don’t mix.” The Grenes divorced in 1961, but by then she had returned to academic Philosophy. She had met Michael Polanyi at Chicago and later served—by correspondence—as his research assistant, helping him translate his 1950 Gifford Lectures into the well-known book Personal Knowledge. “There is hardly a page that has not benefitted from her criticism,” Polanyi said. She then held positions at the University of Leeds (1958-60) and the University of Belfast (1960-62) before returning to the U.S. and securing her position at Davis.


Her undergraduate study of biology led her naturally into philosophy of biology, where she became a major figure internationally. She had productive encounters with the Neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis and many of its principal architects, including Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky and G. Ledyard Stebbins; the latter two overlapped her tenure at Davis, and she team-taught Philosophy of the Biological Sciences with Stebbins several times. She also was deeply influenced by Polanyi and other Europeans (Adolf Portmann, Bernhard Rensch, Rupert Riedl) and was able to bring these two different perspectives (one rigorously reductionistic, the other much more holistic) together productively in her own work. Her often-cited and –reprinted essay “Reductionism: Another Side Issue?” exemplifies this. Approaches to a Philosophical Biology was published in 1969. Her essays in Philosophy of Biology were collected in The Understanding of Nature (1974) and she co-edited (with Everett Mendelsohn) the influential Topics in the Philosophy of Biology (1976). In 2004, at the age of 92, she published, with David Depew, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.


In her work in philosophy of biology Marjorie had a consistent contextualist perspective, in which she insisted on treating the work of others within the framework of the temper of their times and the state of the science on which they commented. This perspective permeates her work in other realms of Philosophy as well. She idolized Aristotle as both a biologist and a philosopher, writing the highly-regarded A Portrait of Aristotle (1967). Holding to an historical tradition, she regarded Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion as the most perfect example of philosophical writing in existence. At the same time, her epistemology was strongly realist and influenced by science, and she condemned the Cartesian Cogito not once but twice, in Descartes (1985) and Descartes Among the Scholastics (1991). During a series of retrospective lectures entitled “Fifty Years in Philosophy” given at Davis as the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professor of Philosophy several years after her retirement (1991-92), she quipped “What’s the point of questioning whether reality exists? Everyone is some kind of realist now.” (These lectures eventually became A Philosophical Testament.) Her views in this area were derived in part from the perceptual psychology of J.J. Gibson, and she tiptoed close to the edge of evolutionary epistemology without going all the way over. Her book The Knower and the Known (1966) is still widely read, as is Philosophy In and Out of Europe (1976).


She conducted a series of influential seminars and summer institutes for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Council of Philosophical Studies, including the famous one in 1982 at Cornell on the Philosophy of Biology. She was influential in the formation of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, of which she and Ernst Mayr were named honorary presidents. In 1995 that society established a prize for young scholars in her honor.


Her experiences in Germany as an exchange student in the 1930’s led to her important works Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism (1948) (later republished as An Introduction to Existentialism) (1959) and Heidegger (1957). One of us (AMS) vividly remembers brandishing a copy of Dreadful Freedom in one of those intense philosophical, coffee-house arguments that were so much a part of the undergraduate experience in the 1960’s; Marjorie, over dinner at her house, expressed great pleasure at the recollection. During her 1991-92 visit to Davis she was asked about Heidegger’s infamous politics. “I didn’t really realize what a Nazi bastard he was!” she recalled.


After her retirement from Davis Marjorie held visiting positions at twelve colleges and universities – including Rutgers, Yale, UC Berkeley, Boston University and Vassar—as well as a Research Fellowship (1985-86) at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1988 her daughter Ruth (“Rufus”) moved from Cornell to Virginia Tech and Marjorie shifted her base of operations from Ithaca, New York to Blacksburg, Virginia, where she was named Honorary University Distinguished Professor. At Blacksburg she was active in both the Philosophy Department and the Department of Science Studies.


Professor Grene served as president of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association (1971-72) and was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1976) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1977). Two major Festschrifts in her honor are Human Nature and Natural Knowledge, edited by A. Donogan, A. N. Perovich and M. V. Wedin (1986), and Conceptions de la Science: Hier, Aujourd’hui, Demain, edited by J. Gayon and R. M. Burian (2007). She was honored (2002) as the first woman in the Library of Living Philosophers (volume 29, The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene, edited by L. E. Hahn and R. E. Auxier).


Everyone who knew Marjorie regarded her as a force of nature. She said what she thought and could be devastating in her criticisms: she “always managed to find fresh ways to impugn views she regarded as ill-founded, ill-argued, or just plain nonsense. And there were many such views,” one of us (MVW) wrote. Her colleagues at Davis recall one occasion when she compared a faculty member on a terminal contract to a tick. Her classroom style left no doubt who was in charge, but students seemed to love it. One of us (AMS) taught Philosophy of Biology with her after Ledyard Stebbins retired. We used a good cop-bad cop format, and Marjorie was always the bad cop. When a student asked her to talk about bioethics, she growled—in a tone deliberately recalling maids who won’t do windows:” I don’t DO ethics. If you want ethics, there’s a perfectly good course in it in my Department.” The subject didn’t come up again.


But she was also surprisingly modest. Asked about her specialty in philosophy, she will want to say “Oh, this and that.” She baked cookies for the office staff and students, and when told she had been selected for the Library of Living Philosophers she said “I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman!” She regaled students with anecdotes about slopping hogs in Ireland and freezing in the gales of the Chicago winter, and cackled with glee when she was able to teach a faculty couple newly arrived from the East Coast how to eat that bizarre Californian staple, the artichoke.


James R. Griesemer

Michael V. Wedin

Arthur M. Shapiro