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Barry Stroud
In Memoriam

Barry Stroud

Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Barry Stroud, Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 18, 1935, and died in Berkeley August 9, 2019, two months after receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto (B.A. 1958), and then as a graduate student at Harvard University (Ph.D. 1962), on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. Stroud was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy at Berkeley in 1961, where he spent the rest of his career. He arrived in Berkeley several years after his brother Ronald, who has long been a member of Berkeley’s Department of Classics. 

Stroud was chair of the Department of Philosophy three times (1978–1981, 1984–85, and 1998), president of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He held research fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of California. He delivered almost all of the distinguished lectures that the field has to offer: the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, the Tanner Lectures on Human Values in Buenos Aires, the Gareth Evans Memorial Lecture at Oxford, the Cátedra José Gaos Lectures in Mexico, the Whitehead Lectures at Harvard, the Josep Blasco Lectures at the University of Valencia, and the Dewey Lecture and the Patrick Romanell Lecture to the American Philosophical Association. He was named Faculty Research Lecturer at Berkeley during 2005-06.

Stroud won the Matchette Prize in 1979 for his first book, Hume (1977). He then published The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (1984), The Quest for Reality (2000), Engagement and Metaphysical Dissatisfaction (2011), and four volumes of collected essays including Seeing, Knowing, Understanding (2018). 

During his early years at Berkeley, Stroud joined a remarkable group of young philosophers that included Paul Feyerabend, Stanley Cavell, John Searle, Thompson Clarke, Thomas Kuhn, and Thomas Nagel. Stroud’s close colleague and friend Tom Clarke was his constant interlocutor for many years, and Stroud credited him with developing his sense of philosophy’s special character, depth, and difficulty. In later years, he had important philosophical and personal ties to his colleagues Michael Frede, Paul Grice, Bernard Williams, Donald Davidson, and Richard Wollheim.

Stroud had a far-reaching influence on generations of philosophers, above all for his view of what philosophy itself was. When Stroud began his career, the dominant view of philosophy in the English-speaking world was that philosophical questions, to the extent that they were worth asking, could be answered by the natural or social sciences, or by programs that sought to mimic the methods of the sciences. This was of a piece with the general postwar spirit of optimism about scientific progress, and with it, a loss of interest in more humanistic modes of inquiry. Writing against these currents, Stroud showed that the deepest questions philosophy asks—What underlies our conception of the world and of ourselves within it?—were distinctive, and had to be answered in distinctive ways.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his work on philosophical skepticism, which gives reasons to doubt whether we can know even the most ordinary things about the world around us. By revealing how hard it is to respond to this seemingly simple challenge, Stroud single-handedly brought philosophical skepticism back to the center of philosophical discussion. His first paper on the topic, “Transcendental Arguments” (1968), was for many years the most widely-cited article in the entire discipline. 

There, and in many other central areas of philosophy, such as meaning, value, necessity, and perception, Stroud worked with great subtlety, patience, and insight to understand how philosophical problems arise. He pressed on the need to clarify exactly what question philosophers ask and what could count as answering it. As he cautioned, “Often the worst thing to do with what looks like a real philosophical question is to answer it,” because the headlong rush to give an answer can preempt due reflection on what was being asked. Once we make the question clear, and once we articulate what answering it would take, Stroud suspected, we would see that the question can’t be satisfactorily answered in the terms in which philosophers nevertheless feel compelled to ask it.

This is certainly not to say that Stroud dismissed the questions as ill posed or meaningless, which was a view that often went along with the prevailing mid-century scientism. Nor did he conclude that there was nothing to be learned from the attempts to answer philosophical questions, or from reflection on their failures. On the contrary, he believed there was much to be learned about how certain parts of our understanding of ourselves and the world depend on other parts. By failing to see these links, philosophers often rendered their questions unanswerable; they sought to understand, say, color, without pointing to the capacities necessary for thought or talk about color. Moreover, Stroud held that there was a great deal to be learned about our human predicament simply by acknowledging that we are driven to ask what can be given no answer. In this, Stroud was heir to Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein: great philosophers who, in their different ways, saw the human mind as inevitably seeking to understand what lies beyond its own limits of comprehension.

Stroud made a profound impression not simply on the field and on generations of students, but also, closer to home, on the Berkeley Department of Philosophy itself. The character of the department—its resistance to passing fads, its view that breadth in many areas was necessary for depth in any, its insistence that to understand philosophical problems one needs to understand their history—owes much to Stroud’s influence, both through the colleagues he helped to recruit and mentor, and through the collegial but firm reminders that he would give his colleagues from time to time in faculty meetings.

From childhood into his college years, Stroud worked as a farmhand and telegraph-pole erector and climber. After being a standout high-school athlete in several sports, Stroud went on to be a star point guard for the University of Toronto’s basketball team. Even into old age, Stroud played low-handicap golf and took long runs, later walks, through Tilden Park. The mold set by a youth of physical prowess could be seen, one felt, in his easy self-assurance and the wry distance he kept from academic pretensions.

As one-time Berkeley colleague Thomas Nagel observed, Stroud was a hedonist, and a deliberate one. He knew exactly what he liked and pursued exactly that. His great pleasures included wine, jazz, movies, Italian cooking, British novels, Venice, and, above all, the company of family and a wide circle of friends. 

Stroud is survived by his daughters, Sarah Stroud, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Julia Stroud of Berkeley, and Martha Stroud of Los Angeles; son-in-law Daniel Hellerman, of Chapel Hill; his brother, Ronald Stroud, and sister-in law, Helen Stroud, of Berkeley; a niece, a nephew, and two grandchildren. 

Janet Broughton
Niko Kolodny