Remembering Adolf Grünbaum, founder of Pitt’s Center for Philosophy of Science

Adolf Grünbaum, who built Pitt’s philosophy program into one of the world’s best, passed away last week at the age of 95. Grünbaum leaves behind a legacy of prolific and profound contributions to the field of philosophy and to the University of Pittsburgh, which became recognized as an international leader in the field during his tenure.

“He was bold — a visionary architect who helped grow our philosophy department into what it is now known as the best program worldwide,” said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “He was beloved, having served on our faculty for nearly 60 years, and he was renowned — a proverbial giant in the scholarly exploration of space and time.”

Adolf GrünbaumGrünbaum was the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, primary research professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, research professor of psychiatry and founder and chair of the Center for Philosophy of Science. His writings deal with the philosophy of physics, the theory of scientific rationality, the philosophy of psychiatry and the critique of theism.

Grünbaum’s first philosophical inquiries were sparked at a temple in Germany when he was 12 years old. Research on theories of theism led to a declaration of atheism the day before his bar mitzvah and would eventually bring forth a body of work that includes a dozen books, a multitude of honors and awards and the founding of a philosophy department at Pitt that is ranked No. 1 in the world today.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd was one of Grünbaum’s students, which she considers a true honor. “Adolf Grünbaum was a formative influence in my educational life at the University of Pittsburgh — and in the lives of so many others. I am incredibly grateful to him for building the Department of Philosophy into one of the greatest in the world.”

Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1923, Grünbaum immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, with his parents in 1938 — five years after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor had resulted in more than 400 laws restricting the rights and activities of Jewish people, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He spent the first two years  in the U.S. teaching himself English before enrolling in Wesleyan University in 1943 to earn undergraduate degrees in philosophy and mathematics. From 1944 to 1946, he served in the U.S. Army as one of the Ritchie Boys, a group of military intelligence officers, often German-speaking immigrants, specially trained to interrogate Nazi soldiers and conduct espionage operations.  

Following his service to his adopted country, he earned his master’s degree in physics and Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1948 and 1951, respectively.

In 1950, Grünbaum joined the Department of Philosophy at Lehigh University, where he quickly rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1955. 

In the fall of 1960, Pitt’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Disciplines (the equivalent of the position of provost today) Charles H. Peake was seeking to build a renowned philosophy department at the University. Grünbaum was short on experience at the time but the solid professional reputation gained at Lehigh earned him the title of the first Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy, a senior-level professorship.

“I was extremely excited by Dr. Peake’s vision of the new University, precisely because I was to start from scratch,” Grünbaum told Pitt Magazine in 2002. “I thought I could attract first-class people of national and international stature who would and could constitute a major philosophy department of which the University would be proud.”

Building such a department would require an active chair, and Grünbaum suggested Nicholas Rescher, now Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at Pitt, whom he had first met while studying at Lehigh. However, both men were active in their careers and wanted to focus on their research, so the two suggested a third philosopher, Kurt Baier, to help.

Together, the three would ensure that Pitt became world-renowned for philosophy, recruiting myriad new professors from notable universities including Yale. So effective was Grünbaum’s recruiting that he earned a nickname: The Pittsburgh Pirate.

Grünbaum’s reputation for drawing the top names in philosophy to Pittsburgh would only grow with the creation of the Center for Philosophy of Science in 1960. Modeled after Herbert Feigl’s Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, the center was built around an annual lecture series designed to present works from the most prominent names in the field and produce volumes from the work showcased. The inaugural lecture in 1961 featured philosophical powerhouses such as Ernest Caspari, Carl G. Hempel and Paul K. Feyerabend, to name a few. Grünbaum was director of the center until 1978, when he became its first chair.

Grünbaum resigned from the Department of Philosophy in 2003 but remained as chair of the Center for Philosophy of Science and as a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and in the Department of Psychiatry.

James Lennox, who served as director of the Center for Philosophy of Science from 1997-2005, said Grünbaum’s leadership style combined his knack for observation and pointed, constructive criticism with an ultimate sense of trust for the team he helped to build.

“He was always willing to discuss such things with me, and his sharp and critical mind was always there to ask probing questions and point out possible problems, but at the end of any such discussions, he would say, ‘You’re the director — it’s your call.’ He was confident in my directorship, and that in turn gave me the confidence to do the job and to be creative,” Lennox said.

The mix of challenging questions and confidence in one’s ability to seek out solutions was a common experience for students working with Grünbaum as well. Sandra Mitchell, Distinguished Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, took a graduate seminar with Grünbaum in 1977 and said the class quickly learned to ask questions “at your own peril.”

“Grünbaum, with a smile on his face, would dissect your question, pointing out the false assumptions you were making, expose every inch of what you clearly did not understand and lead you meticulously to a better question,” she said. “In this process, students were treated with the same intellectual seriousness as the professional philosophers Grünbaum critically engaged in print, and held to the same high standards he applied to himself.”

Beyond academic rigor, Grünbaum also had a notorious light side, according to Rescher. He recalled when a group of friends at Lehigh — led by Grünbaum — swiped then Dean of Students Preston Parr’s university letterhead and sent a memo to all fraternities, which at the time had canine mascots. The memo noted that they had to report with their dogs to the dean’s office for licensing and a check-up, resulting in what Rescher called “a pandemonium of dogs” at the office.

Over the course of his career, Grünbaum’s research explored the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of psychiatry and the critique of theism. He authored 12 books, including “Philosophical Problems of Space and Time” and “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique.”

David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England, called Grünbaum’s critiques of popular theories of psychoanalysis “a brilliant exegesis of Freud’s thinking” and said, “it is no exaggeration to say that anyone writing on the scientific bona fides of psychoanalysis, or of psychotherapy more generally, can afford to neglect it.”

“It is not surprising that most psychoanalysts responded to Adolf’s work with hostility. However, Adolf had a much deeper understanding of Freud’s thinking than almost all of his psychoanalytic critics, and parrying their objections was like shooting fish in a barrel for him,” Smith said.

In an obituary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Grünbaum “one of the world’s pre-eminent philosophers of science.”

In a 2012 book, “Why Does the World Exist?” by New York Times journalist Jim Holt, Grünbaum is described, as “arguably the greatest living philosopher of science.” And Holt declared that “in the philosophical world, Adolf Grünbaum is a man of immense stature.”

Grünbaum is survived by his sister, Suzanne Reines; daughter, Barbara Grünbaum; son-in-law, Ronald Gregory; grandsons Benjamin and Eli Gregory; daughter-in-law, Erica Gregory; and great-grandchildren Ellie and Joe.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that friends and relatives consider a donation in Grünbaum’s name to the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanists Association,  or the United States Holocaust Museum. 

By Will Entrekin and Deborah Todd, Office of University Communications