Thursday, March 3, 2011

Richard Popkin, Founder of the UCSD Philosophy Department

Richard Popkin was the founding Chair of the Department of Philosophy at UCSD in 1963, and a Professor in the department from 1963-1973.

Dr. R.H. PopkinHe was also the founding editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy (the first volume of which was published in 1963) and the series International Archives of the History of Ideas.

Volume 198 of the International Archives of the History of Ideas is a Festschrift entitled The Legacies of Richard Popkins (ed. Jeremy Popkin, 2008). An electronic version is available (for those with access). Of special interest is Avrum Stroll's essay "Richard Popkin and Philosophy Made Simple" which discusses an introductory philosophy textbook they wrote together (one of four; on which see here). Jeremy Popkin also provides an account of his father's tenure at UCSD on pages 277-280.

Below I have excerpted from some obituaries that I am using in my research on the history of the department.

Richard Popkin: A philosopher grappling with notions of God and scepticism
By Sarah Hutton, in The Guardian, Saturday 7 May 2005.
The History Of Scepticism (1960) revolutionised the received picture of both the history of philosophy and the history of science, by demonstrating the influence, in the century before Descartes, of ancient Greek sceptical arguments about the impossibility of knowing God and the world.
      In making his case for this central contribution to the development of modern science and philosophy, Popkin gave attention to the intellectual context of the time, especially the role of religious disputes in the take-up of philosophical scepticism deriving from the discipline's Greek founder, Pyhrro. Instead of treating the history of science and philosophy as a series of breakthroughs by canonical figures, Popkin sought to view the thought of the past from within its own framework.
      His history brought him international recognition and was translated into four languages. He expanded his thesis in later editions of the book (most recently in 2003), and in The High Road To Pyrrhonism (1989), which took the story through to David Hume. His interest in the contribution of non-philosophical strands (especially religion) to the history of philosophy led to pioneering studies of the interaction of Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, and of topics such as kabbalism and millenarianism.
     In his many books, the originality of his approach brought new perspectives, both on little-known figures, such as the French millenarian Isaac la Peyrère and the English bible scholar Joseph Mede, and on major figures, especially Spinoza and Newton. Popkin played a major role in generating interest in Newton's legacy of non-scientific manuscripts. The Newton Project, based at Imperial College, London, and Cambridge, which is currently editing these, owes much to his initiatives.
Richard Popkin, Historian of Philosophy and Skepticism, Dies at 81
By Wolfgang Saxon, New York Times, April 19, 2005.
He expanded the <1960> work to "The History of Scepticism From Savonarola to Bayle," now in its second edition, published by the Oxford University Press in 2003. The author documents an era pivotal to Western thought, an age of doubt as well as faith.
     Besides numerous articles and book chapters, Dr. Popkin wrote and edited 36 books, often in collaboration with others. Among the many still in print are a paperback, "Spinoza," published in England last year, as well as "Third Force in 17th-Century Thought" (1991) and "Skeptical Philosophy for Everyone" (2001), written with Avrum Stoll.
      He was the editor of the Columbia History of Western Philosophy, published by the Columbia University Press in 1999, and "Jewish Christians and Christian Jews: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment" (1993). Also in print is "Scepticism and Irreligion in the 17th and 18th Centuries" (1993), which he edited with Arjo Vanderjagt.
     Forswearing philosophy for a spell in the 1960's, Dr. Popkin joined the chorus of doubters who prominently disputed the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In an article in The New York Review of Books and in a paperback he argued that the commission's single-assassin solution was not just implausible, but also impossible in terms of the commission's evidence.
     The book, "The Second Oswald" (Avon, 1966), promptly came under attack. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in a review in The New York Times, called it "a very hasty book, but fascinating reading."
      At his death, Dr. Popkin was working on a book about Rabbi Isaac of Troki in Lithuania, who composed a polemic against Christianity in the 16th century, and a collection of essays on philosophical skepticism.
UCSD keeps a collection of portraits of Richard Popkin.
See also the Wikipedia entry on Richard Popkin.

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