Alan Gewirth Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Drawing his inspiration from Immanuel Kant, Gewirth attempted to provide a rational basis for a universal system of morality.

Early Life

Alan Gewirth was born in Union City, New Jersey, on November 28, 1912, the son of Hyman and Rose Lees Gewirth. He attended Columbia University in New York, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After being awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts with honors in philosophy in 1934, Gewirth began his postgraduate work at Cornell University, where from 1936 to 1937 he was a Sage fellow in philosophy. In 1937, he left Cornell for the University of Chicago. There he was a research assistant and also taught, meanwhile continuing to work on his doctorate. During this period, Gewirth was also producing scholarly articles. In 1941, two of his essays appeared in scholarly journals, “Experience and the Non-Mathematical in the Cartesian Method” in the Journal of the History of Ideas, and “The Cartesian Circle” in the Philosophical Review. Gewirth’s continuing interest in the French philosopher René Descartes was also evident when a third article, entitled “Clearness and Distinctness in Descartes,” was published in Philosophy in 1943.

However, Gewirth’s academic career was interrupted when the United States entered World War II. In 1942, he became an officer in the United States Army. By the time he was discharged in 1946, he had risen to the rank of captain.

Gewirth lost no time in resuming his academic work. He returned to Columbia University as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow and completed the requirements for his doctorate in philosophy, receiving his doctorate in 1947. Gewirth’s outstanding work at Columbia was recognized the following year when he was presented with the prestigious Woodbridge Prize.

Meanwhile, Gewirth had returned to Chicago, which became his permanent home. In 1947, he became a member of the University of Chicago faculty and began rising through the ranks. Thereafter, he left the university for a significant length of time only when his duties as a visiting professor at another major institution made it necessary for him to do so.

Although Gewirth was still interested in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, and especially in Descartes’s emphasis on the primacy of reason, he had also done extensive research on an important medieval Italian political theorist, Marsilius of Padua. In Defensor Pacis, published anonymously in 1324, Marsilius of Padua argued that the Church should have no authority over the state and suggested that the secular power should rest in the hands of the citizenry and their elected representatives. Marsilius and his ideas were the subject of Gewirth’s first published volume, Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy, which went through four editions in fifteen years, an impressive record for a first book by a scholar who was just beginning to establish his reputation. In 1956, Gewirth published a translation of Defensor Pacis, along with an introduction and appendices. This standard translation also went into several reprints.

Gewirth’s work on Marsilius of Padua marked the end of his apprenticeship, establishing him as both a painstaking scholar and a first-class analytical thinker. Gewirth now proceeded to make some important changes in his personal life. On March 18, 1956, he married Marcella Tilton, to whom his most famous work, Reason and Morality, would be dedicated. Their family would eventually consist of five children, James, Susan, Andrew Alan, Daniel Tilton, and Letitia Rose.

Life’s Work

Gewirth’s status as an authority on Marsilius of Padua and his work remained unchallenged over the decades that followed. He was the author of the entry on Marsilius of Padua in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) and of the essay on the Defensor Pacis in Scribner’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1984). In 1980, Gewirth lectured on Marsilius at the University of Padua in Italy. Gewirth’s research into Marsilius’s era was also the basis for his lengthy essay “Philosophy and Political Thought in the Fourteenth Century,” published in The Forward Movement of the Fourteenth Century (1961), edited by F. L. Utley. However, Gewirth also had two articles published in Journal of Philosophy that dealt with Descartes and his philosophy, Cartesianism, “The Cartesian Circle Reconsidered” (1970) and “Descartes: Two Disputed Questions” (1971).

Even though the two philosophers who so fascinated Gewirth were separated in time by three centuries, both of them believed that humans should rely on their own reason, rather than external authority, to guide them in choosing between courses of action. Marsilius rejected the idea that God spoke through popes and kings; he believed that the people had it in their power to ascertain the truth through the use of their own reason. Descartes, too, exalted reason, and though he was careful to exempt matters of faith from his system, in fact it left no room for Catholic dogma or for the Christian faith. Gewirth, too, thought that there should be some basis for the decisions human beings make, either as individuals or through their social and political institutions; but like Marsilius and Descartes, he had decided that reason was the only power on which humanity could depend.

The comprehensive nature of Gewirth’s investigations had already been indicated in 1949, when one essay in which he discussed politics and psychiatry, and another in which he considered “The Psychological Approach to Politics,” appeared in the journal Ethics. In 1954, Philosophy of Science...

(The entire section is 2372 words.)