Nicholas Rescher Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Rescher not only contributed significantly to logic, philosophy of science, and the history of philosophy but also developed a system of pragmatic idealism that placed him squarely in the mainstream of the history of American philosophy.

Early Life

In 1938, Nicholas Rescher and his mother emigrated to the United States from Germany to join his father, who had arrived in New York a year earlier. The elder Rescher had made the decision to leave Germany when his law practice began to lose clients after 1933, partly because of his antipathy to Nazism. Rescher quickly became Americanized, a process abetted by the Beechurst community where he lived and the school on Long Island Sound he attended. However, during his adolescence he had an acute awareness of the cultural difference between the Old and the New Worlds and of his being something of a cultural amphibian who belonged to both. He consequently retreated from the life of society to the life of the mind and cultivated the habits of introspection and reflection.

In 1942, the economic conditions spawned by World War II forced his father to sell his business at a considerable loss. That same year, the Reschers moved to Armonk, Westchester County. During high school, Rescher discovered his aptitude and interest in mathematics, particularly algebra. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1944. In 1945, he read Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy (1926), which awakened his interest in philosophy. He went on to read the works of thinkers such as René Descartes, David Hume, and Arthur Schopenhauer. He was particularly interested in logic, where philosophy and mathematics intersected.

In 1946, he entered Queens College in New York, majoring in philosophy and mathematics. He continued to study classical languages and to read extensively in world literature, believing that the culture transmitted by the academy was integral and that inquiry in any one field fed inquiries in others. He eventually chose philosophy over mathematics because, although proficient in mathematics, he felt he lacked that facility in the field that made for true distinction. Philosophy appealed to him because of the importance and challenge of its questions and the beauty and rigor of logic. Furthermore, this field gave him ample scope to indulge his generalist bent and enabled him to integrate his interests in the sciences and humanities. Among his teachers at Queens were Carl G. Hempel, Donald Davidson, and Arnold Isenberg.

Rescher began graduate studies in philosophy at Princeton University in 1949. There he studied logic under Alonzo Church; the philosophies of F. H. Bradley, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell under Walter T. Stace, whose interest in mysticism and deep commitment to philosophy impressed him; and epistemology with Paul Ushenko, whose book on logic he had read in high school.

During his first year of graduate studies, Rescher—stimulated by Russell’s A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz (1900) and philosopher Louis Couturat’s La Logique de Leibniz (1901; Leibniz’s logic)—wrote an essay on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s cosmology, which dealt specifically with Leibniz’s application of science to philosophy. He was intrigued by Leibniz’s multifaceted thought and his method of using logic and mathematical symbols to solve philosophical problems, a method that would become Rescher’s own. His interest lay not so much in Leibniz’s doctrines as in his method. Rescher felt an affinity with this philosopher because he confronted a period of upheaval in philosophy represented by the advent of Cartesianism. Rescher’s The Coherence Theory of Truth was in part inspired by Leibniz. His interest in Leibniz took a practical turn when he became a member of the council of the International Leibniz Society and of the editorial board of Studia Leibnitiana, its official journal, and helped organize the American Leibniz Society. From 1951 to 1953, Church enlisted Rescher as a reviewer for The Journal of Symbolic Logic. In the same period, Rescher collaborated with Paul Oppenheim on an essay that analyzed logically the concept of the gestalt; this represented his entry into the philosophy of science. He received a doctorate in 1952.

Life’s Work

From 1952 to 1954, Rescher served in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was employed in amphibious reconnaissance and in the administration of correspondence courses at the Marine Corps Institute. He attributed his later indefatigableness in writing philosophy to a need to compensate for the time wasted during these two years. However, his military service did give him invaluable practical experience of the “real world” and contributed to his later reflections on the issues of life as well as thought. Between 1954 and 1956, he went to work in the Mathematics Division of the Corporation for Research and Development (the Rand Corporation), a military think tank in Santa Monica, California. His projects were to determine how much damage the U.S. economy could sustain in an aerial bombardment yet remain militarily viable and to assess the human and economic impact of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. His work at Rand helped him lay...

(The entire section is 2178 words.)