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

Adolf GrünbaumAdolf Grünbaum, who built Pitt’s philosophy program into one of the world’s best, died on Nov. 15 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.

“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.”

Grünbaum 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.

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 number one in the world today.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd, one of Grünbaum’s students,  called him “a formative influence” in her educational life at Pitt and in the lives of 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 United States 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 PhD 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. 

Additional remembrances can be read online at the Center for Philosophy and Science's and the Department of Philosophy's websites. 

For a deeper look at Adolf Grünbaum's legacy, read tomorrow's University Times.

In the fall of 1960, Pitt’s then-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 Pitt. The solid professional reputation Grünbaum 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. The two turned to a third philosopher, Kurt Baier, to help.

Together, they 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. 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.

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.

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

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 Adolf's name to the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanists Association or the United States Holocaust Museum