Vale Jonathan E. Adler (1949-2012)

On Saturday, along with many others, I attended a simple–yet intensely emotionally moving–memorial service for Jonathan Adler, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Jon and I had been colleagues in the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center; before that Jon had served on two of my graduate committees: first, for my oral exam and then, for my dissertation defense.

During the summer and fall of 1997, I had struggled to schedule my oral exam and to constitute its committee; Jon helped on both counts and ensured my reading list was both comprehensive and reasonably sized. I soon learned that Jon–while genial in his personal interactions–could be a formidable examiner; he would not tolerate any sloppiness or philosophical clumsiness in responses to his questions. When the oral exam began, he asked the first question–on Dorothy Edgington’s “Conditionals’; I thought I had hit it out of the park; only when Jon asked his follow-up did I realize I hadn’t. (Earning a passing grade with distinction on the orals meant a great deal with Jon on the examining committee!)

Later, while serving on my dissertation committee, Jon ensured that my thesis, which was ostensibly a work in mathematical logic, paid its dues to the normative and prescriptive epistemology that lay at its core. He read the entire work carefully, and despite disagreeing with me at many points–‘I’m not sure what you are calling beliefs are in fact, beliefs to begin with’–offered many useful critical comments that helped me sharpen its arguments.

Jon did philosophy the right way. He read a lot, wrote a lot, thought a great deal about what he read and wrote about, talked with his students and colleagues, and remained unfailingly courteous throughout. He attended many philosophy colloquia, and his mannerisms in asking his invariably-acute questions became familiar: he would remove his glasses, before carefully phrasing his query. He was never rude or abrasive, thankfully disdaining the philosophy-as-contact-sport model so beloved of too many in its academic community. When I worked on a knowledge attribution analysis for my work on the legal theory of autonomous artificial agents, I made sure I ran it by him, trusting that if there were fatal errors in its framing, Jon would be sure to point them out to me. Knowing that Jon was sympathetic to the intuitions expressed in the analysis was critical to my confidence that it would work as intended.

The memorial service on Saturday concluded with a beautiful slideshow that showed us a set of wonderful photographs from Jon’s life, accompanied by Van Morrison’s Philosopher’s Stone. As I watched the photos flash by, set to Morrison’s distinctive voice, encapsulating in their frames Jon’s powerful and vivid personality, I realized again what we lose in a friend’s passing: a very particular world come to an end, taking with it all its experiences. Jon inhabited the world he lived in in his own unique way, bringing a little bit of himself into each life he came into contact with, enriching its world by his wisdom and humanity.

4 thoughts on “Vale Jonathan E. Adler (1949-2012)

  1. A late comment, but I am very sorry to hear of Professor Adler’s passing. I was fortunate to have a symbolic logic class with him in which he intrigued me with endless connections between language and logic (and ultimately mathematical structures), which I still often recall with fondness.

    The reason for my posting on this particular day is that I heard through the category theory community of the recent passing of teacher and author Irving Adler ( I immediately thought of the possible relation to Jonathan and stumbled upon this sad news.

  2. I was surprised and very sorry to learn of Jonathan’s death last year from a brief remark in something I was reading. I met Jonathan in Oxford many years ago, and then over the years at conferences and colloquia in the US. Most recently we had a long talk over lunch in New York—a few years ago now. Jonathan had kindly requested and read the manuscript of a talk I had recently given at the Graduate Center that he had been unable to attend, so, among other things, he shared his comments with me. Though we did not know each other well, Jonathan was always warm and friendly when we met, and I think of him as a friend…who will be much missed.

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