Saul Kripke (Nov 13, 1940 – Sept 15, 2022), one of the most important logicians of twentieth century philosophy and possibly the last analytic metaphysician of note, passed away at the age of 81. Another philosopher of genuine importance who rose to prominence in the last century is gone, and given the overall deterioration of academia in our time, including academic philosophy, he is not likely to be replaced.
I first heard of Kripke when I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. We were assigned “Naming and Necessity” in a philosophy of language class I took winter semester 1981. I recall my amazement at learning that he had delivered the entire work as a series of three lectures without using notes. His lectures criticized the descriptivist theory of reference and offered an original causal theory. Later we studied Kripke’s possible world semantics (an implication of the causal theory of reference developed in “Naming and Necessity”), the most original contribution to analytic metaphysics (probably analytic philosophy generally) of the second half of the twentieth century.
Kripke was one of the few analytic philosophers to be noticed outside professionalized academic philosophy, having been profiled in a few general publications aimed at educated readers. This is not surprising. He appears to have been a child prodigy and was unquestionably a genius. One of the profile articles records that he was asking his parents complex questions about the implications of God’s omnipresence at the age of six, and was reading Descartes when he was in elementary school. He basically taught himself symbolic logic as a teenager and was publishing papers in professional journals with original developments in the subject before he was out of his teens, e.g., “A Completeness Theorem in Modal Logic” (1959). When he began his teaching career he was no older than the average university undergraduate. He was able to lecture at Harvard without having completed a doctorate (apparently his genius was so overwhelmingly obvious that he was given a pass on this).
A good summary of Kripke’s contributions to professional philosophy, especially modal logic, semantics, and analytic metaphysics, can be found in the Wikipedia article on him. Brace yourselves: the article is dense and technical! But then again, Kripke was light years ahead of probably 99.99 percent of his fellow academic philosophers.
He spent the bulk of his career at Princeton University, the press of which published Naming and Necessity as a slim volume in 1982 (the version we read was one chapter of a volume of works on semantics and natural language which came out in 1975; Kripke had delivered the lectures themselves back in 1970 (he was 30 years old and already clearly one of the leaders in philosophical logic). Later he moved to CUNY Graduate Center which eventually established the Saul Kripke Center.
Why do I respect Saul Kripke? When reading him in the past, I had the sense of being in the hands of a first-rate intellect, a very streamlined thinker who sought the truth in whatever areas he explored. The fact that he did not write papers with meaning-of-life themes should not count against him. One of the things that struck me about him is that despite the fact that his work was difficult and technical, he managed to write it with sufficient clarity that a patient graduate student (that would have been me at the time!) could follow it. I would have described his writing as gripping; no one else wrote analytic philosophy the way he did. I have information suggesting that he was actually a pretty nice guy, although obviously we moved in entirely different circles. Pancreatic cancer is what got him. I learned of his death here.