Princeton Town Topics Obituary

Gilbert Helms Harman, age 83, died after a long illness with Alzheimer’s on November 13, 2021.

Gil was the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University when he retired in 2017, having started his academic career at Princeton in 1963. His 54 years on the faculty at Princeton University makes him one of the longest serving professors in Princeton’s history. He is widely regarded as one of the leading American philosophers of the last half-century, having made significant contributions in philosophy of language and linguistics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and moral philosophy and moral psychology.  He was the author or co-author of eight books, including ThoughtChange in View, and The Nature of Morality

Gil was born on May 26, 1938, in East Orange, NJ, and grew up in Lower Merion, PA, along with his brothers William and Roger. He loved jazz and played the alto saxophone. He was very involved in both jazz and philosophy during his time in college, graduating from Swarthmore College in 1960. If it had been a bit more practical as a career path, he might have become a professional jazz musician. Instead, he decided to become a philosopher. He attended Harvard University for graduate school, writing a dissertation under the supervision of the eminent philosopher W.V. Quine. He was hired to start teaching at Princeton in 1963, he finished his Ph.D. in 1964, and he became an assistant professor later that year in 1964. Gil was promoted to associate professor in 1969 and full professor just a few years later in 1972. 

Gil’s work reconfigured ideas about morality and moral relativism, reasoning, language and meaning, the mind, and many other topics. He was a miraculously fast reader and drew on a vast range of empirical disciplines — including linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, computer science, and statistical learning — to inform his philosophical ideas and arguments. He is one of the people most centrally responsible for bringing sophisticated understanding of linguistics into debates in contemporary philosophy of language, for bringing psychology into debates in moral philosophy, and for building bridges between philosophy and cognitive science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005 and received the prestigious Jean Nicod Prize in Paris in that same year, in addition to receiving numerous other honors throughout his career.

Gil’s influence extended far beyond his own work. He was a remarkably dedicated teacher and advisor. He was so popular, and his philosophical expertise was so wide-ranging, that he advised one in every seven of the graduate students who completed dissertations during his long time at Princeton. These students now teach at colleges and universities all over the English-speaking world. He was a kind, light-hearted mentor in an environment that was often intense and forbidding. In an interview a few years ago, Yale Philosophy Professor Joshua Knobe told this story about being Gil’s student:

“I was trying my best to defend a particular view, and Harman was going after it with objection after objection. At some point, it was becoming clear that my attempts to defend the view against these objections were completely falling apart, and at that point, I said, ‘But Gil, this view I’m trying to defend — it is actually your own view! It is the view that you yourself have defended in a whole series of articles.’ Harman looked at me quizzically and then brushed aside this point, saying ‘That’s just some other guy.’ … Basically, Harman did everything he could to make you feel like you weren’t really the student of that monumental figure, that the monumental figure was just ‘some other guy’ whose papers you could read if you wanted to but who had nothing to do with what you should be doing in your work as his grad student.”

Gil took philosophy seriously, but he wasn’t overly serious or self-important about it. And he was a kind, thoughtful, deeply moral person. He was very conscious of the sexism and ageism in the profession of philosophy. In the 1980s, he argued that Princeton’s recommendation letters for students seeking professorships should use initials only, disguising who was a man and who was a woman. He was appalled that a department chair, decades ago, told a professor she couldn’t bring her baby to department meetings.  So, his advice became:  bring your baby and don’t ask first. And he was very critical of universities encouraging people to retire. He pointed out that the professors being encouraged to retire are often very productive, no less productive than earlier-stage faculty. He loved his job and waited as long as possible to retire, remaining creative and productive throughout his career.

Even more than his work, though, Gil loved his family. He was a loving and beloved husband to his wife, Lucy. And he was an adoring father to his daughters, Elizabeth and Olivia. He would bring the whole family to philosophy conferences and his daughters attended many philosophy lectures when they were very small. He talked to them about whether a car was still red even when it was parked in a dark garage. He loved films and music and poetry and shared those joys with those around him. He was a good listener, loving and generous, and consistently mirthful, a sly smile always ready to appear. 

Gil was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and brother. He is survived by his wife, Lucy; his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Alex Guerrero, his daughter Olivia Carosello and her husband Sean Carosello; his grandchildren Annalucia, Rosalinda, and Finnegan; and his brothers William and Roger.

He was extraordinarily devoted to his family and his work. His sharp intellect, loving, generous nature, and wit will be dearly missed.

A memorial service will take place in spring of 2022.

Full Post, published on February 23, 2022