Saul Kripke, Genius Logician

by Andreas Saugstad

Saul Kripke is one of the greatest thinkers in modern philosophy. He is one of the few academics today who can be characterized as a living legend. For many years, he has been professor of philosophy at Princeton University in the USA. When he visited Oslo to give a lecture at my university, I met him at a local restaurant to do an interview. The image below of Kripke and me on the streets of Oslo was taken by Helge Skirbekk.

Kripke has been characterized as a wunderkind. He has been portrayed by The New York Times and placed on the cover page and called a “philosophical genius”. The Omaha World-Herald wrote:

“Kripke, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, is considered to be among the world’s foremost living philosophers. Known to have one of the most penetrating minds of our time, his achievements span the disciplines of philosophical reasoning and abstract mathematical theory. He is a pioneer in the logic of subjective sentences, the philosophy of language and the nature of being.”

Kripke has give many original contributions to philosophy, and many doctoral dissertations have been written on his work. But Kripke has also been criticized. A former student wrote a novel where the main character seems to be modeled after Kripke. In this novel, The Mind-Body Problem, the main character has a problem with the relation between the abstract and concrete. The person is, intellectually speaking very advanced, but outside the academic realm, it doesn’t work.

But no one can doubt Kripke’s intelligence. At 19 years old he published his first article in logic. He was made a fellow at Harvard as a Sophomore. At this point he had been doing philosophy for a long time. When he was in fourth grade he read all of Shakespeare’s plays. At 12 years old he asked himself, “How do I know I am not dreaming?” His father, who was a rabbi and university teacher, told him that Descartes had written about this question. Young Kripke did not want to wait until college to read this text, and thus he started to read one of the classics of philosophy.

Early in life, his mathematical gifts were seen and he was way ahead of the others in mathematics as a pupil in school. Then he went to Harvard and later became a professor at Rockefeller University. He was later hired by Princeton University. His work within logic and the book Naming and Necessity have given him a position within analytical philosophy that only a few others can match. Naming and Necessity is based on three lectures he gave without a manuscript in 1970, and has been enormously influential. He is now retired, but still runs the lecture circuit. He is always thinking and has just recently been visiting professor at Hebrew University in Israel. He hopes to continue visiting Hebrew University in the future.

On Philosophy
Kripke does not care much about providing a justification for doing philosophy. When I asked him why he investigates the philosophy of language, he said he works on this topic simply because he finds it interesting. Pure intellectual curiosity drives him.

“The idea that philosophy should be relevant to life is a modern idea. A lot of philosophy does not have relevance to life,” said Kripke. He is clearly somewhat different from American philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum or Cornel West, who both argue that philosophy is more than a career, it’s wisdom, an art of living, and may have a very practical purpose.

Kripke claims both Plato and Aristotle did philosophy because of its intrinsic value. But he adds: “Ethics and political philosophy are relevant to life. The intention of philosophy was never to be relevant to life. But ethics and political philosophy can be relevant. Philosophy is a career like other things, but must not necessarily be related to that outside philosophy.”

Q: Is it negative that philosophy now is connected to a professional career and not the unconditional search for truth it once was?

A: Perhaps it never was an unconditional search for truth. The great philosophers did it as a professional career. The Medieval philosophers were monks, but also professors. Descartes was not a professor, but he did a lot of teaching.

Q: Michael Dummett claims that academics don’t have any special duty to be engaged in social questions, but he claims that academics can make their own schedules and may use this privilege. Do you agree with Dummett?

A: I don’t think there is anything special academics can do.

The Middle East
The topic of our conversation changes somewhat. We turn from talking about the nature of philosophy to Kripke’s religion and his relation to the Middle East, where he has been working. Hebrew University, where he has been studying, is one of the most well-known universities in the Middle East, and located in Jerusalem. Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

In spite of his religious views, he does not think that the division of land in Israel-Palestine can be determined by appealing to the Bible. “I don’t believe in religious groups that want to divide the country on the basis of fundamentalist principles. Politics and religion should not be mixed.”

Q: Do you think that the co-existence of different groups in an area is beneficial? Do not both Jugoslavia and the Middle East show us that mixing different cultures can be dangerous?

A: There are cases where it is better to divide. I don’t think it always works in practice. The problems in Europe with foreign workers that meet prejudices are that they are not integrated.

Q: Is there a lot of racism in the Middle East?

A: There is racism both ways. Much of this is based on prejudices the Arabs believe in many things. Before Jews were allowed to travel to Cairo, many Arabs thought that Jews had horns. Prejudices are crucial for understanding racism….

Q: How then can philosophy contribute to promoting peace in the Middle East?

A: I don’t think philosophy can contribute more than other disciplines. Practical philosophy may contribute here, but not all philosophers. That would have been nice, but in practice it is not possible.

Kripke is a peculiar man with a sharp intellect. He talks fast and he thinks perhaps even faster. One is still stricken by the fact that he does not seem vitally concerned about applying philosophy to social issues. His ideals do not seem to be those of the visionary public intellectual, like Sartre, Russell, Chomsky or Cornel West. Kripke is one of America’s most respected philosophers, still he is not significant in public debates. But the Mind-Body problem is perhaps not so big after all.

The logician is talkative and extroverted. He drinks a lot of tea and waves to get the waiter’s attention. The interview started with Kripke giving me an intellectual test (which I did not manage to solve), and he told me many stories about Wittgenstein. But when it comes to practical issues, it is more difficult to make him talk. Still, it is a great experience to have met him. The mind of the logician is vital and powerful. For many he is a living legend.