For more than 30 minutes the crowd waited at the CUNY Graduate Center.The honoree was nowhere to be seen. CUNY philosophy professor John Greenwood received word that the renowned philosopher was still in a cab at 77th Street. "Heading in which direction?" another professor asked.
Saul Kripke has been late before. When he gave his first lecture at the Graduate Center, he phoned to say he would be late, having missed his train from Princeton. But the truth is, good things come to those who wait.
When the white-bearded philosopher entered the room carrying a plastic bag by one handle on Wednesday, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein rose to welcome everyone to a two-day conference and birthday celebration of Mr. Kripke, who turned 65 in November. This influential figure has raised the profile of the CUNY Graduate Center philosophy program after Michael Devitt recruited him in 2002. Like giants before him, such as Erik Erikson at Harvard, Mr. Kripke teaches without a Ph.D.
"He is the foremost philosopher of the latter half of the 20th century," said University of California, Santa Barbara professor Nathan Salmon, who studied with Mr. Kripke at the University of California, Los Angeles. "He's the most ingenious and the most insightful philosopher, and even saying this much under describes him - he's a phenomenon."
Over a half-century, Mr. Kripke's contributions have ranged across an astonishing number of philosophical fields, including philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and mathematics; set theory and modal logic (addressing when statements are possibly or necessarily true), and metaphysics and epistemology. In computer science, his work has had applications in artificial intelligence, hardware and software verification, hybrid systems, and database theory. He has also contributed to linguistics in areas of semantics and pragmatics, and game theory. Mr. Kripke has argued a causal-historical theory of reference; distinguished between a priori and necessary truths; rejected the view that names can be assimilated to descriptions, and interpreted Wittgenstein's later philosophy distinctively enough for it to be dubbed "Kripkenstein."
Mr. Goldstein told an anecdote about the preternaturally precocious Mr. Kripke. In the 1950s, the Harvard mathematics department was recruit ing faculty. On the basis of an article Mr. Kripke had written proving the completeness theorem for various modal logics, they invited him to apply for a position. The paper had been signed "Saul Kripke, Omaha, Nebraska," so the department assumed he must be teaching at the University of Nebraska and addressed a letter there, which the university proceeded to forward to Mr. Kripke's home. He responded, "Thank you for inviting me to apply for a position in your mathematics department, but my mother said I should finish high school and go to college first."
But Mr. Kripke told the Sun the anecdote was "apocryphal" from beginning to end.
Mr. Kripke's father, Rabbi Mayr Kripke, 92, told The New York Sun he once offered to buy young Saul a history of philosophy. "Forget it," his son had replied, "I want to read philosophers."
Present were many from Mr. Kripke's remarkable career trajectory: his former college roommate James Burgess, who said at Harvard there were "the bright, the brilliant, the very brilliant, and then there was Saul"; his former students at Harvard, Mr. Devitt and Hartry Field, a philosopher of mathematics at NYU; his former students at Rockefeller University, Alan Berger and Scott Weinstein, now teaching at Brandeis and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, and his former teaching colleague at Princeton, Scott Soames, now at the University of Southern California.
In a gravelly voice compounded by bronchitis, Mr. Kripke lectured on the topic of the "First Person" and addressed what is special about our talk about ourselves. The discourse was interspersed with pauses and roaming digressions and references to such things as the language of psalmists, Hume being overweight, and, to illustrate a theory of proper names, Frege's "famous footnote" citing Aristotle.
CUNY President William Kelly and Mr. Devitt said their goal was eventually to open a Kripke institute at CUNY to transcribe and publish the trove of tapes and manuscripts Mr. Kripke has accumulated over the years. Mr. Devitt said, for example, that he is told that Mr. Kripke has at least 1,500 unpublished pages on Truth.
Mr. Soames reiterated the view of UCLA professor David Kaplan that Kripke's famous book "Naming and Necessity" justified the hopes of early analytic philosophers that the turn to logic and language would pay real dividends. In addition, he said, Mr. Kripke deflated the exaggerated view of some previous analytic philosophers that all philosophical problems were simply problems of language.
Mr. Soames said the two great founders of analytic philosophy were G.E. Moore, a defender of common sense, and Bertrand Russell, the great innovator of symbolic logic. Mr. Kripke, he said, combined both their qualities "in one mind." That alone is reason to celebrate.