Judith Jarvis Thomson
November 23, 2020 8:21 AM   Subscribe

The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020) has died. She was a philosophical giant. You may know her from her landmark 1971 paper in defense of abortion or for one of her papers on the trolley problem. Or maybe you know the 1997 amicus brief on assisted suicide she co-authored with Dworkin, Nagel, Nozick, Rawls, and Scanlon.

Thomson's philosophical work was careful, profound, and wide-ranging. She wrote on topics in practical ethics (obviously), including the right to privacy, self-defense, and preferential hiring. And she wrote on more abstract issues in ethics and meta-ethics, including papers on the right and the good, moral luck, and the metaphysics of harm. She also wrote extensively (and provocatively) about a range of topics in metaphysics and legal philosophy, including personal identity, the metaphysics of ordinary objects, parthood and identity over time, the nature of action, causation by absence or omission (one of my personal favorites), causation in the law, causation and liability, and liability and evidence. For good measure, she also wrote on private languages, time, space, and objects, and the riddles of induction.

She left the field better than she found it.
posted by Jonathan Livengood (17 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
How do you leave a period that has a little violinist strapped to its back?

posted by Beardman at 8:33 AM on November 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

posted by and they trembled before her fury at 8:41 AM on November 23, 2020

Much respect.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:57 AM on November 23, 2020

posted by bz at 9:17 AM on November 23, 2020

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:29 AM on November 23, 2020

I love Claudia Mills' introduction in the post's first link.

posted by papayaninja at 9:31 AM on November 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

posted by saucysault at 9:59 AM on November 23, 2020

Reading that abortion paper, my first thought was how beautifully written it was.

And then — ok, this is not a criticism or an invitation to argue about writing style, but — my second thought, as an editor myself, is that no editor these days would tolerate a writer putting their real point on page two, at the midpoint of a massive and finely structured paragraph, after the words "But I shall not discuss any of this."

That's really not a criticism. Mostly it makes me a little sad. It's like reading an obituary that talks about the day their house got electricity. The era is over when professors wrote beautiful essays for readers working slowly and calmly from start to finish. Things changed for a reason, what we do now is more accessible and inclusive and allows for its own kind of beauty, and it's still sad seeing the great academic writers of that generation retire and pass away.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

I mean, no one edits our writing so its most likely self-driven.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

The violinist paper seemed like a revelation at the time I read it, and still seems like one - the clarity of language and the way she uses fantastic thought experiments. It is the first paper I read that got me to understand why philosophers love philosophy so much.
posted by Jeanne at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

posted by LobsterMitten at 11:39 AM on November 23, 2020

I always have time for trolleyology, so I started at The Yale Law Journal paper cited in the first para. In 1985, it has "Dworkin" and "Kant" but "Mrs. Kent". I guess I was primed for a double-take because of a 2020 comment to the (1st cited) DailyNous obit "Emeritus, a, um is a first declension adjective. The proper title is professor emerita for Professor Thompson and any other female professor granted emeritus status by her college or university". Sounds like a bloke who has octopodes in his aquaria. Whereas gender neutrality was not part of the background of discourse in 1985??
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:13 PM on November 23, 2020

Or maybe you know the 1997 amicus brief on assisted suicide she co-authored with Dworkin, Nagel, Nozick, Rawls, and Scanlon.

This must be the basis for an anecdote a philosophy professor told our class, about leading moral philosophers filing an amicus brief and it being completely ignored, not mentioned in any opinion or dissent.
posted by thelonius at 2:12 PM on November 23, 2020

posted by allthinky at 6:06 PM on November 23, 2020

I didn't know she was the creator of the violinist argument. I read a version of that years ago and it really helped me to solidify my logic when thinking about abortion.

It was particularly this that has stuck with me (though this is the first time I've read the original piece):

"...I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child. It is easy to confuse these two things in that up to a certain point in the life of the fetus it is not able to survive outside the mother's body; hence removing it from her body guarantees its death. But they are importantly different"
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:41 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

"All persons have a right to life."
("...and violinists are persons")
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:34 AM on November 24, 2020

posted by filtergik at 12:53 PM on November 24, 2020

« Older ¡Sí Se Puede!   |   My kingdom for a mason jar! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments