Admissions & Aid
Professor Emerita Gertrude Ezorsky (1926-2019)
Excerpts from an obituary by Andrew Wengraf and Nannette Funk, New Politics, April 20, 2019:
Gertrude Ezorsky, professor emerita, in the philosophy departments of Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, died at home peacefully on April 19 age 92. She combined excellence in analytic philosophy with a courageous commitment to political and social change in a career of rigorously argued, scrupulously researched work, always lucidly presented in her terse, plain style. Drawn to lively and controversial issues with live applications, Gertrude took clear stands, some notably controversial, and she refused to bury her opinions in disclaimers. She secured this reputation with steady early work of the highest quality. Her earliest papers appeared in the elite journals, and her talent gained her the respect of men of top rank in the profession, including Hare, Hampshire, Isaiah Berlin, William Frankena, Chisholm, Maclntyre, and Morgenbesser, as well as her former professor Sidney Hook — this at a time when all but very few women were hardly acknowledged in philosophy.
Gertrude attended Brooklyn College, returning to teach there fresh out of graduate school. Before going into philosophy Gertrude had done factory and office work and taught elementary school. She started her philosophical career working on traditional issues in epistemology and the nature of truth. She then published in ethics and metaethics, especially on utilitarianism, and she argued for an augmented consequentialism. Her lengthy assessment of Marcus Singer on generalization in ethics and her discussions of the work of Lyons and Rawls on the relation of act and rule utilitarianism earned her much attention. She then moved on to issues of justice and applied ethics. Gertrude challenged many all too easy empirical claims of equal opportunity and freedom, taking stands on discrimination against women, on justice in punishment, on discrimination in hiring of blacks and justice and on freedom for workers, freedom in the workplace being the subject of her last book. Looking back, the hallmark of her argumentation is to put social truths in context, showing the empirical premises and contextual nature of the assumptions of theorists who lift their social principles away from both particular and generalized contexts. Gertrude thus exposed certain stereotypes and errors of reference in theories infatuated by negative liberty. Her concise criticism of Judith Thomson on the rights of employers in Philosophy & Public Affairs is a good case in point. Her lead article “Fight over University Women” in the New York Review of Books in 1974 was a path-breaking knockdown attack on discrimination against women in the university that indicted the academic establishments at Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, and Chicago and her own employers at City University of New York. Her article “Hiring Women Faculty” in Philosophy and Public Affairs continued that analytical argument. Her case was reprinted in the Congressional Record and in the Hearings of the House of Representative Subcommittee on Education and Labor. This research is a crucial document of that time, a scathing documentation of discriminatory attitudes and practices toward women in the university, and a fine piece of applied ethics. Gertrude single-handedly organized a full-page petition in the Times with 3,000 signatures on behalf of affirmative action in hiring university women. This influenced then-President Ford to permit some affirmative action in hiring women in the university. Gertrude was also an active consultant in an important class action suit that established gender discrimination in CUNY. Many women in academia, however eminent or entitled to their current status, would not have work beyond the former level largely reserved for tokens of particular ability or niche recognition without the efforts in which Gertrude was a bona fide leader.
Racism and Justice, her defense of affirmative justice, written at the height of criticism of affirmative-action policies, sold over 14,000 copies. One can attribute this to its strong pedagogical value, because even when students were inclined to disagree with it, they were denied the false stereotypes of an already just and meritocratic social or legal context from which opposition to such policies often started. She offered clear and cogent arguments, not strawman versions, on behalf of affirmative justice, thus sharpening the issues….
Right or wrong, Gertrude was a model of intellectual integrity, a fearless woman loyal to those wrongly treated, willing to challenge those in high places. The writers she challenged were not personal rivals, except insofar as they were intellectually dishonest; the real competition for Gertrude was between ideas. Gertrude would raise fundamental criticisms with vivid real-life examples, not to score points, but because her significant philosophical abilities are always informed by compassion, moral sensitivity and a pragmatic sense.
Gertrude is survived by her husband of many years, Eli Cohen.
Professor Emeritus Elmer Sprague (1924 – 2019)
By Professor Emeriti Eric Steinberg and Abigail L. Rosenthal
It is with regret that we report the death of Elmer Sprague on April 19, 2019, at age 94. He was a member of the Philosophy Department for more than four decades, until his retirement in 1997. Elmer is survived by a daughter, Emily, and a son, Timothy; Gretchen, his wife of 55 years, predeceased him in 2003.
In 1941 Elmer entered the University of Nebraska, where he studied under O.K. Bousma and received a B.A. degree. After three years of military service during World War II he received a Rhodes scholarship in 1947, entered Oxford University the following year, and received his D.Phil. degree in 1952. Although Elmer acknowledged that he came, if only temporarily, under the influence of logical positivism at Oxford, his interest in the philosophy of his teacher Gilbert Ryle and the ideas of the “later” Wittgenstein began during his Oxford years and continued for the rest of his life.
Elmer’s major philosophical writings were in the areas of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind as well as in analyzing the distinctive nature of philosophy, itself. He viewed it as a mistake to treat mind and body as two abstract categories to be somehow assembled into a third abstract category purportedly encompassing both. Rather he thought the features that have been attributed separately to mind and to body ought to be returned to their lived context in “the person.” His finely contextual approach is exemplified in his books: What Is Philosophy? (1961), Metaphysical Thinking (1978), and Persons and Their Minds (1999). He also had a longstanding interest in the history of British philosophy and published widely in this area. Early in Elmer’s career at Brooklyn College, he and his colleague Paul Taylor were asked by the Philosophy Department to prepare an anthology for use in the department’s introductory course. The result was the very successful Knowledge and Value that influenced many other anthologies of its type and provided an ongoing funding source for department activities and needs.
Like his written work, Elmer’s teaching was characterized by its clarity. He was an extremely influential teacher and the recipient of a college-wide Excellence in Teaching Award. A number of his students went on to academic careers in philosophy. He also inspired scores of other students, many of whom would visit the Philosophy Department periodically to meet and speak with him. Elmer once described himself as a person who couldn’t be told things but always had to learn them for himself. This revealing comment might lead those who did not know Elmer to believe that he was a solitary inquirer or considered this to be the paradigm of learning and knowledge. This was not at all the case. In fact, he was a strong proponent of the importance of collaborative or collective inquiry. For years he participated in the Brooklyn Wittgenstein Club, a study group of various (and ever changing) members of the department. These sessions, including comments by the other participants in the group, often served as a catalyst for Elmer to develop new insights about material with which he was already extremely familiar. In the 1980s Brooklyn College developed the Core Curriculum, a set of general education requirements for undergraduates that included an introductory course in philosophy. Elmer was an enthusiastic supporter of the new curriculum and began to teach his students using the group method. He divided the students into groups, presented them with questions about a given reading, and asked them to arrive at answers collectively.
Elmer was also an outstanding photographer. For example, anyone who was fortunate enough to view the pictures he took of many of the natural sights of Iceland during a philosophy conference in 1984 would be struck by their haunting beauty. He and Gretchen moved to a home in the Hudson Valley a few years before his retirement, but he retained an abiding interest in New York City, especially the borough of Brooklyn. After his retirement he became a volunteer archivist in the New York City Parks Department and helped to develop a database for the city’s public monuments. His last book, Brooklyn Public Monuments: Sculpture for Civic Memory and Urban Pride, was published in 2008. It combined his skill as a photographer with his knowledge of the borough in which for so many years he had lived, taught, and raised his children.
Elmer’s strong sense of “my station and its duties” combined with his inimitable verve and wit to leave a lasting stamp on the department he had served. For many years the Philosophy Department has had an annual lecture that brought outstanding philosophers such an Anthony Appiah, David Lewis, and John Searle to the college. His colleagues chose to honor Elmer (and Paul Taylor) by calling the celebratory annual event The Sprague and Taylor Lecture. In the same appreciative spirit, the department’s reading room/library is now named the Elmer Sprague Common Room.