Obituary: Kurt Baier / One of the founders of Pitt's philosophy department

Jan. 26, 1917 - Nov. 7, 2010

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Exactly 50 years ago, when the region's political, academic and civic leaders were trying to transform the University of Pittsburgh from commuter school to first-class research and academic center, the school set out to put its philosophy department on the map.

Kurt Baier, an Austrian native teaching philosophy in Australia, was brought to serve as chair by a brilliant young philosopher from Lehigh University hired by Pitt to find more brilliant philosophers.

Adolf Grunbaum did just that, first -- as he freely admits -- by "raiding Yale's philosophy department. They called me the Pittsburgh Pirate in those days."

Then he recruited Dr. Baier, who was not only exceedingly able "but personally an engaging human being," said Dr. Grunbaum, who, at 87, still serves on the faculty and chairs the university's Center for Philosophy of Science.

Dr. Baier, who died last Sunday in Dunedin, New Zealand, at the age of 93, spent most of his career at Pitt before retiring to New Zealand in 1996, his wife's native country.

Dr. Baier, along with Dr. Grunbaum and others, constituted the original group of scholars who established the department's international reputation -- but not without some difficult preliminary work.

"He got a rid of a lot of dead wood in the most humane way and was able to build the department imaginatively so it became one of the best three in the country along with Harvard and Princeton," Dr. Grunbaum said.

One of the most influential thinkers in the field of moral philosophy, Dr. Baier examined the reasons behind behavior, whether there are universal moral truths and how we can discover them, noted another former Pitt colleague, Jerome B. Schneewind.

"A lot of people glibly say morality is subjective, and that's not accurate. What [Dr. Baier] tried to do was make explicit the rules we all follow when we talk about moral and ethical issues, and the rules governing the language of morality -- without which morality cannot be shared," said Dr. Schneewind, professor emeritus of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. who also served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Pitt for more than a decade.

For example, he added, "if I promise I will call you in an hour, I give you the right to expect that I will do that, and the right to be cross with me if I don't.

"If I repeatedly make that kind of promise, and break it, then you can say I am not to be trusted. That's something we all understand about promising, but it's very hard to explain what goes on when you do promise something."

Dr. Baier tried to do that, by describing and justifying reasons for moral behavior -- perhaps spurred by a youth shaped by close encounters with moral failure.

Born in Vienna in 1917, he grew up in a large extended family that shared what was commonly termed "healthy anti-Semitism" -- only to discover that his father was of Jewish descent.

"Almost nothing, I believe," Dr. Baier wrote, "can make the concept of injustice clearer than involuntary membership in a group against which the law and public opinion practice strict discrimination."

He served in the Austrian Army, then attended the University of Vienna, where from 1935 to 1938 he studied law.

After the Anschluss in 1938 -- Austria's annexation into Germany -- he fled to Britain, where, according to a eulogy written by Alan Musgrave, a close friend and prominent New Zealand philosopher, he was "passed from one wealthy aristocratic home to another ... Kurt exuded Viennese charm and impressed the ladies, one of whom wanted to adopt him. She was the first in a long line of women who wanted to adopt Kurt, in one way or another."

After a brief stint as a salesman of enamel saucepans imported from Vienna -- which ended after he broke a table demonstrating the strength of the saucepans -- he was interned as an enemy alien and was sent to Australia on the notorious ship Dunera, where, during a "nightmare" eight-week voyage, he was beaten and stripped of all his possessions, arriving in Sydney wearing nothing but an old sweater over a pair of pajamas.

After the brutalities on the Dunera, Australia was a different world -- as he discovered when, after disembarking, he and the other passengers were lined up along the dock. Mr. Musgrave wrote: "Kurt was sure the soldiers were going to shoot them, until one of them walked over to him, handed him his rifle, and said, "Hold this, mate, while I take a leak."

After studying at the University of Melbourne and Oxford University -- where his doctoral thesis was transformed into his first and most well-known book, "The Moral Point of View" -- Dr. Baier returned to Australia to teach, and married a fellow academic, Annette Stoop, before being appointed chair of the philosophy department at Pitt.

He and his wife -- an expert in the history of philosophy -- were one of the few couples who achieved equal distinction in the field. Both received numerous awards, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Baier chaired Pitt's philosophy department until 1967, and was known, Dr. Schneewind said, as not only an astute administrator but a man of "ready intelligence, gentle wit, warmth and personal charm. His contributions to modern moral philosophy were great; his loss deprives us of far more than his philosophy."

A funeral was held Thursday in Dunedin. There will be a memorial service at the University of Pittsburgh in the 2011 fall term.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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