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  • Paul Oskar Kristeller Memorial Notice
  • Richard H. Popkin

Paul Oskar Kristeller, the most eminent scholar of renaissance philosophy, was born in Berlin in 1904 to secularized Jewish parents. He died June 7, 1999, in his apartment in New York shortly after his 95th birthday. Kristeller studied in Heidelberg under Martin Heidegger and received his doctorate in 1927 for his work on Neo-Platonism. He was a lecturer and an assistant at Heidelberg until 1933 when he had to leave Germany because of his Jewish ancestry. He went to Italy where he continued his studies and taught at Pisa. He was awarded another doctorate for his work on the Florentine Platonist, Marsilio Ficino.

A few years later when Italy adopted anti-semitic racial laws, Kristeller had to leave a country a second time and went to the United States in 1939. Soon he became a lecturer and instructor at Columbia University and continued on the faculty there, retiring in 1973 as the Frederick Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy.

Kristeller brought both the rigor and wealth of German scholarship in Renaissance studies to America. He helped to make materials available for American students. He was a founding member and later president of the Renaissance Society of America and gave lectures all over the United States as well as in Europe, encouraging interest and concern for serious scholarship and Renaissance Studies.

He wrote voluminously, over eight hundred articles and many books on his chosen subject. One of his accomplishments was the preparation of an immense catalogue of manuscripts in Italian libraries, the Iter Italicum, and he guided the development of the vast catalogue of manuscripts of classical, medieval, and renaissance authors.

Kristeller's erudition and precise and careful scholarship greatly influenced the level of research and publication in the history of philosophy in America. While his students worked mostly on topics in the Renaissance and the later medieval period, Kristeller encouraged many others like myself in branching off in directions other than those in which he was primarily interested. [End Page 141]

In 1946 I showed him a seminar paper I had written on Hume and Sextus Empiricus, since part of my interest came from Kristeller's course that I had taken. He looked over the paper carefully, and then in his inimitable way, told me that I should look into whether there had been a sceptical tradition in European thought prior to Hume. This became my major concern for years thereafter. Kristeller continuously discussed my work with me and encouraged further studies. He helped greatly in bringing my work to publication, although only a small amount of it was in his chief area of interest.

Kristeller was the last of the great German scholars in the humanities who became refugees in America and helped to transform the level of scholarship in many fields in this country. From early on until the end of his life, he remained a neo-Kantian. He did not find much of interest in the prevailing forms of contemporary thought. Although he spent his entire academic career in philosophy departments, he wrote little of philosophical exposition or argument about the views he held. He was mainly concerned to expound philosophers, to trace their sources and their influences. He left an enormous legacy of work, research tools, and outlook. As the various twentieth century philosophical movements became more and more antihistorical, they cut themselves off linguistically and culturally from the actual sources of their issues and theories.

His focus was on the Renaissance, but he was willing to play a role in wider intellectual enterprises, seeking to improve the level of scholarship and the opportunities for research and publication. He gave much advice to those of us who in 1960 were attempting to start the Journal of the History of Philosophy. Though he did not personally get involved in our early problems, he did watch over what we produced like a hawk and gave us his critical evaluation of each issue as it appeared as well as much other advice. This was the case with the International Archives of the History of Ideas, that was also started in 1960. He evaluated proposals, advised us about publication plans, recommended scholars...


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