- Richard H. Popkin 1923-2005
Richard H. Popkin, founding editor of the journal of the History of Philosophy, died on April 14, 2005. He was 81 years old and had continued his research and writing to the last moment before he entered the hospital on march 21st with extreme respiratory difficulties.
Popkin's The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (1960) revolutionized the study and understanding of early modern philosophy. Popkin entered the minds and world of thinkers from Erasmus to Descartes in a way few other scholars had done, and he showed how the development of philosophy and science was far from an easy series of steps from success to success. Instead, philosophers and scientists pursued a dozen lines from the scepticism of Sextus Empiricus through religious belief, atheism, numerology, astrology, alchemy, eschatology, magic, and millenarianism—a maelstrom of ideas out of which emerged the major figures and ideas of Modern philosophy and science. Dick once explained that actually he lived in the 17th century, and certainly he knew as many of those thinkers and their thoughts as did many people who actually lived at that time. Of course Popkin did not originate the notion of exploring the history of philosophy in the context of its times, but he made that approach central today. It led him not only through the Early Modern period, but also from medieval jewish philosophy to a critical analysis of the Kennedy assassination.
Popkin received his PhD at Columbia University, and in his career he taught at the universities of Connecticut, Iowa, California (San Diego and Los Angeles), Washington University in St. Louis, and Harvey Mudd College. He served as the first editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and as president of JHP, Inc. For many years, and was active in its operation for over four decades, having attended the annual meeting of the Board of Directors a little over a month before he died. After retirement, he lived in close association with the Clark Library in Los Angeles. He was well known to scholars and librarians throughout the world. Whatever library he visited, he was likely to find some obscure or hidden document that would either clear up some mystery, or give rise to a new problem. His memory was extraordinary. During his final years when he was virtually blind, he would sift through his mind, send assistants off to look for something that had to be in this or that library and write papers in his head for later dictation. Besides his memory, indispensable throughout his lifetime he had Julie, his co-worker and wife of 60 years, without whom, the Popkin we knew could not have existed.
These few paragraphs are meant to be neither an obituary nor an adequate memorial. We were Dick's first two PhDs, and we were barely five years his junior. He treated us from the beginning as colleagues and he became a lifelong friend. He changed our lives, as he did the lives of many other aspiring scholars. We miss him.