- Thelma Z. Lavine 1915–2011
Thelma Z. Lavine received her bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1936 and her doctoral degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1940. She began her teaching at Wells College in New York State and then at Brooklyn College. In 1955, Thelma became a faculty member at The University of Maryland, and subsequently in succession, the Elton Professor at George Washington University and the Robinson Professor at George Mason University, from which she retired in 1998 at the age of 83.
The publications of Thelma Lavine had as their foci, the sociology of knowledge, philosophy of the social sciences, and philosophy and psychiatry. They are to be found in The Journal of Philosophy, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, among others. Her most influential essay, however, was published in 1944 as a chapter in Naturalism and the Human Spirit, edited by Y. H. Krikorian (Columbia University Press). Entitled “Naturalism and the Sociological Analysis of Knowledge,” Lavine argues trenchantly for the inclusion of social and historical events and “forces” in any discussion of matters philosophical, inclusive of discussion on the history of philosophy. At the age of 29, she chastised John Dewey, then still living, as follows: “[Y]et it is only in metaphor that the continuity of things can be apprehended. To common sense, things are discrete. The juke box, sulfanilamide, the inspiring morale of the Soviet Army (think here of Stalingrad), midweek choir practice—gaps, gulfs, and breaks pervade the world of the common man.” The subsequent twenty-five pages feature a sharp critique of those interpretations on matters philosophical that lack a sociological sensibility. And those diagnoses lead to her conclusion, namely, “only when the materials and techniques for such a rewriting of the history of philosophy are developed will the seriousness and [End Page 130] dignity of philosophy be truly apprehended, by professional philosophers as well as by their recalcitrant students and by the cynical lay public.”
In the early 1980s, Thelma Lavine, celebrated as a mesmerizing teacher of philosophy, was asked to present a television series for the Maryland Center for Public Policy. Extraordinarily successful, this series was extended to be national in reach and circulated by cooperative Public Broadcasting Stations. In time, the course was published as a book, From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. In both media, television, and print, Thelma Lavine “gave no quarter,” never patronized, never pandered to her vast audience of “regulars,” of citizens seeking to know “how does it go.” She never stinted in her discussion of the utter complexity and gravity of the philosophical issues in question. In response, she was the recipient of an outpouring of gratitude and affection, and a pledge by her audience, nationwide, to pursue these philosophical matters, further and always. As I often told Thelma Lavine, she was deeply continuous with the mantra of Josiah Royce, namely: “The popular mind is deep and means a thousand times more than it knows.”
At the end of her book, in 1984, she mentions the hopeful stirring of the tradition of classical American philosophy. From that point forward, she became a key and creative figure in our work. For the past ten years, she was preparing a vast project on the crucial significance of American philosophy, especially Emerson, James, and Dewey, on the reconstruction of the history of philosophy. It is one of our callings to see the completion of that project.
Rarely do we have the presence of a person whose brilliance of mind is matched by her ability to engender understanding in a variety of audiences, many of which are utter neophytes in pursuing the complex and thorny issues regnant in the history of Western philosophy. Thelma Z. Lavine was such a person, and more, for she was equivalently capable of speaking, lecturing, and writing consonant with the linguistic and conceptual demands of professional and academic parlance, characteristic of philosophical inquiry.
Brilliant, indefatigable, rich with moral courage, and a teacher of rare gifts, we remember her presence among us with admiration, affection, and gratitude for her commitment to the intellectual and personal quality of our shared journey. [End...