This Day in Jewish History

1940: Happy Birthday, Saul Kripke!

Invited to teach at Harvard before he'd finished high school, philosopher Saul Kripke changed our understanding of language even though he wouldn't write down a word.

Saul Kripke, smiling widely and featured wearing a straw hat. His hair seems to be silver-white, though most is covered by the hat. His mustache and bears are almost entirely white. He is standing on Juquehy Beach, Sao Paolo, and is wearing a sort of plaid button-up shirt. Picture date:  	1 August 2005.
Ourispan, Wikimedia Commons

November 13 is the birthday of philosopher Saul Kripke, widely considered to be many as America’s greatest living practitioner of his field.

That does not mean that Kripke has come closer than anyone else to defining the meaning of the good life: contemporary American philosophy is concerned more with questions of logic and meaning than with ethical dilemmas. It is a philosophy that can be expressed in mathematical equations.

Kripke, whose precocious ability to teach himself complex topics even from a young age meant that he saw no need to pursue any further academic degrees after receiving his B.A., has spent his career focusing on analytic philosophy, the prevalent school of philosophy in the United States.

Rabbinic roots

Saul Aaron Kripke was born on November 13, 1940, in Bay Shore, Long Island, where his father, Rabbi Myer S. Kripke, was the leader of a Conservative Congregation, in Patchogue. His mother, the former Dorothy Karp, was the author of children’s books about Judaism.

In 1946, the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where Myer was given a pulpit at Congregation Beth El. There, the father became friends with a young money manager whom he had met at the Rotary Club. Impressed with the young man, Kripke trusted him with an investment of $67,000 – all that he could afford.

By the mid-1990s, his initial investment had grown, under the guidance of his friend Warren Buffett, to be worth some $25 million, according to Rabbi Kripke’s obituary in the New York Times, in 2014.

Mom says I have to finish school first

Saul attended Dundee Grade School, in Omaha, and Central High School. Much of his education, however, took place outside of school. As the stories often go with child prodigies, he is said to have taught himself Hebrew by age 6, read all of Shakespeare by the time he was 9, and was solving complex mathematical problems before he entered middle school.

One Saul Kripke legend – they are legion – has it that, after writing and publishing a paper on modal logic as a teenager, he received a letter from Harvard University proposing that he apply for a teaching job there. Saul supposedly wrote back, declining the offer, and explaining how "My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first."

Kripke did attend college first, at Harvard, where, during his first year, in 1959, he published a groundbreaking paper, “A Completeness Theorem for Modal Logic,” in the Journal of Symbolic Logic. During his second year, he taught a graduate course in logic across town, at MIT.

Graduating college in 1962, Kripke in rapid order received a Fulbright grant, was named to Harvard’s Society of Fellows (entailing a generous, three-year research grant), and was appointed to teach at the university. In 1967, he moved to the Rockefeller University, in New York, and a decade later, was appointed full professor at Princeton, where he remained until his retirement, in 2002. (In philosophical circles, it is rumored that Kripke was a model for the brilliant but psychologically clueless philosopher Noam Himmel in Rebecca Goldstein’s 1983 novel “The Mind Body Problem.”)

That's when he received an appointment at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which also set up the Saul Kripke Center, which hosts talks and other programs on philosophical topics close to Kripke’s heart, and has become the archive for his work.

You write it

The archive has special significance, because Kripke famously does not write papers. Instead, he is said to think about a topic, and when he feels ready, delivers an extemporaneous talk about it, which will be transcribed by someone in the audience. Kripke then goes over the text, expanding and refining, until it is ready for publication.

Three Kripke lectures from the 1970s make up his 1980 book “Naming and Necessity,” perhaps his most acclaimed publication, which looks at the question of the inherent meaning of names, rejecting what is known as the “descriptivist” theory, which says that proper names are synonymous with the characteristics associated with them. Though the author of these lines may not be capable of explaining just why this is so, that book became one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. Apparently, Kripke had provided a new way of looking at determining whether something is true, and whether circumstances existed that could change its status.  

In 1982, Kripke followed “Naming and Necessity” up with a work on Ludwig Wittgenstein, which, as Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times, on the occasion of Kripke’s 65th birthday, “is so thoroughgoing that some scholars now refer to a sort of composite figure known as Kripgenstein.”  

Happy 76th birthday to Saul Kripke!