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Nicholas Rescher, who died on January 5 at age ninety-five, was the most extensively published philosopher of the last century, with a hundred books and four hundred articles to his name. He was so prolific that the philosopher Daniel Dennett once wittily defined a “rescher” as “Rescher, n. A unit for measuring the volume of printed pages, equal to the collected works of Francis Bacon (hence, a rescher of Bacon).” 

He received countless prizes and honorary degrees, yet I appreciated him especially for his example as a Christian philosopher. Working within the environment of scientific and pragmatist naturalism, Rescher was nonetheless drawn in mid-life to Roman Catholicism, entering the Church at the age of fifty-three. As he later wrote, “I had to decide upon my spiritual kindred in life . . . and I felt drawn toward those who saw humanity as subject to transcendent aspirations and obligations—and for whom forms of worship and religious styles of thought really mattered.” 

Christened “Klaus Helmut,” Rescher was born in Hagen, Westphalia, where his father had a law practice in which his mother had come to work as a secretary. The establishment of the Nazi regime in 1933 ended his father’s legal career. That and the prospect of Klaus having to join the Hitler Youth led to the family’s emigration. He arrived in the U.S. in 1938 as “Nicholas,” and quickly assimilated. By 1940, he was “an indistinguishably American boy” and went by “Nick.” In 1944 he gained citizenship and in 1946 he won a place at Queens College New York studying philosophy and mathematics. 

Later, at Princeton, Nick planned to take a course from Jacques Maritain, who had recently come from Rome. Maritain was then deepening his interest in art, history, and political philosophy and developing his ideas about the synergy between Thomistic natural law and modern natural rights theories—later published in 1952 as Man and the State. Nick, however, was discouraged from taking Maritain’s class by the director of graduate studies, W. T. Stace, “who pulled a face and indicated I would do well to select something else.” That something else was Stace’s own course “Recent Philosophy.” Reflecting on that encounter, Rescher would eventually write,

Only later did I learn that Stace and Maritain had quarrelled in print about religion and were ideologically at loggerheads. Opposed to all Christian orthodoxy, Stace was reluctant to see a student come under the influence of this eminent Catholic thinker. Though I came to like and respect Stace, this incident left a blot on his image, and whenever in after years I heard talk of the anti-Catholic animus of American academics, this episode leapt to recollection (Ongoing Journey, 1986).

His progress at Princeton was dramatic. He set about reading as much by and about the philosopher Leibniz as he could find, and the following year, at the age of twenty-two, submitted a dissertation on Leibniz’s cosmology and was granted his PhD—then and still a record for the department.

Immediately he was drafted into the Marine Corps, serving mainly in Washington. The ongoing Korean War prompted thoughts about politics, which led him to become a Republican. Later, back in academia, he reflected on how scarce conservatives were on campus:

My colleagues never ceased to pontificate with facile assurance about the superiority of their choice [of political candidates], but this only served to confirm my doubts . . . All sight is lost of a point I have always taken as self-evident, that common sense and a certain rustic faith in the traditional values are our best guides in the affairs of life.

In 1961, he moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he spent the next sixty years as distinguished university professor of philosophy. He also served as a long-time director of the Center for the Philosophy of Science. Pittsburgh was home to a tradition of pragmatist philosophy that linked reason to the practical interests of human beings. 

It was here, in 1981, that he became a Catholic. His conversion was, he wrote, “primarily a matter of sentiment, loyalties and feelings of allegiance and kinship.” The sentiment and loyalty related to the fact that his wife Dorothy was herself a committed Catholic, but the “feelings of allegiance and kinship” were intellectual: “a sense of solidarity with those whom I could accept as role models among believers, and sense of estrangement from those I deemed naively cocksure in their rejection of belief.”

As a student in London, I knew the name “Nicholas Rescher” as that of a prolific author, but nothing of the man himself. Then in 1987 I encountered the courteous, genial, unhurried, but reserved polymath at “the Cathedral of Learning,” the towering core of the University of Pittsburgh. I had come to Pitt from St. Andrews as a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science, and entered the Cathedral’s vast cavernous hall with the demeanor of a pilgrim. (I also carried an instruction from my doctoral supervisor, who said, “When you get to the philosophy department the first thing I want you to do is to call out ‘How many of you here are Nicholas Rescher?’”—a joke about his prolific output.)

Nick was welcoming and encouraging. On the issue of being a Christian philosopher, his advice was pragmatic. Experience had taught him that the contemporary academy was generally inhospitable to orthodox religious belief; and natural caution and a wish to progress professionally led him to be wary of attracting attention as a believer. Also, he was not himself theologically curious or inclined to the philosophical articulation and analysis of doctrinal matters. While disinclined to stridency or needless controversy, I saw religious ideas as more extensively relevant to philosophical issues and wrote much on that basis.

In time, Nick wrote more on philosophy and religion and engaged with the Catholic intellectual tradition. In 1998, I gave the Oxford Aquinas lecture on “Thomism and the Future of Catholic Philosophy.” Nick later wrote a response, in which he stated:

My one dissent from Haldane’s almost invariably congenial views relates to his seeing the pursuit of philosophical as aiming at achieving “a form of understanding that may bring mankind peace of mind.” This envisions the prospect of a completion or perfection that I view as decidedly unrealistic. For I see the human situation in a less optimistic light as a stage of struggle and striving.

Aiming at achieving and actually achieving are different things, and one might think of the former as an ideal while recognizing its unattainability in the present life, but Nick was right to caution that “in the intellectual as in the moral life there are no permanent victories to be achieved and so no rest short of the grave.”

Nicholas Rescher’s earthly journey is done. It began in a happy home, then was disrupted. Through talent, discipline, and industry it rose to academic eminence, and through his long marriage and family life it returned him to domestic security. It also brought him a form of Christian faith akin to his temperament: personal but not individualistic, assured but not dogmatic, quiet but not silent. 

Rest in peace Klaus, Nicholas, Nick.

John Haldane is Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.

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