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Howard Stein (1929-2024)

Howard Stein died ten days ago — I only just found out. I’m finding it hard to assimilate this information; I keep catching myself thinking that I must ask Howard about it. The idea that I won’t ever be able to ask him about anything ever again seems utterly outlandish. When I was driving him home to Hyde Park after dinner at the Sai Cafe in Lincoln Park, last August, it all seemed so familiar and well-worn and comfortable that it seemed it would just go on as before, decade after decade. How could it suddenly just end?

Of course I’ve hardly been able to ask him things for some years, now. I often sent him videos of my son’s violin (and quartet) performances, which he liked very much, and often commented on by e-mail, and when I was in California in the summer, we talked on the phone sometimes. But nothing like the regular discussions we would have while I was his doctoral student, or even for some years after that, while I still lived in Chicago, or was there regularly, up until about a decade ago. But even though he was obviously getting old, and reading was increasingly hard for him, he was mentally still very much there, and it always seemed like I could ask him about something if absolutely necessary, the possibiity was out there, and it’s devastating to realize, gradually, that it’s no longer even a remote option now.

There will be appreciations, I hope, in journals, perhaps even in newspapers (but what papers, I wonder?), and they will say something about his writing and his students. He was a terrible teacher and a very inspiring one — one never knew, on one’s way in to class, which it would turn out to be on a given day. Sometimes both. I will write more here about his work and his teaching once I’ve recovered a bit from this shock. Could be a while.

I believe Fons Dewulf (University of Tilburg) was able to interview him in some depth at his place in Chicago over a couple of days in January as part of an extensive project (including an oral-history component) about the exiled diaspora of logical empiricism during the 1930s and 40s, of whom Howard knew many, including of course his teacher (and initial doctoral supervisor) Carnap. I very much hope that was a productive conversation, and that it was recorded, or at least notes were taken. I did learn a certain amount about Howard’s life, over the years, but my efforts to get him to write an autobiographical introduction to his collected papers (which I’d contracted to publish at Open Court) remained unsuccessful. He intended to do it, or to try anyway, but said that whenever he tried to think about what to write he found it impossible, his mind went blank. He felt guilty about that, though. (Which of course made me feel guilty in turn, for having inflicted this task on him.) I remember him telling someone once (at a dinner after a talk at the University of Chicago, back when he still used to go to those occasionally) that the reason his papers still hadn’t been published was his own inability to write an introduction. He was very good at self-reproach; one got used to this in his classes. When he later noticed some minor mistake in a proof he’d shown us in class, for instance, he’d begin the following session by announcing solemnly “I have told you an untruth. . .”

I had been hoping to get some feedback from him on a number of names that come up in the remaining volumes of the Carnap diaries that Christian Damböck is editing, especially for the period when Carnap was at Chicago. Since it was hard for Howard to read, I’d been planning to call him this summer when I was back in the US and ask him about some of them by phone. Also I was going to read him some of Carnap’s more pointed comments on various people (such as Richard McKeon) that I knew Howard would enjoy. Alas!

PS (19 March): Eric Schliesser wrote something more like a proper obit yesterday, with a survey of Howard’s work and a deft characterization, including an extremely characteristic quotation from a recent e-mail. Not to be missed!

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