Howard Stein, acclaimed UChicago philosopher and historian of physics, 1929‒2024

Howard Stein, acclaimed UChicago philosopher and historian of physics, 1929‒2024

Howard Stein, Philosophy Professor Emeritus, at the University of Chicago

The following was published in UChicago News on March 27, 2024.

By Sara Patterson

Prof. Emeritus Howard Stein, a renowned philosopher and historian of physics at the University of Chicago, died March 8 at his home in Hyde Park. He was 95.

A trained philosopher and mathematician, Stein was a longtime faculty member of the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science. Colleagues recalled Stein’s curiosity about physics, the elegance of his writing, and his impact on our understanding of the history of philosophy and physics. 

According to Thomas Pashby, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at UChicago, Stein inaugurated the modern study of the foundation of physics in 1967 with his article “Newtonian Space-Time,” published in The Texas Quarterly.

“Philosophers of science had been often concerned with physical theories before, but Stein’s mathematical, historical and conceptual analysis of Newtonian and, in 1968, Einstein-Minkowski spacetime using modern geometry set a new standard of scholarship,” Pashby said. “By the 1990s, there was a thriving community of self-identified philosophers of physics concerned with the problems and approaches to physical theory that Stein had originated in the 1960s. Stein was remarkable among them for his equal dedication to the history of philosophy and to the history of physics, and his compelling writing style. Each paper he wrote changed the way we think about science and philosophy.”

Stein’s work on the philosophy of physics and on the philosophy of mathematics ranged from antiquity to the present. For his scholarship on ancient physics and mathematics,, his papers “Comments on ‘The Thesis of Parmenides’” in the Review of Metaphysics (1969) and “Eudoxos and Dedekind: On the Ancient Greek Theory of Ratios and Its Relation to Modern Mathematics” published in Synthese (1990) exemplified his historical and philosophical perspectives. On contemporary issues, Stein’s noteworthy papers included “A Problem in Hilbert Space Theory Arising from the Quantum Theory of Measurement” in the American Mathematical Monthly (1979), “On the Present State of the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics” in PSA (1982), and “On Quantum Nonlocality, Special Relativity, and Counterfactual Reasoning” cowritten with Abner Shimony in Revisiting the Foundations of Relativistic Physics (2003).

“Apart from his seminal writings on the foundations and history of physics, especially Newton, and history of philosophy from Parmenides to Carnap, there was Howard’s amazing breadth of knowledge of everything—from the Greeks to Milton to contemporary politics to music and its history—and his brute intelligence,” said Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at UChicago.

“This intelligence, his ability to listen, absorb, and then, simply out of deep determination to understand what was being said, and then to raise the most probing critical questions—this character trait was most manifest in his questions at colloquia. Howard’s questions were never clever ‘objections,’ but rather an expression of his commitment simply to comprehend and to know. No topic lay beyond his curiosity and no opinion, text, or communication—from colleague’s writings to student questions to menus to Times editorials—were beneath his critical reflection.”

David Malament, distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, added: “Some philosophers are scholars, steeped in the close reading of historical texts. Some do work that overlaps with that done by mathematicians and physicists. Some have a kind of special philosophical intelligence that allows them to hear a talk on almost any subject and then ask exactly the right question that gets to the heart of the matter. All these things could be said about Howard.”

Stein was known for a special kind of philosophical intelligence. He could listen to a colloquium talk on almost any subject and then ask exactly the right question that got to the heart of the matter, according to Malament.

Intellectual beginnings

Stein was born on Jan. 21, 1929, in Laurelton, N.Y. From the start, he was academically focused, earning his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University at the age of 18. Stein headed to the University of Chicago for his doctorate in philosophy, graduating in 1958, and then obtained his master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1959. While at UChicago, Stein studied with Rudolf Carnap, one of the best-known philosophers in UChicago’s history.

His teaching career in the natural sciences began at the UChicago in 1949 and continued through 1960. During this time, he worked within the “Great Books” framework and became knowledgeable about Galileo Galilei’s Two Dialogues, Isaac Newton’s Principia, and various works by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christiaan Huygens. The close study of these works influenced his entire career, according to André Carus, Stein’s former student. From 1959 to 1962, he became an instructor in Mathematics at Brandeis University.

In 1962, Stein’s career briefly pivoted from academics to positions in mathematics and engineering at Honeywell. When he returned to teaching in 1967, he become a professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve University and then at Columbia University until 1980. For the rest of teaching career, starting in 1980 to his retirement in 2000, Stein returned to UChicago as a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science.

Stein frequently taught three-hour seminars and found it tough to end them in a timely manner. According to Eric Schliesser, a former student and now professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, students did not ask any questions in the final 30 minutes because Stein’s meticulous answers to student questions would have likely lengthened the seminars even more. He wanted to be sure his students were clear on the questions they raised. Stein always welcomed questions, especially from the remarkable undergraduates who would attend his classes.

Schliesser, wrote on his blog about Stein: “One of his lasting contributions is to teach that whatever Newton’s substantivalism might have been, it was nothing like what Leibniz and generations of metaphysicians to this today present it as. And also that Huygens and Newton saw quite deeply into the nature of relativity.”

In Malament’s book Reading Natural Philosophy: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science and Mathematics (2002), 13 leading philosophers of science focused on the work of Stein. In another tribute to Stein’s legacy, Pashby organized a conference in 2017 to bring together philosophers of physics who had been influenced by Stein, resulting in a special issue of collected papers.

When considering Plato’s intended-though-never-written sequel to Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman, which was to be called “The Philosopher,” Stein wrote: “I have long cherished the fantasy, anachronistic though it be, that in that work Socrates, questioning Aristotle, would have led him to admit that it is impossible to know whether one knows, and that if wisdom is the contrary state to wonder, then philosophy never ends.”

Among his many honors, Stein was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a recipient of a National Science Foundation Science Faculty Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

“Howard’s attention, thoughtfulness and love toward his children, loved ones and close friends rivaled his earlier professional zeal,” said Jeff Robison, Stein’s caregiver and principal of LincolnPark FamilyCare. “And that was what he cherished the most in his later years.”

Stein is survived by his daughter, Kathy Stein; his son, David Stein; his brother, Norman Stein and sister-in-law, Judy Stein; and his sister, Carol Berkowitz and brother-in-law, Leonard Berkowitz.

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March 25, 2024