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Professor Samuel Guttenplan

(Elected 2011)


Professor Samuel Guttenplan is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. A New Yorker, he studied at City College, New York and was on its Faculty staff before coming to Oxford to do his DPhil in 1976. He joined the staff at Birkbeck the same year.

Head of Birkbeck’s department of philosophy for two periods during his career, Professor Guttenplan was Dean of what was then effectively Birkbeck’s Faculty of Humanities from 1992 to 1997. This was a busy time of expansion for the College, during which the Faculty’s law department expanded rapidly and has since become a Faculty in its own right.

Retiring in 2010 after close to 35 years in the philosophy department, Professor Guttenplan continues as Executive Editor of Mind and Language, a highly successful interdisciplinary and international journal founded in the department in 1986.

Professor Guttenplan’s research interests encompass the philosophies of mind, language, philosophical logic and ethics. His publications include the widely cited 1994 reference work A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, and The Languages of Logic, the second edition of which was published in 1997. He has also been an editor and author in the series which includes Reading Philosophy and Reading Ethics. These works form the basis of Professor Guttenplan’s long-standing commitment to pedagogy.

His current work centres on the origins of human conceptual thought, and his next book, The Roots of Categorization, is due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013. This work will extend one of the central ideas in his earlier book, Objects of Metaphor, to reconceive the philosophical debate over the putative priority of thought and language.

During his time at Birkbeck Professor Guttenplan balanced his academic career with his administrative role in driving forward the College’s responsibility for Philosophy within what is now known as the University of London International Programme. He has recently revised the complete programme, comprising 17 study guides written by eminent academics, to be able to offer the course almost entirely online.

Professor Guttenplan’s Fellowship recognises his great and continuing contribution to philosophy and to Birkbeck. He said: 'I am honoured and enormously pleased to have been awarded a Fellowship because of the commitment I feel to the College. Despite officiating at many graduation ceremonies I don’t know very much about being a Fellow! I look forward to finding out about the duties and responsibilities, and to undertaking whatever the role requires.'


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates, Guests, and Colleagues.

Logic, language, ethics, and the philosophy of mind: the dizzying wonder of it all. There are only a few people in our midst who seek not only to make sense of the world, but who do so with clarity, empathetic identification, and generosity. Professor Sam Guttenplan is one of these rare beings.

Guttenplan has provided intellectual inspiration to his colleagues and students in the Philosophy Department at Birkbeck for well over three decades. Before joining us, he studied at City College (New York) and then did his DPhil at Oxford under the direction of John McDowell.

When Guttenplan joined Birkbeck in 1976, philosophy was a small yet illustrious department. His energy, intellectual leadership, and willingness to patiently listen to and calmly debate with colleagues over lunch in Store Street or the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine did more than anything else to foster its growth, both in terms of staff and student numbers but, more importantly, international reputation.

He served as the Head of that Department for two periods, voluntarily (or perhaps with a little push) throwing himself onto the burning pyre that used to be reserved for heretics but, in universities today, is bestowed on people regarded as being overly-endowed with vision yet sufficiently adept with administrative skills to avoid meltdown. To serve as Head of Department once is appalling luck; to do so twice, simply reckless. His resourcefulness in the face of increasingly burdensome bureaucratic demands also earned him the questionable honour of acting as Dean in what was effectively the Faculty of Arts and Humanities between 1992 and 1997.

All the while, it must be noted, he taught students, ran seminars, organised conferences, travelled the world lecturing, ran the University of London International Programme in philosophy, and served as Executive Editor of Mind and Language, an interdisciplinary and international journal founded in Birkbeck’s Philosophy Department in 1986.

Of course, he also wrote highly acclaimed books and learned papers. His publications include A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, The Languages of Logic, Mind’s Landscape, Objects of Metaphor, and Reading Philosophy. His next book, The Roots of Categorization will be published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Buy it. It addresses debates about the putative priority of thought and language.

These works represent not only significant contributions to the world of ideas, but also to pedagogy. Like the great Isaiah Berlin - for whom Guttenplan worked as a research assistant in his early years in the academy - Guttenplan has an insatiable curiosity about other people’s thoughts, character and lives. As a result, students adore him. Fate should be partly thanked for heaping personal charm on Guttenplan, but success with students is not to be assumed when you teach in the notoriously difficult field of logic. Guttenplan admits as much. In The Limits of Language: An Introduction, we can detect a slightly bruised tone when he muses that

There are elements of logic to which many students are resistant. Formal logic is notoriously lacking in appeal for some students… this is an unhappy state of affairs.

Almost pugnaciously (and even he admits that he does it “stubbornly”), Guttenplan dedicates himself to showing students the “coherence, and indeed, elegant simplicity” in predicate logic. If he hasn’t always succeeded in cutting the Gordian knot of logical complexities, he does manage to untangle it or, as he once modestly claimed as his purpose – to at least “pull the right thread”. Generations of student and colleagues can attest that he has achieved much more than this.

Philosophers have an undeserved reputation for being unworldly, impractical types. This cannot be said of Guttenplan. Instead, he follows in the tradition of philosophers like Thales, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher whose mathematical and meterological skills enabled him to make a killing investing in the harvest of olives - not, at least according to Aristotle, in order to enrich himself but to prove that philosophy could be useful. Or like Wittgenstein (a skilled architect), or Spinoza (the lens grinder). Guttenplan understands and loves mechanical gadgets. He works wonders in wood. Friends speak of his great love of the sea and of sailing; his passion for harvests. A friend told me, “Guttenplan’s exterior demeanor conceals an expansive inner life - like the Tardis!”

Guttenplan exemplifies Birkbeck’s mission to provide our students with research-led teaching of internationally renowned quality, to nurture ideas and stimulate debate, and, most of all, to strive to improve the worlds in which we all live.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to be able to welcome him now as a Fellow of Birkbeck.