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American Philosophical Association honors Judith Jarvis Thomson

Bestows Quinn Prize for lifelong contributions to philosophy
Judith Jarvis Thomson, professor of philosophy emeritus
Judith Jarvis Thomson, professor of philosophy emeritus
Photo: Sally Haslanger

MIT Philosophy Professor Emerita Judith Jarvis Thomson has been awarded the 2012 Quinn Prize from the American Philosophical Association (APA) in recognition of her lifelong contributions to philosophy and philosophers.

An internationally renowned philosopher, Thomson is best known for her thought experiments, including the famous "trolley problem," which present simple scenarios that illuminate serious moral and ethical questions.

"Judy is a powerful intellectual force in the profession ... ready and able to address topics across a very full range of subfields, from metaphysics to ethics, publishing first-rate work wherever she turns her attention," said Professor Sally Haslanger, a fellow MIT philosopher.

Philosophical virtues

Professor Richard Holton, head of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, heralded the news of Thomson's honor by saying, "Judy has been at MIT for nearly 50 years. She embodies the philosophical virtues that set the tone for the Philosophy section: absolute clarity and precision (though without spurious technicality); a wonderfully fertile imagination; and a dry sense of humor."

Thomson joined the philosophy faculty at MIT in 1964, just a few years after the founding of the Philosophy section, and has had a significant role in the section's steady rise to becoming one of the top philosophy departments in the country, he said.

"She has had an enormous influence on fellow faculty and on generations of graduate student who now populate the philosophy departments of the English-speaking world," Holton said. "Few of us ever meet Judy's standards; but, insofar as we do, it is often thanks to the mere thought of what Judy would say."

A profound role model

Thomson will formally receive her award on Dec. 28 during the APA's Eastern Division meeting in Atlanta. "I was very surprised to receive the prize, but very pleased too," she said.

Awarded annually since 2007, the Quinn Prize honors the memory of Philip L. Quinn, a noted philosopher from Notre Dame who served as president of the APA Central Division for many years. The prize carries a $2,500 award and an engraved plaque.

"It is a great honor, and one Judy richly deserves," said Haslanger, noting that Thomson has been a particularly profound role model for women, who even today remain underrepresented in the field of philosophy. "She entered the field when only a tiny number of women even considered pursuing a career in philosophy and proved beyond doubt that a woman could meet the highest standards of philosophical excellence ... She is the atomic ice-breaker for women in philosophy."

Legendary influence

Thomson is also known to be a dedicated teacher; in 2001, she was honored for her "legendary influence on students" with a book, "Fact and Value: Essays on Ethics and Metaphysics for Judith Jarvis Thomson," produced by her friends, colleagues and former students. The preface to this collection of papers on diverse philosophical topics provides a glimpse into why Thomson has proved so influential:

"Judy continues to inspire her colleagues and students by showing us how to think about philosophical problems. She teaches us to be problem solvers rather than deep thinkers, to be impatient with pontification, inflated theory, unnecessary apparatus, and fuzzy formulations. She takes on big problems — central issues in metaphysics and moral theory — but her approach to them is straightforward and down to earth."

Thomson is also the author of many works in ethics, theory of action, and metaphysics, including "Goodness and Advice" (2003), "The Realm of Rights" (1990), and "Rights, Restitution, and Risk" (1986). Her most recent book, "Normativity" (2008), was celebrated with a daylong conference in June 2010.

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Kathryn O'Neill

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