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Irving Singer, professor emeritus of philosophy, dies at 89

Longtime member of the MIT philosophy community was a dedicated professor, prolific writer.
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Irving Singer, professor emeritus of philosophy
Irving Singer, professor emeritus of philosophy
Courtesy of the Singer family

Irving Singer, a professor emeritus of philosophy at MIT, died Feb. 1 at age 89. Singer was an eminent philosopher whose academic career spanned 65 years — with more than half a century as a professor at MIT. 

Singer was the author of 21 books in the field of humanistic philosophy, focusing on topics such as the philosophy of love, the nature of creativity, moral issues, aesthetics, and philosophy in literature, music, and film. His works have been translated into Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish, among other languages. 

The MIT Press recently honored Singer’s career by initiating “The Irving Singer Library,” which includes republication of his books including "The Nature of Love," volumes 1, 2, and 3, and "Meaning in Life," volumes 1, 2, and 3; "Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film"; "Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on his Creativity"; "Mozart and Beethoven: The Concept of Love in Their Operas"; and "Modes of Creativity: Philosophical Perspectives." Other books by Singer include "George Santayana, Literary Philosopher"; and "Santayana’s Aesthetics: A Critical Analysis." A manuscript in progress at the time of Singer’s death was titled “Creativity in the Brain.”

A three-day conference in 1991 focusing on Singer’s work generated a book titled "The Nature and Pursuit of Love: The Philosophy of Irving Singer," edited by David Goicoechea (Prometheus Books, 1995).  

Samuel Jay Keyser, a professor emeritus of linguistics who had an office next door to Singer’s in MIT's Stata Center, remembered his colleague fondly: “We were good office friends, and I am so sorry to hear he has passed on. It is the end of an era.” 

Singer retired from MIT in 2013, having served on the MIT faculty in the Department of Philosophy and Linguistics (and its forerunners) since 1958. Until age 85, he was still actively teaching. Singer enjoyed teaching immensely, appreciating it as integral to his process of developing ideas that would inform his writing projects. Several of Singer’s course lectures are viewable on MIT OpenCourseWare, on topics including “Philosophy in Film and Other Media”; “Feeling and Imagination in Art, Science, and Technology”; and “The Nature of Creativity.”  

Timothy Madigan, an associate professor of philosophy at St. John Fisher College, recalled Singer’s influence on his work: “Irving was a role model to me, and a true exemplar of a man of wisdom. He will be greatly missed, but his works will continue to live on.”

Early years

Born in Brooklyn to the late Isadore and Nettie Singer, who emigrated from Austria-Hungary and owned a grocery store in Coney Island, Singer graduated from Townsend Harris High School at age 15, having skipped three grades. After beginning undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College, Singer served in World War II. 

Recognizing his skill as a writer, the Army selected Singer to chronicle his infantry’s activities, culminating in a document titled "History of the 210th Field Artillery Group" (U.S. Army, 1945). In his later years he wrote a book, currently unpublished, titled: “Memories of World War II," which included letters home to his brother Mark. 

Singer studied at Biarritz American University in France in the months after the war, and then, as a beneficiary of the GI Bill, completed his AB at Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1948 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In Biarritz he met David Wheeler, who would become a renowned Boston theater director; the two became roommates at Harvard, as well as lifelong friends. 

Singer went on to graduate studies at Oxford University and Harvard, earning a PhD in philosophy at Harvard in 1952. Singer joined the MIT faculty after appointments at Harvard, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University.

Singer was awarded a Fulbright research scholar grant (1955-56, Paris), a Guggenheim fellowship (1965-66), and a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1970, London). He was a fellow of Villa I Tatti, Harvard's center for Italian Renaissance studies in Florence, for two years, from 1965 to 1967. 

Singer’s knowledge and love of opera led to a friendship with Leonard Bernstein, beginning during the composer and conductor’s 1973 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Bernstein thanked Singer for his academic contributions in the book resulting from that famous series of lectures.

Singer was predeceased by his wife, Josephine Fisk Singer, who passed away on Oct. 1, 2014. He leaves four children — Anne, Margaret, Emily, and Ben — four grandchildren, and five nephews and nieces. 

A memorial service is being planned for later this year at MIT. 

Press Mentions

Associated Press

The Associated Press reports on the career of Professor Emeritus Irving Singer, a prominent philosopher who passed away Feb. 1 at the age of 89. Singer, who served on the MIT faculty for more than 50 years, wrote 21 books in the field of humanistic philosophy. 

New York Times

Professor Emeritus Irving Singer, who taught philosophy at MIT for more than 50 years and was well known for his three-volume work, “The Nature of Love,” died on Feb. 1, reports Sam Roberts for The New York Times. Singer penned 21 books on everything from creativity and morality to love aesthetics, literature, music and film. 

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