Campus & Community

John Emery Murdoch, 83

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Dec. 5, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late John Emery Murdoch was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

John Emery Murdoch has been described by his former students Christoph Lüthy and Hans Thijssen as Harvard’s “historian of ancient and medieval science and philosophy tout court,” which rings true.  No one possessing his intellectual style and range has replaced him.  Murdoch died on Sept. 16, 2010, at the age of 83.  Never retired, he passed away in his campus home on Linnaean Street just hours after teaching his Thursday afternoon graduate seminar on medieval science.

Born on May 10, 1927, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Murdoch was drafted into the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, briefly attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, and then transferred to the University of Chicago to pursue a career in medicine.  Everything changed when courses at Chicago exposed him to the disciplined joy of making sense of historical and philosophical primary sources.  He became fascinated with how periods other than our own made sense of reality, and his course was set.  Transferring one more time, by 1957 he had secured a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin.

The decision to devote his scholarly life to medieval science was the result of two fortuitous events.  During Murdoch’s first year as a graduate student, Alexandre Koyré, one of the preeminent historians and philosophers of his time, visited Wisconsin.  Murdoch attended his seminar and was inspired especially by Koyré’s emphasis on the philosophical — as opposed to the empirical — underpinnings animating the rise of modern science.  “He was always mon maître when it came to how to do early science or philosophy,” Murdoch recalled.  A few years later, Murdoch traveled to Paris for a year on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue further studies with Koyré.  Around this time, another mentor at Wisconsin, the medievalist Marshall Clagett, handed Murdoch two microfilms containing a known treatise of the 14th-century scholastic mathematician, physicist, and cleric Thomas Bradwardine and suggested that he undertake the task of editing and analyzing the complex mix of philosophy, theology, mathematics, and empirical thinking found in the text.

Lüthy and Thijssen recalled that the resulting “doctoral thesis has become a myth — never printed, it contains a precious edition of Thomas Bradwardine’s “De continuo” that scholars have ever since implored Murdoch to publish” (an electronic version is finally available on Proquest).   What made the project so powerful was the way it endeavored to be a work not just of the history of 14th-century philosophy of science but also, in Murdoch’s own words, a work that treated the treatise as “one way of speaking, and possibly speaking sensibly, about continuity itself.”  In other words, Murdoch had striven — in the words he spoke about his own mentor Anneliese Maier — to do “justice to medieval reasoning,” not as a foil for something else, or as a precursor to something else, but on its own terms.

This commitment became the mark of Murdoch’s scholarly career.  After a brief stint teaching introductory courses at Harvard, and an even briefer stint teaching in Princeton University’s Department of Philosophy, he returned to Harvard in 1963, where, over the course of some 60 learned articles, he argued for the importance of abandoning old scholarly habits of seeing the medieval period as something that came “before” the so-called Scientific Revolution.  His goal was to use disciplined readings of primary sources to understand the logic of medieval debates and theories as an end in themselves.  The thinkers of this period were interesting enough without being forced to play a supporting role in some larger progressive narrative about the birth of modern science.  This thesis was perhaps most fully developed in his widely cited 1975 article, co-authored with Edith Sylla, From Social to Intellectual Factors: An Aspect of the Unitary Character of Late Medieval Learning.  In 1984 Murdoch made clear that imagery demanded attention as much as the written word when he published “Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” an acclaimed record and analysis of 525 diverse images preserved from medieval manuscripts, primarily of the Latin West.  Philip Morrison observed that “the scholarly Harvard author-compiler has built us an exciting new vantage for looking at science’s medieval past.”

Intellectually generous and welcoming, Murdoch mentored some of today’s most eminent scholars of medieval science.  For years he chaired Harvard’s medieval science colloquia while also teaching courses ranging from challenging department seminars to National Endowment for the Humanities summer school courses to introductory lecture courses at Harvard’s Extension School.  His former student Professor Mark Schiefsky recalled the experience of attending his classes:

Murdoch had an unassuming manner that belied his profound mastery of scholarship and commitment to his students.  “Brevity is the soul of wit,” he would quip when making paper assignments in his courses, yet students knew that their work would be held to the highest standard.  Over his long career, he acquired a seemingly inexhaustible store of anecdotes about historians of science and their craft, which could provoke a laugh even as they brought the subject to life.  To participate in one of his seminars was to take part in a very long conversation indeed, one that involved the ancients, their medieval followers, and scholars across the world and through the ages.

Outside of the classroom, his friends remember him for his sociability and for his love of jazz and old films.  Murdoch married the classical philologist Monika Asztalos in 1989, and, for some twenty years, they had the joy of working and publishing together, he from Cambridge and she from her professional base in Oslo.  During summer vacations, they often traveled together through the Scottish countryside, where he developed the endearing habit of annotating various Ordinance Survey maps of the country.

One year before his death, Murdoch was awarded the 2009 Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society — the Society’s most prestigious award, honoring lifetime scholarly achievement.  His friends and colleagues will always be grateful to have been able to share this wonderful moment of recognition with him before his passing.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark Schiefsky
Anne Harrington, Chair