George Boolos, 1940-1996

Resolution on the Death of George Stephen Boolos

Passed at the Meeting of the Faculty of MIT on October 16, 1996

George Stephen Boolos, Professor of Philosophy, died of cancer on May 27, 1996. He was 55 years old.

George was born in New York, on September 4, 1940, and received his B.A. in 1961 from Princeton. Having been awarded a Fulbright fellowship, he then spent two years at Oxford, taking a B.Phil. there in Spring 1963. On his return from England, he came to MIT for a Ph.D. As MIT’s graduate program in philosophy had not yet been officially approved, he initially enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics. The following year, after official approval of the program, he shifted into it, and in Spring 1966 he was awarded the program’s, and thus MIT’s, first Ph.D. in philosophy.

It is a standing rule in good philosophy programs that one doesn’t straightway hire one’s own graduates, however talented they may be, so George left to be an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia. Three years later it had become plain that we really had to have him back, and he rejoined us as an Assistant Professor in Fall 1969. He remained here at MIT for the rest of his life, doing research of great importance in logic, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mathematics, and playing a central role in the development of the program’s graduate and undergraduate teaching.

George is perhaps best known among logicians for his work in provability logic, a branch of logic in which modal logic — the logical study of necessity and possibility — is applied to the theory of mathematical proof. George was among the originators of provability logic, and he published more than a dozen articles and two books on it. The more recent of the two books — The Logic of Provability — appeared in 1993, and was the product of research conducted over a period of twenty years. It contains a remarkably lucid presentation of a great many technical results, some of which originally appeared in George’s own articles and some of which were obtained by others, most notably logicians in Russia and Italy.

But provability logic was not the only area in which George worked. He also contributed to other branches of logic — hierarchy theory and axiomatic set theory, for example — and to the philosophy of logic and mathematics. Of great interest to philosophers of logic and mathematics are his articles, some written in collaboration with his former student, Richard Heck, now at Harvard, on the work of the 19th-century mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege. Frege is widely regarded as the founder of modern logic, and the significance of his achievements — especially his effort to show that the basic laws of arithmetic are themselves principles of logic — continues to be under study and reevaluation. George was a major figure in this activity.

Of even greater philosophical interest perhaps, and in any case more immediately influential, are George’s contributions to the understanding of second-order logic. In a series of articles published in the 1980s, he argued for the then novel conclusion that second-order theories have no ontological commitments not already present in the corresponding first-order theories. George’s key idea was to construe second-order variables as in effect plural pronouns, devices for referring in the plural to objects in the range of the first-order variables. This idea is now standard fare in philosophical discussions of second-order logic.

George’s research attracted widespread attention from the beginning. He was awarded fellowships by the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1995 he was elected President of the Association for Symbolic Logic. At the time of his death, he had just been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for the current academic year, and he would have become Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor in our Department this month.

Moreover, the attention he attracted was international. He was invited to make presentations, not merely at a host of colloquia in the United States, but across Europe, from Oxford and Edinburgh in the west, through universities in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Austria, to Leningrad, Moscow, and Novosibirsk in the east. He became a bridge between MIT and Eastern Europe and Russia, encouraging scholars there to visit MIT and other universities.

Two conferences have already been scheduled on his work, one at Notre Dame, the other here at MIT as part of the program for this spring’s meeting of the Association for Symbolic Logic. A volume of his essays will be published by the Harvard University Press this coming winter.

George’s service to the profession included many years of time-consuming work as an editor of the Journal of Symbolic Logic. He was also a member of the United States National Committee of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, and he chaired the Visiting Committees in philosophy at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

George was at the heart of MIT’s teaching program for graduate students in philosophy. He served on many thesis committees. He chaired the program’s Committee on Graduate Students, and his door was always open: he delighted in discussing students’ work with them, whatever their areas of specialization. He was a major influence on the development of MIT’s distinctive style of philosophizing. As befits MIT, the heart of the philosophy program here is problem solving: graduate students are taught to see philosophy as an interconnected network of problems, and trained to find places at which real progress can be made. George was extraordinarily good at it.

Indeed, he enjoyed problems and puzzles of every kind. In 1993, he qualified for the London Regional Final of the London Times crossword puzzle competition, where his score was one of the highest ever recorded by an American. His pleasure in puzzles showed itself in his undergraduate teaching too — his undergraduate course called “Paradox and Infinity” had become increasingly popular over the years.

Personally, he was unfailingly kind, affectionate, and loyal. He was incapable of fraud or deceit. He was wonderfully widely read. He loved word play and was extraordinarily witty. When he was asked to give a talk to our Visiting Committee in 1993, he put on a dazzling performance: he said he had often been asked to explain Godel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem in words of one syllable — and he then went on to do exactly that.

George left behind him his wife, Sally Sedgwick, who is Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College, and his mother, Blanche Boolos, and his son, Peter D. Boolos.

George was at the peak of his powers when he died, and his death is a great loss to philosophy. His death is a still greater loss to us, for he was ours and we loved him.

The undersigned committee therefore places the following resolution before the faculty.

Be it resolved:

That the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at its meeting of October 16, 1996, record its great sense of loss at the death of our admired and loved colleague, teacher, and friend, George Stephen Boolos, and express its deepest sympathy to his family.

Respectfully submitted,

Richard L. Cartwright

Joshua Cohen

Judith Jarvis Thomson