Philosopher Nicholas Sturgeon dies at age 77

Nicholas Sturgeon, Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus in the Sage School of Philosophy and an expert in the foundations of ethics, died Aug. 24 of complications from Parkinson’s disease at a local hospice. He was 77.

Sturgeon was a professor in the Department of Philosophy, in the College of Arts and Sciences, from 1967 until his retirement in 2013.

Nicholas Sturgeon, Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus in the Sage School of Philosophy.

He focused on metaethics – the study of the nature, scope and meaning of moral judgment. Sturgeon was the joint creator of a position known worldwide as “Cornell Realism,” which holds that true moral judgments reflect facts about the natural world.

Since the 1980s his work on the nature of moral facts and moral judgments has influenced the direction of philosophical inquiry, said Terence Irwin, Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus. “His cooperation with his colleagues Richard Boyd and Richard Miller established the reputation of Cornell as a center of research in ethics, and attracted able graduate students who later became influential philosophers in their own right,” Irwin said.

Sturgeon’s chief areas of interest were ethics and the empiricists, but he also did work in epistemology, philosophy of mind and the history of ethics. He taught graduate-level courses on moral realism and its critics, and on other issues in metaethics; consequentialism as a first-order ethical theory; and the tradition of British moral philosophy from Thomas Hobbes to Thomas Reid. For a number of years he and Boyd taught an interdisciplinary course on Evolutionary Psychology and Ethics.

Sturgeon, who chaired the Department of Philosophy from 1988 through 1994, was a pillar of the department, said Tad Brennan, professor of philosophy and classics and department chair.

“His contributions to the department’s journal, The Philosophical Review, as well as his grad seminars and supervision of Ph.D. students were all vital to making our department a successful and vibrant center for philosophical research and teaching,” Brennan said.

Julia Markovits, associate professor of philosophy, said Sturgeon was “incredibly welcoming” to her when she spent time at Cornell as a visiting graduate student, and invited her to audit one of his seminars. “In fact, that class and my conversations with Nick probably shaped the path of my research as much as anything that happened at my home Ph.D. program. He continued to support me long after that,” she said.

“He also embodied everything I liked so much then, and continue to value now, about the Cornell philosophy department,” Markovits said. “In addition to being a lovely person, he was and is one of my favorite philosophers, and I continue to teach his work as a model for our undergrads.”

Sturgeon, born in 1942 in Santa Maria, California, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Carleton College in 1964 and a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University in 1972.

He joined Cornell’s faculty in 1967, as an assistant professor of philosophy. He became associate professor in 1975 and a professor in 1983. He also was a visiting professor at various times throughout his career, including at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He won a National Endowment for the Humanities’ Faculty Research Award in the Humanities in 2005.

He was either editor or editor-in-chief of The Philosophical Review from the 1970s through 2009. He also served as an editorial board member of the journals Ethics and Utilitas, and was a referee for numerous journals and university presses.

In addition to serving on many university committees, in the 1981-82 academic year he chaired the College of Arts and Sciences’ Writing Committee, which designed and implemented a wide-ranging reform of the college’s freshman writing program.

During the 1985-86 academic year, Sturgeon was arrested at Day Hall as part of a civil disobedience campaign to divest Cornell investments from South Africa’s apartheid regime.

A former student, John Doris ’86, the Peter L. Dyson Professor of Ethics in Organizations and Life at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and professor of philosophy, remembers Sturgeon as an extraordinary teacher not only of ethics, but also of history.

“His course on the empiricists was a classic,” Doris said. “I can still see him, sitting on a desk and lecturing, noteless, armed only with an impossibly battered copy of John Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.’”

Sturgeon is survived by his wife of 54 years, Joanne Sanderson Sturgeon, as well as a son, daughter, son-in-law, grandson and sister.

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Rebecca Valli