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History of the Department

By Robert Dostal (with the assistance of Kiran Bhardwaj, ‘10)

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The de Laguna Years (1907-1946)

Philosophy department staffing began a very long period of stability with the arrival of Theodore and Grace de Laguna in 1907. From 1907 until 1942 the de Laguna’s led the Bryn Mawr philosophy department. Theodore had received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1901 and was appointed a full professor at Bryn Mawr in 1907. His wife, Grace, had received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1906 and is listed in the College catalog of 1907 as a “reader-elect.” In the ensuing years she is listed as a fellow, but in 1911 she is listed as an Associate Professor. Theodore chaired the department until his death in 1930. Grace took over as chair and remained the department leader until her retirement in 1942. She stayed active in the department and professionally into the 1960’s. She died in 1967. Theodore and Grace shared philosophical interests and alternately taught courses in ethics, metaphysics, and the history of philosophy. They were much influenced by recent Anglo-American developments in philosophy, especially by the work of Whitehead, Peirce, and Dewey.

The de Laguna’s were responsible for founding the Fullerton Club in 1925, an association of philosophers in the Philadelphia area that had a long and rich history, and for which Bryn Mawr faculty often gave leadership over the years. The club ended in the 1980’s with the emergence of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium which importantly contributes to the philosophical life of the area to this day. The de Laguna’s were motivated to establish the Fullerton Club because a similar association of philosophers at Columbia University which they wished to join would not allow women to participate.

In 1929-30 they invited Alfred North Whitehead to come to Bryn Mawr for an extended period and to deliver the second set of Flexner lectures in philosophy. His lectures became the basis for his Adventures of Ideas. In 1932 the College hosted the annual meeting of the Eastern American Philosophical Association. Grace served as vice-president of this organization in 1933 and as the first woman president in 1941.

At the beginning of the 1930’s she provided for the future of the department by hiring two philosophers who became nationally prominent: Paul Weiss and Milton Nahm. She hired Milton Nahm first (1930), a Rhodes Scholar from New Mexico with a Ph.D. from Columbia. According to Paul Weiss’ autobiographical comments in Philosophy in Process, there was some hesitation to hire Weiss the next year since he would be a second Jew in the department (Nahm was Jewish), but de Laguna hired him in spite of her reservations. Paul Weiss had done his graduate work at Harvard where he had begun his work on Charles Peirce’s papers. He completed this work at Bryn Mawr. These three, de Laguna, Nahm, and Weiss, were the mainstays of the department from 1931 to 1946 when Paul Weiss left Bryn Mawr for Yale where he taught and led the Yale department for more than 20 years before completing his career at Catholic University. Milton Nahm spent his entire career at Bryn Mawr.

In the late 1930’s and 1940’s Bryn Mawr took on as faculty a number of refugees from fascist Europe. Among these was the philosopher Erich Frank (1883-1949) who had immigrated to the US from Germany in the mid-1930’s. He had found research support at Harvard but no academic position. In the spring of 1940 he spent part of a semester as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr. His lectures were so popular that they had to be held in Goodhart Hall. Subsequently, he was invited to give the Flexner lectures in 1942-43. His topic was in the philosophy of religion, “Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth.” These lectures were published by Oxford in 1945 under the same title. Frank was asked to stay on as a permanent member of the department. He accepted and spent the years 1943-48 as a faculty member. He urged the department to give attention to the philosophy of religion. In part, upon his urging and through the leadership of President McBride, funding was found to establish the Rufus M. Jones endowed chair in philosophy and religion in honor the important Quaker philosopher and religious thinker who spent most of his life at Haverford College.

Jones (1863-1948) was one of the leading personalities in the history of both Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. Upon his death the London Times wrote that “Rufus Jones was the greatest spiritual teacher our land has known since William James went away.” He served as a philosophy faculty member at Haverford College from 1893 until his retirement in 1934. He gave leadership to Bryn Mawr College through his membership on the Bryn Mawr College Board of Trustees for 51 years, during which time he was chair of the Board for 20 years. He was an important Quaker leader and theologian. He was the author of 40 books and numerous essays. In 1917 in response to World War I he helped found the American Friends Service Committee which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for doing relief work in Europe after WWII much like it did after WWI and other wars.

Notable visiting lecturers during the late 1930’s and early 1940 included Mortimer Adler and Jacques Maritain. In 1943 Bertrand Russell made his third visit (and second official) visit to Bryn Mawr. He had been living in Malvern and lecturing at the Barnes on the history of philosophy. The Barnes lectures formed the basis of Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Much of the research for these lectures was done in the Bryn Mawr library where he spent much time. In his autobiography he expresses his gratitude for Bryn Mawr’s excellent library. He was also motivated to spend time at Bryn Mawr because of his long-lasting friendship with Lucy Donnelly, Professor of English at the College for many years. During this visit he saw much of Donnelly’s friend, Edith Finch (Class of ‘22) who would become his fourth wife. A private donor provided funds which enabled the department to invite Russell to give a series of five lectures. He lectured on “The Postulates of the Scientific Method.” Paul Weiss, writing in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (December 1943), reports that “the lectures were a tremendous success. Despite torrential rains, students, faculty and others came from Swarthmore, Haverford, and Philadelphia in considerable and increasing numbers.”

Paul Weiss had succeeded Grace de Laguna as chair of the department in the fall of 1943. He tells us (in Philosophy in Process) that he was a “poor head of the department” and that he did not get along well with his colleague Milton Nahm. When Weiss left for Yale in 1946, Nahm became chair. It was under Weiss in 1944 that Isabel Stearns (1910-1987), a Smith undergraduate and Bryn Mawr Ph.D., joined the department for what became a very long tenure—for 35 years until her retirement in 1979. It is said that Whitehead once said that Stearns was his very best student ever (though she never studied directly with him at Harvard).


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