Philosopher Leonard Linsky, 1922-2012

Leonard Linsky’s contributions to philosophy went beyond his pioneering work in the philosophy of language. For colleagues and generations of students, Linsky was a passionate interlocutor whose joy in discussing his field was both obvious and infectious.

“He would talk about philosophy with anybody, all the time,” his son Bernard Linsky said.

Linsky died Aug. 27 at the age of 89.

His landmark books—Referring (1967), Names and Descriptions (1977), and Oblique Contexts (1983)—were influential explorations of how names and descriptive expressions can be used to talk about real-world objects and phenomena, a central issue in the philosophy of language.

He edited the 1952 collection Semantics and the Philosophy of Language, an anthology that brought together seminal texts in the philosophy of language and helped “establish the canon in the field at mid-20th century,” said Michael Kremer, the Mary R. Morton Professor of Philosophy.

Later in his career, Linsky delved more deeply into the history of modern logic and early analytic philosophy, with a particular focus on the work of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Linsky was notable for his ability to clearly articulate the central issues at the heart of his field, according to his colleagues. “People would take his presentation of problems as a starting point for finding the solutions,” said Bernard Linsky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta.

While he would ultimately advance his own opinions, said William Tait, Professor Emeritus in Philosophy, “I always felt that the main thing for him was to clearly understand the issues. Talking with him was very therapeutic in this respect,” Tait edited Early Analytic Philosophy: Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein: Essays in Honor of Leonard Linsky, a collection that grew out of a 1992 conference on the occasion of Linsky's retirement.

Linsky received his BA, MA, and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at the University of Illinois prior to teaching at Chicago.

After a sabbatical in Europe in the 1970s, Linsky developed a keen interest in Italian art, architecture, and culture, and looked forward to summer trips to Florence and Tuscany. He also enjoyed classical music and concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Yet his friends and colleagues say that Linsky’s true passion was philosophy, and his interest in the subject was endless, according to his longtime friend Tait.

“Generations of his colleagues and students had the pleasure of chance encounters—in coffee shops, on the streets, wherever—that turned into lively discussions of his latest philosophical preoccupations,” Tait said.

Linsky enjoyed attending get-togethers with graduate students in the department, though he tended to skip the small talk. He spent hours in the Nonesuch Coffee Shop on the fourth floor of Wieboldt Hall, sitting on the floor when there was no space at the tables, talking nonstop with students about their research.

So beloved was Linsky among his colleagues and students that the philosophy department’s intramural basketball team proudly bore the name “Leonard Linsky’s All-Stars,” according to team member Eric Schliesser, PhD’02.

Schliesser got to know Linsky over long conversations in the Classics Café and the Bonjour Bakery, and found him to be a source of “endless, fascinating anecdotes about the department and the giants of analytical philosophy from earlier generations.

“Philosophy was the oxygen of his life, even though it was not his whole life,” Schliesser said.

Kremer remembered Linsky as “a gracious and generous colleague, even in retirement. He was a lovely man and a great philosopher, and I will miss him.”

Leonard Linsky is survived by his sons Bernard and Harry; granddaughters Andrea, Ruth and Jean; niece Jessica Spanos; and his companion Alexandra Bellow. He was preceded in death by his wife Joan Linsky (née Gregg) in 2001. Donations in Linsky’s honor may be made to the Department of Philosophy, 1115 E. 58th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

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Leonard Linsky

Leonard Linsky in his UChicago classroom during the 1960s.

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