Susan Hurley

by Chris Bertram on August 19, 2007

My colleague Susan Hurley died last Thursday night. She had been ill for some time, but many of us still held on to the hope that someone as energetic and determined as Susan was would survive. Susan had only joined us at Bristol fairly recently, but she had had a tremendous impact on the Department of Philosophy. She was a great inspiration for graduate students and a formidable interlocutor for her colleagues. Susan is well known to the wider philosophical community for her books _Natural Reasons_ and _Justice, Luck and Knowledge_ as well as for an impressive array of “papers”: . Her interests were very broad, ranging from decision theory and political philosophy, through philosophy of mind, psychology and neuroscience. Lately it had been neuroscience that had engaged her, and she was keen to articulate a distinctively naturalistic view of what philosophy is that makes it very much continuous with the natural sciences. Many of us didn’t agree with Susan about that, but she was pretty good at forcing us to reexamine our own lazy assumptions in thinking through why. She’s a real loss to the profession and to the academic community more widely: someone who was committed to the discipline, who was generous with her time and person, and whom many students at Bristol, Warwick, Oxford and elsewhere will remember for having got them really excited about philosophy. We will all miss her.



ben saunders 08.20.07 at 7:21 am

Sorry to hear that. I only knew her from occasional sightings in seminars and reading relatively small bits of each of those books, but she always struck me as very intelligent and those I knew taught by her backed that up. A sad loss.


ingrid 08.20.07 at 8:55 am

This is very sad news. I once had Susan Hurley as a chair at a conference session. She was asking questions on my paper that precisely reflect the attitudes and character that Chris describes above – I disagreed with her views on the importance of evoluationairy psychology for the analysis of gender inequalities, but she pushed me hard “not to be lazy” in my responses. A very sad loss indeed.


a sentient being 08.20.07 at 11:33 am

For those of us who are not familiar with Hurley’s work, is there a particular thesis or argument by which she will be remembered — or is she someone who will be remembered mainly by those with whom she came into personal contact? I don’t mean to be churlish but Crooked Timber posts tend to vary considerably from stuff of wide import to the minutiae of people’s photography habits and marital details. It’s hard to tell in this case.


Hidari 08.20.07 at 12:07 pm

Hurley’s work was in two main spheres: legal and political issues (outwith my area of expertise) and Post-Cognitivist approaches in the field of human cognition. In this last, she was broadly associated with philosophers such as Andy Clark, Michael Wheeler and Alva Noe (with whom she collaborated on a few papers). Her general approach was (in the absolute broadest sense of the word, and if I can put it like this without giving offence) opposed to more ‘traditional’ philosophers of mind such as Jerry Fodor.


Jo Wolff 08.20.07 at 3:55 pm

I can’t speak from close personal knowledge, but Hidari is right that Susan worked both in political philosophy and philosophy of mind. Her work was well-regarded and often cited, but I think was more respected than influential; partly because it was often hard to summarize her complex contributions into a slogan or thesis. I know that this frustrated her, and that she was working to make her work more accessible. To some degree she succeeded in this aim in the cross-over area of political philosophy and philosophy of mind. At a conference in Cambridge she gave a superb talk on imitation and media violence, drawing on empirical studies to raise questions about early exposure to media violence and its implications for freedom of expression. She published a paper on the topic in Philosophical Studies in 2004. Actually, she felt that this was a minor contribution, but it made a huge impression on many people who heard it. It seemed to me that, at least in political philosophy, she had found a way to communicate her ideas (see for example her paper on Public Health in a recent collection on Egalitarianism) and that she would have growing impact over the coming decade.


Chris Bertram 08.20.07 at 5:45 pm

(I just deleted three comments – one based on a misconception and a couple of follow-ons from that. It seemed the right thing to do.)


a sentient being 08.20.07 at 8:20 pm

Thanks, Jo. That was helpful. I will look into those pieces.


Hidari 08.20.07 at 10:29 pm

Hurley, Noe, and Wheeler’s ideas (amongst others in the same tradition, more or less) was used as the springboard for Michael Steinberg in his work ‘The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism’, which is one of the least read (but best) academic works of the last 20 years. It deals, more or less, with the meaning of life and the purpose of existence, which is probably why it got such uncomprehending reviews. Anyway it has a section on Hurley’s (philosophy of mind) work which is worth reading.


dervish 08.21.07 at 6:57 pm

the only time i had heard her speak on ‘imitation’ at the history and philosophy of science seminar series at cambridge three years back, and remember being thoroughly impressed by the theoretical rigour and the incisive understanding of neuroscience in her model. as the others have pointed out, irrespective of whether we agreed with all her models, they forced us to critically re-think some of our own assumptions. and this was as true for neuroscientists as for philosophers. a real loss to neuroscience and philosophy!


ben saunders 08.22.07 at 8:15 am


Nick L 08.22.07 at 12:04 pm

I’m absolutely stunned by this. I was lucky enough to have Susan as a tutor for two years whilst at Warwick, first on her Cotemporary Political Philosophy course and then on the Philosophy of Social Science course. She was a tremendously honest and generous teacher, her classes were demanding but very rewarding as she refused to handwave or let people get away with lazy or glib answers to difficult problems. The two classes had a great impact on me, forcing me to abandon arguments and ways of thinking that I realised were inadequate. The clear thinking and multidisciplinarity she displayed were also an excellent antidote to the twin evils of vaguery and narrow specialism that seem(ed) to predominate the social sciences.

As people have said before, her work is too complicated to easily summarise, straddling as it did philosophy of action, political theory, economics, legal philosophy and neuroscience. If they had to be summarised I’d venture to say that her position seemed to be close to that of Dennet, Davidson, Sen and possibly Elizabeth Anderson, though of course crude of me to summarise like this. Natural Reasons and Justice, Luck and Knowledge could be considered to be her masterpieces in philosophy of social science/action and in political philosophy respectively. Both are difficult, but rewarding to those who don’t just want easy arguments that can be summarised as a soundbite.

It is a tremendous loss that she never had the chance to really consolidate and popularise her work. Her work is densely argued and demanding, crossing many disciplinary boundaries, which is why she perhaps never had the recognition that her work deserves.

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