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Lazerowitz, Alice Ambrose

Alice Ambrose Lazerowitz

Alice Ambrose Lazerowitz was born to Albert Lee and Bonnie Belle Ambrose on November 25, 1906, in Lexington, IL. She attended Millikin University as an undergraduate (1924-1928), and received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin in 1932. In 1932, she traveled to England to do post-doctoral research at Cambridge University, studying under perhaps the most important philosopher of the 21st century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

It is due to Lazerowitz and a few select others in the Cambridge philosophical community of the 1930s that The Blue Book (1933-1934) and The Brown Book (1934-1935), two central texts in the Wittgenstein canon, were written and published. Both books were published after the philosopher’s death, and are essentially transcripts of Wittgenstein’s lectures and dictations during those years. In a ca. 1990 document called “Recollections of Wittgenstein” and described as “preparatory materials for tape recording at E. Carolina University,” Lazerowitz writes, Wittgenstein was demanding, of both himself and others. The ruling passion of his life was to do philosophy properly. The compelling force of his own values communicated itself, and with both himself and others there was no compromise with those values, whether intellectual, moral, or aesthetic. (p. 4) This passage not only vividly captures Wittgenstein’s single-minded passion for philosophy, but also highlights the clarity, vigor, and accuracy of Lazerowitz’s thought and prose. One could in all fairness say that, just as Lazerowitz was immensely fortunate to study with Wittgenstein, he was equally fortunate to have in her and her compatriots students capable not only of transcribing his words, but also of understanding and later teaching them to others.

Lazerowitz received a second doctoral degree from Cambridge, and in 1935 she left England and accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan, which she held for two years. In 1937, she came to Smith College and, along with her husband Morris Lazerowitz, whom she married in 1938, spent the remainder of her career in the Smith Philosophy Department. She achieved full professor status in 1951, and was named Sophia and Austin Smith Professor of Philosophy in 1964, a chair she held until her retirement in 1972. Though Lazerowitz’s early association with Wittgenstein is probably the most glamorous part of her career, it does not in any way represent the scope and depth of it. She wrote Essays in Analysis (1966) and co-authored with her husband six more books, including Fundamentals of Symbolic Logic (rev. 1962), Essays in the Unknown Wittgenstein (1984), and Necessity and Language (1985). She and Morris Lazerowitz co-edited G. E. Moore: Essays in Retrospect (1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Language (1972). Her articles, papers, and lectures on logic, language, skepticism, epistemology, Wittgenstein, and Wittgenstein contemporary G. E. Moore earned her a respected place in 20th-century philosophy.

Unlike the solitary and anguished Wittgenstein, whose work so deeply influenced her career, Lazerowitz was socially active both in the academy and in her community. She served as editor of The Journal of Symbolic Logic from 1953 to 1968, and as President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Perhaps closer to her heart was the position of chair of the APA Committee on Freedom for Latin American Philosophers. At Smith, she chaired the Smith College Community Chest Drive. Even after her retirement she was highly sought-after as a teacher and continued to teach and guest-lecture at Smith and other universities around the country until her death, at the age of 94, on January 25, 2001.

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