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Lynne Rudder Baker, philosophy professor at UMass Amherst, dies at 73

Dr. Baker wrote: “One of my goals in philosophy is to understand the common world that we all encounter.”

By Globe Staff 

In books and essays that formed a career-long dialogue with peers, students, and herself, philosophy professor Lynne Rudder Baker once wrote that “we as persons have a keen (if not universal) desire to make sense of ourselves.”

A way to do so, she said, “is to construct stories about our lives and connections between what we have done and what has happened to us. These self-narratives are autobiographies that we — perhaps without any intention on our part — use to give meaning and coherence to the events of our lives.”

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Dr. Baker, who was 73 when she died in her Amherst home on Dec. 24 of complications from heart disease, taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1989 until retiring in 2013 as a distinguished professor of philosophy.

Her interests included metaphysics and philosophical theology, and she previously taught at Middlebury College in Vermont for 13 years. Among Dr. Baker’s books were “Explaining Attitudes: A Practical Approach to the Mind” (1995) and “The Metaphysics of Everyday Life: An Essay in Practical Realism” (2007).

In the latter, she wrote about an “everyday world” that is “populated by all the things that we talk about, encounter, and interact with: inanimate objects, other people, activities, processes.” This place, Dr. Baker added, “is the world that we live and die in, the world where our plans succeed or fail, the world we do or do not find love and happiness in — in short, the world that matters to us.”

In her essay “On Making Things Up: Constitution and Its Critics,” published in 2002 in the journal Philosophical Topics, she set forth her approach. “One of my goals in philosophy is to understand the common world that we all encounter,” she wrote. “That world is populated by an enormous variety of kinds of things — from cows to cabbages, from cathedrals to catheters.” And yet, she added, “different kinds of things go out of existence under different conditions. The thing that is a feather goes out of existence when you pull it apart.”

Dr. Baker’s other books included “Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism” (1987), “Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View” (2000), and “Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective” (2013). And while she traveled intellectually in the high realms of philosophy, she could be self-effacing.

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“She always said, ‘I’m not that smart, but I put in the time,’ ” her husband, Tom, said with a chuckle. To the demands of teaching she added many hours at her writing desk, where in essays and books she described her own philosophy. “It was a beautiful system she worked out and it was so elegant,” her husband said. Over the years, “I realized that, gosh, she sits there every day and does these wonderful things.”

In a tribute posted online, Roberta De Monticelli, a philosophy professor at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, recalled visiting Dr. Baker in Amherst in late 2008.

“It was the winter when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States: you told me that, as so many other Americans, that night you, too, had found yourself weeping with joy,” De Monticelli wrote. “But metaphysics went on unperturbed in your courses and seminars — it was there that I also got to know you as the captivating and deeply loved teacher you were.”

The oldest of four siblings, Lynne Rudder grew up in Atlanta, the first daughter born to James Rudder and the former Virginia Bennett. Dr. Baker’s father had taken over the family’s jewelry business after the death of his father-in-law.

She graduated from the Westminster Schools in Atlanta and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Lynne had a tremendous amount of concentration and drive. She seemed very low-key, but she really wasn’t,” her husband said with a laugh. She once told him about what happened after she received her first-semester grades at Vanderbilt. While showering, she drew an equation on the steam-coated glass to calculate what her grade point average would have to be from that point onward in order to graduate Phi Beta Kappa — which she achieved.

At Vanderbilt, she also worked in the development department with one of Tom Baker’s sisters, who suggested that he give Lynne a call. They married in 1969.

Dr. Baker graduated with a doctorate in philosophy from Vanderbilt and taught at what was then Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. After studying with philosopher Adolf Grunbaum at the University of Pittsburgh on a postdoctoral fellowship, she joined the Middlebury College faculty in 1976.

Throughout her career, Dr. Baker “was always very gentle with other philosophers. That is to say, she really respected other people’s points of view,” her husband said.

She also “encouraged women to be philosophers,” he said, adding that when she entered the field, “philosophy was basically not, I would say, welcoming of women.”

Dr. Baker’s honors included fellowships from the National Humanities Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She traveled the world to deliver papers and keynote addresses at gatherings of philosophers, and her work was translated into several languages.

Dutch philosopher Anthonie Meijers edited a collection of essays about her work, “Explaining Beliefs: Lynne Rudder Baker and Her Critics,” published in 2001. That same year, she was among those who delivered the Gifford Lectures on natural theology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Her lectures subsequently became the 2003 book “The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding.”

At UMass, she was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 2005. In early December, the American Philosophical Association announced that Dr. Baker had been chosen to deliver the Romanell Lecture at the organization’s 2019 eastern division meeting in New York City.

“She had a real sense of right and wrong, and she followed it,” her husband said. “And she was very welcoming of other people’s opinions, and she was ready to engage people at anytime, anywhere, to talk about philosophy. She just loved it. Being with her and observing that was a real privilege.”

Dr. Baker, who also leaves her sister, Catherine Rudder of Washington, D.C., was a political progressive and a liberal Protestant who had attended Episcopal churches since she was a teenager.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, which she had attended for many years.

“She was a very religious person. She was not taken by material things,” said her husband. He is a retired jewelry-maker who had made her a wedding ring and another ring, though he added that “she had the least interest in jewelry of any woman I’ve ever known.”

While being treated of late for a heart ailment, “Lynne said, ‘I’m 73 years old and if I die now, I will have lived a really wonderful life,’ ” her husband said. “She was totally prepared for this in one sense, but she didn’t want to die.”

She was preparing a book on the philosophy of religion, and chapter drafts remain on her desk at home.

“Every time I see these stacks of paper here,” her husband said, not finishing the thought before adding, “I was so proud of her for being so splendid.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.