Barry Stroud 1935-2019

Our great friend Barry Stroud died August 9. He was widely admired, respected and loved.

From the UC Berkeley Philosophy department: “His body of work, his influence on generations of students, his imprint on the character of our department, the example that he set of the purest philosophical inquiry — all of it is beyond reckoning. As hard as it is to imagine what philosophy at Berkeley will be like without him, it is even harder to imagine what it would have been.”

See below for a philosophical memorium by John Schwenkler, going into Barry’s thought in some depth.

The obituary in Berkeley News.

Barry Stroud, influential, independent-minded philosopher, dies at 84

By Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations| AUGUST 21, 2019

Barry Stroud, an influential thinker who challenged the prevailing attitudes of mid-20th century philosophy and sought to understand enduring and inescapable questions about knowledge, perception and reality, died of brain cancer at his home in Berkeley on Aug. 9. He was 84.

The Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and mentor to generations of scholars, Stroud joined the university’s faculty in 1961, after earning a Ph.D. from Harvard, and continued to teach and write even after his retirement in 2016.

While best known for his work in epistemology and philosophical skepticism — as well as his writings on such philosophers as David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein — Stroud’s overarching legacy, his colleagues say, was his ability to see the big picture and get to the heart of philosophy.

“Barry Stroud was a philosopher’s philosopher,” said Niko Kolodny, chair of philosophy at UC Berkeley. “He had a profound and far-reaching influence on generations of philosophers — above all, for his view of what philosophy itself was. He helped to revive an understanding of philosophy as a unique and distinctive enterprise.”

Janet Broughton, a UC Berkeley philosophy professor emerita and executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, described Stroud as a consummate philosopher perennially engaged in the life of the mind.

“Toward the end of his life, Barry was hard at work developing his views about perceptual knowledge, right up until the time his final illness made that impossible,” she said. “And even then, when he could no longer write, he took great pleasure in talking with his friends and students about the philosophical ideas to which he had dedicated so many decades.”

His seminal writings include Hume (1977)The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (1984)The Quest for Reality (2000)Engagement and Metaphysical Dissatisfaction (2011), and four volumes of collected essays including Seeing, Knowing, Understanding (2018).

A provocative thinker

As a philosopher, Stroud came of age during a time when the prevailing Western attitude was that philosophical questions could be answered by the natural or social sciences, and he challenged those ideas, colleagues said.

“Writing against these currents, Barry showed that the deepest questions philosophy asks — ‘What underlies our conception of the world and of ourselves within it?’— were distinctive, and had to be answered in distinctive ways,” Kolodny said.

“One might say that, while everyone else was philosophizing about consciousness, reality and knowledge, he was philosophizing about philosophizing itself,” he added.

Jason Bridges, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and a former Ph.D. student of Stroud’s, echoed that sentiment.

“Barry single-handedly brought philosophical skepticism — which gives reasons to doubt whether we can know even the most ordinary things about the world around us — back to the center of philosophical discussion,” Bridges said.

A native of Toronto, Canada, and a lifelong Canadian citizen, Stroud was more than a philosopher to his three daughters, Sarah, Martha and Julie.

“Barry Stroud. Son. Brother. Farmhand. Point Guard. Quarterback. East York Goliath. Telegraph Climber. University of Toronto Student. Harvard Grad Student. Professor. Philosopher. Reader. Cinephile. Runner. Traveler. Venetian. Father. Friend. 5/18/35-8/9/19. I’ll love you forever,” Julie Stroud tweeted the day after her father’s death, along with photos of his multifaceted life.

His eldest daughter, Sarah Stroud, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remembers her father as an avid reader, cinephile, jazz enthusiast, art lover, wine connoisseur, talented cook and passionate outdoorsman.

An athlete and laborer

Born in Toronto in 1935, Stroud was the youngest of two sons born to William Stroud, a salesman for a clothing company, and Florence Stroud. Both were from families that had immigrated to Canada from England.


At just age 10, he started working summers as a farmhand, operating tractors, mowers, binders and hay elevators. At 18, he left farming to work for the Canadian National Railway, stringing and replacing telegraph wire in remote areas of Ontario.

In high school and college, he was a star athlete. At Toronto’s East York Collegiate Institute, he was the starting point guard in basketball and the starting quarterback in football. Then, at the University of Toronto, where he majored in philosophy, he was a starting point guard on the campus’s Division 1 varsity basketball team.

“Through Barry’s physical prowess and athletic achievements, he cultivated a work ethic, competence and confidence that contributed enormously to his distinctive academic and intellectual achievements,” said his daughter, Martha Stroud, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research.

StroudBasketball300.jpg Stroud was a starting point guard on the University of Toronto basketball team.
Stroud was a starting point guard on the University of Toronto basketball team.

And that athleticism carried through into his adult life: “In addition to years of regular basketball games and low-handicap golf outings, he ran and then walked six miles a day through Tilden Park,” she said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1958, he went to Harvard University on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. There he met Janice Goldman, a doctoral student in sociology. The two married in 1960 at Cambridge City Hall.

They moved out West when Stroud was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley in 1961 and went on to have three daughters. Their marriage ended in 1979.

 Lifelong Venetian love affair

In 1975, Stroud became a tenured professor, and went on to serve three separate stints as chair of the philosophy department over the next decade and a half. After several sabbaticals at the University of Oxford in England, he spent a sabbatical in Venice and fell in love with the Northern Italian city and its people.

“He promptly set out to learn Italian, a language he had never previously studied, and developed a profound love for Venice and Venetians, and traveled regularly to Venice for the rest of his life, most recently in December 2018,” Sarah Stroud said.

Over the next three decades, his academic career at Berkeley flourished as he shaped generations of young philosophers and received honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. From 1995 to 1996, he served as president of the American Philosophical Association.

Meanwhile, his visiting professorships and guest lectures took him around the world, including to the University of Oslo, the University of Athens, National Autonomous University of Mexico, and to Brazil and Argentina.

In 2007 at Berkeley, Stroud was named the Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy, a position he held until his retirement in 2016. He continued to teach and advise until weeks before his death.

In an online tribute to Stroud, John Tasioulas, a professor of politics, philosophy and law at England’s King’s College London, tweeted this:

“All too often philosophers portray themselves as having it all figured out, a glibness of attitude that is starkly at odds with the difficulty and persistence of philosophical problems. One of the greatest opponents of this glibness in our day was Barry Stroud. RIP.”

Stroud is survived by his daughters, Sarah Stroud, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Julie Stroud of Berkeley and Martha Stroud of Los Angeles; his brother, Ronald Stroud and sister-in law Helen Stroud, of Berkeley; son-in-law Daniel Hellerman; a niece, nephew and two grandchildren. [Ronald Stroud is Klio Distinguished Professor of Classical Languages and Literature Emeritus at distinguished scholar in the UC Berkeley. Remarkable that the two boys from Toronto both had outstanding careers at Berleley.]

A campus memorial for Stroud will be held on Nov. 2. Details about the time and location will be posted on the Department of Philosophy’s website.

StroudPortrait350.jpg (Photo by Steven Pyke).jpg
Photo by Steven Pyke

Barry’s daughter Julie thought this obituary was a good portrait:

Even though they couldn’t fit everything (like the John Locke Lectures, Faculty Research Lecture, etc.), Sarah, Martha, and I are delighted that the obituary reflects the fullness of who Barry was –  his philosophical achievements as well as his personal passions and interests. 

And of course we all know that Barry would be THRILLED that the basketball photo is in the obituary. 



From Susan Shores to Martha and Julie Stroud:

I’m so glad all of you were there with him. We were hopeful that we would be able to see him at least once more-   as it seemed as if he had regained a measure of strength our last visit.  But obviously nothing is ever certain with this disease- and we are just so thankful that we were able to spend the time with him that we did.

We enjoyed getting to know him- our dinners at Chez Panisse were always entertaining and lively, lots of good food, wine, and conversation- (that wasn’t always about philosophy!).   He had lots of stories to tell about his life, his family, his friends, and he relished the telling- especially after a few glasses of a good Barolo.

Barry is so fortunate to have such a wonderful family.  And we are all so grateful for everything you’ve done for him, and for all of us who care for Barry.

He had an incredible life, and Gregg and I were so happy to have been able to share a small part of it.  We will always treasure the times we spent together.

We’ll be thinking of all of you- and sending you all our best thoughts and wishes.   

Thank you for being so kind to us at such a difficult time in your lives– we’re glad we got to know you just a little bit too.

Susan and Gregg

Barry’s cancer was diagnosed suddenly at the end of May. We were lucky to be able to visit him four times this summer. Great to see him as always, even under sad circumstances. He was always cheerful and upbeat. 

We celebrate his life by working on his philosophy. He loved it all his life. More than anything else, I learned from Barry how to think. We lawyers think we know how to think. Barry showed that in philosophy, we need to push harder on our ideas. There will never be another like him.

I met Barry in the early 1970s when I was a philosophy undergraduate. I called him “Professor Stroud” in those days. I got to spend more time with him over the last eight years and I audited most of the classes he gave. I dropped in on his Theory of Knowledge class unannounced at the end of 2011, the first time I’d seen him in a couple of decades. He amazed and flattered me by saying he recognized me. When I tried to call him “Professor Stroud”, he smiled and corrected me. “Barry.”

 He was a great teacher and a model of how to do philosophy. You think you’ve proven something? Think again. The only one who escaped his relentless critique is Wittgenstein, who proves very little, but is continuously unsettling. Stroud’s writing is stern and demanding, while in person he is charming and witty. Wittgenstein was apparently tough to deal with in person, while his writing is charming and witty. After one of Barry’s Wittgenstein classes, I told him it was like having Wittgenstein in the room, so well did he understand his thought. Barry objected, citing the difference in their personalities. Barry was always a consummate gentlemen. 

My wife and I had dinner with Barry 9 or 10 times in recent years at Berkeley’s iconic Chez Panisse. We always had a wonderful time, involving multiple bottles of wine over 2-3.5 hours. Barry loved Italian wine. I wish I had a record of what he said during our conversations. His informal insights would be of great value to professional philosophy. At least I have a record of some of the bottles. 1998 Altare Barolo Arborina. 1999 Altare Barolo. 1998 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Rangen, Vendage Tardive. 1996  Seghesio Barolo, La Villa.  2007 Raveneau Blanchots.  1999 Altare Langhe Arborina. 2003 Chevillon Pruliers. 2000 Seghesio Barolo, La Villa. 1999 Castelgiocondo Brunello. 1996 Clerico Barolo, Ciabot Mentin Ginestra. 1997 Clerico Barolo, Ciabot Mentin Ginestra. 1998 Seghesio Barolo, La Villa. 1998 Luigi Pira Barolo Marenca. 2003 Chevillon Les St Georges. 2006 Rhys Pinot Noir, Alpine.

Barry, you will be missed.

A philosophical memorial by one of Barry’s former students.

In Memoriam: Barry Stroud (1935-2019)


The community of philosophers is mourning the loss of Barry Stroud, one of the great philosophers of the past half-century, who died on Friday, August 9 of brain cancer. Stroud earned his B.A. from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. From 1961 he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where I knew him during my time as a graduate student there.

Stroud’s important paper of 1968, “Transcendental Arguments,” followed Immanuel Kant in distinguishing two sorts of question that a philosopher can raise about the concepts human beings use in thinking about ourselves and our world. The first, which Kant associates with John Locke, is the question of fact that concerns which concepts we do have and how we came to possess them. To explore our concepts in this way is to engage in what Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, called a “physiology of human understanding.” It is to give a causal account of how our minds came to be the way they are—an important project, but not one that is distinctively philosophical, since empirical disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology also take it up.

Kant’s other way of reflecting on human concepts, which is the one he undertakes in the first Critique, raises instead a question of right. This question asks, given that we have the concepts we do and have come to possess them in whatever way we did, whether we really are justified in possessing those concepts and using them to think about things. It is a question of whether our ways of thinking allow us to have an objective grasp of reality rather than a merely subjective conception of how things are.

In “Transcendental Arguments,” Stroud focused on a way of answering the question of right which has its roots in Kant’s work, and was prominently developed in the 20th century by the philosopher P.F. Strawson, especially in his 1959 book, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Strawson tried there to argue against philosophical skepticism by showing that it rested on an incoherent picture of human thought. According to Strawson, the fact that we think about the world as containing objects existing in space and time is enough to show that there really aresuch objects—since only so is it possible for this thinking to unfold as it does. (I am simplifying a lot, obviously.)


In response, Stroud claimed that Strawson’s anti-skeptical argument helps itself to a so far unjustified assumption, which is that thinking would be altogether impossible unless it involved a conception of a world of spatiotemporal objects. It is certainly possible that we could have failed to think about things in this way—if, say, human cognition had never evolved beyond the simple responsiveness to sensory stimuli that is enough for many other animals to get by. In that case, however, we really would not be thinkers at all. It also seems true that, on the assumption that we live in a spatiotemporal world, any thinking that is going to do its job will conceive the world in spatiotemporal terms. But what if we follow the skeptic in refusing to make that assumption? Is there really no way at all to conceive of a world, except as containing objects that exist in space and time? It is hard to give a convincing argument for why this must be so. Lacking such an argument, the skeptic’s worries remain with us.

In 1984, Stroud published his book The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism, which revisits the topic of Kantian transcendental arguments and also considers several other ways of responding to skeptical challenges to the extent of our knowledge. Stroud’s project in that book was diagnostic rather than constructive: “My aim,” he wrote, “is not to solve the problem [about our knowledge of the external world] but to understand it.” This line points to a common theme in much of Stroud’s later philosophical work. Rather than taking it for granted that we understand what philosophical problems are and so can set ourselves to the task of solving them, Stroud repeatedly called attention to the possibility that philosophers lack a proper understanding of what we ourselves are doing. He set himself the task of making the nature of philosophy more explicit for philosophers—in order then that we can do philosophy better, with clearer conceptions of the aims of our enterprise and the limits of our ability to satisfy them.


One of Stroud’s very last monographs, The Quest for Reality: Subjectivism and the Metaphysics of Colour, begins with a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein. “This is how philosophers should salute one another,” Wittgenstein writes: “Take your time!” Stroud’s book, which was based in lectures he had given some 13 years before the book was published, was about an age-old philosophical problem that he wanted philosophers to slow down in considering. The problem is that of the reality of color. Many philosophers and scientists think that the scientific worldview has no place for this: in the physical world there are things of various shapes and sizes, and rays of light that they reflect, but colors exist only in the human mind. Philosophers have tried many different ways of responding to this problem, from accepting that color is unreal and trying to show how we come to have ideas of it, to denying that science is, after all, unable to accommodate this feature of the world as we perceive it.


Stroud’s argument in The Quest for Reality was focused first on what it even means to say that colors are an aspect of the “appearance” of things and not of how things really are, and then on what it is possible for a philosopher to achieve in considering whether this is a true thing to say. When a person asks in ordinary contexts whether an object is really such-and-such a color, this person is asking a quite different thing than the philosopher does when she asks whether colors are entirely unreal. The ordinary question can be answered by checking with someone else, or bringing the object into better lighting, but the philosophical question cannot be approached in these ways. Then what is the philosopher asking, when she raises philosophical questions about the reality of color? What kind of understanding is she seeking? And what would it take to get it?

As in his earlier work, Stroud’s conclusions here are primarily cautionary. We can, he says, make some progress in articulating what the philosopher Bernard Williams called an “absolute conception of reality” according to which the way things really are is radically different from the way they seem to us to be. To do this, however, we need also to hold onto the idea that our thoughts and perceptions are nevertheless the ones we actually have—in the present case, that we conceive of objects as having the colors which, in good lighting anyway, we perceive them to have. And Stroud argued that this latter demand couldn’t be satisfied, since we can’t make sense of people as having color experiences and beliefs about things as colored except by drawing on our ordinary color concepts. In attempting to “unmask” color beliefs as mistaken we bring our own color beliefs back into play, relying on the very aspect of our way of understanding reality that we were trying to call into question.

Can the philosopher conclude on these grounds that colors are part of the real world after all? Stroud argued that no, she cannot. The form of his argument here recalls the criticism of Strawson in “Transcendental Arguments.” From the fact that we need to think of things as colored in order to think of one another as employing color concepts, it does not follow that things must really be this way that we inescapably think of them as being. Indeed, the case of color concepts is weaker than that of our thought of the world as consisting of objects in space and time, since the latter mightbe an indispensable part of any way of thinking about an objective world, while it seems entirely possible for there to be creatures who think about the world but have no thoughts at all about the colors of things. In each case, however, Stroud argued for the same conclusion: that though we must regard these beliefs as true in order to think of ourselves or others as having them, it does not follow that these beliefs must really be true after all. It could be that we are wildly mistaken, though without any ability to understand how this is.

Stroud wrote in the Preface to The Quest for Reality about what he saw as an unfortunate turn in the way professional philosophers have come to approach our craft. In Stroud’s view, “philosophy is one subject,” not a collection of many, and this means that for the philosopher “progress in one place depends on the resolution of issues that lie elsewhere.” Because of this, if a philosopher takes up a problem and approaches it in the right way, she will be “led eventually into almost all other areas and questions.” This, he said, was the approach taken by the great philosophers of the past, and held against that tradition “the current professional fixation on distinct ‘fields’ or areas of academic ‘specialization’ and ‘competence’ looks like no more than a bad joke.”

Stroud’s own work showed another way: he engaged at once with questions in metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, the theory of value, and more, refusing to give consideration to any supposed boundaries between these topics or to defer to the alleged expertise of those with a specialist’s command of them. Specialization in philosophy would make sense if we knew what we were after and could divide up the subject matter in a way that conduced to local progress. But philosophers cannot achieve our goals in this way. We are fortunate to have had among us those like Barry Stroud, who can remind us of what we are really doing and curb the excesses with which we tend to go about it.

Stroud EBpNI1UUIAEC3cG.jpg


  1. all we have in life are our connections and interactions. all the other stuff doesn’t really matter much. well, of course good wine is a great facilitator of those relationships. 😉 so glad you were able to have such a long time relationship. those are very rare indeed.


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