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Remembering Stephen Gaukroger: The History of Science and Philosophy

Peter Harrison

In Memoriam, Stephen Gaukroger (1950-2023)

Stephen Gaukroger was an eminent British-Australian scholar who specialized in the history of science and the history of philosophy. Born in Lancashire, after a somewhat indifferent academic performance at secondary school, he was educated at Birkbeck College, London where he earned a first-class honours degree in philosophy. He was accepted into the prestigious History and Philosophy of Science programme and the University of Cambridge and took out a PhD in 1977. His career then took him from Clare College, Cambridge, to the University of Melbourne, Australia, and then eventually in 1981 to the University of Sydney where he spent the rest of his illustrious academic career.

I first met Stephen in the 1990s when he invited me to be part of a collaborative project he was initiating on the topic of the passions in early modern Europe. This would be the first of a number of his projects that I was fortunate to be a part of. Subsequent gatherings would deal with the topics of Descartes’ natural philosophy and the persona of the philosopher. These were indicative of Stephen’s intellectual leadership and capacity to bring scholars together to work on key topics in the history of philosophy and science. These initiatives helped make Australia one of the leading sites for the pursuit of early modern intellectual history.

Stephen is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking work on early modern philosophy and especially the thought of Descartes and Bacon. His Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford 1995), is now regarded as the definitive biography of this major figure. The image of Descartes that emerges is not that of the quintessential armchair metaphysician and "father of modern philosophy", but an individual who was primarily a scientist (or "natural philosopher") and whose putatively foundational philosophical works were intended largely as post-facto justifications of his scientific endeavors.

Stephen Gaukroger (1950-2023)

This biography, along with the passions collection, also highlights the fact that in the "age of reason" Descartes and his contemporaries were as much interested in the moral psychology of the passions as in the operations of reason. Similarly, it shows that the philosophical enterprise was then understood less as providing the foundations of epistemology or advancing doctrinal claims than it was about the construction of a philosophical persona. This philosophical self-fashioning was consistent with the long tradition of philosophy understood as a form of spiritual exercises. All of this was in contrast to then standard histories of philosophy that tended to anachronistically project the image of contemporary analytic philosophy onto the philosophical figures of the distant past. Stephen’s interest in the history of the discipline of philosophy was reprised in his most recent monograph, The Failures of Philosophy (Princeton, 2020), a work that exhibits his mastery of the Western philosophical archive and demonstrates that, historically speaking, "philosophy" turns out to be a number of different projects—hence the impossibility of establishing a linear trajectory of progress. The book concludes with a gentle reproach to modern philosophers for seeking to construct their discipline in the image of the natural sciences.

The pinnacle of Stephen’s scholarly accomplishments is the massive four-volume "Science and the Shaping of Modernity" series (Oxford, 2006-2020). It is difficult to convey the scale of accomplishment of this remarkable endeavour. Just one of the many insights of the series lies in the way in which the question of the rise of modern science in the West is framed. As Stephen convincingly argues, this is not so much to do with the rise of science per se (since many cultures experience, from time to time, an efflorescence of scientific activity). Rather, what needs to be explained in the case of the West is the persistence or consolidation of science and its eventual assumption of an unparalleled epistemic authority. These latter developments seem to be unique to modern Europe. On Stephen’s account, which I wholly endorse, the legitimacy of science was initially established by appeals to religious considerations which, with the eventual secularization of science in the nineteenth century, have now been obscured. This perspective adds a fresh new dimension to our understanding of the historical relations between science and religion.

There are many other strings to Stephen’s bow. He has written on topics as varied as objectivity, modern French philosophy, scientific explanation, and pain, and has produced English translations of key philosophical texts. His own work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. His many accomplishments have received fitting recognition with numerous visiting fellowships, memberships of learned academies, and the award in 2002 of a Centenary Medal.

On a more personal note, I consider myself fortunate to have been involved in a number of Stephen’s projects and am indebted to him for his contributions to some of mine. The last of these was the Marginalia's Meanings of Science project. We had many conversations over the years about the historical relations between science and religion and these interchanges have done much to clarify my own thinking about that topic. Stephen would also often express the view that more established scholars have a duty to move beyond the narrow and comfortable confines of discrete historical periods and should seek to address larger questions in their field. He has managed to do this with characteristic erudition, and in doing so has opened new avenues of enquiry that have breathed life into the historical disciplines that he has engaged with. Like many others, I am grateful to have been the beneficiary of Stephen’s learning and insight, and to have enjoyed a long friendship with him.

In July this year Stephen wrote to tell me that he had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour and was about to undergo treatment at UCL’s Neurological Unit. He was, nonetheless, characteristically upbeat and reported that he was about to work on a book on science and religion—‘arguing that it’s all about values, not facts versus values’. (He subsequently wrote that he would attempt to write on the topic of philosophy and brain cancer.) Sadly, neither project will be realised. His cancer took a particularly aggressive turn and he passed away peacefully in Sydney on Sunday, 3 September. He will be remembered not only as an eminent scholar, but as a wonderful colleague, conversationalist, and collaborator. He will be greatly missed. Our deepest sympathies are with his partner Helen Irving, and his children Cressida and Hugh.

Peter Harrison

20 September, 2023


Peter Harrison is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy at the University of Queensland, former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion. He is the author of ten books, including The Territories of Science and Religion (winner of the 2016 Aldersgate Prize), and the Co-Director of Marginalia's Meanings of Science Project.

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