McKeon, Richard (Richard Peter), 1900-1985

Alternative names
Birth 1900-04-26
Death 1985-03-31

Biographical notes:

Philosopher, educator. A.B. Columbia University, 1920; A.M., 1920; Ph. D., 1928. Taught at Columbia University, 1925-1935. Visiting professor of history, University of Chicago, 1934-1935. Professor of Greek, University of Chicago, 1935-1974; professor of philosophy, 1937-1974. Dean of the Division of the Humanities, University of Chicago, 1937-1947. Appointed Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor, 1947. Member, U.S. Delegation to UNESCO, 1946, 1947, 1948.

From the description of Papers, 1918-1985 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52246505

Richard Peter McKeon was born on April 26, 1900, to Peter Thomas McKeon and Mathilda Hirschfeld McKeon of Union Hill, New Jersey. McKeon entered Columbia University as a pre-law student, later switching to a pre-engineering curriculum. His studies were interrupted by World War I when in 1918 he became an apprentice seaman in the U.S. Navy in which he served until the end of the war. Upon his return to Columbia in 1919, he changed his course of study to the humanities and earned both his A.B. and A.M. degrees in 1920. His master's thesis dealt with philosophical approaches to art and literature. McKeon continued his studies, focusing on philosophy, at the University of Paris where he earned the diplôme d'études supérieures and the diplôme d'élève titulaire de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes in 1923 and 1924. His mentors in Paris included Etienne Gilson, Léon Brunschvicq, and Léon Robin.

McKeon returned to Columbia University where he became an instructor in philosophy and Greek while writing his dissertation. The dissertation, a study of the philosophy of Spinoza, written under the direction of Frederick J. E. Woodbridge and John Dewey, was completed in 1928. The following year Columbia appointed McKeon to the post of assistant professor, a position he held until 1935.

McKeon married Muriel Thirer in 1930. They had three children: Peter, Nora, and Michael. Muriel attended the University of Chicago and earned a A.B. degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa in 1937; later, she worked with her husband as managing editor of Diogenes, an international journal sponsored by UNESCO. Muriel died in 1964. Fifteen years later, McKeon married Zahava Karl Dorinson.

McKeon's career at Columbia was flourishing when he was invited to be a Visiting Professor of History at the University of Chicago in 1934-1935. He had already published his dissertation and a two-volume translation work, Selections from Medieval Philosophers. In the early 1930s McKeon met Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. McKeon shared Hutchins' ideas for reforming collegiate education -- for grounding undergraduate studies in a general, not specialized, education strongly influenced by philosophical analysis. Mortimer Adler was also instrumental in bringing McKeon to Chicago. After his year as visiting professor, McKeon was appointed Professor of Greek and Dean of the Division of the Humanities. McKeon was heavily involved in the reforms that shaped the College in the 1940s. He later broke with Hutchins, however, over issues of faculty involvement in the governance of the University, and resigned his deanship in 1947. By then he was Professor of both Greek and Philosophy, and that year was named Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and Greek.

McKeon had called for U.S. aid to Britain early in World War II. Once the United States entered the war, he became Director of Army Specialized Training Programs at the University of Chicago (1943-1946). The specialized training offered at Chicago educated Army personnel in the language and culture of the countries in which they would be serving. By the end of the war, McKeon was an active proponent of the United Nations and UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He was a member of the U.S. Delegation to UNESCO for the first three general conferences, in 1946, 1947, and 1948, and was strongly committed to the idea of preventing future world wars through the development of cross-cultural understanding. McKeon also worked with the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, although he refused to sign the final document, citing philosophical differences with the decisions the Committee had reached.

In the 1950s McKeon was at the height of his career at the University of Chicago. While professor in the departments of Philosophy and Classical Languages and Literatures, he served as chairman of the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Methods and was a member of the interdisciplinary Committee on Medieval Studies. He published five books--Democracy in a World of Tensions (editor, contributor, 1951); Freedom and History: The Semantics of Philosophical Controversies and Ideological Conflicts (1952); Thought, Action and Passion (1954); The Freedom to Read (with Robert K. Merton and Walter Gellhorn, 1957); and The Edicts of Asoka (with N. A. Nikam, 1959)--and over 40 articles. McKeon spent a year in France on a Fulbright grant (1950-1951), another at the University of Arkansas as a visiting professor (1952-1953), and travelled to India as a visiting professor at the University of Baroda (1954-1955). He also served as president of the American Philosophical Association (1952), vice-president of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (1953-1954), and president of the International Institute for Philosophy (1953-1957). The late 1950s saw both the beginning of McKeon's involvement in a major reorganization project for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and his participation in the Rockefeller Brothers Special Studies Project, an investigation into the moral, political, and economic aspects of relations between the United States and the rest of the world.

Highlights of the later years of McKeon's career include his appointment as Carus lecturer for the American Philosophical Association in 1963, and receiving the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago in 1971. He retired in 1974, but continued teaching into the early 1980s. In 1976, a lifelong project finally came to fruition with the publication of his critical edition (with Blanche Boyer) of Peter Abailard's (Abelard) Sic et Non.

McKeon continued writing and publishing until his death on March 31, 1985. Eleven books and over 150 published articles span his 50-year career, and his unpublished work comprises numerous lectures, articles, and at least two partial drafts of books. His significant contributions to philosophy, educational reform, and international understanding were recognized from an early point in his career. He received the Butler Medal in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1942, and honorary doctorates from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1942), the University of Aix-Marseille (1947), Washington University at St. Louis (1963), Brown University (1964), Fairfield University (1975), and DePaul University (1976).

From the guide to the McKeon, Richard Peter. Papers, 1918-1985, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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