Tribute to Claudia Card, Emma Goldman Professor of Philosophy

by Paula Gottlieb

Claudia Card was a true Wisconsinite.  Born in Pardeeville, she did her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and returned as an assistant professor in Philosophy after studying at Harvard.  At that time women were not accepted for the Ph.D. at Harvard except under the aegis of Radcliffe College.  Professor Card almost threw away her acceptance letter because she did not recognize the sender.

Professor Card was a pioneer, not just at Harvard, but especially in her work on feminist and lesbian philosophy.  For example, her book entitled “The Unnatural lottery: Character and Moral Luck” (a brilliant twist on Rawls’, her Ph.D. advisor’s coinage the “natural lottery”) addresses the luck involved in forming a good character when, for example, wealth, gender, race and sexual orientation introduce factors beyond one’s control. 

Professor Card was in the process of completing a third book on her theory of evil.  In the Dewey lecture, an honor bestowed by the American Philosophical Association (APA) on a distinguished philosopher, she says:  “My current work on torture, terrorism, and genocide addresses the problem of how to respond to atrocities without perpetrating atrocities oneself in responding. The challenge is to find ways to respond that preserve humanitarian values...Much of this work is not focused on women. Yet all of it is permeated and shaped by my experience with feminism.”

Professor Card received many accolades during her career, including Distinguished Woman Philosopher of the year, the Hilldale Professorship which she named after Emma Goldman, Presidency of the Central APA, and numerous fellowships.  Most recently, she was chosen to give the prestigious Carus lectures which will be read in absentia at the upcoming Central meeting of the APA.

Despite her interest in grim topics, Claudia had a zest for life and an optimistic and generous disposition that inspired others.  As her colleague Dan Hausman says “Two traits of Claudia’s stand out in my memories of her. First, there was her thoughtfulness and consideration for others, students, faculty, and staff. She brought the staff flowers and made them feel special, and her students loved her. Second, there was her youthful enthusiasm. I never saw her disenchanted or discouraged by philosophical problems. She loved challenges.”

Lori Grant, a long-time member of the office staff commented on Claudia’s CaringBridge website. “…you’ve shown such grace and dignity in the face of such a monster…We will remember all the fruit baskets you’ve given us over the years to let us know how much you appreciated us…” . Former graduate students agree with Dan:  “We remember Claudia as a masterful teacher, who inspired her students to look for unexpected sources for philosophical insight, and a generous advisor, who supported and celebrated our successes. The way in which her teaching crossed disciplinary boundaries and spanned philosophical traditions created an exciting sense of possibility of what philosophy can be brought to bear on. Claudia shared with us how participation in the community of feminist scholars enabled her to find her philosophical voice; for many of us Claudia was the support that allowed us to find our own philosophical voices.” (Mavis Biss and Emily McRae)  “Claudia’s gift as teacher and advisor was to encourage me to trust my own instincts, dig deep into texts, and dive into discussion about my own perspective on issues all the while exuding optimism and power.” (Vivi Atkin) “Claudia taught me to be in all aspects of my life.  I found her an inspiration.  I love her and she will always be in my heart.” (Vicky Davion).

Even in her last days at the hospice, Claudia enjoyed every minute of good food, movies and music—Her advisee Brendan Moriarty played his ’cello and Jeanne Swack, Professor of Music, played the flute to her—and the good company of family, friends and her beloved cats. Elliott Sober comments, “Claudia never stopped thinking about philosophy. When Alan Sidelle and I went to the hospice to visit her, she told us of her plans for finishing various writing projects.  We admired her fortitude as she was dying.  But, more than this, we were struck by Claudia's saying that she was glad that she could have a death so good.”

Tracy Edwards, a former student, aptly sums up Claudia’s life: “Claudia Card was a consummate philosopher, a dedicated feminist and a caring advisor.  I can imagine no better tutelage or example of professional excellence. She is greatly missed.”