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Thomas McCarthy citation

TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR DERMOT MORAN MRIA, UCD School of Philosophy, University College Dublin on 16 June 2010, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on THOMAS A. MCCARTHY.

Tom McCarthy’s ancestors emigrated from West Cork or Kerry in the early part of the nineteenth century and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Tom attended the local high school where he met Patricia Perry, whose forefathers also came from Ireland (around Killyleagh) and were of Northern Presbyterian stock. Tom and Pat have been together since high school and married while at the University of Notre Dame.

Tom McCarthy studied mathematics at the Jesuit Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1961. He then transferred to philosophy and enrolled in the University of Notre Dame from where, in 1963, he received his M.A. (Philosophy). His focus was logic and philosophy of science. Based on the award of a Fulbright Fellowship, Tom and his wife Pat spent an academic year (1963-64) at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, before returning to Notre Dame to complete his Ph.D. (Philosophy) in 1968 with a dissertation on Husserl's Phenomenology and the Theory of Logic. In keeping with his interest in both mathematics and philosophy, Tom had two supervisors: one in mathematics and another in logic. In 1967, while still writing his dissertation, Tom became an Instructor at the University of California, San Diego, where one of his colleagues at that time was the German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. Indeed Tom joined Marcuse on peace marches in California campaigning against the Vietnam War. Indeed Tom McCarthy would later write in his own book Ideals and Illusions about the formative influence Marcuse had on the young Habermas as he traced his own path ‘from Heidegger to Horkheimer’, as Habermas put it.

From 1968 to 1972 Tom McCarthy taught as a lecturer or ‘scientific assistant’ (Wissenschaftlicher Assistant) at the University of Munich, in Germany, where he taught courses on the Philosophy of Social Science and unwittingly stumbled into the great debate that was taking place at that time concerning the proper method for the social sciences and the place of positivism– a debate in which Habermas, Luhmann, Gadamer, and others, featured. In the USA in the sixties, the tradition in social sciences was based on logical empiricism. This was being challenged both from the point of view of critical theory and of hermeneutics. McCarthy was already drawn to the kind of hermeneutic discussion of social understanding that was found in the writings of Peter Winch. McCarthy’s first published articles were critical evaluations of the concepts of rationality and understanding in the social sciences and anthropology.

For the next 13 years, from 1972 to 1985, Prof. McCarthy taught in the Philosophy Department at Boston University; including three years (1979 to 1982) as Chair or Head of Department. There he worked alongside such luminaries as John Findlay and Alasdair MacIntyre. McCarthy returned to Germany as Alexander von Humboldt Fellow for the academic year 1975-76. In the mid-seventies he translated Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis, the first of several Habermas translations. Translating Habermas meant not just grappling with the twists and turns of his complex and nuanced thought but also gaining familiarity with German traditions of social thinking including Weber, Marx and others. In the mid-seventies, Habermas was hardly known in the USA and Tom McCarthy placed a huge role in promulgating Habermas’ thought in English.

In 1985 Tom McCarthy moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, as Professor of Philosophy, a post he would hold for more than 20 years, until 2007. Indeed, he also served as Chair of the Northwestern Department of Philosophy in the early nineties, and in 1992 he was named to a prestigious endowed professorship, John Shaffer Professor in the Humanities, at Northwestern. In 2007 Tom McCarthy became Emeritus professor at Northwestern and took up a three-year position as William H. Orrick Jr. Visiting Professor in Political Science at Yale University.  When that post ended, I am very happy to say, that Tom has just spent the Spring Semester 2009-2010 as Visiting Professor in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin.

Professor McCarthy has been the recipient of numerous awards, including National Endowment for the Humanities awards, Humboldt Fellowships, American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He has performed extensive and selfless service to the profession – including being a very active Director of Graduate Studies and a Placement officer at Northwestern. He has served Vice-President of the American Philosophical Association.

Tom McCarthy has played a hugely important role in promoting contemporary German philosophy as editor of the book series Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought for MIT Press where he oversaw the publication of more than 100 titles. When he lived in Germany in the late sixties McCarthy had begun to realize that roughly a half-century of German philosophical work had become inaccessible to non-German readers, owing to the Nazi disruptions of the 1930s and 40s and the state of Germany after the war. Older works by authors such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Bloch, Schmitt, had never been translated, and the same was true of much of the best post-war material by philosophers such as Apel, Habermas, Wellmer, Blumenberg, Kosselleck, Theunissen, and others. Tom’s series for MIT helped to make good that deficit and re-establish that line of cross-cultural conversation, which has continued to be enormously fruitful.

Tom McCarthy himself became a renowned translator of and commentator on the work of Jürgen Habermas. Among the Habermas volumes that he has translated are: Legitimation Crisis (1975), Communication and the Evolution of Society, (1979), and the two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action (1984 and 1987). It is said, only half in jest, that when Jürgen Habermas wants to know what he thinks on a particular topic, e.g. the fate of the euro or a common European defense, then he phones Tom McCarthy. Tom McCarthy’s first monograph, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (MIT Press, Hutchinson Press, 1978) was translated two years later into German – suggesting that the German intellectual public also reaches for McCarthy the better to understand Habermas. 

McCarthy has been at the centre of intellectual debates in contemporary European philosophy. In 1986 he published a collection of essays, co-edited with Ken Baynes and Jim Bohman on the current state of philosophy, entitled, After Philosophy: End or Transformation? (1986). This important work drew together contributions form the leading philosophers of the day including: Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Alasdair Macintyre, Richard Rorty, Karl-Otto Apel, Jacques Derrida, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Charles Taylor, and others. In that work, McCarthy argued that philosophy of language could not avoid facing up to the embedded practices on the life-world. Our propositional knowledge of the world is grounded in our dealings with it. McCarthy sides with those who criticize the drive for objectification in the social sciences, and, in keeping with the pragmatist tradition, he emphasizes the primacy of the practical. McCarthy has been deeply influenced by the sociologies of everyday life found in social phenomenology (especially Alfred Schutz and Harold Garfinkel), in the psychoanalysis of Erich Fromm, and in the work of the American sociologist Erving Goffmann. Garfinkel’s critique of social accounts that downplayed the agent’s own knowledge of social rules and norms and how to influence them continues to be influential in McCarthy’s thinking.

In 1991 McCarthy published Ideals and Illusions: On Reconstruction and Deconstruction in Contemporary Critical Theory (1991) which discussed the relationship between critical theory and the French inspired movement of deconstruction, discussing the conceptions of reason found in Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, and others. McCarthy aims at a ‘reconstructive’ philosophy and has always promoted dialogue between the so-called ‘analytic’ and the ‘Continental’ traditions, two traditions, that ironically both had their origins in Europe and indeed in German-speaking countries.

McCarthy has moved to discuss cosmopolitanism, globalization, and more recently race theory. His most recent book Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development, from Cambridge University Press represents the first time Critical Theory (Frankfurt School) has been used to frame a discussion of racial injustice, particularly in relation to America’s past and present. In this work McCarthy charts European notions of progress stemming from the Enlightenment and especially from Kant but including Mill, social Darwinists, even Weber. He also highlights the contradictions. The great liberal theorist John Locke was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, while condemning slavery, and was involved in the constitution of Carolina which recognised slavery; James Mill, --John Stuart’s father, was a member of the East India Company. For McCarthy, it is a shocking indictment of political philosophy that the issues of racism and slavery, for instance, have been marginal to discussions of progress and justice (for instance in John  Rawls Theory of Justice). One of the reasons for this neglect, McCarthy argues, is the divorce between empirical and normative social theory. Human beings operate under norms and no social account of their lives can afford to neglect the normative in favour of so-called objective description. Norms, furthermore, must be subject to rational justification and critique.

I would like to conclude by mentioning Tom’s ongoing connections with Ireland. Already at Notre Dame, Tom was friendly with Ernan McMullin, the Donegal philosopher and priest and expert on Newton. I first met Tom in 1989 at a Heidegger conference organised at Yale University by my own dissertation advisor Karsten Harries, a conference in which another Donegal philosopher Richard Rorty participated, along with Heidegger experts such as Otto Pöggeler, Reiner Schürmann and Friedrich-Wolhelm von Hermann. Tom spoke illuminatingly of Heidegger’s influence on the members of the Frankfurt school. I then invited Tom to become a Member of the Editorial Board of the new International Journal of Philosophical Studies which I founded with Professor Maria Baghramian in 1993. Subsequently, in 1995, I was privileged to be in position to invite Tom McCarthy to Ireland as Plenary Speaker to the Irish Philosophical Society Galway meeting.

Since the mid nineties Tom and his wife Pat have been regular visitors to Ireland and now both of them are very proud of their Irish citizenship. Tom McCarthy served for two years as External Examiner for Philosophy for The National University of Ireland, covering the philosophy departments in UCD, Maynooth, and UCG, from 1995 to 1997. Tom has always been enormously helpful to his Irish students. In his role as Editor of the MIT Contemporary German Social Thought series, Tom has been responsible for publishing several Irish authors, who write on German thought, including Professors Maeve Cooke and Brian O’Connor, of our own UCD School of Philosophy, and Ciaran Cronin, who some of you will have noticed, translated the recent Habermas interview published in the Irish Times last Saturday (12 June 2010). Among Tom’s Irish students at Boston University were the late Professor John Cleary (Boston College and NUI Maynooth), Prof. Ciaran Cronin and Professor Jennifer Todd of the UCD School of Politics and International Relations.

Tom is also an extra-ordinary mentor, selflessly giving up his time to advise younger academics and, as Editor, promoting their work. Tom has boundless energy with no sign of slowing down. Even on his most recent visit to UCD, he has delivered seminars not just in the School of Philosophy where a one-day conference was held on his work, but to the graduate students in the UCD School of Politics and International Relations, as well as a seminar in Queen’s University Belfast, and a trip to Germany to see his friend Habermas.

Tom McCarthy is an important critical voice in contemporary political philosophy, with his extensive knowledge of German social and political thought, phenomenology and American philosophy. His thought has shaped a generation in American social and political thought. We are proud to call him an Irish philosopher. 

Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittantur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.
Thomas McCarthy