Princeton Weekly Bulletin November 23, 1998


"Whatever I am now, it happened here"

Paul Benacerraf came to Princeton as an undergraduate and stayed for 50 years so far

By Caroline Moseley

In the autumn of 1948, Paul Benacerraf entered Princeton University as a freshman. Today, in this autumn of 1998, the Philosophy Department chair and former provost can boast 50 years of study (undergraduate and graduate), teaching and administrative service, all on this campus. "I arrived here as nothing," he says. "I became what philosopher I may be in response to Princeton teachers and, importantly, later, Princeton students. Whatever I am now--it happened here."

Benacerraf has seen so many changes in Princeton that it is "almost impossible to point to single instances." Coeducation, of course, is one of the differences between Princeton in 1948 and Princeton in 1998--but only one, he says.

Today's Princeton "feels vastly different from the one I entered as a freshman. Academically, it's grown from what was really a small college into a major university. It's also much more richly textured. Princeton students of today have the benefit of contact with students, faculty and staff of both genders and of many racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even if we're not yet where we should be, it is a huge change, whose importance for Princeton cannot be overestimated."

Son of the Fiery Angel

The son of a Moroccan-Venezuelan father and Algerian mother, Bena-cerraf was born in Paris, where his father was a textile buyer for the import business he had established in Caracas. (The family name, says Benacerraf, "is Sephardic, and translates as 'Son of the Fiery Angel.' Others prefer 'Son of a money-changer.'") The Benacerrafs lived in Paris and moved to Caracas in 1939 as war threatened, and then to New York City when Paul was nine. He spoke only French and Spanish but "learned to speak English at P.S. 6." When the elder Benacerrafs decided to return to Caracas, the 11-year-old Paul was sent to board at the Peddie School in Hightstown.

Come senior year, he applied to Princeton and was initially rejected. "My headmaster told me the dean of admission explained, 'The Jewish quota has already been filled,'" Benacerraf says. "But the headmaster talked Princeton into accepting me."

As a University freshman and sophomore, Benacerraf recalls, "I was immature, rebellious and convinced that no one on campus shared my intellectual interests." Unconventionally attired and sporting "the only beard on the Prince-ton campus," he felt out of place among "all those guys in khakis and button-down shirts." Consequently, he says, "I spent most of my time in New York City, and by the end of junior year I was on the verge of flunking out. The dean and I agreed that both Princeton and I would profit from a brief separation." During this nine-month hiatus, Benacerraf took courses at Columbia's School of General Studies; he returned to retake the spring of junior year, "considerably wiser and more committed to study." Still not a dedicated scholar, he had chosen to major in philosophy "only because I had good enough grades in the necessary courses."

But intellectual lightning struck in the fall of senior year. Benacerraf took an introductory course in the philosophy of science, taught by J.G. Kemeny, and one in the philosophy of religion, taught by Robert Scoon. "Both courses," he says, "captured me in a way that nothing else had." The disaffected loner had found what was to be his intellectual home: the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. Determined upon a career as an academic philosopher, he graduated in 1953 (though he affiliates himself with the Class of '52, his entering class).

Philosophy of mathematics

Graduate school at Princeton proved "wonderful" for Benacerraf, who received his PhD in 1960. He studied with professors Hilary Putnam (now Cogan University Professor at Harvard) and Paul Ziff (now professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), among others. "It was a very close department. There were only 15 graduate students and 12 faculty members."

In graduate school, Benacerraf refined his philosophical interests to concentrate on the philosophy of mathematics, a field in which he has, according to a colleague, exerted a "profound and continuing influence." Benacerraf's interest in the philosophy of mathematics grows, he says, from "a rather traditional philosophical concern with the nature of human knowledge--what it is and how we acquire it."

It seems obvious, he says, "that we have knowledge of the subject matter of mathematics--but how? For it seems equally obvious that we have no direct or indirect sensory contact with that subject matter."

Philosophers have struggled for millennia to answer such questions, he comments. "Mathematics is where we study the infinite, both the infinite-ly large and the infinitely small. How can the finite beings we are have knowledge of the infinite? That's a real, not a rhetorical question."

Support for coeducation

Benacerraf has taught continuously at Princeton since his first year as a graduate student. Currently James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, he chaired his department from 1975 to 1984 and again begin-ning in 1992.

He has also served the University in an array of senior administrative positions, including associate dean of the Graduate School (1965 to 1967), associate provost for special studies (1968 to 1970) and provost (1988 to 1991). He has observed Princeton in crisis and Princeton in calm, and been closely involved in events that decided the course of today's institution.

Reflecting on these experiences, he points to his years as associate provost under Provost William Bowen (later University president) as particularly satisfying.

At that time, he says, he "worked on a demonstration project on resource allocation in universities, led by Bowen and funded by the Ford Foundation, that revamped the University's bud-geting system." A critical part of the study, in the spring of 1968, "was the feasibility portion of the Patterson Report on coeducation, which demon-strated that adding 1,000 women to the student body--then 3,200 strong--would actually be cost-effective. It proved persuasive to a number of people, trustees included, who had opposed coeducation, in part because they feared it would be financially disastrous."

Truly exciting developments

Other high points for Benacerraf have been "helping to move the institution from one that was administered from 'the back of an envelope' to one that makes more efficient use of its vast resources."

He contributed to this effort by reorganizing the graduate fellowship program (as associate dean) and by "helping to design a budgeting and information system to respond to the University's priorities" (as associate provost). And as provost he "partici-pated in a number of truly exciting academic developments, the growth and diversification of the faculty, and helping to develop policies regarding harassment--sexual and other--and to implement them University-wide."

He also cites "the privilege of seeing the administration of three Princeton presidents close up--Robert Goheen, Bill Bowen and Harold Shapiro--and I can say without hesitation that we have been extraordinarily well served."

Benacerraf's greatest satisfaction, however, remains in the classroom, where the flame of philosophical truth ever beckons. "To be present as students unfold philosophical mysteries for themselves, struggle to push back the darkness and, in whatever measure, succeed," he says, "This is truly delightful."