In Memoriam: Richard Cobb-Stevens

Professor Emeritus Richard Cobb-Stevens, a widely praised phenomenology scholar who chaired the Philosophy Department for nine years and played a leadership role in the revision of Boston College’s core curriculum during the early 1990s, died on July 6. He was 83.

A wake will be held for Dr. Cobb-Stevens on Monday, July 16, from 4-7 p.m. at the Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Home, 475 Main Street, Falmouth. A Mass of Resurrection will take place on Tuesday, July 17, at 10 a.m. at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, 167 East Falmouth Highway, East Falmouth.

Richard Cobb-Stevens
Richard Cobb-Stevens (Lee Pellegrini)

Dr. Cobb-Stevens spent nearly four decades on the faculty, but his ties to the University pre-dated his 1971 appointment as an assistant professor of philosophy: He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1958 and his master’s degree a year later from BC as part of his training for the Society of Jesus. Although he would later leave the order, Dr. Cobb-Stevens acquired a solid academic and formational background well-suited to teach philosophy at a university steeped in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition.

Also foundational were his studies at the College St. Albert du Louvain in Belgium, where he received his licentiate in theology in 1966, and as a doctoral student at the University of Paris, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1971. During his years in Paris, he was witness to the historic 1968 student unrest, met Jean-Paul Sartre, and spent summers as a relief chaplain at a parish drop-in center and a U.S. Air Force base in Germany.

His work in phenomenological philosophy, analytic philosophy, and the history of philosophy helped inspire generations of philosophers involved in those fields of research. Foremost among his writings were his books James and Husserl: The Foundations of Meaning—a study in contrasts of phenomenology founder Edmund Husserl and pragmatist/functionalist William James—and Husserl and Analytic Philosophy, which traced the break between phenomenology and analytic philosophy, two key philosophic movements of the 20th century.

In a 1990 interview with the Boston College Biweekly, Dr. Cobb-Stevens said that, while he believed Husserl’s phenomenology method was more successful than the analytic method of Gottlob Frege—who founded the analytic movement—he had published Husserl and Analytic Philosophy with the hope of contributing to “renewed dialogue” between the two schools of thought: “[Husserl and Frege] both shared the conviction that we can achieve some degree of objective truth, even though our access to truth is always perspectival and historically conditioned.”

In 2015, a volume of essays in honor of Dr. Cobb-Stevens, Phenomenology in a New Key, was published, featuring contributions from several leading experts in phenomenological philosophy from North America and Europe.  

“Dick will be most remembered for his essential humanness,” said Professor of Philosophy Patrick Byrne. “He was warm and welcoming to everyone he met, and let you know that he cared about you as an individual. He had a special gift for calming tensions in meetings, which is no small accomplishment in a university setting. Dick had a great sense of humor and was a storyteller of a special kind: He could let himself disappear as he drew people together by drawing them into the story.”

Dr. Cobb-Stevens’ colleague Professor Eileen Sweeney, speaking at his retirement lecture in 2009, praised Husserl and Analytic Philosophy as an example of his ability to engage with and transcend such divisions.  “It is on that cusp that Richard’s philosophical work has dwelt, eschewing both the reductionism and scientism, on the one hand, as well as any premature retreat into mysticism or poetry, on the other.  I wouldn’t say that Richard’s thought has come to rest in some easy synthesis or middle ground but is rather engaged in an ongoing dynamic dialectic.”

His achievements as a researcher and writer did not overshadow his abilities as a teacher and mentor, added Sweeney, noting that for more than 30 years Dr. Cobb-Stevens ran the Philosophy Department’s teaching seminar for doctoral students, and had directed 27 doctoral dissertations. Students, she said, valued his ability to allow them to develop their own thought but to subject it to rigorous testing and critique.

His lectures had “the same combination of style and clarity as does his writing,” said Sweeney at the 2009 event. “He can always be counted on for the anecdote students will remember for years to come that epitomizes a problem or issue in the material he is teaching.  He is always willing to share a story that shows his own difficulties and puzzlement in dealing with a problem or dilemma, one which exposes his own humanity with a humility which students find it possible to emulate.  He is willing to work through an issue with students in genuine collaboration, knowing and enacting the role of philosopher as lover rather than possessor of wisdom.”

Dr. Cobb-Stevens’ colleagues also recalled him as “a citizen of the University” who took on tasks and assignments that contributed to the greater good of his department—as chairman from 1993-2002, he helped bring international recognition to BC’s graduate programs in philosophy while increasing the number of philosophy undergraduate majors to among the largest in the U.S.—and Boston College as a whole: He was a member of the University Policy Committee and the University Academic Planning Council, among other bodies.

“Even though he was an internationally renowned scholar in philosophy,” said Byrne, “Dick devoted most of his time to making Boston College an ever-better place for undergraduate and graduate students to spend their formative years.”

In 1991, Dr. Cobb-Stevens was appointed as the inaugural director of the University Core Development Committee (UCDC), created to oversee and manage the undergraduate core curriculum, which had recently undergone its most extensive revision since its introduction in 1971. Among the changes were a requirement for students to take at least one course in fine arts, literature, mathematics, and cultural diversity, and that core courses share a set of common characteristics including discussion of perennial questions; history and methodology of the discipline; culturally diverse perspectives, and a concern for the moral significance and practical direction of students’ lives.

Dr. Cobb-Stevens went on to serve for 18 years as director of the UCDC as it performed the critical minutiae—assessment, evaluation, refinement, and advising—associated with administering the University’s signature undergraduate course sequences. Dr. Cobb-Stevens also was instrumental in helping the UCDC secure major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation to develop new core courses designed to integrate themes from the humanities and sciences.

A milestone came in 1997, when the first Boston College class to study under the revised core graduated. Interviewed by the Boston College Chronicle, Dr. Cobb-Stevens reflected on the success of the initiative: “Students we’ve talked to say that without the core, they would have followed a narrow path of study without encountering new disciplines and outlooks. Their reaction to, and experience with, the core has been quite positive.” He added that faculty members across disciplines also had been inspired to work on core-related initiatives.  

“There is still much that can be done,” he said. “But looking at the particular structure we have here, and the degree of cooperation experienced between the UCDC and departments, I can’t think of anything quite like it at any comparable institution. We have made a very good beginning.”

“My memory of Richard Cobb-Stevens is that he was unfailingly kind and concerned for the welfare of everyone he met, and deeply committed to humanistic education in the Catholic and Jesuit traditions,” said Fitzgibbon Professor of Philosophy Arthur Madigan, S.J., who succeeded Dr. Cobb-Stevens as UCDC director in 2009. “Someone once told me that receiving the answer ‘No’ from Richard Cobb-Stevens was more satisfying than receiving the answer ‘Yes’ from any number of other people.”

Dr. Cobb-Stevens taught such courses as Machiavelli and Hobbes, Frege and Wittgenstein, American Pragmatism, and 19th- and 20th-Century Philosophy, as well as Modernism and the Arts and New Scientific Visions through the Perspectives Program.

He served on the editorial boards of Phenomenological Inquiry and the Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, among other publications, and was a member of such organizations as the American Philosophical Association, Metaphysical Society of America, Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and American Catholic Philosophical Association.

Dr. Cobb-Stevens’ wife, Veda Cobb, whom he married in 1979 (both took Cobb-Stevens as their last names), died in 1989. He is survived by his sister Helen Ahearn and brothers Robert, Thomas, and John Stevens; he was predeceased by his sisters Mary A. Cullinane, Grace A. Vinciguerra, and Judith E. Erler and brother Francis Stevens.
 

—Sean Smith |University Communications