Read it Here First! My Obit!
All this week, Jerry and I have been attending to what I call “Last Arrangements.” Though we’re not expecting to kick off any time soon, you never know, and one of the chores I’ve set myself was writing my obit. So here it is!
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Abigail L Rosenthal, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, died [date] after a brief illness.
The “child of interesting parents,” she was the daughter of a philosopher, Henry M. Rosenthal, considered by his classmates of Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, the class “genius.” Her mother, who could read Thomas Mann in the German, Proust in the French and Dostoevsky in Russian, was the daughter of the eminent rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz (pen name, Rav Tsair), who had been chief rabbi of Odessa and a leading figure in the Hebraist renaissance. His name is on a street in Jerusalem.
Born in Manhattan, Abigail attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art where, as she said, “you got points for being sensitive,” and graduated from Barnard College with Honors in Philosophy. After her year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Sorbonne and College de France, she wrote her M.A. thesis at Columbia University on “Action and Purpose in Merleau-Ponty.” At Columbia, she was a Graduate Assistant in the Religion Department and Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics. Emerging from the examinations at Columbia with doctoral eligibility, she nevertheless took her doctorate at Penn State, with a dissertation on “Hegel’s Humanism.”
Those student years became the subject of her last book, Confessions of A Young Philosopher (2021). It is a “confession” in the Augustinian sense of a search for truth put to the tests of personal and philosophic experience. Each phase of the search is animated by a particular worldview, embraced and lived through till its limitations are discovered in episodes that are often searing. The last chapter, “Aftermath,” concludes with the view that inspired everything that she did and wrote thereafter: that a good life can best be seen as a truthful, dialectically self-corrective narrative, whereas an evil life takes the opposed direction, destroying its own story and going on to spoil the stories of others.
Her professional path was consistent with these early concerns. After the first years as Assistant Professor at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, she accepted a position in the Philosophy Department of Brooklyn College, publishing “A Hegelian Key to Hegel’s Method” in the Journal of the History of Philosophy and “Feminism without Contradictions” in The Monist. This was the first time a well-regarded philosophic journal devoted an issue to feminism as a topic worthy of philosophic investigation. Her contribution was anthologized in Morality in the Modern World. In these articles, she did philosophy in a Hegelian way, rather than approaching the subject as a historian of philosophy.
Her professional life at Brooklyn College included the drama of a seven-year job struggle, which an Arbitrator decided in her favor. In “God and the Care for One’s Story,” the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil’s expanded second edition, she put that trying time to philosophic use, arguing that key moments of those seven years are reasonably seen as instances of providential intervention rather than as episodes occurring by chance.
In another chapter of A Good Look at Evil, she defended Holocaust victims from the armchair reproach that they had gone “like sheep to the slaughter.” That chapter is titled, “The Right Way to Act” and has been twice anthologized.
She was the editor of her father’s posthumous book, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, to which she contributed biographical and philosophic introductions. Her articles, posted on academia.edu, range over a wide terrain, with titles like “Getting Past Marx and Freud,” “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” “Defining Evil Away: Arendt’s Forgiveness,” “Moral Competence and Bernard Williams” and “In Windowless Chambers.” The last, a defense of introspection, was reading at a faculty seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She considered friendship an intrinsic feature of philosophy and retained friends from the years at Stony Brook, Brooklyn College and — during her first marriage to philosopher John Bacon — from her year as Research Affiliate at Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.
Her second and lasting marriage was to philosopher Jerry L. Martin whom she met in the course of a fight, eventually successful, to save Brooklyn College’s then-outstanding core curriculum. At that time, Martin had founded an organization based in Washington D.C. to defend academic freedom and the liberal arts. They fell in love over many long-distance phone calls. The story was written up in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. When they married, Abigail took early retirement and they moved to the little town of Doylestown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Besides continuing philosophic work, she wrote a weekly essay for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Her “non-advice” covered a wide range of topics, but was primarily aimed at women whose actual lives she thought more interesting than is disclosed by the more generic approaches typically taken.
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At the end, I think you put in a sentence about how her inconsolable survivors will never forget her, but maybe I’ll leave that for others to append.