Rescher sits next to a gold cypher machine
Features & Articles

Nicholas Rescher, a polymath who helped to establish Pitt as a philosophy powerhouse, dies at 95


A longtime scholar of the work of G.W. Leibniz, a fellow German-born philosopher and polymath, University of Pittsburgh professor Nicholas Rescher grew intrigued by a cipher machine that Leibniz designed during the 1670s but never built.

So, Rescher — characteristically, given his insatiable curiosity — oversaw the production in 2012 of the first working model of the device, which went on display at Pitt’s Hillman Library. Rescher also wrote a related volume, “Leibniz and Cryptography,” one of more than 100 books he authored in addition to 200-plus scholarly articles.

Always up for intellectual challenges, Rescher in his 60s learned Spanish in preparation for a lecturing stint in Spain. (He already spoke Arabic, French, German and Latin in addition to English.) In his 80s, Rescher took up playing bridge and went on to win national master’s status.

RescherRescher, a Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy internationally renowned for his work on logic, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of science, among a wealth of other topics both scholarly and popular, died on Jan. 5, 2024, at the age of 95.

During a research and teaching career extending over six decades, he helped establish and maintain Pitt’s Department of Philosophy as one of the world’s top philosophy units. In addition to serving as department chair, Rescher was director and later chair of the University’s Center for Philosophy of Science. In 2010, Pitt established the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Contributions to Systematic Philosophy to honor his faculty work and his gifts of archival materials to the University.

“What was perhaps most remarkable about Rescher was the sheer range of his intellect,” recalled Pitt Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Robert Brandom. “There is no area of philosophy — from medieval Arabic to mathematical logic, through philosophy of science, to philosophy of mind, ethics, and welfare economics — that he did not think hard about and make contributions to. 

“He once remarked that his motto was a variant of Terence’s famous tag ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’ — in his case ‘I am a philosopher; nothing philosophical is alien to me.’ It is altogether fitting that his heroes were other great polymaths, Leibniz among theoretical philosophers, but also the more practical Benjamin Franklin.”

Born in Hagen, Germany, in 1928, Rescher came to the United States at the age of 10 as a refugee from the Nazis. He earned his PhD at Princeton at age 22 (still a record for that school’s philosophy department) and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War. After working at the RAND Corporation briefly in the 1950s, he joined the faculty at Lehigh University and then, in 1961, at Pitt.

Brandom first met Rescher in 1976, when Brandom interviewed successfully for an assistant professorship. Brandom remembers: “I explained my dissertation project for 5 minutes, and Nick asked the first question. He said: ‘So if I understand you correctly, you think the hypothetical use of “true” is more fundamental than the categorical use?’ This was a far better and deeper description of what I was doing than I had come up with in two years of working on it. I immediately thought: Imagine what it would be like to have colleagues like this to chat with about what one is working on. 

“A year later, after I was hired and he and I had adjoining offices, he stuck his head in my door and asked me if I would like to look at his current book manuscript on possible worlds. He said he was breaking from orthodoxy and using ‘weirdie worlds.’ (I found out he meant inconsistent and incomplete ones.) The jokey, self-deprecating tone was characteristic of the playfulness with which he always approached hard technical problems. I was inspired by his ideas and wrote a couple of drafts extending them to areas he had not addressed. He suggested that we — he the Distinguished University Professor and me the most junior assistant prof — co-author a longer book. The result of that generous gesture was ‘The Logic of Inconsistency,’ my first such publication.”

Brandom noted, “Nick was always an old-school gentleman: urbane, cultivated and never apparently mindful of his own eminence.” Rescher also displayed a playful, occasionally off-center sense of humor.

“When the Philosophy Department moved from Schenley Hall to the Cathedral of Learning, we learned that the whole floor we had occupied was going to be gutted and redone,” Brandom said. “We had a massive party, during which Nick, tall and strong, walked the length of the long corridor, holding over his head a graduate student whose boots were periodically dipped and re-dipped in red paint, resulting in footprints all along the ceiling. Nick said he'd always wanted to do that.”

Rescher served as a president of the American Philosophical Association, the American Catholic Philosophy Association, the Leibniz Society of North America, the Charles S. Peirce Society, and the Metaphysical Society of America as well as secretary general of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Europea, the Royal Society of Canada, and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Prize for Humanistic Scholarship in 1984, the Belgian Prix Mercier in 2005, and the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 2007. He also received the premier cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Helmholtz Medal of the German Academy of Sciences of Berlin-Brandenburg.

Preceded in death by his wife, Dorothy Henle Rescher, he is survived by his children, Elizabeth, Mark, Owen and Catherine Rescher; daughter-in-law, Erika Dirkse; grandchildren, Myles, Felix and Ivo Rescher; and many nieces and their families.

Memorial gifts to the Dr. Nicholas Rescher Fund for the Advancement of the Department of Philosophy may be made to the University of Pittsburgh c/o the Office of Institutional Advancement, 102 Park Plaza Building, 128 N. Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA, 15260. Online giving may be arranged via For information on donations by phone or check, call 1-800-817-8943 or (locally) 412-624-5800.


— Bruce Steele, photography courtesy of the Rescher Archive