April 9, 2021

In Memoriam: Kai Nielsen (1926 – 2021)

Dr. Kai Nielsen, professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, was one of Canada's most prominent social and political philosophers
Kai Nielsen

This tribute to Dr. Kai Nielsen was written by Professor Emeritus Robert Ware on behalf of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary. 

On March 29th, the world lost the noted and much-loved philosopher, Kai Edward Nielsen. He was born 15 May 1926 in Marshall, Michigan and grew up in Moline, Illinois. Kai passed away after a short period of palliative care in Montréal. Before that he had spent several months at home under the attentive and loving care of his partner, Jocelyne Couture. Jocelyne is also a well-known philosopher, now emerita at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a former president of the Canadian Philosophical Association. Kai’s beloved Jocelyne was his philosophical companion. (For his comments about his life and work, see Kai’s “Introduction to my Bibliography. Some Shocks” at www.kainielsen.org)

Kai taught at Marshall, Amherst, SUNY (Binghamton), and New York University, from where he moved to the University of Calgary as a full professor in the Department of Philosophy in about 1970 and then later was appointed head. He was an avid walker and cross-country skier in the Rocky Mountains during his time in Calgary and a frequent attendee of concerts and theatre. During his years at Calgary, Kai held visiting appointments at Brooklyn College and the University of Ottawa. He was the president of the Canadian Philosophical Association (1983), member of the Royal Society of Canada, and a frequent visitor at institutes, research centres, and universities throughout the world.

In the early-1990s, Kai moved to Montréal where he spent many years teaching seminars and directing dissertations in philosophy at Concordia University. In Montreal, his research and writing took much of his time, mostly, at his desk or in a comfortable chair with pencil and paper. He would take long walks in the nearby Montréal Botanical Garden, sometimes solitary in meditation, sometimes in conversation with friends. Until recently, he continued to travel combining research, lecturing, and pleasure. His travels took him around Quebec and along the great fleuve Saint-Laurent, and, most recently, to Stockholm and Havana.

As a student at the University of North Carolina, Kai aspired to writing “the great American novel”, but he soon became fully immersed in philosophy, receiving his doctorate in philosophy from Duke University in 1959 for his dissertation on “Justification and Morals”.  He had both a strong appreciation for American pragmatism, especially that of John Dewey, and an understanding and familiarity with growing developments in analytical philosophy. Kai published extensively on Wittgenstein and frequently and at length on John Rawls, but he also wrote in depth on many others, including G. A. Cohen and Richard Rorty. Kai was prolific, publishing about 22 books and over 400 articles. (See kainielsen.org for a full bibliography.) Merlette Schnell, the department administrator, was a constant help in skillfully preparing for publication most of his manuscripts from the 1990s even during his time in Montréal.

Much of Kai’s writing came from deep commitments ranging from atheism, with his widely read book, Ethics without God (1973, rev. 1990), and many articles on religion; to Marxism, with publications, including Marxism and the Moral Point of View (1989); to metaphilosophy, which was the focus of his book Naturalism without Foundations (1996), his favorite. He was often at the forefront of new, especially political, developments. In the early 1960s he visited and wrote about the Praxis Group and participatory democracy in Yugoslavia. An early special volume for the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, of which he was a founder, was Science, Morality, and Feminist Theory (1987), edited with Marsha Hanen. Since his first days in Montréal he was a strong supporter of Québec sovereignty. Another special volume was Rethinking Nationalism, edited with Jocelyne Couture and Michel Seymour in 1995. He also co-edited (with Robert Ware) Analyzing Marxism: New Essays on Analytical Marxism (1989).

Kai did not like celebrations, but he was persuaded to be an active participant at an impressive conference in Montréal in 2003 celebrating his work. The conference was an excellent testament to the breadth and depth of his contributions in philosophy. The conference was divided into sessions on the areas where Kai had made significant contributions: philosophy of religion, metaphilosophy, and moral and political philosophy. At each of the sessions distinguished specialists presented papers on Kai’s work, followed by extemporaneous defenses and comments from Kai. Each of the sessions were then opened to intensive questions from an international audience of several hundred philosophers and social theorists. Kai, then in his late 70s, continued to show his expertise in a wide range of topics with vigorous interchanges at the conference. The proceedings were then edited and published by Michel Seymour and Matthias Fritsch in 2007 as Reason and Emancipation: Essays on the Philosophy of Kai Nielsen.

Another valuable collection for understanding Kai’s work is the book: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will: The Political Philosophy of Kai Nielsen (2012) the title of which came from Kai’s love of Gramsci’s famous phrase. This is a representative collection of Kai’s work in political philosophy, broadly understood, with a long and informative interview. His work in the last twenty years became more focused on critical theory as he began to express, in discussion and papers, his dismay about the discipline of philosophy not dealing with the problems of the age and the promotion of equality and liberty as conceived in his radical egalitarianism—to use the words of his 1985 book, Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism. He thought of his own work moving from critical philosophy to critical theory, but he continued to use his skills of philosophical analysis and understanding.

Behind the solid countenance that others saw in him, there was a deep visceral concern for problems in the world at every level. He was distraught by the poverty, oppression, and violence globally, but he was also deeply concerned about people’s individual difficulties. He was always committed to his students and went to great lengths to help those who were serious. Once, Kai spent months helping a prominent author in time of illness publish a manuscript that needed editing and promotion. He constantly read and critiqued colleagues’ work with abrupt criticisms, warm praise, and encouragement. He listened with more patience and compassion than many would and had time for anyone’s problems, whether personal or professional.

Kai’s work is highly regarded throughout the world, and he is warmly remembered by everyone who knew him. The Department of Philosophy at Calgary is fortunate to have had the many years of devotion that he gave to it.

Robert Ware, Prof. Emeritus, Philosophy
19 April, 2021