A logician and philosopher who made pioneering contributions to modal logic and metaphysics, Ruth Barcan Marcus has for almost fifty years been a key figure in philosophical debates. Early in her career, she proposed the widely discussed Barcan formula, a postulate in quantified modal logic. Her later work includes influential papers in the philosophy of logic and language, epistemology, and ethics. A widely lauded collection of her essays, Modalities, was published in 1993.
Ruth Barcan Marcus was born in New York City on August 2, 1921, the third daughter of Samuel and Rose (Post) Barcan. Her parents were secular Eastern European Jews who settled in what was then an uncongested middle-class area of the Bronx. Her mother worked as a homemaker; her father was a printer and contributing writer at the Jewish Daily Forward, as well as an active member of the Socialist Party and of the Workman’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring). A bust of Eugene V. Debs graced the family’s living room, and the three daughters, Esther, Hilda, and Ruth, attended the Workman’s Circle’s Yiddish-language neighborhood schools in the afternoons, where they were taught Jewish history, literature, dance, music, and the history of socialist labor.
Marcus attended public school, including Herman Ridder Junior High School (a school for intellectually precocious students) and Evander Childs High School, until the twelfth grade. She went on to receive a B.A. in mathematics and philosophy from New York University in 1941 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1946. In addition to her academic extracurricular achievements (during college, she edited a literary magazine and presided over the mathematics and the philosophical societies), Ruth was a notable athlete. In 1941, the New York University yearbook featured her photo, with a caption that read: “Ruth Barcan, NYU’s attractive fencer, is pictured above. One of the most outstanding fencers ever to come to Washington Square College, Miss Barcan epitomizes what is fine and character building in sports for women.”
In 1942, Ruth Barcan married Jules Alexander Marcus, a physicist. They had four children, James (b. 1948), Peter (b. 1949), Katherine (b. 1952), and Elizabeth (b. 1957). The couple was divorced in 1976.
Marcus spent the early years of her career in various postdoctoral fellowships and visiting positions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1953–1954). She taught at Roosevelt University from 1959 to 1963, and in 1964 she was appointed head of the philosophy department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Under her six-year stewardship, the department grew from a two-member faculty to a full graduate department with a nationally ranked faculty of twenty. She then served for three years as a professor at Northwestern University (1970–1973) and, in 1973, was appointed professor of philosophy at Yale University. She retired as Reuben Post Halleck Professor in 1992, and is currently a senior research scholar at Yale, with a continuing appointment as distinguished visiting professor at the University of California at Irvine during winter quarters.
During her tenure at Yale, Marcus was widely recognized as a leading figure, receiving formal offers from (among others) Princeton, UCLA, Penn, and Stanford. Her numerous fellowships and awards include the Medal of the College de France (1986) and fellowships from the National Science Foundation (1963–1964), the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois (1968–1969), the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1979), Wolfson College, Oxford (1985–1986), Clare Hall, Cambridge (1988), and the National Humanities Center (1992–1993), as well as residencies at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio (1973 and 1990). She is an elected member of the Institut International de Philosophie, where she served as president (1989–1992), is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has served as president of the Association for Symbolic Logic (1983–1986) and chair of the board of the American Philosophical Association (1977–1983). In 1995, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the University of Illinois.
In 2001 the University of California at Los Angeles held a “Ruthfest” to pay tribute to the intellectual contributions of eighty-year-old Ruth Barcan Marcus.
Bacon, John. Review of Modalities, by Ruth Barcan Marcus. Journal of Symbolic Logic 60, no. 3 (1995): 1005–1009;
Contemporary Authors; Garrett, Don. Review of Modalities. Review of Metaphysics 48, no. 3 (1995): 688–689;
International Who’s Who; International Who’s Who of Women; Kraut, Robert. Review of Modalities. Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 5 (1996): 243–248;
Levine, Shaughan. Review of Modalities. British Journal for Philosophy of Science 46 (1995): 267–274;
Marcus, Ruth Barcan. Modalities (1993);
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, Diana Raffman, and Nicholas Ascher, eds. Morality, Modality and Belief: Essays in Honor of Ruth Barcan Marcus (1995);
Who’s Who in America;
Who’s Who in the East;
Who’s Who of American Women;
Williamson, Timothy. Review of Modalities. Philosophical Books 36, no. 2 (1995): 120–122.
How to cite this page
Gendler, Tamar S.. "Ruth Barcan Marcus." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/marcus-ruth-barcan>.