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UCLA Magazine Winter 2002
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Winter 2002
A Beautiful Mind
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Indeed, Albritton was one of a kind. At the peak of his career in the 1970s (after coming to UCLA in 1973, he went on to achieve the UC system's "above scale" status, an elite rank of professorship awarded to only a handful of scholars), he was widely regarded as among the finest philosophers in the English-speaking world. "He was most charming, witty and intelligent," says Barbara Herman, a UCLA philosophy professor who was Albritton's student at Harvard, where he taught for 16 years. "He had more style and character than most philosophy departments put together — and he had that till the very end."

Albritton was born on August 15, 1923, in Columbus, Ohio. When he was 3, he accompanied his father, a research physiologist, and his mother, a chemist, to Thailand, where the family lived for five years. At the age of 5, Albritton was packed off to a British boarding school in India, where he was the only American student. Although the yearlong experience was traumatic in many ways, Albritton seems to have turned it to his advantage later in life. As his sister puts it: "He acquired a chameleon quality that allowed him to both take on and challenge the world view of the people he was speaking to."

In the classroom, Albritton was famous for doing philosophy in real time. He would tear up his notes and struggle along with his students through complex, extempore arguments. He was also known for engaging in marathon discussions that often lasted through the night. One former grad student recalled an 11-hour discussion with Albritton: "I can't think of any other philosopher, living or dead, I would rather bounce ideas off of. One conversation with Rogers can illuminate a philosophical problem to such an extent that everything I've thought about it before seems irrelevant."

Albritton belonged to that dwindling group of philosophers who believe that philosophical theories are inadequate in explaining the nature of reality, says New York University Professor Thomas Nagel, a former student. "Socrates was famous for showing that we really don't have the understanding, and Rogers played the same role," Nagel says. "With him, you really had to think about philosophy using a natural form of reasoning so that anybody could understand what you were saying and you could lead anybody by gradual steps to a similar understanding."

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