Stephen Barker, Johns Hopkins philosophy professor, dies

Stephen Barker's critical acumen was admired by his students and colleagues alike.
Stephen Barker's critical acumen was admired by his students and colleagues alike. (handout / HANDOUT)

Stephen Barker, a Johns Hopkins philosophy professor for almost 40 years and a distinguished scholar, died Dec. 16. He was 92.

Dr. Barker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1927 and graduated from University High School. He studied philosophy at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he interrupted his studies to train as an aviation electronics technician in Texas during World War II. With the war ending before he could be deployed, Dr. Barker returned to Swarthmore and graduated with highest honors in 1949, according to his son, Charles Barker. Five years later, Dr. Barker earned his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University.


Before arriving at the Johns Hopkins University in 1964, Dr. Barker taught at the University of Southern California, the University of Virginia and Ohio State University. He also taught evening classes in addition to his regular course load. Even after his retirement in 2003 at age 76, he taught the occasional continuing-studies class at Hopkins.

The longtime Roland Park resident was inventive with his philosophical arguments and worked to make philosophy more accessible to a broad audience by using plain-spoken explanations in his writing and textbooks. He also mentored several doctoral students.


“He was not an ivory-tower intellectual but instead someone who loved his field and wanted it to be intelligible to and have an impact on the larger world,” his son said.

While at Hopkins, Dr. Barker wrote “The Elements of Logic,” a textbook still used today in classes, according to the university. He also wrote “Induction and Hypothesis” and “Philosophy of Mathematics,” edited several other books and wrote numerous articles about the logic, theory and history of philosophy.

Peter Achinstein, who started as a Johns Hopkins philosophy professor two years before Dr. Barker, said his colleague was unique because he was knowledgeable about such a variety of philosophic topics. Dr. Achinstein, who first met Dr. Barker during his time at Harvard, said it made him appealing to many graduate students because he could advise and teach in several different areas.

Two former students, Alex Rosenberg and Tom Beauchamp, who co-wrote a book about Scottish philosopher David Hume, said they were heavily influenced by Dr. Barker, whom they’d coax out of his office for lunch every day to learn and talk more with him. They dedicated their book to him.

“We did not even consider dedicating the book to anyone else,” said Dr. Rosenberg, a philosophy professor at Duke University. “We adored him as a teacher and as a very fine philosopher.”

Dr. Beauchamp, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, said Dr. Barker was “careful” and “precise” with his philosophy, writing and the way he taught. Dr. Achinstein added that he was also one of the most critical editors, too.

While science relies on testing in the lab, Dr. Achinstein said, philosophers rely on one another. And Dr. Barker would always provide sharp criticisms.

“Sometimes it was hard to take and it would be a day or two for me to get over it,” Dr. Achinstein said. “But I could always rely on him. He was the first person I would show a paper.”

Another former student, Annette Bryson, called Dr. Barker “my teacher, my mentor, and my friend.” She wrote, “Throughout our twenty-seven year friendship, he continued to be both inspiring to and supportive of me. I came away from every conversation with him enriched, my thinking expanded. He was caring and generous and gracious. Though he embraced his own convictions confidently, he was consistently respectful of the views of others.”

A memorial service is to be scheduled at a later date.

Dr. Barker was preceded in death by his wife, Evelyn Masi Barker. In addition to his son, he is survived by another son, George Barker of Newton, Massachusetts.

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