Irving Singer, philosophy professor and author of 21 books on diverse topics, dies at the age of 89
Singer spent 55 years studying at the Institute, ‘The Nature of Love’ among his works
Stung by family members urging him to be more affectionate, Irving Singer, a philosophy professor, spent years researching and writing a 1,300-page, three-volume examination of the subject titled “The Nature of Love.”
“This, like so many philosophical works, began as an attempt to understand my own inadequacies,’’ he told The New York Times in 1987. ”Everyone in my family persuaded me that I ought to be more loving, which troubled me. So like most philosophers, I dealt with the criticism by constructing a theory and a philosophy which enabled me to dismiss their ideas.”
For 65 years, as a prolific writer and teacher, nearly 55 of them at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Singer, who died Feb. 1 at 89, mined the works of Marcel Proust, George Santayana, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey and others, unearthing, as he once wrote, “imaginative and possibly genuine insights into the nature of human experience.”
He did the same sort of literary and philosophical spade work in producing his love trilogy - a “majestic study,” as Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1986.
The next year, the writer and psychotherapist Michael Vincent Miller, reviewing the trilogy’s third volume, described Singer as “a rare bird on the contemporary scene, a philosopher preoccupied with literature and steeped in Platonism, two traditions that have always treated love seriously.”
“He not only readily confesses his own romanticism; he steadfastly refuses to give it up,” Miller wrote in The Times. “For he sees romantic love as a ‘saving remnant, a viable and realistic conception of what is humanly possible.’ After passing through some bleak modern stretches, he emerges still an optimist about romance, even in marriage. He regards love as an imaginative act, an almost spontaneous bestowing of value on another, but he wants to root it in the sexiness of biology. Neither idealist nor materialist, Mr. Singer puts himself forward as a pluralist of love.”
Singer was the author of 21 books on topics as diverse as creativity, morality, aesthetics, literature, music and film. His last one, “Modes of Creativity: Philosophical Perspectives,” was published in 2011. He retired from MIT as a professor emeritus two years later, but was working on yet another book, “Creativity in the Brain.”
He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 24, 1925, the son of Isadore and Nettie Stromer Singer, immigrants from Austria-Hungary who owned a grocery store 0n Coney Island.
After graduating from Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan at 15, he enrolled in Brooklyn College, then served in the Army, which assigned him to write a book, “History of the 210th Field Artillery Group,” his first. He later collected his letters home to his brother in an unpublished anthology, which he called “Memories of World War II.”
After the war, studied at Biarritz American University in France and completed his bachelor’s degree under the GI Bill at Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1948.
The next year he married Josephine Fisk, who would become an opera singer and what he called a semicollaborator on his books.
“I don’t write in a library; in fact, I don’t even write at a desk anymore,” he explained. “I write in bed, where I am comfortable, and dictate to my wife. She often disagrees with what I say, and we’ll discuss it, and sometimes I incorporate her ideas.”
Singer’s wife died last year. His death, in Brighton, Massachusetts, was confirmed by his daughter, Emily Singer. He is also survived by two other daughters, Anne Seinfeld and Margaret Singer; a son, Ben; and four grandchildren.
Singer earned a doctorate at Harvard and joined the MIT faculty full time in 1959 after teaching at Harvard, Cornell, the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins. He was awarded a Fulbright research scholar grant, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation grant.
Constructing intellectual histories rather than highbrow versions of the Kama Sutra, Singer never tired of exploring whether romantic love was a recent invention and placing it in philosophical context. In a preface to another trilogy, “Meaning in Life,” he wrote:
“I envision the good life in its totality as including the love of persons, things and ideals so intricately intermeshed that the meaning in one contributes to the meaningfulness of the other two. That eventuates in the state of happiness everyone desires.”
Describing himself as a “reconstructed romantic,” Singer said, “I don’t believe in romantic love in that it has to be sweet and painless.” The best one can expect, he said, is “meaningfulness with moments of real happiness.”