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William K. Frankena

William Frankena was born Wibe Klaas Frankena in Manhattan, Montana in 1908, the son of Nicholas A. Frankena, a farmer, and Gertie Vander Schaaf. One of the most important figures in moral philosophy in the mid-twentieth century, Frankena was best known for a series of highly influential papers on the foundations of ethics and for a text, Ethics (1963), which was translated into eight different languages, and which is still in use today.

Frankena was raised in Zeeland, a Dutch Reformed community in western Michigan, where his family moved shortly after he was born. He went to Calvin College, receiving his B.A. in 1930, and began graduate work in philosophy at Michigan. He continued doctoral study at Harvard, where he studied with C. I. Lewis, Ralph Barton Perry, and Alfred North Whitehead. In 1934, Frankena wed Sadie Roelofs, to whom he was happily married until her death in 1978. They had two sons.

Frankena spent a year at Cambridge University in 1934-36, working with G. E. Moore, and completed the Ph.D. at Harvard in 1937. His dissertation, “Recent Intuitionism in British Ethics,” formed the basis for his first published paper, “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” which appeared in Mindin 1939 and instantly earned him a significant place in analytical moral philosophy. Moore had famously and influentially argued in Principia Ethica (1903) that ethical naturalism was guilty of a fundamental logical error. However, with the analytical rigor that would characterize his entire philosophical career, Frankena was able to show that nothing deserving to be called a “fallacy” was involved. What the intuitionist critics of naturalism such as Moore should have charged it with, he argued, was a sort of moral blindness. Where the intuitionists claim to perceive sui generis ethical properties in addition to natural properties, the naturalists claim to see only the latter.

In 1937, Frankena went to teach at Michigan, where he remained until his retirement in 1978. There he received virtually every honor the University could bestow and was, when Charles Stevenson and Richard Brandt arrived, part of one of the most formidable faculties in moral philosophy in the country. He served as Chair of the Philosophy Department from 1947 to 1961, received the University’s Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, and was named Roy Wood Sellars and Distinguished Collegiate Professor of Philosophy. In 1978, he was honored as the first Distinguished Senior Faculty Lecturer in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He also held visiting positions at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Washington, and the University of Tokyo.

Frankena was elected President of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1965-66 and delivered the prestigious Carus Lectures to the Association in 1974. He was also Chair of the council for Philosophical Studies from 1965-1972, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science.

As a philosopher, Frankena was known for clarity and penetration of analysis and for structuring philosophical issues and theoretical approaches in ways that achieved new insights. He brought these virtues to a wide range of topics, from metaethics, the history of ethics, and normative ethical theory to moral education, moral psychology and applied ethics. And he also seriously engaged philosophy of education and religious ethics, doing work that was highly respected by scholars in those fields. The sweep and quality of his philosophizing about ethics was simply extraordinary.

Among Frankena’s best known essays in fundamental moral philosophy were, in addition to “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” “Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy,” (1958) a classic treatment of whether motivation is intrinsic to morality or moral judgment, and two essays on the nature of morality, “Recent Conceptions of Morality,” (1963) and “The Concept of Morality.” (1966) many of these articles were collected in an anthology, Perspectives on Morality(1976), and their themes were further developed in his monograph, Thinking About Morality(1980).

No doubt the widest recognition Frankena enjoyed came from his text, Ethics. It has simply been unparalleled as an introduction to this subject, as useful in a first undergraduate course as it is to graduate students and professional philosophers looking for perspicuous ways to frame issues and categorize alternative solutions. For example, Frankena’s formulation there of the distinction between teleological and deontological ethical theories became a paradigm during the “great expansion” of normative ethical theory in the 1960 and 1970's.

Frankena was also known as one of the pre-eminent historians of ethics of his generation, even though relatively little of his published writing was explicitly devoted to history. The exceptions were essays on Hutcheson and Spinoza, and editions of Jonathan Edwards’ On the Nature of True Virtue (1960) and Freedom of the Will (1969). More usually, Frankena’s learning and scholarship remained in the background of his writing on issues of contemporary interest.

Ranging well beyond the usual scope of academic moral philosophy, Frankena also made significant contributions to the philosophy of education, including moral education, and to religious ethics. The former included Three Historical Philosophies of Education (1966), and the latter, “The Ethics of Love Conceived as an Ethics of Virtue,” which appeared in the Journal of Religious Ethics in 1973.

Personally, Frankena embodied to an unusual degree the moral ideals and virtues of character that moral philosophers celebrate. A defender of civil liberties and a sane voice in the sometimes bitter conflicts that can arise in campus affairs, he was a trusted and revered colleague, advisor, teacher, and custodian of the Department’s well-being.

Stephen Darwall
Louis E. Loeb
University of Michigan

Memorial minutes from the Proceedings of the American
Philosophical Association
, May 1995 (Volume 86, no. 5), pp. 95-96