The University at Buffalo Department of Philosophy regrets to announce the passing, on July 13, 2021, of Jorge J. E. Gracia, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Samuel P. Capen Chair in Philosophy and Comparative Literature.
Jorge J. E. Gracia (July 18, 1942 - July 13, 2021)
Professor Emeritus, University at Buffalo, Samuel P. Capen Chair, Departments of Philosophy and Comparative Literature, College of Arts and Sciences
State University of New York Distinguished Professor
A celebration of life was held on July 17, 2021 in Philidelphia, PA. In the coming months, there will also be an opportunity to gather in Buffalo, NY, in honor of Jorge.
Jorge J. E. Gracia was born in Cuba on July 18, 1942. He fled to the United States at the age of 18 after the Cuban revolution and received his bachelor’s at Wheaton College, master’s in Philosophy at the University of Chicago, M.S.L. in Philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and his Ph.D. in Medieval Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1971. Before his retirement in January 2020, he was SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Chair in the departments of Philosophy and Comparative Literature.
Jorge Gracia’s voluminous publications transformed the field of Philosophy. His writing spanned several areas, including metaphysics and ontology; philosophical historiography; philosophy of language/hermeneutics; issues of ethnicity, race and nationality, specifically Hispanic and Latino issues; medieval/scholastic philosophy; and Hispanic, Latino and Latin-American philosophy. Gracia’s work in metaphysics, especially his work on individuation is magisterial; his views of race and ethnicity have helped shape the field and addressed many issues that previous theories had left unanswered. Gracia actively promoted Latin American visual artists by writing about their work and curating exhibitions here and abroad.
Jorge Gracia received recognition and numerous awards for his scholarship. In 2010, he was listed in the “Blackwell Companion to Latin American Philosophy” among 40 prominent philosophers in the history of Latin America from 1500 to the present. He was the founding chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for Hispanics in Philosophy and served as president of the Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, the Society for Iberian and Latin American Thought, the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the Metaphysical Society of America. Among the many awards and grants he received are a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, the 1992 John N. Findlay Prize in Metaphysics awarded by the Metaphysical Society of America, and the 2011 Aquinas Medal awarded by the American Catholic Philosophical Association.
Gracia published more than 45 books (authored or edited) and over 240 scholarly articles. In 2019, he published a biography of his professional journey entitled, “With a Diamond in My Shoe: A Philosopher’s Search for Identity in America”. His most recent book is a compilation of family stories from Cuba published in 2020, “Cuba before Castro: A Century of Family Memoirs”.
Jorge Gracia was a tremendous role model and mentor and was beloved by his students who held a conference in his honor in 2019. Jorge was also devoted to his family and is survived by his wife Norma, his two daughters Clarisa and Leticia, and four grandchildren. He truly loved life and lived it to the fullest; apart from his passion for philosophy, he enjoyed travel, art collecting, and refinishing antique furniture. He had an appreciation of all things beautiful, including the tender and joyful moments between human beings, and would share his delight openly and without reservation with a huge laugh that often filled a room. In a forthcoming book devoted to Gracia’s philosophical legacy, his former students write that “Gracia has indeed lived a philosophical life in the grand sense, and there is much we might say about Gracia’s contributions beyond the academic discipline of philosophy—his love for family, his sense of humor, his friendships, his service to the profession and various institutions, his love of art and music, his dedication to bringing all things under reflection, the way he has served as a phronimos, and much more.”
—College of Arts and Sciences Memorial Fund: Donations in honor of Dr. Jorge Gracia are gratefully accepted on behalf of the Gracia family by the College of Arts and Sciences Memorial Fund. Your tax-deductable donation can be made, here. You can also donate by calling 855-448-3282.
—Alzheimer's Association: The Gracia family is also grateful for donations to the Alzheimer's Association. Your tax-deductible donation will help fight Alzheimer's through vital research and essential support programs and services. Donate to the Alzheimer's Association here.
During the winter of 2018, my family was faced with some heart wrenching news. My grandfather, or Belo as my sister and I call him, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. When I first heard about his diagnosis, I did not fully grasp the severity and significance of it. While I had read about the symptoms, it was difficult for me to envision how it would impact my Belo, for I only saw the incredible grandfather, father, and scholar that he was. I assumed that if anybody could beat Alzheimers, it would be him.
After learning about his diagnosis, my Belo, a professor of philosophy and a prolific author, felt compelled to write a book about his personal experiences with aging and disease. However, as his disease progressed, it became difficult for him to work on the manuscript by himself and as a result, I have helped him with this project over the past year. This experience has had a profound impact on me in many ways.
While I loved spending time with my Belo as a child listening to his funny stories and playing silly games, recently I saw a different side of him. I learned his life story - how he confronted personal tragedies as a child, escaped Cuba alone at the age of eighteen, faced discrimination as an immigrant who did not speak English, and overcame significant health problems. Despite all this, my Belo worked hard to make the most of the opportunities he was given, continuously sought out new life experiences, and ultimately had an incredibly gratifying professional career. I was amazed that even at the age of seventy-eight, after all he had been through, he was still driven to write. It has also become clear to me that the richness of my Belo’s life has been enhanced by strong personal relationships with colleagues, students, and his family. He came to realize that what really matters in life is making lasting memories with the people one loves. Hearing story after story about his life has opened my mind and made me reflect on myself and my future.
To see my Belo struggle with daily tasks such as finding the bathroom or changing his shirt saddens me. To see him tire out after what would have been an easy hour of work two years ago pains me. To see him stumble over his words and struggle to communicate his ideas upsets me. I often think about how it would feel to be in his shoes and lose the ability to communicate with the outside world. I cannot imagine forgetting the memories that make me who I am. It is this empathy and love that I feel towards him that motivates me to help him. This experience has made me more aware of the devastating nature of neurological diseases and has given me a greater sense of empathy and the desire to help others. It has also inspired me to advocate for people who are marginalized by society as my Belo was when he came to America.
My Belo has also taught me the importance of being open to diverse experiences in order to have a full life and find a career path that will engage me for many years. There have been times when I have been reluctant to try new things and connect with new people, but working with my Belo has motivated me to step out of my comfort zone. I am excited to learn about topics I have not yet explored, travel abroad, engage in new activities, and form connections with people from a variety of different backgrounds. Ultimately, I hope to find a path that inspires me and allows me to help others. Like my Belo, I want to take advantage of the time I have and savor every moment.
November 17, 2020
I am not sure if you remember the day we met but I certainly do. I came to scope out the SUNY Buffalo Philosophy Department before making final graduate school decisions. You missed our meeting. The departmental staff was really worried because you never missed meetings and you had (as I came to learn) recently suffered from a heart attack, which had left everyone in the department a bit shaken. Turns out you simply had urgent plumbing issues in your house. You laughed away the nervousness of the department with your vivacious cackle as we re-scheduled for the following day. We met for coffee in the hotel lobby; you brought me a book of Cuban art and proceeded to eagerly answer all of my questions. I loved your energy as you even managed to laugh away a heart attack. You made quite the dramatic entrance into my life. That day marked the beginning of a teacher-student intellectual journey; a journey which had some of the hardest, but rewarding lessons of life.
As you reflect in With a Diamond in My Shoe (2019), the student teacher relationship is one that “never really ends once it has started” (142, 2019). Indeed, it does not even end after death, for it goes on in dialogue in which the memories of both parties are affected” (142, 2019). The bond between teachers and students is one of the strongest that humans can experience and is grounded in vocations of dialogue so often described as central to our discipline (142, 2019). So, in the spirit of the immortal and in the name of dialogue I wanted to write to you and not about you.
I was ecstatic when you told me you were finally writing a narrative about yourself! A personal, yet philosophical, piece on the story of Jorge. I eagerly waited for With a Diamond in My Shoe (2019). As happens with many of our mentors, I sought to know you in your multi-dimensionality, knowing that we both were many people, and some iterations of ourselves never cross paths with other people. The relationships between teachers and students are special in that they are unique precisely because they can take many forms. Nevertheless, they are the types of relationalities that persist as the things we learn are always carried with us even if that person no longer has an active role in our lives. Indeed, I wonder if I came to think about teacher-student relationships this way because of you. With a Diamond in My Shoe helped me appreciate you more fully and I thank you for your willingness to write a book of this sort.
As I turned the pages of your story, it struck me that honest biographies are courageous under-takings, with such philosophical complexities: Can we ever tell a true story about ourselves? Or are we sentenced to be the Pierre Menard’s of our own narratives? A funny thought all the same given that the only reason I know about Pierre Menard is because of you. My first semester of graduate school you taught a course titled “Interpreting Borges,” during which you had us analyze and interpret the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges alongside artworks commissioned to do the same. This was my first graduate course with you, and it was unlike anything else the department had to offer. It was a beautiful introduction to what philosophy could look like: an interdisciplinary bridge that could creatively and critically assemble ideas. Like all conditions of experience there is always an underside, the material conditions by which our experiences are possible. I learned through your memoir that the Borges course and culminating text Painting Borges: Philosophy, Interpreting Art, Interpreting Literature (2012) was really a success of integration of personal interests in art with philosophical reflections on identity, which I did not know, but suspected (233, 2019). In other words, the Borges project was many years in the making. It was never a simple creative philosophical engagement but rather the strategic outcome of many years of well planned strategic moves that would position you to take up the project in the first-place.
Art, I have come to learn, held a very special place in your heart. It links you with Cuba specifically and Latinx identity writ large (233, 2019). It's peculiar how aesthetics can produce such strong affective material bond; the kind that navigates traumas of immigration, displacement, and disenfranchisement. With a Diamond in My Shoe helped me appreciate that about you and led me to contemplate why I took up dance, music, and sound with such ardent interest since my time as your student. I think there is something profoundly important about aesthetics that many philosophers dismiss and my appreciation for the world of aesthetics as a vehicle for the human condition is rooted in a classroom on the 7th floor of Clemens Hall where you taught Interpreting Borges.
That same classroom on the 7th floor of Clemens Hall would greet me again years later when you invited me to return to SUNY Buffalo as a guest speaker, a status I certainly did not think myself worthy of at the time. Yet, you were always ardently reminding me that I was destined for great things. You told me my first job was just that, my first job. In fact, your dedication in With a Diamond in My Shoe reads: “For Stephanie, from her teacher who expects great things from her.” You bestowed me with greatness long before I could recognize it was there and for that I am eternally grateful. My time as a student at SUNY Buffalo was grim when it seemed like greatness was really a status reserved for an elite few whose qualities I seemed to lack. Yet, it was precisely this emptying absence of people of color in my graduate training that drove my interest in historiography that would come to shape the arch of my career well beyond my time at Buffalo. As I turned the pages of With a Diamond in My Shoe I came to realize that your love of history spreads across all of your interests. The importance of history in philosophical analysis emerges in much of your work but, to no surprise, I learned it is also linked to a young man who left Cuba dressed as a priest with a diamond in his shoe and a voracious appetite for knowledge with a deep love for reading.
It seems that your voracious appetite for knowledge only grew over the years. As I read the lines of your story, I was struck by the way philosophy emerged as a vocation; that is, as a way of life. Almost like the imperative of your life’s work could not be anything else. You note in one of the closing chapters that, “historical work is detective work and detective work is always fascinating in that it satisfies our curiosity. Our past, whether philosophical or not, is a mystery that requires hard work to be uncovered, and once undertaken, that work can become an addiction. The challenge of solving mysteries is a perennial enticement to humans” (245). I think one of the biggest lessons With a Diamond in My Shoe leaves readers with is just this: how can philosophy be a way of life? Much like the Caribbean anarchists of the turn of the 20th century who understood their ideals through their praxis, you lived philosophy as more than just a professional career. No rock was ever left unturned from the beam of curiosity. Your ancestors must be so proud.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. No life is ever singular. We are made possible through the relationalities we form over the course of our lives. Nowhere is this most felt in your narrative than by the story you tell about your mother, Leonila Gracia, her strength, her tenacity. A woman whom I never physically encountered but without her there is no you. So, maybe in our own way we have met and in this imaginary landscape we shared a cafecito and talked about you.
Jorge, you taught me more lessons than I can count. You reminded me that there are many ways to skin a cat as I struggled to narrow research projects. You reminded me that ideology could be dangerous. You emphatically held that Latinx peoples in philosophy can not afford to be divided; we simply would lose if we did. And as I write this amidst my final year before being eligible for tenure, I am reminded of your sage words after I successfully defended my dissertation: “no sleep until tenure.” But most importantly, during our meetings you always told me to laugh often because life is short. So, as I also begin to turn the page on some monumental moments with the close of 2020, a year no one will ever forget, I constantly remind myself to laugh and laugh often. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all you have done and all you will continue to do through the work of every student whose life you touched.
Stephanie Rivera Berruz
The author would like to acknowledge the kind editorial support of Meredith Diane Mantooth. Thank you, friend!
Gracia, J.E. 2019. With a Diamond in My Shoe: A Philosophers Search for Identity in America. Albany: SUNY Press.
. Painting Borges: Philosophy, Interpreting Art, Interpreting Literature. Albany: SUNY Press.
I first became aware of the name Jorge Gracia while studying at Marquette in the early 1980s. I went to Marquette because, though I was happy in many ways with my education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington (the college I first attended), I had long thought that—as Leibniz said—“there is philosophical gold buried in the writings of the great Schoolmen, especially Aquinas and Suarez.” There were no Schoolmen at PLU, so, after two years of college there, I went to Marquette, having been convinced by the existence of a series called The Aquinas Lectures published by Marquette University Press, that there must be many Schoolmen there. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. (Jorge later gave one of those lectures, actually, on the occasion of his being awarded The Aquinas Medal).
While studying at Marquette, I became more and more interested in the thought of Francisco Suarez, coming to think that his solutions to many deep philosophical questions made more sense than Aquinas’s (at least where they differed). This is what lead me to become acquainted with some of Jorge’s work, above all his magisterial translation of the fifth disputation of Suarez’s great Metaphysical Disputations, the one concerned with individual unity. I thought “I must study Suarez’s thought with this great scholar!”. And so I applied to SUNY at Buffalo. I was accepted and found out later that this was, in large part, because Jorge perceived that, in spite of the many typos and misspelled words in my application (these problems still haunt me—I am a horrible speller, and also bit dyslexic), I possessed intelligence and philosophical ability. Once I was accepted to study at Buffalo, I immediately accepted their offer, and would not be dissuaded by a phone call from Jude Doughty asking me to accept an offer to study at the Catholic University of America instead (later the Catholic University of America pulled out all the stops, so to speak, to get Jorge to teach there!).
I don’t remember the first time I met Jorge, but I do remember he was ever kind to me and ever fatherly in his advice from the start, as well as being very respectful of me as a budding philosopher. He never talked down to me—he always engaged with me concerning philosophical questions—and was very frank in his opinions even when he knew that I would not agree—or might even be a bit hurt by what he said. I remember especially, though he knew I was a Lutheran, his stinging condemnation of Luther as a “horrible anti-Semite” and, indeed “a horrible man” who “was responsible for the deaths of many innocent peasants”. I did not take offence at his comments because I knew that he was simply being honest with me—a sign of respect—and that he never had any desire to be hurtful in what he said. (And, indeed, later, I was able to convince him that he had been, to some extent, unfair to Luther. One could get Jorge, in contrast to many famous academics, to change his mind about things using reasoned argument!). He guided me from the start to begin to focus on the thesis of my dissertation very early in my studies, and to make, when possible, the papers I would write in my courses somehow relate to my chosen thesis. Once I began to write my dissertation, I gave it to Jorge as I was writing it, chapter by chapter. He would return every chapter within a week with copious notes, written with exquisite penmanship, in red ink. Once I remember thinking that he was being really nit-picky in writing that something I had written was not clear. But, I decided that I would rewrite the supposedly “unclear” passage in accordance with Jorge’s, very specific, suggestions. I then read both the original passage and the reworked one aloud to my boyfriend David, and ask “Which do you think is clearer?,” hoping he would think that what I had originally written was actually, clearer, or, at the very least, that both were equally clear. But
David, without skipping a beat, said “The second is much clearer”!
Mentioning David brings to mind something else about Jorge which is very important to me. At some point (I don’t remember when) I came out to Jorge. The reason why I don’t remember when I came out to him is that he never batted an eye about it. This might seem a matter of course today. But it just wasn’t in the 1980s—it wasn’t at all. Indeed, back then, certain supposedly very “liberal” people could be quite homophobic. But Jorge never was---there was never any question of his rejecting me or being ashamed of me because I was gay. This points to a deep tolerance—or, rather, a deep goodness—in Jorge, a goodness which caused him to oppose many unfair judgments society has about people who are, in one way or another, “different”. Later, when I was struggling to get tenure at the University of St. Thomas because I was openly gay, Jorge was a rock I could lean on day after day (and I often called him almost every day during this trying period.). He was just amazing during that time—a true father to me in ways I can never repay.
Both Jorge and his wife Norma (a woman who lives up to the beauty of the old opera by Bellini of the same name) eventually met David. David liked talking to them in Spanish (he was a middle and high school Spanish and French teacher) and learning all he could from them about Spain, Mexico, and South America. He immediately fell in love with both and speaks affectionately of them often. David was also present at my dissertation, when Newton Garver, who loved to surprise and terrify doctoral candidates with very deep and stinging objections, began to question my dissertation by saying it was “essentially anti-scientific”. I don’t remember exactly why he said that, or what I started to say in response, but I remember Jorge’s coming to my defense with the words “Newton, what John means is….”. Through Jorge’s calm and clear explanation, the lion of the philosophy department was mollified and Jorge’s cub (me!) protected from the lion’s teeth! David says he was very nervous during my doctoral defense—but I was not nervous since Jorge had prepared me so well, and had, as I noted, shielded me from Garver’s attack. Afterwards I remember Garver (a man I ever revered in a way, but also feared) saying to another professor present that “It was a brilliant defense”.
Thank you Jorge for, well, everything. First, thank you for all you taught me about being a good philosopher, especially about how to approach a philosophical problem by producing a series of precise definitions and distinctions to make the problem clearer. If done correctly, as you demonstrated, these will not be verbal games. Indeed, without them, arguments cannot even be properly formulated, just as possible routes from one place to another cannot be traced without having a good map of the terrain. You taught me this, and it has ever profited me in my philosophical work and my teaching. Recently I sent to the chair of my department, Mathews Grant, my first handout for a course on the Global Philosophy of Religion I will teach in the fall. It began with a serious of ever more precise definitions of “Religion”. Mathews, who took courses from Jorge at Fordham, thought what I had written was “excellent” but also said “This is so Jorge, John.”
Thank you Jorge, for being a mentor who was also a friend, a friend who loved me and supported me and accepted me as gay at a time when many would not. Thank you for your broad interests, for your love of art and music and architecture and nature (I do still remember long conversations about opera I had with you!). Thank you for your example of being a good and faithful husband and father. Your love for Norma, and faithfulness to her for 55 years, and her love for you, as well your devotion to your children and grandchildren, are shining examples of what a long life of love and devotion essentially is, and of all of the good fruits it produces. God bless and keep you, Jorge. I hope to see you again soon, my dear old teacher and friend.
How very lucky we are were to have known Jorge. Hearing about this sad, sad loss while in Montana, an open, beautiful place, was somehow fitting. For openness and beauty are two qualities that Jorge had in spades. As I looked back over decades of email exchanges, a word that came up again and again, especially in the subject headings of my messages to Jorge, was “advice”. Jorge was always there to give me advice, to lift my spirits when this profession seemed inhospitable, to protect me from the profession’s bullies, to help me develop strategies for dealing with the many colorful personalities of our profession. He was, as all of his students know well, quick to alert us when we needed to correct course, but also just as quick to give us loving words of encouragement. He always wanted what was best for us, and that was and remains a great gift.
In recounting to my son, Michael, why I was crying over Jorge’s passing, I told him that I had lost one of the few people who really desired my well-being and went out of his way to help me become who and what I wanted to be. Indeed, in one of our email exchanges, shortly after the birth of my son, Jorge was full of advice for me in my role as mother. In that message, after beautiful words of praise for his two highly accomplished daughters, he offered: “The best thing for us as parents, it seems to me, is to give opportunities to our children and let them go in whatever way they want” -- this openness to the talents of others combined with his commitment to opening up opportunities for others was unique and part of what made Jorge such a treasured teacher and mentor.
We were all so fortunate to have had Jorge’s keen intelligence, generous spirit, and uplifting laughter in our lives. I hope Jorge knew how much we loved and treasured him. In a field in which we are not trained to praise, but rather to bury, Jorge, though very demanding, praised when praise was due, and was always available to offer guidance.
In a message from 2011, Jorge reminded me to: “Never lose the joy of scholarship, it is the ticket to happiness and contentment.” Then he added, “ It is very satisfying to see the success of my students, now that I am at the end of my own career, although still having fun doing new things and pushing the boundaries….I really have been fortunate with my students” – in response I wrote: “My good fortune in philosophy really began when I met you, and I will be forever grateful for your support – you helped me find my home in philosophy -- who could have known that an interest in Latin American philosophy could coexist (and even flourish) with my strange interest in early German Romanticism -- but you indulged me, and that, to harken back to Frost, has made all the difference. So I thank you, but no words can really express my gratitude -- my debt to you is one that I carry most gladly.” In a typical move, Jorge deflected my words of gratitude, writing: “You are a very kind person and your warm and kind words about me are much appreciated. As I said, I consider myself fortunate to have had you as a student and I am fortunate to have you as a friend. However, you should not feel indebted to me, because you have already paid me amply with your own success and exemplary life. I am proud of you and do not expect from you, or any of my students, anything but a commitment to excellence and continued flourishing.” The level of generosity expressed in Jorge’s words is indeed a rare and invaluable gift.
It was much easier to flourish when nurtured by the guiding spirit that Jorge offered. Those of us lucky enough to have counted Jorge as our teacher, mentor, and friend, will continue our commitment to excellence, inspired by his example. He, Norma, Leticia, and Clarisa offered to our philosophical community at UB so much love, joy, and kindness. My work will continue to be led by the bright light Jorge offered, and I will continue to insist (Jorge was all too well acquainted with my obstinance) that I do have a debt to Jorge, one that I can never possibly repay; it is a most beautiful debt, and I will always carry it close to my heart.
Thank you Jorge, for everything. I will miss you so very much. The field of philosophy is a much richer place for all of your brilliant contributions, and all of your students are better thinkers and people for your presence in their lives. Jorge may have begun his voyage in the United States with just a diamond in his shoe, but he managed to share with his students a wealth more valuable and more beautiful than any diamond.
Webpage published 7/14/21; updated 7/30/21.