Monthly Archives: November 2013

In Memoriam: Edward Francis McClennen II, 16 August 1936 – 2 November 2013

Adrian M. S. Piper

While learning the literature in Ramsey-Savage decision theory in order to come to grips with the Humean model of utility-maximizing rationality that Ned and so many others took for granted, I once complained to him that I could retain the proofs and theorems in mind only long enough to write down what I wanted to say about them, after which I immediately forgot them. Each time I thought I might have something more to add, I had to start over again, virtually from scratch. “It’s like that for all of us,” he replied.

That is the way he was: guileless, with this strange intellectual humility that only a deeply rooted philosophical self-assurance could have produced, an Emperor’s New Clothes wild man, his instinctive reactions unconstrained by strategic professional calculation, blithely letting slip closely guarded secrets about the human vulnerabilities of the field, its treasured theories, and its members; constantly flouting the unwritten rules of silence, stonewalling and obfuscation that governed the decision theory men’s club of which he was a lifetime member; always spontaneously dishing up insights, references, and arguments that called his own views into question, as though knowledge and competence in this arcane subspecialty were intellectual goods to be distributed as widely as possible, regardless of advantage, rather than weapons and armor to be jealously guarded, shared and traded only with other members. He didn’t even seem to get that he was a member: that he wasn’t supposed to confirm the validity of critiques that came from very much outside that club; or to encourage arguments and interpretations that no card-carrying member of it would make; or to initiate into the mysteries of the Sure-Thing principle, the Strong Independence Axiom, dispersion of probability distributions, average discounted value, commodity non-complementarity, the standard reduction assumption, etc. someone who could never have hoped to join. He seemed not to notice that, and treated me as though in fact I had; indeed, as though I were as much a member as he. One time I told him about a decision theory conference he had been unable to attend, where I’d had to explain to one of his presenting colleagues what a money pump was in the Q&A. I joked that it had been my finest hour. “Mine, too,” he answered. As he never tried to hit on me, or even evinced any interest in doing so, I didn’t quite know what to make of him, and of his unstinting support for my work. He had made an about-face transition from student and son of University of Michigan English Professor Joshua McClennen in the 1950s to Port Huron founding member of SDS in the 1960s. Perhaps this metamorphosis had taught him to value outsider challenges to inner-sanctum authority as worthy of cultivation in themselves. Continue reading

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