Teacher-Scholar Legacies: Ralph Kennedy

By Win-chiat Lee, Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy

Ralph KennedyDr. Ralph Kennedy, our beloved colleague in the Philosophy Department, is retiring, having served for 45 years on the faculty.

It would no doubt cause him some distress to know that there is a write-up about him, as anyone who knows him knows he avoids the limelight and does not like to call attention to himself. This is the man who has accomplished many things, but prefers to keep them in the dark. This is also the man whose humility and understatement we have come to admire and found endearing.

Luckily for us philosophers, Ralph does not practice understatement when it comes to philosophy. He calls it as he sees it. He is an outstanding philosopher with a piercing analytic mind to approach any subject under consideration. Many of us have benefited greatly in our own work from his sharp, insightful criticisms. 

When he was Assistant Professor, he attended an NEH Summer Seminar run by one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Roderick Chisholm. Professor Chisholm was so impressed with Ralph that, without being asked, he wrote to the Philosophy Department Chair at the time to urge that Ralph be granted tenure. As a young Assistant Professor, Ralph also produced significant articles in inductive logic that remain classics in the field.

Students have also benefited from his piercing philosophical eyes. His last Honors student, Wang Yifei (’18), has this to say about him as a mentor: “Each week he would, tirelessly, provide me with abundant feedback, advice, and philosophical insights on my paper, which I still regard as the most significant achievement in my life. His wit, precision, patience, humor, and persistence of quality are always what I look up to. Professor Kennedy is the person who comes to my mind whenever I was asked to describe a typical philosopher.”

“Each week he would, tirelessly, provide me with abundant feedback, advice, and philosophical insights on my paper, which I still regard as the most significant achievement in my life. His wit, precision, patience, humor, and persistence of quality are always what I look up to. Professor Kennedy is the person who comes to my mind whenever I was asked to describe a typical philosopher.” Wang Yifei (’18)

Another former student, Shannon Bothwell (’98), has this to say, “I soon realized that the mild-mannered professor also had many qualities I admired: a dry wit, boyish inquisitiveness, genuine humility, fair-mindedness, and, above all, sincere kindness. Spending a semester at Casa Artom in Venice with Ralph, Claudia, and their two boys was, of course, a highlight of my Wake Forest experience. But what I treasure most is that our initial teacher-logic, nerd relationship has turned into a friendship of nearly 25 years.”

His commitment to giving his best to teaching is legendary. He never puts any of his courses on automatic pilot and would spend a lot of time reworking a course even if he had just taught it the semester before — hence the quip that Professor Kennedy has never taught the same course twice.

Ralph has taken many leadership roles. He served as Chair of the Department of Philosophy for 11 consecutive years, in addition to two additional years as Acting Chair. It was on his watch with his ever-so-subtle, but highly effective steering and nudging that the department was shaped into we are today. Little known is his leadership in the use of computers at Wake Forest in its early days. As a pioneer (or guinea pig) of the use of our earliest email system, he is one of few faculty members whose wfu.edu email address is just his last name, Kennedy, pure and simple.

Robert Audi, John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, is a friend of Ralph’s and of the Department of Philosophy. As an astute observer and a regular visitor to the Department for almost three decades, Professor Audi’s remarks about Ralph sum it up: “I have had the pleasure of teaching some classes with Ralph, and I found his way of mentoring students a model of instruction: insightful, responsive, friendly, often subtly humorous. I’ve also benefited from his work, especially on the topic of perception. As a visiting professor when he was chair, I acquired a first-hand appreciation for his leadership style. Over several decades, he has been a vital force in making Wake’s Philosophy Department among the very finest in all the liberal arts colleges in the country.”

“I soon realized that the mild-mannered professor also had many qualities I admired: a dry wit, boyish inquisitiveness, genuine humility, fair-mindedness, and, above all, sincere kindness. ” Shannon Bothwell (’98)