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It is with great sadness that the VUB has to announce that its Doctor Honoris Causa, Rom Harré, passed away on 17 October 2019 at the age of 91.
Rom Harré was a towering figure in contemporary philosophy who was active in many different fields such as the philosophical foundations of chemistry and quantum physics, as well as social sciences and psychology.
Harré was born in Apiti, New Zealand, but held British citizenship. He first studied chemical engineering and mathematics (1948) and then Philosophy, all at the University of New Zealand. He then moved to University College, Oxford, where he completed in 1956 a B.Phil. under the supervision of John Austin in 1956. In 1960 (age 34) he was appointed as the successor to Frederick Waismann as University Lecturer in Philosophy of Science and became a Fellow of Linacre College. Oxford remained his home base for the rest of his life. After mandatory retirement from Oxford in 1995 he joined the psychology department of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. where he worked together with Ali Moghaddam.
From 2009 until 2011 he served as Director Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. Throughout his career he published more than 50 books and hundreds of articles. Influenced by authors such as John Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lev Vygotsky, Harré has produced his own and innovative approach to humanities and social sciences topics, while also continuing to contribute to the philosophy of science by exploring causality and practices.
Recognized today as a founder of modern social psychology, Harré developed the micro-sociological approach ‘ethogenics’ and facilitated the discursive turn within psychology. Throughout his career he engaged in many cooperations with scholars from around the world. Including from the VUB. First, he worked with the late professor Jean-Pierre De Waele on the study of human personality from a biographical perspective. This collaboration allowed to link the practice of personality assessment to a comprehensive theory of persons. Their joint work resulted in several seminal publications. In 1986 Rom Harré was awarded the title of VUB Dr honoris causa on the proposal of the department of psychology with Professor Jean-Pierre De Waele as proximus.
Harré tackled many different aspects of psychology and the social sciences at large with his critical look and his conviction that the social sciences had to change dramatically in order to have an explanatory power. In 1998 he started working on the development of Positioning Theory. During a sabbatical at Oxford, VUB professor Luk Van Langenhove joined Harré in this endeavor and together they started to work on a series of books aimed to ‘rethink psychology” as well as on developing the theoretical foundations of positioning theory. Today, Positioning Theory is used within both philosophy and social scientific approaches aimed at conflict analysis, analyses of power relations, and the study of narrative structures in teacher/pupil interactions. The development and impact of positioning theory can be understood as part of a second cognitive revolution within psychology. Whereas the first cognitive revolution involved incorporating cognition as both thoughts and feelings as an ineliminable part of psychology and social sciences, this second revolution released this cognition from a focus on individuals, and towards a focus of understanding individuals as participating in public practices using public discourses as part of their cognition.
Rom Harré’s contribution to the philosophy of science, the ontology of social sciences in general and the methodology of psychology in particular, will have lasting effects on the psychological and social sciences. His book ‘The explanation of social behavior’ that he wrote in 1974 with Paul Secord, has been recognized as a ‘citation classic’. In 2010 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Today, we can only be grateful that Harré left us an overwhelming and complex oeuvre that deserves to be further disseminated. Harré was a born optimist, and a believer in the possibility of societal and personal change.
Books that summarize and evaluate his work are:
- Bhaskar, R. (1990). Rom Harré and his critics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell
- Rothbart, D. (2004). Modeling: Gateway to the unknown. A Work by Rom Harré. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Van Langenhove (2011). People and Societies. Rom Harré and designing the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.
- Bo Allesøe. (2019). The Second Cognitive Revolution. A tribute to Rom Harré. Springer, New York.