Stephan Körner, FBA (26 September 1913 – 17 August 2000) was a British philosopher, who specialised in the work of Kant, the study of concepts, and in the philosophy of mathematics. Born to a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, he left the country to avoid certain death at the hands of the Nazis after the German occupation in 1939, and came to the United Kingdom as a refugee, where he began his study of philosophy; by 1952 he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, taking up a second professorship at Yale in 1970. He was married to Edith Körner, and was the father of the mathematician Thomas Körner and the biochemist, writer and translator (née) Ann M. Körner.
Körner was born in Ostrava, then part of Austria-Hungary, in 1913, the son of a teacher of classics and his wife. His father had studied classics in Vienna, while at the same time, winning prizes in mathematics to supplement his meager income (a fellow student was a certain Leo Trotsky, who was frequently asked, "When is that great revolution that you are always talking about going to happen?"). Despite an early wish to study philosophy, Stephan was dissuaded by his father, who feared that his son would become a penniless academic; he was persuaded to study something more practical, and took his degree in law at Charles University in Prague, completing it in 1935. (He practised law only briefly but retained a strong interest, attending seminars at Yale Law School after his appointment as a visiting professor at Yale in the 1970s.) From 1936 to 1939 he carried out his military service, serving as an officer in the cavalry (see photograph).
After German troops moved into the country in March 1939, a schoolmate of his, an officer in the SS, warned the Jewish family that life in German-occupied Moravia was no longer safe. His parents refused to leave, believing that they had nothing to fear since they were not communists. His mother died in 1941 after deportation to Minsk Ghetto, Belarus, on Transport F, and his father died in 1939, most likely by his own hand, during deportation to Nisko. His first cousin Ruth Maier was one of many other family members who died at Auschwitz, after her arrest in and deportation from Norway. She is remembered as Norway's Anne Frank. Stephan travelled with two friends, Otto Eisner and Willi Haas, through Poland to the United Kingdom, arriving a refugee just as the Second World War began. In Britain, he rejoined the army of the émigré Czechoslovak government; he saw service with them during the Battle of France in 1940 before returning to Britain.
He received a small grant to continue his education at the University of Cambridge, where he studied philosophy under R. B. Braithwaite at Trinity Hall; among others, he was taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Professor Braithwaite was exceedingly kind to his refugee student. On one occasion, Braithwaite invited him to his home saying, "Someone has given me a Hungarian salami; would you come to my house and show me how to eat it?" Such invitations were welcome since Stephan made little money as a waiter in a Greek restaurant and survived on "one fourpenny meat pie per day." In 1943 he was recalled to the Czechoslovak army, serving as a sergeant in the infantry during the push through France and into Germany. He would later say that he survived the fighting outside Dunkirk due to Dickens; recuperating in hospital from a minor wound, a doctor refused to discharge him until he had had another day to finish his novel. As a result, he missed the heavy fighting the next day, when many of his close friends were killed.
He was awarded his PhD in 1944; shortly afterwards, he married Edith Laner ("Diti"; born Edita Leah Löwy; in 1938/39, her father changed the family name to Laner in a vain attempt to deceive the Nazis into thinking that he and his family were not Jewish), a fellow Czech refugee, whom he had met in London in 1941. He remained in the Czechoslovak army until 1946.
After his army service, he worked at Cardiff University, tutoring students in German. He took up his first academic post in 1947, lecturing in philosophy at the University of Bristol; he worked ten or more hours a day, six days a week, in what his son would describe as "[working] at philosophy like a man works at coal mining". Within six years, in 1952, he was appointed to the sole professorship and chairmanship of his department, which he would hold until 1979. In 1965 and 1966 he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and from 1968 to 1971 a Pro-Vice-Chancellor.
During this time he worked as a visiting professor of philosophy at Brown University in 1957, Yale University in 1960, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1963, University of Texas at Austin in 1964 and Indiana University in 1967. In 1970 he returned to Yale with a tenured visiting professorship in philosophy, holding it jointly with the Bristol post for nine years, and then as his sole post from 1979 to 1984. Bristol appointed him a professor emeritus on his retirement, and he subsequently held a visiting professorship at the University of Graz from 1980 to 1989.
He received honorary doctorates from the Queen's University Belfast in 1981, and Graz in 1984, where he was appointed to an honorary professorship in 1986. Bristol appointed him an honorary fellow in 1987, as did Trinity Hall in 1991.
He was President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science in 1965, the Aristotelian Society in 1967, the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science in 1969, and the Mind Association in 1973. He edited the journal Ratio from 1961 to 1980, and was on the editorial board of Erkenntnis from 1974–1999. In 1967 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
In 1955 he published his first two major works. Kant, an introduction for non-specialists to Immanuel Kant's work, went through several impressions over the next three decades and is still regarded as a minor classic in the field; it was one of the first post-war books to reintroduce Kant to the English-speaking world. The fact that in this and later works Korner mistakenly assumed that Kant's categories apply directly to ordinary empirical science, a decisive error in understanding Kant, was little noticed by a public grateful for any short work covering all of Kant's philosophy. The second, Conceptual Thinking, was a more specialised study, studying the way in which people deal with "exact" and "inexact" concepts – exact concepts, like logical constructs or mathematical ideas, could be clearly defined, whilst inexact concepts, like 'colour', would always have unclear boundaries. In 1957 he expanded on this, editing Observation and Interpretation, a collection of papers arising from a seminar which brought together both philosophers and physicists to discuss these questions.
His work led him into the philosophy of mathematics, on which he would publish a textbook in 1960; Philosophy of Mathematics took as its central theme the question of how applied mathematics can be metaphysically possible.
He also wrote on the philosophy of science in Experience and Theory (1966), including work on theoretical incommensurability, the concept that two directly contradictory theories – such as classical mechanics and relativity – can coexist, without either being specifically "wrong".
In 1969 he published What is Philosophy?, and in 1970 Categorial Frameworks, attempts to put forward his views to a general audience. Experience and Conduct, published in 1979, discussed how we evaluate and develop our own preferences and value systems; his final work, Metaphysics: Its Structure and Function (1984) was a wide-ranging study of metaphysics.
Körner was remembered by colleagues and pupils as "extraordinarily handsome with an astonishing Czech accent ... [with] a certain sense of grandeur about him". He retained an old-fashioned sense of manners, formal but courteous, as well as a formal appearance. Even on the hottest days, he was never seen without a tie and jacket.
He lived a happy and contented home life; he and Edith were remembered by friends as exceptionally close and devoted to one another. In their early married life they fitted the conventional academic mould – whilst he worked incessantly at his studies, she raised the family, looked after the house, managed the finances – but after the children had grown and left she worked at her own career, eventually becoming the chairman of the magistrates' court in Bristol and overseeing the redevelopment of the National Health Service's information-management system. Edith managed their lives, as with everything else, in a practical, organised and forceful way, ensuring that he could work as freely as possible; he was fond of saying that "Diti does everything, but leaves the philosophy to me".
The couple had two children – Thomas, a professor of mathematics, and Ann, a biochemist, writer and translator, who married Sidney Altman, a professor at Yale University. In 1989, Professor Altman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Following Edith's diagnosis with advanced cancer in the summer of 2000, the two attempted to commit suicide together. They were found, according to the police report, with plastic bags tied around their heads and pillows on top of them, that August after fifty-six years of marriage; they were survived by both children and by four grandchildren, one of whom is Daniel Altman.
- Kant. 1955.
- Conceptual Thinking. 1955.
- (ed) Observation and Interpretation: a symposium of philosophers and physicists. 1957.
- The Philosophy of Mathematics. 1960, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-25048-2.
- Experience and Theory 1966.
- What is Philosophy?. 1969.
- Categorial Frameworks. 1970.
- (ed) Practical Reason. 1974.
- (ed) Explanation. 1976.
- Experience and Conduct. 1976.
- Metaphysics: its structure and function. 1984.
- Note that several contemporary news reports give 18 August, apparently in error.
- Thomas Körner, interview in the Daily Mail.
- S. Korner, Experience and Theory, New York: The Humanities Press, 1966, pp. 176–178
- Dr. Andrew Harrison, quoted in the Times obituary ("Professor Stephan Korner").
- Ahuja, Anjana. An organised death. The Times, 4 September 2000. (Electronic copy)
- Harrison, Andrew. "In Memoriam: Stephan Körner (1913–2000)". Ertkenntnis, vol. 55, no. 1, July 2001.
- ———. "Obituary: Stephan Korner". The Guardian, 30 August 2000.
- "Körner, Prof. Stephan." In Who's Who 2006. 2005.
- "Philosopher Stephan Körner". Yale Bulletin, vol. 29, no. 2, 15 September 2000.
- "Professor Stephan Korner". The Times, 23 August 2000.
- "Tribute to Professor Stephan Körner", University of Bristol Communications Office, 19 September 2000.
- Walker, Sophie. "Together to the very end". Daily Mail, 4 October 2000.