With an uncompromising, volatile brilliance, Marjorie Grene helped shape a modern philosophical approach to biology, opening a new field that strives to interpret the deepest meanings of the scientific study of life, including the meaning of humanness.
A philosopher of biology who once spent time as a farmer’s wife writing scholarly works before doing chores, Dr. Grene was one of the first philosophers to raise questions about the synthetic theory of evolution, which combines Darwin’s theory of evolution, Mendel’s understanding of genetic inheritance and more recent discoveries by molecular biologists.
One question she addressed, using parallels with ancient philosophers, was the implications of the role of chance in evolution.
Another was the role of cellular components, other than genes, that govern the development of an organism and its physical features.
She wrote about the difference between life and nonlife, and how species are defined. Using Darwin as a basis, she speculated on the idea of human freedom.
“She was arguably the founding figure in the new field of the philosophy of biology,” Michael V. Wedin, a philosopher at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an essay posted on the Internet.
Dr. Grene — who died on March 16 in Blacksburg, Va., at the age of 98, her daughter, Ruth, said — studied with Heidegger, Jaspers, Alfred North Whitehead and other 20th-century philosophers. And she drew on their insights into perception and communication in her own vast studies into the history of philosophy. Several of her 13 books were among the first to bring the thinking of Sartre and other existentialists to the American public.
Her guiding light was Aristotle, whom she regarded as much a biologist as a philosopher and about whom she wrote two books. She rejected Descartes’ belief that self-awareness defined the understanding of existence, arguing that meaning comes from interaction with the environment.
Richard Burian, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech, where Dr. Grene also taught, said her rejection of Cartesian introspection meant that she was “bucking the mainstream of philosophic thought for her entire career.”
Dr. Grene early and fully grasped the revolution in biology in the last century that came from more powerful microscopes, the use of short-lived organisms like fruit flies for breeding experiments and a rigorous application of the scientific method. Dr. Burian said she was perhaps the first philosopher in the United States or Europe to raise philosophic questions about the resultant expansion of the knowledge of evolution.
The philosophy of biology subjects conceptual puzzles within biology to philosophic analysis, and applies biology to discussions of traditional philosophic questions. Increasingly, philosophers have met with geneticists, anthropologists, paleontologists, bacteriologists and others to help come up with intellectual contexts for scientific research.
Dr. Grene helped pave the way for this sort of cooperation by running at least five summer seminars for the National Endowment for the Humanities and two summer institutes for the Council for Philosophical Studies. She also helped form the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, which named a major award for her.
In 2004, Dr. Grene and David Depew published the first book-length history of the philosophy of biology, “The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.”
Marjorie Glicksman was born in Milwaukee on Dec. 13, 1910, and graduated from Wellesley College in 1931 as a zoology major. She then studied with Heidegger and Jaspers in Germany before earning her doctorate at Radcliffe. She taught at the University of Chicago, where she met and married David Grene, a lauded classicist known for his translations of Greek tragedies.
In 1944, she followed her husband’s dream and moved to an Illinois farm. As a farmer’s wife and the mother of two children, she got up early to study and write philosophy before beginning farm work. In 1952, the family moved to a farm in Ireland, where the routine continued.
The farm life taught her a lesson, she wrote in “A Philosophical Testament” (1995): “Agricultural duties and critical philosophies didn’t mix.”
In Chicago, she had met Michael Polanyi, a distinguished physical chemist turned philosopher; she ended up helping him research and develop his important book “Personal Knowledge” (1958). The book proposed a far more nuanced, personal idea of knowledge, and directly addressed approaches to science.
“There is hardly a page that has not benefited from her criticism,” Dr. Polanyi wrote in his acknowledgments. “She has a share in anything I may have achieved here.”
The Grenes divorced in 1961, and David died in 2002. In addition to her daughter, Dr. Grene is survived by her son, Nicholas; six grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
Dr. Grene returned to teaching at universities in Manchester and Leeds in the late 1950s. She ultimately taught at a dozen or more colleges and universities, spending 13 years at the University of California, Davis, where she was chairwoman of the philosophy department. Since 1988, she had been Honorary University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.
Dr. Grene was legendary for her intellectual ferocity. Dr. Wedin wrote that she “always managed to find fresh ways to impugn views she regarded as ill-founded, ill-argued, or just plain nonsense. And there were many such views.”
But she was kind to young colleagues and baked cookies for the office. When asked her specialty in philosophy, she modestly wrote, “I stammer and say, ‘Oh, well, this and that.’ ”
Her sense of humor sparkled when she was asked about being the first woman to have an edition of the Library of Living Philosophers devoted to her — Volume 29 in 2002. Previous honorees included Bertrand Russell and Einstein. “I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman,” Dr. Grene said.