June 2001


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Written by
Trudy Bayer

42nd Floor

A Philosopher-Queen

Tamara Horowitz was a philosopher fascinated by people and mathematics. She was especially interested in how people make decisions, particularly when the outcomes are highly uncertain. Her own rise to prominence in the philosophical world was itself an unlikely outcome. As a philosopher and mathematician, she negotiated intellectual territory still largely controlled by men and often inhospitable to women.

During this journey, she was often the first: most notably, the first woman to receive a doctorate from MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy; the first woman to chair the world-class Department of Philosophy at Pitt. Tamara was also on the verge of another important first. She was about to publish a book that brought together a decade of her philosophical thinking: a controversial argument in which she challenged established beliefs about how we weigh the probability of an outcome. Her work was expected to influence a number of academic disciplines.

But three weeks after assuming the chair of Pitt’s philosophy department, Tamara was hit with excruciating head pain and confusion. These were the first overt symptoms of a rare brain disease. The malignant tumor on her pineal gland, an area of the brain named by Descartes, who believed it to be the center of the soul, was virulent and fast moving. Four months later, at the age of 49, Tamara Horowitz died as she had lived—a philosopher-queen.

Why do I call her a philosopher-queen? Because to know Tamara was to touch the original meaning of philosophy: “friendship with wisdom.” And while Plato only imagined the possibility of philosopher-kings, who integrated the highest forms of knowledge and justice throughout their private relationships and public affairs, Tamara’s extraordinary capacity to look deeply into herself and her relationship with others, with justice, with knowledge, and with the world would seem to fulfill Plato’s criteria and greatest hope for society.

The very act of meeting Tamara was the beginning of an illuminating odyssey. Sexy and attractive, the woman with thick black hair and dark eyes, often wearing a leather mini-skirt and fake tattoos, didn’t quite fit the stereotype of someone renowned for her mathematical and philosophical mind.

More delightful than Tamara’s physical appearance was how little time she devoted to it. She rarely did more than run her hands through her hair, rarely wore makeup. In fact, she rarely even looked in a mirror. In her mid-20s Tamara questioned her attachment to appearance and started a simple experiment with it. She quit looking in mirrors. Initially, she removed the mirrors from her apartment. Then she began to retrain herself to avoid looking in all mirrors. Her experiment lasted two years, with the habit of glancing at herself in store windows lingering the longest. What began as a game with narcissism had far-reaching effects. She came to believe that physical appearance, while somewhat entertaining, distorted our perception of both self and others.

The daughter of artists and political activists, Tamara was exposed to art and politics growing up in Brooklyn. She loved film, theater, dance, painting, music, aerobics, and the New York Mets. Her mother was a poet and collage artist; her father, a director and writer.

Tamara’s own commitment to politics emerged early. In high school, she became an agitator against the Vietnam War. A cheerleader, she convinced the squad to make a public anti-war statement by wearing black armbands at the games. Ultimately she led the first shutdown of a high school in a moratorium against the war. Even though it put her college and scholarship recommendations at risk, Tamara continued her anti-war activism, believing it our responsibility to intervene into the affairs that cause human suffering. An outstanding student, she was nevertheless rejected by a number of schools. The University of Chicago, however, offered her a scholarship as a mathematics major. She was 15.

Tamara’s political concerns evolved into an interrelated set of human rights and economic issues that surfaced in her professional life. Hundreds of Pitt undergrads had the opportunity to study with Tamara in her provocative and popular course in social and political philosophy. She developed a course in philosophical perspectives on feminism, sought to draw philosophical connections between seemingly diverse fields, and was an outspoken advocate of full equity for members of the gay and lesbian community.

To call Tamara a philosopher-queen may suggest an elitist attitude. In fact, she was the opposite—grateful for trusted friends and associates wherever she found them, irrespective of status, role, or other outward forms, including ways of speaking. (A veteran of the New York City public school system, she could easily break into a thick Brooklyn accent.) Her authenticity, generous heart, and great soul characterized her intimate “friendship with wisdom.”

As Tamara’s illness progressed, her partner of 20 years, brother, stepsons, and close friends kept vigil with her. An overflowing box containing her nearly completed manuscript was tied with a ribbon and placed on a table beside her. It is now being prepared for publication.

(Trudy Bayer teaches communications at Pitt.)

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