Nicholas Rescher was born in the city of Hagen in the Westphalia region of Germany. In his autobiography he traces his descent to Nehemias Rescher (1735-1801), a founder of the Hochberg-Remseck Jewish community in Swabian Germany. He relocated to the United States when he was 10. He obtained a degree in mathematics at Queens College, New York. Thereafter, he attended Princeton University, graduating with his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1951 at the age of 22, the youngest person ever to have obtained a Ph.D. in that department. From 1952 to 1954, he served a term in the United States Marine Corps, and then from 1954 to 1957 he worked for the Rand Corporation's mathematics division. He has taught at the University of Pittsburgh since 1961. The orientalist Oskar Rescher is the greatest cousin of Nicholas's father.
Rescher began his career as an academic at Princeton University in 1951. He joined the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1961, becoming the first associate director of its new Center for Philosophy of Science the following year. In 1964, he founded the American Philosophical Quarterly. From 1980 to 1981, Rescher served as the chairman of the philosophy department. In July 1988, Rescher changed roles at the Center for Philosophy of Science, resigning as its director and becoming its chairman. In 2010, he donated his philosophy collection to the Hillman Library.
Rescher is a prolific writer, with over 100 books and 400 articles, generating the jest that Rescher is not a single person, but a committee sharing the name. Philosopher Michele Marsonet, who has published extensively on Rescher's philosophy, writes that his prolific publication is in itself the most common objection against Rescher, adding "it is, indeed, a leitmotiv of all those unwilling to discuss his ideas". Rescher has described his own approach to philosophy as synthesizing the idealism of Germany and Great Britain with the pragmatism of the U.S.
Rescher's university biography describes his philosophical work thus:
His work envisions a dialectical tension between our synoptic aspirations for useful knowledge and our human limitations as finite inquirers. The elaboration of this project represents a many-sided approach to fundamental philosophical issues that weaves together threads of thought from the philosophy of science, and from continental idealism and American pragmatism.
In the mid and late 1960s, his studies were focused on medieval Arabic logic, but he soon broadened his areas of inquiry in metaphysics and epistemology, moving towards the methodological pragmatism he would define. In the 1970s, he began working more extensively with American pragmatism with a focus on the writings of C. S. Peirce, who was to number among his major influences. In 1966, Rescher collaborated with Herbert A. Simon on a ground-breaking paper on the theory of causality.
He has contributed to futuristics, and with Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey [sk], invented the Delphi method of forecasting. A lifelong aficionado of the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz, Rescher has been instrumental in the reconstruction of Leibniz's machina deciphratoria, an ancestor of the famous Enigma cipher machine. Rescher is also responsible for two further items of historical rediscovery and reconstruction: the model of cosmic evolution in Anaximander, and the medieval Islamic theory of modal syllogistic.
Rescher has been honored for his work. In 1984, he received the Humboldt Prize for Humanistic Scholarship. In 2005, he received the Cardinal Mercier Prize, and in 2007 the American Catholic Philosophical Society's Aquinas Medal. In 2011, his contributions as a German-American to philosophy were recognized with the premier cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Founder's Medal of the American Metaphysical Society (2016), and the Helmholtz Medal of the German Academy of Sciences Berlin-Brandenburg. He holds eight honorary degrees. Having held visiting lectureships at Oxford, Konstanz, Salamanca, Munich, and Marburg, he has been awarded fellowships by the Ford, Guggenheim, and National Science Foundations. Furthermore he has been honored in some other countries including Iran where his books have been subject to philosophical contemplation. In April 2021, University of Tehran held a session in honor of Nicholas Rescher with his presence as the keynote speaker, which was mirrored in the Iranian media.
In this session, Nadia Maftouni, an Iranian academic and a Yale appointee called him a successful philosopher in addressing a broad audience. She asserted:
Rescher’s A Journey through Philosophy in 101 Anecdotes is a successful framework to reach a broader audience in the field. At first glance it seems an easy book to write. But at least in philosophy, it’s easy to write in a complicated style and it’s hard to write in a simple, clear, and readable fashion.
The Nicholas Rescher Prize and Medal
In 2010, the University of Pittsburgh created the Dr. Nicholas Rescher Fund for the Advancement of the Department of Philosophy which bestows the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Contributions to Systematic Philosophy. The first recipient of the prize was Rescher's former student, Ernest Sosa. As of 2012, the prize included a gold medal and $25,000, subsequently raised to $30,000. Later awardees include Alvin Plantinga, Juergen Mittelstrass, Hilary Putnam, and Ruth Millikan. When the American Philosophical Association inaugurated its own Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy in 2018, the University of Pittsburgh redesignated its award as the Rescher Medal.
Ernest Sosa (ed), The Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher (Dordrecht, 1979).
Robert Almeder (ed.), Praxis and Reason: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982).
Heinrich Coomann, Die Kohaerenztheorie der Wahrheit: Eine kritische Darstellung der Theorie Reschers von Ihrem historischen Hintergrund (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1983).
Andrea Bottani, Veritá e Coerenza: Suggio su'll epistemologia coerentista di Nicholas Rescher (Milano: Franco Angeli Liberi, 1989).
Michele Marsonet, The Primacy of Practical Reason: An Essay on Nicholas Rescher's Philosophy (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1995).
A. Wüstehube and M. Quante (ed's.), Pragmatic Idealism: Critical Essays on Nicholas Rescher's System of Pragmatic Idealism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998).
Martin Carrier et. al (eds.), Science at the Century's End: Philosophical Questions on the Progress and Limits of Science (Pittsburgh and Konstanz: University of Pittsburgh Press and University of Konstanz Press, 2000).
Lotfallah Nabavi, Avicennan Logic Based on Nicholas Rescher's Point of View (Tehran: Scientific and Cultural Publication Co., 2003).
Michel Weber (ed.), After Whitehead: Rescher and Process Philosophy: Critiques and Replies (Frankfurt: ONTOS Verlag, 2004).
Robert Almeder (ed.), Rescher Studies: A Collection of Essays on the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher (Frankfurt: ONTOS Verlag, 2008).
Wenceslao González, La predicción científica: concepciones filosófico-metodológicas desde H. Reichenbach a N. Rescher (Barcelona: Editorial-Montesinos, 2010).
Wulf Kellerwessel, Nicholas Rescher: Das philosophische System (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).
Sami Piltsröm (ed.), Pragmatism and Objectivity: Essays Sparked by the Work of Nicholas Rescher (London: Routledge, 2017).
F. L. Giralido Gutiérrez, Racionalidad technológia en el uso y consumede technológia (Bogala: Institutio Technológico Metropolitano, 2017).
Amanda Guillán, Pragmatic Idealism and Scientific Predication (Berlin: Springer, 2017).