Obituary: Stephen A. Erickson
Esteemed, award-winning Pomona College philosophy professor, author
Stephen A. Erickson, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College, died September 20 at the age of 83 of Parkinson’s disease.
Philosophy was more than an academic discipline for Erickson; it was his love. He told Pomona College Magazine in 1996, “I chose philosophy because I can’t remember a time when the question of what life meant didn’t obsess me.”
An expert on Continental philosophy, Erickson was a widely respected published philosopher and a noted scholar. His published volumes include “Language and Being” (1970), “Human Presence at the Boundaries of Meaning” (1984), and “The (Coming) Age of Thresholding” (1999), as well as more than 80 articles in journals such as Review of Metaphysics, Man and World, Philosophy Today, and Existenz. He is also known for his 24-lecture series in the Great Courses titled “Philosophy as a Guide to Living.”
In the description of the lecture series, Erickson said “Philosophy can be construed in our time not just as a technical discipline; it can also be construed as guidance in the art of living, the pursuit of the very meaning of life, and the means for attaining this meaning.”
“With a deep affection for students and Pomona College, Erickson was a consummate teacher,” his family shared. He taught at Pomona for 56 years and held the E. Wilson Lyon Professor of the Humanities endowed chair before retiring in 2020. During that time, he earned the Wig Distinguished Professorship Award for excellence in teaching four times, in 1968, 1985, 1989, and 1994. “Students consistently cited his brilliant mind, humility, and kindness,” his family added. “Through his engaging lectures and abundant office hours, he taught them how to live and think and was able to make philosophy accessible and relevant to their lives.”
Johanna Glaser, a 2010 graduate, took philosophy in literature with Erickson during her first semester at Pomona. “Within two weeks of his class, I knew I was going to major in philosophy,” she said.
“Erickson wasn’t afraid to be a little tough on me,” recalled U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a 1994 Pomona grad and philosophy major, in Pomona College Magazine in 2013. “I once wrote something sort of substandard for him, and hewrote a note to me that said: ‘Brian, we both know you’re better than this, and that is what matters.’”
Born in Fairmont, Minnesota, Erickson was the only child of 12-year Minnesota state senator Chris Erickson and Venus Erickson. Erickson graduated summa cum laude from St. Olaf College in 1961 and never lost touch with his Midwestern roots. After his parents’ passing, he and his wife Pauline spent many summers and sabbaticals in his parental home. He loved sitting on the dock, overlooking a quiet lake, contemplating the meaning of life and the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s four important questions: What Can I know? What can I do? What may I hope for? What does it mean to be human?
He earned his Ph.D. in 1964 from Yale University at the age of 24. Upon graduating, he was immediately hired by then President E. Wilson Lyon of Pomona College after refusing offers from Yale, The University of Chicago, and others. He wanted to live in a warmer climate. Although loving the quiet of Minnesota, he greatly disliked cold and snow. Lecture invitations would come from universities around the U.S. and the world (the U.K., The Netherlands, Poland, China, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Russia during glasnost). Both he and his wife were also much sought after by Liberty Fund, Inc. (Carmel, Indiana) to organize and conduct conferences on philosophy, art, literature, and music.
He is survived by his wife, Pauline Erickson (Claremont Manor); children Chris Erickson, Erika Erickson (Tosten, Thorson, Stellan); and stepchildren Aaron Bastien (Pierce and Trey), Renée Bastien (Malia), and Jorden Bastien (Sophia, Chloe, Gavin).
He was cremated and his ashes are in the loving care of his wife Pauline. A memorial will take place Saturday, January 20, 2024 at Bridges Hall of Music, aka “little Bridges,” 150 E. Fourth St., Claremont, CA 91711. A version of this obituary can be found on the Pomona College website at pomona.edu/news.