Intellectual Autobiography (written in 1978)


I have divided this autobiography into three main parts: education, research, personal reflections. The second part on research is the longest and most substantial.

1. Education

I was born on March 17, 1922, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up as an only child; my half brother George was born in 1943 after I had entered the army. My grandfather, C. E. Suppes, moved to Oklahoma from Ohio in the early part of this century. He and my father were independent oil men, intelligent and competent in their business but not well educated. My mother died when I was four and a half; I was raised by my stepmother, who married my father before I was six. She also had not had much formal education, but her interest in. self-improvement was strong, and she encouraged me in a variety of ways to pursue my intellectual interests, in spite of my father’s ambition for me to follow him and his father in the oil business.

My interest in philosophy was generated early by my stepmother’s devotion for more than a decade to the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy. From about the age of eight to fourteen years I attended Sunday school and church regularly and studied the works of Eddy as well as the Bible. The naive epistemological idealism of Eddy’s writings stirred my interest, which turned to skepticism by the age of thirteen or so. I can remember rather intense discussions with fellow Sunday-school students about how we were supposed to reconcile, for example, the bacterial theory of disease with the purely mentalistic views of Eddy. No doubt our arguments were not at all sophisticated, but our instinct to distrust the flagrant conflicts with common sense and elementary science was sound.

I attended the public schools in Tulsa and was graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1939. My public school education was more influential on my development than is often the ease, mainly because I was a participant in what is known as the Tyler eight-year study of the Progressive Education Association. On the basis of examinations given in the sixth grade, able students were selected to participate in a six-year experiment of accelerated education. In many respects the most competitive and ablest classes I ever attended were those in high school. One of the important aspects of this special educational venture was the extended attempt to get us as young students to talk about a wide range of current events and everything else that interested us. As is often the case, this led into some unusual lines of effort. I can remember very well being chagrined at fourteen if I were not able to name the senators from every state in the union.

The high school courses in mathematics, chemistry and history were excellent, but physics and English were relatively mediocre. The English course was so dominated by the idiosyncrasies of the teacher we had for two years that we became experts in her life and tribulations rather than in the more essential matters of grammar and composition.

I began college at the University of Oklahoma in 1939 but, after the first year, found the intellectual life too pedestrian compared to the much more exciting high school years. In the second year I transferred to the University of Chicago, but, under the laissez-faire approach of Chicago, neglected my academic work so completely that my family insisted on my attending the University of Tulsa for my third year, where I majored in physics. At the beginning of my fourth year I was called up in the Army Reserves (this was 1942) and returned to the University of Chicago as a senior in uniform. I undertook there an intensive course in meteorology and received a BS degree from the University of Chicago in 1943. Knowledge of meteorology has stood me in good stead throughout the years in refuting arguments that attempt to draw some sharp distinction between the precision and perfection of the physical sciences and the vagueness and imprecision of the social sciences. Meteorology is in theory a part of physics, but in practice more like economies, especially in the handling of a vast flow of nonexperimental data.

Bogdan, R.J. (Ed.) ‘Patrick Suppes’.
Copyright © 1979 by D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland.