Mischa Penn passed away on December 7, 2019, at age 89. He was a longtime member of the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota, where he specialized in Philosophical Anthropology.
Born and raised in St. Paul, his parents were Russian, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, who settled in a famous Jewish neighborhood in the Westside that no longer exists. He attended public schools until the age of 13, when he was sent alone, by train, to a yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, with the expectation that this would begin rabbinical training. At some point, more or less as the war was ending, having begun secret forays to the New York Public Library, where he began to read Pascal, among others, he lost, or began to question, his faith (although he did not stop observing daily orthodox rites).
He enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts at Minnesota and majored in Philosophy. He was admitted to a doctoral program in the Department of Philosophy in 1955 or so, where he came under the influence of the logical positivism of Herbert Feigl, who founded the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science in 1956. Writing challenged Mischa. Although he never finished his doctoral dissertation, which was entitled, “Wundt and Brentano,” when the Humanities Department was established, he was hired to a teaching position, and he quickly became known for his intellectual risk-taking in developing new courses that covered a wide range of disciplines and questions. He became justly famous for his Talmudic style of close readings of texts, seeking input from students, and for the “Mischa Penn” question on exams, which was “Ask yourself a question from course materials and answer it.” His course on Science and Humanities attracted faculty auditors from across the University and his course on racial thought had heavy student enrollments for many years. Indeed, he became a mentor to many of the student-activists in the late 1960s and played a leadership role in the founding of the Department of African American Studies in 1969.
Penn developed personal and working relationships with faculty members across the University, starting as a teaching assistant for poet John Berryman, but also including Paul Meehl and Auke Tellegen in Psychology, Martin Dworkin in Microbiology, Kenneth Keller in Chemical Engineering, Fred Lukermann in Geography (see “Chorology and landscape: An Internalist Reading of the Morphology of Landscape,” 2003), and Rutherford Aris, a polymath with appointments in Chemical Engineering and Classics (see “The Mere Notion of a Model,” 1980). However, his lack of a doctoral degree was a formidable barrier to his professional advancement. Nevertheless, after a legal battle within the College of Liberal Arts, during which his professional status was challenged, Penn was granted tenure as an Associate Professor and given the choice of a departmental home. Attracted, no doubt, by the longstanding commitment of Cultural Anthropology to disempowered, politically marginalized peoples, and its critical stance on race as fundamentally political and social concept, at the invitation of Adamson Hoebel, he joined the department in the late 1970s. There, he taught courses on religion and culture, culture theory, and race. In the late 1980s, he took great pleasure from the colloquium series he organized that brought such people as George Marcus, James Clifford, Melford Spiro, and others to Minnesota. In the department, he engaged in long-term intellectual relationships with Lipset (“Chambri Mysticism and Sepik Regional Exchange: A Critique of Errington and Gewertz,” 1991) and Stephen Gudeman (“Review of ‘Individualism and the Unity of Science: Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and the Social Sciences,’ by Harold Kincaid,” 1999) as well as Gilbert Tostevin and many graduate students, such as Mark Mosko, Eric Silverman, and Diana M. Dean, with whom he conducted lengthy discussions about the theoretical frameworks underlying ethnography.
In 2006, he retired, after a celebrated teaching career, during which he received several awards, including the Morse Distinguished Teaching Professor of Social Science in 1996, although he continued to teach the occasional course for a few years. Thereafter, he remained active, writing a series of razor-sharp pieces about culture theory that remain unpublished.
With a keen, mischievous sense of humor and love of philosophical and political argument, he was one of a kind.
Mischa Penn is survived by Barbara, his wife of 61 years, his son David and daughter Eden, together with their spouses and six grandchildren.
(David Lipset and Eric K. Silverman)
Cite as: Lipset, David, and Eric K. Silverman. 2020. “Mischa Penn.” Anthropology News website, February 14, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1346