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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 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, following which from 1954 to 1957 he worked for the Rand Corporation's mathematics division. Rescher is a cousin of the eminent orientalist Oskar Rescher.
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 co-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.
He has contributed to futuristics, and with Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey, 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.
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.