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Richard H. Popkin, 81; Philosophy Teacher Was Expert on Skepticism

April 18, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Richard H. Popkin, a retired UCLA professor of philosophy who became an expert on skepticism and its history through the centuries, has died. He was 81.

Popkin died Thursday in Santa Monica of natural causes, said his son, Jeremy, of Lexington, Ky. He had suffered from emphysema, which caused him to use a wheelchair.

Popkin, despite limited vision, had been working on a book about the 16th century Rabbi Isaac of Troki, his son said.

As an author, Popkin published his most durable book, "The History of Scepticism From Erasmus to Spinoza," in 1960, and continued updating it through a 2003 edition.

He also attracted mainstream readers with such books as his 1966 "The Second Oswald: The Case for a Conspiracy Theory," about the John F. Kennedy assassination. In the book, Popkin strongly challenged the finding of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in fatally shooting the president during a 1963 motorcade in Dallas.

Popkin also earned widespread attention for the 1998 book he co-wrote with David S. Katz, "Messianic Revolution," about radical religious politics at the millennium.

An internationally known expert on the interaction throughout history of Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, Popkin examined millennial clues from the Bible and other religious writing pointing toward an apocalypse and "rapture," or ascent to heaven after 1,000 years.

Inevitable disappointments when the end of the world failed to materialize, he theorized, led to development of radical religious and survivalist cults such as the Branch Davidians of the Waco, Texas, conflagration.

Popkin also edited the 1999 "Columbia History of Western Philosophy," among other works.

In 1962, he co-founded, along with Paul Dibon of Amsterdam, the International Archives of the History of Ideas. Two years later, Popkin founded the scholarly Journal of the History of Philosophy.

Born Dec. 27, 1923, in New York City, Popkin earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in philosophy from Columbia University. In addition to UCLA, he taught at the Universities of Connecticut and Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont and UC San Diego, where in 1965 he was founding chairman of its philosophy department.

In addition to his son, Popkin is survived by his wife, Juliet, of Pacific Palisades; two daughters, Margaret L. Popkin, of Silver Spring, Md., and Susan J. Popkin, of Vienna, Va.; and five grandchildren.

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