Rice remembers Stephen Tyler, emeritus professor of anthropology and linguistics

Stephen Tyler, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics who served on Rice’s faculty for four decades, died April 2. He was 87.

Stephen Tyler photo

Stephen Tyler

A member of the anthropology department at Rice since 1970, Tyler was instrumental in the founding of the department of linguistics, in which he regularly taught, advised students and challenged colleagues “to think deeply and broadly” until his retirement in 2010, according to Jim Faubion, the Radoslav Tsanoff Chair, professor of anthropology and director of graduate studies at Rice.

“He was brilliant and controversial from the beginning to the end of his career,” Faubion said.

“Steve Tyler was a major figure in the development of anthropological theory,” said Interim Dean of Social Sciences Susan McIntosh. “His appointment as the first chair of the newly formed anthropology department in 1970 really elevated Rice’s profile nationally.”

Tyler was a specialist in the anthropology of India. His 1973 book, “India: An Anthropological Perspective,” introduced a generation of students to the study of the subcontinent. Tyler was also a leading figure in the first expression of cognitive anthropology, which explored the variable logics through which different peoples construe the natural and social worlds in which they live. His 1969 book, “Cognitive Anthropology,” is a valued reference in the formation of the field. He followed it with “The Said and the Unsaid” in 1978.

Later in his career, Tyler turned his attention to the limits of linguistic comprehension of both the natural and social worlds. He authored “Post-modern Anthropology: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document” in 1986 and “The Unspeakable” in 1988.

In the last part of his career, with colleague Ivo Strecker, Tyler devoted himself to defending the hypothesis that our use of language should first be understood as rhetorical rather than referential. He also studied the middle voice.

Versed in ancient and modern continental philosophy, Tyler was “a master” of the crossing of conventional disciplinary boundaries, according to Faubion.

During his career, Tyler served as an associate editor for five journals and was published in numerous journals on topics including ethnographic method, rhetorical theory and linguistics.

An Air Force veteran of the Korean War, Tyler graduated from Simpson College with a bachelor’s degree and Stanford University with a master’s and Ph.D. Prior to his time at Rice, he taught at Tulane University and the University of California, Davis.

Tyler is survived by his wife Martha and his daughter Allison. A memorial is online at https://legcy.co/2V3GJ3e.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.