About Olaf P. Tollefsen

Olaf P. Tollefsen was born on 4 March 1944 in New York City, but grew up in rural eastern Pennsylvania. He was the son of Olaf Tollefsen, who immigrated from Norway, and Frances Tollefsen; he was raised in their Lutheran household.

After receiving a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Scranton in 1965, Olaf P. Tollefsen entered the doctoral program in philosophy at Georgetown University and married Maureen Elizabeth Foley in 1966. He received his Ph.D., with distinction, in 1970, having written a dissertation titled “Verification Procedures in Dialectical Metaphysics” under the direction of Germain Grisez.

While at Georgetown, Tollefsen met and became close friends with Joseph Boyle. Their spouses also became friends, and the Boyle and the Tollefsen families began to grow at the same time; Barbara Boyle gave birth to her first baby just a few months before Maureen gave birth in 1968 to Christopher Tollefsen. In time, the Tollefsen family grew to nine, with seven children: four boys, Christopher, Eric, Ian, and John; and three girls, Jenna, Sarah, and Maurya.

Tollefsen taught first as an Instructor, then as an Assistant Professor, at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland (where Grisez would later work and live). While there, Tollefsen, Boyle, and Grisez collaborated on an article, “Freedom, Determinism and Self-Referential Arguments,” in the Review of Metaphysics, and later a book, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument. At the same time, Tollefsen pursued his enduring philosophical interests in aesthetics and philosophy of science. In the summer of 1975, he participated in an NEH funded summer seminar at the University of Notre Dame on ethics which was attended by many well-known philosophers, including Philippa Foot, and R. M. Hare.

In 1975, Tollefsen moved to St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, he continued to work in aesthetics, as well as ethics and the philosophy of science. At St. Anselm, Tollefsen developed a reputation as an outstanding teacher, and a deeply engaged colleague. For the next decade and a half, Tollefsen worked intensely with many students, and developed close friendships with a number of his colleagues in philosophy, and in other disciplines, such as English, foreign languages, and history. As Saint Anselm Magazine put it, Tollefsen was a “legendary philosopher in dogged pursuit of the truth, [who] provided Saint Anselm its very own Socrates for 15 years.” In 1987, he served as President of the Northern New England Philosophical Association, and hosted the Association’s annual conference at St. Anselm College.

In the fall of 1988, after experiencing a number of disturbing symptoms, Tollefsen was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. After an initial surgery and recuperation, Tollefsen’s colleagues presented him and Maureen with a gift of a trip to Ireland. On their return, he again took up teaching duties in the spring of 1989. Teaching the Senior Seminar in philosophy that semester, his students included his son Christopher and his new daughter-in-law Laurie. His second son, Eric, was also a student at St. Anselm that year. At commencement, Olaf received the Excellence in Faculty Accomplishment Award from the College chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

That spring, after much prayer and reflection, Olaf Tollefsen entered the Catholic Church, being baptized in the Abbey Church at the College. Olaf’s entry into the Church was a moment of profound joy for him, his family, and his many friends and colleagues, who had prayed for his full communion with the Catholic Church. Olaf’s Catholic faith was a source of great comfort to him in the following months.

On September 13, 1989, Olaf finally succumbed to cancer, surrounded in his home by his wife, Maureen, and several of their children.

Several years later, Saint Anselm College established the Olaf Tollefsen Memorial Lecture. It has been a great pleasure for Olaf’s family, friends, and colleagues, to host a number of former philosophical friends at the lecture. Speakers have included Joseph Boyle, David Novak, who was also a student at Georgetown with Olaf, Patrick Lee, Germain Grisez, and Olaf’s son Christopher.

In 1995, with the help of Olaf’s colleagues, a volume collecting several of his essays was published. Titled Foundationalism Defended, the collection brought together Olaf’s various writings in aesthetics, epistemology, and philosophy of science. Its simple dedication, “For Maureen,” was meant in tribute to the strength and depth of their married love.

Publications of Olaf Tollefsen

“C. S. Lewis on Evaluative Judgments of Literature,” The Modern Schoolman, May, 1979.

“Scientism, Again,” Triumph, March 1972

“Freedom, Determinism and Self-Referential Arguments,” co-authored with Joseph Boyle and Germain Grisez, Review of Metaphysics, September, 1972.

“The Family Resemblances Argument and Definitions of Art,” Metaphilosophy, Spring, 1976.

Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument, co-authored with Joseph Boyle and Germain Grisez (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979).

“Kovach’s ‘Subjective’ Definition of Beauty,” The New Scholasticism, Winter, 1979.

“Realism, Conventionalism and the History of Science,” The New Scholasticism, Summer, 1982.

“The Challenge of Scepticism,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 59, 1985.

“Practical Solipsism and ‘Thin’ Theories of Human Goods,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 61, 1987.

“The Equivocation Defense of Cognitive Relativism,” in Stephen J. Bartlett and Peter Suber, eds., Self-Reference: Reflections on Reflexivity (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), 209–17.

“Crosby on the Origin of the Prescriptive Force of Moral Norms,” The New Scholasticism, Fall, 1987.

Foundationalism Defended: Essays on Epistemology, Ethics, and Aesthetics, Bethesda, Maryland: Cambridge Press, 1995.