Rebecca Newberger Goldstein grew up in White Plains, New York, and graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College, receiving the Montague Prize for Excellence in Philosophy, and immediately went on to graduate work at Princeton University, receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy. While in graduate school she was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and a Whiting Foundation Fellowship.
After earning her Ph.D. she returned to her alma mater, where she taught courses in philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, the rationalists, the empiricists, and the ancient Greeks. It was some time during her tenure at Barnard that, quite to her own surprise, she used a summer vacation to write her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem. As she described it,
To me the process is still mysterious. I had just come through a very emotional time, having not only become a mother but having also lost my father, whom I adored. In the course of grieving for my father and glorying in my daughter, I found that the very formal, very precise questions I had been trained to analyze weren’t gripping me the way they once had. Suddenly, I was asking the most `unprofessional’ sorts of questions (I would have snickered at them as a graduate student), such as how does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me to deal with the brute contingencies of life? How does it relate to life as it’s really lived? I wanted to confront such questions in my writing, and I wanted to confront them in a way that would insert `real life’ intimately into the intellectual struggle. In short I wanted to write a philosophically motivated novel.
The Mind-Body Problem was published by Random House and went on to become a critical and popular success.
More novels followed: The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind; The Dark Sister, which received the Whiting Writer’s Award, Mazel, which received the 1995 National Jewish Book Award and the 1995 Edward Lewis Wallant Award; and Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics. Her book of short stories, Strange Attractors, received a National Jewish Book Honor Award. Her 2005 book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, was featured in articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times, received numerous favorable reviews, and was named one of the best books of the year by Discover magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Sun. Goldstein’s most recent published book is, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who Gave Us Modernity, published in May 2006, and winner of the 2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought. Her latest novel, Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, was published by Pantheon Books in 2010. .
In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the prize which is popularly known as the “Genius Award.” In awarding her the prize, the MacArthur Foundation described her work in the following words:
Rebecca Goldstein is a writer whose novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling. Her books tell a compelling story as they describe with wit, compassion and originality the interaction of mind and heart. In her fiction her characters confront problems of faith: religious faith and faith in an ability to comprehend the mysteries of the physical world as complementary to moral and emotional states of being. Goldstein’s writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.
In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address. Goldstein has been designated Humanist of the Year 2011 by the American Humanist Association.
Aside from Barnard, Goldstein has taught in the Columbia MFA writing program and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers, has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University, and taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Goldstein has served as a judge for many book prizes, including the Koret International Jewish Book Award, the Sammy Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, and the 2008 National Book Award in Fiction.
Goldstein lives in Boston and in Truro, Massachusetts.