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Lewis, David (1941–2001)

by Frank Jackson

Philosophy is not the oldest profession but it is the oldest academic one. (This is why the generic doctorate is called the doctor of philosophy.) Philosophy's age makes it hard to say something both good and really new. Although many philosophers of recent times have made major contributions, they rarely reshape the whole way we look at a series of problems. David Lewis was one of the exceptions. He was a philosopher in the sense in which Kant, Hunie and Plato were philosophers.

Lewis took his first degree at Swarthmore College, and intended a career in chemistry. However, he came across philosophy when his father took study leave in Oxford and decided to do a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. Lewis wrote a brilliant thesis sitting in a cafe. (Even when he had a nice office, he sometimes chose to write surrounded by activity.) This thesis became his first book Convention, in which he draws on parts of game theory to explain how we use words to communicate our thoughts.

Amazingly for someone destined to become a major figure in metaphysics, he had trouble passing the paper in metaphysics at Harvard. He insisted on giving full and proper answers to the questions. This made it hard to complete the required number of questions.

Lewis's first appointment was in the philosophy department at the University of California at Los Angeles. He moved to Princeton University in 1970. His CV was a what's what of academic distinction in philosophy.

Throughout his career Lewis was a formidable problem solver. For example, he gave us the best general formulation of materialism as a philosophy of mind; with Robert Stalnaker, he was responsible for the account of subjunctive conditionals as variably strict conditionals; he told us how to understand truth in fiction; and he told us how to understand objective chance.

However, he had a rare ability to see connections and to make sense of where one or another solution fitted into an overall picture.

It was inevitable that he would become a major metaphysician in the sense of someone with a compelling picture of our world and our place in it.

The picture was an austerely materialist one, but with a curious twist. Lewis believed that our world—by which he did not mean Earth but our universe was but one of many possible worlds, and that what made it true that Newtonian physics might have been true was that there was a possible world where it literally was true. Lewis's views were enormously influential but this doctrine was the exception.

David and his wife Stephanie (Steffi) had many connections with Australia. J. J. C. (Jack) Smart (of Adelaide University, La Trobe University and The Australian National University) taught Lewis during a visit at Harvard. Lewis gave the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, the Jack Smart Lecture at the ANU, was a visiting professor at Monash and a visiting fellow at ANU, had an honorary degree from Melbourne University, and was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.

He visited Australia almost every northern summer for over 20 years and he and Steffi became fanatical Essendon supporters in the AFL. I fear that he never showed much interest in the Canberra Raiders.

These regular visits were of enormous value to Australian philosophy. He would give early versions of papers that later became classics. He loved going to seminars and conferences.

He would make beautifully clear, informed and penetrating comments in discussion, sometimes, it has to be admitted, to the discomfort of the speaker.

He was very generous with his time and very ready to help others, especially younger philosophers. He was meticulous about acknowledgments.

Lewis was in some ways an intimidating presence. His reputation naturally put people in awe of him, he lacked much in the way of small talk and he was a paragraph speaker. If you asked David a question you might get a very short answer but more often there would be a pause, somewhat longer than is usual in conversation, and then would emerge a carefully phrased series of paragraphs which would consist of a marshalling of the relevant facts, an account of the various conclusions one might draw from them, followed by the conclusion he himself favoured. He was though a very kind person, enormously loyal and a connoisseur of beer. Those of us lucky enough to count him as a friend were lucky indeed.

Born Oberlin, Ohio 28 September 1941; assistant professor of philosophy, University of California Los Angeles 1966-70; associate professor of philosophy 1970-73; class of 1943 professor of philosophy, Princeton University; married 1965 Stephanie Robinson; died Princeton, New Jersey 14 October 2001.

Original publication

Citation details

Frank Jackson, 'Lewis, David (1941–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 2 March 2021.

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