Thursday, 28 January 2016

David K. Lewis

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David "Kellog" Lewis was a well-respected figure in the analytic community - in fact, this is an understatement; he was one of the greats. Publishing many pathbreaking articles and books during his lifetime, he was a great teacher and always had a few tricks up his sleeve. Born in Oberlin, Ohio in 1940, he set out at an early age to learn a range of technical concepts. The adept Lewis was known to have constructed his own radio out of items found around the family home when he was only seven or eight years old. A stand-out pupil, he went on to study philosophy at university. He even went to England, where a leading academic who taught him wrote, more or less, 'This is a very promising student. He should work more to understand history, and work less on his own ideas, but he is very clever'. This was a female philosopher - it may have been G.E.M. Anscombe, who studied under Wittgenstein.

He then did his dissertation back in America, on the topic of Convention. His teacher was Quine, who was also a brilliant philosopher of course. How do we know which side (of the road) to drive on, and why do we pick one rather than the other? Why is the letter 'A' shaped like that, rather than like this: 'O'? These are questions about conventions, and the philosophical issues which arise here have perplexed many. Lewis had an intriguing new analysis of convention, involving the notion of a 'coordination problem'.

He also did work on counterfactual conditionals: if I don't do this, what will I do then? By analysing these, along with the contemporaneous Robert Stalnaker, using possible worlds, Lewis was able to come up with an original theory of the semantics of these interesting statements. If A were true C would be true, according to Lewis, is like saying that at the nearest A world, C is true. This has a lot to recommend it, and logicians have been discussing it ever since.

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Leibniz Also 

Liebniz also studied Possible Worlds

But this raised the question: what about these possible worlds? Here is where Lewis came into his own. Each world is a real one, just like ours. All of us have infinitely many counterparts like us, doing all the things we could have done. This radical idea enabled the daring but rigorous Lewis to give new theories of true and false statements, beliefs, possible and necessary outcomes, and of course those curious counterfactuals he started off with (described in the paragraph above). Most philosophers agree Lewis is mistaken, but they have had a hard time saying just how! As a result, huge literature has followed on from Lewis's writings on this topic (look for 'modal realism').

Everyone who knew Lewis said he was fun and interesting to be around, but sometimes his answers to a question could surprise people. Or his non-answers: one anectode says he took a long time to think before responsing, but the person asking didn't know this and kept asking him new questions. Someone else said 'Wait, he will answer!'. Sure enough, he did - very intelligently, no doubt.

David K. Lewis will be remembered for his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, and language, to name just his main bailiwicks. He even wrote about ethics, and several other topics. But he also built a system. The metaphysics of David Lewis continues to exercise a powerful influence on contemporary philosophy, and though many of us would disagree with some of his theories - especially modal realism, which is impossible to believe in my opinion - we would certainly be all the poorer without them. Thank you David Lewis.

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Friday, 22 January 2016

William James - Father of Pragmatism

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William James is by all accounts a truly outstanding and original philosopher. He was, along with Schelling and Pierce, one of the founders of the pragmatist movement. According to James, truth was a matter of what works, but he left room in his pragmatism for substantial metaphysical inquiries. For example, neutral monism, which Bertrand Russell adopted enthusiastically across the pond.

Born in 1856 to a wealthy American family, William James was always in the shadow of his more talented brother Henry, who went on to become a novelist and short story writer of great note. At this time he started reflecting on the problems of philosophy, and no doubt was kindled some intimation of how these could be solved with pragmatic reflections. Kant and Aristotle had some good ideas but were arguably too rigid and abstract, and James's insight was to take those philosophers and rework them into a new set of ideas more in keeping with the emerging modern world.

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    Immanuel Kant
    Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher.

It wasn't until the late 19th century that the pragmatic idea of truth dawned on James's mind. In a series of articles, he revolutionised the debate with his new idea. Pierce was also thinking of similar ideas but from a more formal mathematical perspective, and the two soon became fast friends. To this day people like to read both philosophers at the same time. John Dewey also made numerous appearances in James's life, even dropping in on social calls. Dewey went on to use pragmatism to invent a new system of catalogues for use in libraries, which many universities have retained down to the present day, and also experimented with children. Pragmatism truly was vital philosophy.

Later on, dissatisfied with his ideas about truth, William James became a notable scholar of religion and psychology, and produced such telling works as The Varieties of Religious Experience, which the European Wittgenstein carried with him during the war and told Russell (already mentioned) to read carefully. As far as we can tell, he never did.

I wanted to say something here about my own experience of this beautiful philosopher and his ideas. In grad school, I needed a topic for a paper and my supervisor said, as nothing more than an offhand remark, 'You seem to be interested in the concept of truth from a pragmatist perspective. You should have a read of William James's papers and books. Here's one to start off with.'

Whole new vistas of thought opened up before me that night. I thought 'Yes! If I prefer this idea and it works wonders for me, then what more do you want from philosophy! I should try to get this perspective into a fruitful collaboration with such more conservative hard-headed thinkers in the analytic tradition, such as Moore (defender of common sense) and Quine (who became a pragmatist shortly before he died).

I am still working to unravel the full implications of pragmatist thought. I have created an environment in my home town where scholars can come and borrow books, publish articles about James's rich legacy, and meet for discussion of his fascinating idea. Sometimes the truth really is what you make it!

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