Philosophers: David Lewis
(1941-2001 CE)

[Life & Work] | [Links] | [Bibliography]

Born in Oberlin, Ohio in 1941, his parents were both academics, one a Professor of Government, the other a mediaeval historian. His early education was at Oberlin High School, where he developed an interest in chemistry, and in fact he initially went as an undergraduate to Swarthmore College to study chemistry. After spending a year abroad at the University of Oxford (1959-60), where he attended lectures by such figures as Ryle, Grice, Strawson, and Austin, on return to Swarthmore he switched to philosophy. After graduating in 1962 he went on to Harvard to work on his Ph.D. under Quine.

In 1966 he went to U.C.L.A. as an assistant professor, and published his doctoral thesis as Convention: A Philosophical Study, in which he used game-theoretical concepts to analyse linguistic conventions. In 1970 he moved to Princeton as an associate professor, becoming a full professor in 1973. This was also the year in which he published one of his most important books: in Counterfactuals he presented a novel and extremely influential analysis of counterfactual conditionals in terms of possible-world theory, and introduced the theory with which he was to be closely associated for the rest of his life, modal realism. In On the Plurality of Worlds (1986), part of which he'd given as the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1984, he extended his account of modal realism, and provided a detailed defence of it. He stayed at Princeton until his death in 2001 of complications attendant upon the diabetes from which he'd suffered all his life.

He was an enthusiastic traveller, especially enjoying railway journeys, and reserved his greatest affection for Australia, which became something of a second home to him.

Lewis' philosophical interests were broad, as evidenced by the contents of the five volumes of his collected papers published so far: ethics, politics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, language -- he wrote on a vast range of subjects, from holes to worlds, from Anselm to Mill, from the mind to time travel. In everything he wrote he was rigorous, committed, and clear, but perhaps the most distinctive thing about him was his attitude to other philosophers, and especially to criticism: one can scarcely find a book or paper attacking Lewis. views that doesn.t contain an acknowledgement to him for his help. What mattered to him - what he loved - were the ideas, the arguments, the philosophy, not winning or being right. He was the ideal, the model philosopher; he's also (and this is a very different matter) widely regarded as being the best philosopher of his generation -- perhaps of the twentieth century.

Possible worlds

Lewis is perhaps best known for his modal realism. As he emphasises in the preface to On the Plurality of Worlds, this isn't realism in the common modern sense of a claim about semantics or truth or the limits of knowledge or the principle of bivalence; it's simply a claim about what exists. It's the view that our talk about possible worlds ("could this be the best of all possible worlds?", "there's a possible world at which kangaroos have no tails", etc.) isn't about a set of mental or linguistic or otherwise constructed objects, but about worlds just as real as this one. Our world is special to us, because we live here (in other words, it's the actual world), but otherwise it's no more real than any other world. The inhabitants of other worlds call their own worlds actual, too, and they're right to do so; 'actual' is an indexical term like 'here or 'now'.

Although statements like "I might have been a contender" are to be explained in terms of what's the case at other possible worlds, that's not to say that we (or anything else) exist at more than one world; rather, we have counterparts at other worlds -- people who are very like us and who correspond to us in those worlds (rather as someone might correspond to me in a computer simulation). Not only don't we exist in them, but other worlds are completely closed to us -- they're spatiotemporally and causally isolated from each other, so inter-world travel makes no sense.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
(Including relevant on-line papers and abstracts)

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