News from PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
For immediate release: Oct. 19, 2001
Contact: Marilyn Marks, 609-258-3601, mailto:mmarks@Princeton.edu
Princeton Professor David Lewis dies at 60
Longtime philosophy professor was leading figure in his field
Princeton, N.J. -- David Lewis, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and a leading figure in philosophy, died suddenly Oct. 14 from complications arising from diabetes. He was 60.
Lewis joined the Princeton faculty as an associate professor in 1970 and remained at Princeton for the rest of his life.
Born in Oberlin, Ohio and brought up in an academic household, Lewis received his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Swarthmore College in 1962 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1967. His thesis advisor was W. V. Quine, on whose prose style Lewis modeled his own. He taught at the University of California at Los Angeles for four years before coming to Princeton.
"He is widely regarded as one of the outstanding philosophers of his time," said Mark Johnston, chairman of the Princeton philosophy department. "For more than 30 years, David has made seminal contributions in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology. He is the greatest systematic metaphysician since Leibniz."
Johnston, who worked as a graduate student at Princeton with Lewis, described him as "sweet and stern," noting that "the gentle part came out more often. He was always unfailingly generous with his time and with positive philosophical suggestions, and ruthless with his criticism." He was a mentor to scores of students, many of whom have gone on to be significant figures in the field, Johnston said. "Lewis inspired students to approach systematic philosophy with a new seriousness," he said.
Lewis' work was notable for its breadth, ranging over almost every area of philosophy. "Whether it was logic, philosophy of science, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, political philosophy, he did it all," said Paul Benacerraf, the James McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Lewis' colleague for 30 years. "The breadth of what he covered was astounding, and the originality of his ideas and the care with which he presented them were equally astonishing," Benacerraf said. "He was a wonderful stylist."
Lewis was also known for his fascination with trains, his love for Australia, Australian philosophy and Australian Rules football, and his profound lack of interest in learning to use a modern computer. Lewis preferred to compose on an antique word processor that used floppy disks the size of small pizzas.
"He was a railroad buff; he had a detailed scale model of British Rail in his basement," Benacerraf said. When Lewis spent time in England, he would often hop on a train in the morning and spend the entire day riding various train lines, reading and writing during the rides.
Lewis met his wife, Stephanie, in a seminar given by a visiting Australian philosopher, J. J. C. Smart, in the fall of 1963. Beginning in 1971, the two made more than 20 trips to Australia, visiting philosophy departments and colleagues and friends around the country. Lewis came to know Australia better than many Australians and considered the city of Melbourne to be a second home. He was named an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1994.
Lewis wrote widely on many topics in philosophy. His first book, Convention: A Philosophical Study, published in 1969 when he was 28, brought him the Matchette Prize in Philosophy, a national award for the best book by a scholar in philosophy under 40 years of age. He also published Counterfactuals (1973) and On the Plurality of Worlds (1986). The latter argued powerfully for the mind-boggling thesis that the actual world is just one among an infinity of possible worlds, each one as real as the rest. When defending this view against an astonished critic, he replied: "I cannot refute an incredulous stare."
Two volumes of Lewis' collected papers were published in the 1980s. In the last few years, the Cambridge University Press published three more collections of his writings, in the areas of philosophical logic, metaphysics and epistemology, and ethics and social philosophy. At his death he was completing a paper in the philosophy of physics called "How Many Lives has Schrödinger's Cat?"
Lewis delivered several major sets of lectures in philosophy, including the Hägerstrom Lecture, the Howison Lectures, the Whitehead Lectures, the John Locke lectures, and the Jack Smart Lecture. He received honorary degrees from the University of Cambridge, the University of York and the University of Melbourne. In 1991 he won a Behrman Award from Princeton for distinguished achievement in the humanities.
He is survived by his wife, Stephanie; his brother, Donald; and his sister, Ellen.
A memorial reception was held Thursday, Oct. 18 at Prospect House on the Princeton University campus, hosted by the philosophy department. A formal memorial service will be held in January.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004-2400.
Note: A photo of David Lewis is available at
Editors: If you would like to speak to Professor Lewis' colleagues, please contact:
Gilbert Harman, Princeton, office -- 609-258-4301, harman@Princeton.edu.