New Series on David Lewis from Hi-Phi Nation (guest post)


The newest season of Hi-Phi Nation, the popular philosophy podcast hosted by Barry Lam (Vassar College), is a four-part series on the work and life of  philosopher David Lewis.

In the following guest post*, Professor Lam talks about creating the series and shares a few details that were “left on the cutting room floor” but might be of particular interest to philosophers.

The Man of Many Worlds: A Series on David Lewis
by Barry Lam

On the 20th anniversary of his death, and the 80th anniversary of his birth, I’m releasing a four part series on the life and works of David Lewis. It is titled “The Man of Many Worlds” and opens up the fifth season of Hi-Phi Nation. I hope you all enjoy (and share!) it.

The series is my attempt at getting a nonacademic audience interested in a figure they don’t know about. I don’t think any of my editors at Slate ever heard of him. Lewis wasn’t political and he was far from a public intellectual. I hope the philosophy community enjoys the series as well.

Here is an interesting thing about Lewis. Every time I sat down to talk to anyone who knew him well, they would break into a spontaneous impression of him. Without fail. Their voice would rise about half an octave, their hand would straight to their chin and stroke an imaginary beard, their speech would slow, and they would speak in enumerated lists. Somehow the number 11 kept coming up. Lewis seemed to be working on 11 papers at a time, or had 11 objections to the speaker’s position. He regularly offered mnemonic devices to help his interlocutors remember all 11 points. Lewis was also beloved by all who were close to him, his brother, his sister, his students, and his close colleagues. The story I’m presenting in the series is a select set of anecdotes from particular moments of his life, a necessarily partial picture, just like the picture of his philosophy must be in a short series. He didn’t live a long life, but he lived a rich and fulfilling one. Everything he ever loved he did.

I started collecting footage about David Lewis’ life when I visited the ANU in the summer of 2018. I didn’t intend to make a series about his life at the time. I had heard that his wife, Steffi Lewis, was not in good health, and I thought it would be a good idea for someone with some audio recording skills to take everyone’s oral history of David before those too faded from history. I couldn’t reach everyone, but I did get a lot of people. The best bits are in the series, but here are some things that I had to leave on the cutting room floor.

When David was on the job market, Steffi had decided that she too wanted to pursue a PhD in philosophy. He was going to accept a job where she was accepted into the graduate program. That was not going to be in Boston, the home of Harvard and MIT. Hilary Putnam, who wielded power at both departments, had told Steffi, in no uncertain terms, that he did not think she was going to be a good philosopher, and denied her admission at MIT. Steffi never forgave him for that. David’s star was rising, but Steffi’s was not. In her retelling, Putnam even went to UCLA on a visit and told her not to bother finishing. It was a feeling she attributed to other people in the department also, where Steffi did not receive any attention. Steffi told me that “members of the department were not eager to treat me as if i was going to make it as a philosopher.”

Steffi was told she was a good teacher, and got one-year jobs here and there teaching. When one of their good friends in their department, Richard Montague, was murdered in 1971, they were ready to leave, with no career prospects for the two of them together anywhere. By all accounts, David Lewis was a lifelong believer in meritocratic hiring, and did not and would never wield his own star power for a spousal hire. Steffi never finished, and went to business school. But she remained in philosophy the rest of her life. Putnam was wrong. She was a very good philosopher.

The other major character-narrative that ended up on the cutting room floor concerned Lewis’ politics. Here I got completely contradictory opinions from his friends and family. Some of his friends believed he was right-of-center on account of his resistance to affirmative action, his objection to the APA taking a formal position on the Vietnam war, and an anecdote of him being dismissive of a green-left pamphleteer on the streets of Melbourne. I also distinctly remember that in the month between 9/11 and his death, when I was a first year graduate student, Lewis taped an American flag on his office door, a flag that remained the rest of that year. Some of us graduate students speculated that underneath the abstract philosophy was someone who was deeply patriotic. In hindsight though, it is a ridiculous inference, as everyone was waving flags after 9/11. But mostly, the speculation that Lewis’ political views were right of center came from his close friendship with David Armstrong, whose opposition to 60s radicalism and the teaching of Marxism and Feminism at the University of Sydney is reported in James Franklin’s book Corrupting the Youth, and widely known in Australia.

Yet, Steffi categorized him as a labor leftist. David’s father John Lewis was a political scientist at Oberlin and a solidly New Deal Democrat, as were the rest of the family, David’s brother Donald Lewis reports. His Swarthmore friends recall that David’s political views were not all that different then anyone else’s you’d expect at an elite liberal arts school in the early 60s, coming out of McCarthyism.

I wish I could have spoken to and included everyone who had close relationships with Lewis. Not all of it would have made it into the series, but he seemed to make a lifelong impact on everyone he worked with. Thank you to everyone who appears in the series; including Mark Schroeder, R. Jay Wallace, Helen Beebe, Anthony Fischer, Peter Anstey, Alan Hájek, Frank Jackson, John Bigelow, Philip Kitcher, Saul Kripke, Lise Menn, Meghan Sullivan, Steffi Lewis, Ellen Lewis, and Donald Lewis.

You can listen to the series here.

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Ian
Ian
1 month ago

Loved the first episode!Report

Craig Agule
1 month ago

I started listening last night—really great so far! Thanks for putting this together.Report

Matt L
1 month ago

it is a ridiculous inference, as everyone was waving flags after 9/11.

I have never met Lewis, and have no opinion on his political beliefs, but do want to suggest that the above isn’t true, even allowing for exaggeration. I was, for example, made very unhappy to see all the flag-waiving, and glad to see that a non-trivial number of people didn’t go in for it. There was also a real phenomena of people who had mostly be non-political taking up reactionary positions after the Sept. 11th attacks, though I have no idea if that was the case with Lewis. On the general topic, it’s also of course possible to be a “Labor liberal” and oppose affirmative action, think that certain “greens” are taking ineffective steps, and think that it’s inappropriate for general academic organizations to take stands on political issues, so these bits don’t seem to strongly indicate any particular political leaning, even if they might be suggestive in certain settings or with other information.Report

Louis F. Cooper
1 month ago

Probably a dumb question from a non-philosopher.

I listened to about half of the first one, and I noted this sentence: “According to David Lewis, the possibility of time travel forces us to see the self as a four-dimensional space-time worm.”

But what if time travel is not a live possibility (has it ever been shown to be a possibility, except in some branch of relativity theory)? And if it’s not a real possibility in the sense of something that will actually occur, as opposed to something a branch of physics suggests is a possibility, wouldn’t that somewhat damage the argument?Report

Dova
Dova
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
29 days ago

Louis, you might find it interesting to look into *perdurantism*. The notion of ‘time travel’ relevant here is that of simply persisting through time, rather than skipping around in time.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Dova
29 days ago

Thanks, I’ve made a note to look up perdurantism.

The impression I got from episode 1 of the series was that skipping around in time was the relevant notion, but that impression could well be wrong, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a word that David Lewis wrote, so I’m really not in a position to comment further.Report

Jeffrey G Blumenthal
1 month ago

Very interesting. I’ve only listened to the first episode, but there seems to be a clear indication that David Lewis might be autistic or on the spectrum, and I think it is a glaring omission on the part of the podcast producer not to look into this. I am not a professional, and if I were, my understanding is that I would not be able to diagnose him without an in-person evaluation, but I am left wondering if anybody looked into this. I believe a common part of autism is centered around communication and interactions with others. It makes total sense that Dr. Lewis, in his brilliance and in conjunction with such an underlying personal condition, would have a keen awareness of those dynamics, which are not particular to individuals on the spectrum. Rather, he recognizes those common communication patters and is able to analyze them in an uncommonly astute manner. Rather than becoming hopelessly withdrawn when the “rules” of communication are broken, he seems to be endlessly intellectually stimulated and, indeed, built a prestigious career around it. Listening to recordings of him speaking and interviews with close contacts, I can’t help but wonder if there is an elephant in the room nobody is addressing — I suspect there is. Otherwise, great story and reporting.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Jeffrey G Blumenthal
1 month ago

I’ve listened to the whole first episode (I knew basically nothing about D. Lewis before listening), and I’d be curious if you could be a bit more specific about what led you to this tentative conclusion. It did not occur to me on the basis of what the episode presented. (Btw, not to nitpick, but you meant to say “might have been autistic or on the spectrum”.)Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
1 month ago

P.s.: Unlike the first episode (to my ear, at any rate), the second episode does contain some material perhaps suggestive of the autism spectrum (see the comment by G. Lockrobin, below).Report

Mark van Roojen
1 month ago

I’m pretty sure David was not especially right wing. But he did have a certain (possibly misplaced) sense of propriety about how academic things, including politics in academia, should be done. So he never joined the APA after the Viet Nam war statement disagreement, which as I understand it was with the organization taking a stand at all, and not about the particular stand taken. He kept up his non-membership despite Steffi being a hugely valuable officer of the organization for many years. (Steffi, btw, was a huge positive influence on philosophy, in part because she was kind.)

I never talked about politics with him. But I do know that he was supportive of people making feminist arguments in the academy even when he disagreed with some of the arguments. And he was one of the folks trying to deal with sexual harassment issues when very few people were doing it well, though I don’t know the details there either and thus can’t say how effectively.Report

Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
30 days ago

Now listening to the podcast. I didn’t know the details of the short period leading to his death. Pretty distressing though I shared in the general distress among my friends at the news. Distressed at how avoidable it may have been and about Steffi coming home to that.Report

Grace Lockrobin
1 month ago

Love the series so far.

Is there anything to suggest that Lewis regarded himself as autistic, or has anyone who knew him well suggested this since? If so, perhaps there is another narrative here, revealing the powerful contribution of neuro-divergent perspectives in philosophy (and other areas of human enquiry). As the podcast already suggests, his examination of conversational rules seems to be a product of his own bafflement. That bafflement is shared by many ASD people.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Grace Lockrobin