Gilbert Harman (1938-2021)

Gilbert (Gil) Harman, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, has died.

Professor Harman was an influential philosopher well known for his work across a wide range of areas in philosophy, writing on a variety of subjects in moral philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and epistemology. You can learn more about his writing and research here and here.

Professor Harman retired from Princeton in 2017, having started there in 1963. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University and was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College.

He died at home on Saturday, November 13th, after a long illness.

Update 1: Elizabeth Harman would like to invite those who knew her father to share memories and stories about him here, in the comments. 

Update 2: A reader shared a summary of Harman’s career posted by Princeton on the occasion of his retirement:

Gil has worked in virtually every area of systematic philosophy—philosophy of language and linguistics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and moral philosophy—and he has made major contributions in each of these areas. His earliest publications were in Chomsky-style generative linguistics, a field in which he continued to publish throughout his career, but he moved very quickly into the philosophy of language and wrote a number of foundational papers on syntax, semantics, the theory of meaning, and the theory of understanding. In this connection, he teamed up with Donald Davidson to edit Semantics of Natural Language, a collection of seminal papers in the field that gave rise to the modern philosophy of language as we know it. Gil continued to publish in the philosophy of language throughout his career. Indeed, he thinks that there is no hard and fast distinction between the contributions he has made in linguistics and philosophy of language and those he has made elsewhere in philosophy.

At the same time that Gil was working on linguistics and the philosophy of language, he was also working on related issues in how we think about the world, including themes that cross the boundaries between epistemology, philosophy of psychology, and, more recently, cognitive science. In epistemology, Gil is perhaps best known for having articulated and defended the idea that inductive reasoning can best be understood as inference to the best explanation. His first book, Thought, has become a genuine classic. It is widely cited and selections are frequently reprinted. The concern with how we think about the world weaves its way through Gil’s extensive publication list, through countless journal articles and in two subsequent books, Change in View: Principles of Reasoning and Reasoning, Meaning, and Mind.

More recently, Gil’s attention has turned toward the ways in which we might approach these issues through cognitive science. In addition to numerous articles, he has co-authored two books with Princeton’s Dean of Faculty and the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Electrical Engineering Sanjeev Kulkarni: Reliable Reasoning: Induction and Statistical Learning Theory and An Elementary Introduction to Statistical Learning Theory.

Gil has played a major role in building bridges between philosophy and the cognitive sciences at Princeton and beyond, and in convincing philosophers of the importance of cognitive science for understanding reasoning and the mind.

Gil is also a major figure in moral philosophy. In addition to his many articles, he has published three books. The Nature of Morality has been widely translated and excerpted. Several generations of graduate students earned their doctoral dissertations by grappling with a key problem for moral realism—the explanatory impotence of moral facts—that Gil famously put forward in that book. He published a spirited defense of moral relativism in Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, a back and forth on the topic with Judith Jarvis Thomson. Though moral relativism is still a minority view within the philosophical community, it is given its most widely respected defense in Gil’s work. He also published a collection of his seminal papers on this and other topics in moral philosophy, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy.

You can read more here.

Update 3: Princeton’s obituary for Harman is here.

Update 4 (4/11/22): The Department of Philosophy at Princeton has posted a series of brief essays about Professor Harman’s contributions to philosophy here.

Update 5 (4/11/22): Town Topics, a local Princeton newspaper, published an obituary of Professor Harman, which you can find on this page (you’ll need to scroll down to get to it).

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Jc Beall
2 years ago

Gil Harman was very influential in my thinking. He was a great teacher and a wonderful person. He wrote what he could write clearly, and didn’t bother writing what he couldn’t. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from him, and for some good laughs I shared with him.

Justin Kalef
2 years ago

I never got to know Gil very well, but he had a strong influence on my philosophical career in ways he never knew. My doctorial dissertation, Answering Harman’s Relativism, was (as far as I can tell) the first book-length response to his influential brand of moral relativism. Some years after I wrote it, I had the opportunity to interact with him on a weekly basis when I sat in on a Princeton graduate seminar on ethics taught by Gil and his daughter Liz. Liz inherited Gil’s knack for identifying fascinating and important questions in philosophy and saying things about them that are straightforward, clearly put, and well worth considering. The two of them were also very warm and friendly, and had a way of welcoming discussion that made the seminar a real pleasure. Much to my regret, I never got around to mentioning to Gil that I had spent three years of my life trying to sort out where I thought his reasoning in morality went wrong. I wonder what he would have thought of it. From everything I’ve heard from people who worked with him, he was always interested in hearing out dissent and never had an ego that got in the way of enjoying such conversations.

He was clearly a great man, and I think we can all learn a thing or two from his philosophical spirit and his dedication to good writing. When I was beginning my dissertation project, I prided myself on what I took to be my airtight arguments against so many of his moves. I was excited to tell a more mature philosophical friend all about it. My friend said, ‘Perhaps you’re right, but Harman is one of the greatest philosophers of our day.’ I replied, arrogantly, that he couldn’t be that great if he got so many things wrong. My friend wisely pointed out that the discipline is teeming with clever people who can savage each other’s arguments five ways from Friday (though how ‘wrong’ they show those arguments to be thereby is of course much less clear), but that that ability only makes one a capable philosopher, at best. A great philosopher, he said, is one who identifies a problem that nobody has noticed before, or who shows an old problem in a clearer light, or who comes up with a solution that captures everyone’s attention and starts its own discussions going. Gil Harman, he pointed out, is one of the few people around to have achieved that in many different areas of philosophy.

Over the years, I’ve come to feel his point more and more strongly. Gil Harman was indeed one of the great philosophers of our time, and I’m honored to have had a chance to meet him.

Kian Mintz-Woo
2 years ago

I was also in Liz and Gil’s Princeton ethics seminar (with Justin above!) in Spring 2017. I wrote a MA thesis (under Brad Hooker) on relativism and my thoughts on the subject were deeply formed by reading his Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity debate with JJ Thomson during my undergraduate. I could go on, but most of all I am grateful to be able to listen to him and learn from him, if only for a brief time.

Barry Lam
2 years ago

Gil was the big man on campus at Swarthmore, a couple of years ahead of David Lewis’ class. People in Lewis’ class told me that they were in awe of Gil, knew him by reputation only as a world class pianist and the most handsome man on campus (which he was judging from this picture). As a teacher and advisor, Gil responded to papers within a week, others took 3 months. And he was as entertaining as he was quick and clever; always cared that his jokes landed. He once mentioned how hard it was to refute Simon Blackburn’s antirealism on account of how charming Blackburn was. He expressed great admiration for Jeff McMahan’s work at the time but the only demerit was he didn’t know what McMahan’s looked like, and he’d really like to know what people he admired looked like. RIP Gil.

GilHarmanSwarthmore 1960.jpeg
Zena Hitz
2 years ago

I was a graduate student at Princeton when Gil was DGS, from 1999-2004. He was famous for saying “History of philosophy belongs in the history department” and for throwing away books “more than twenty years old”. Once it came out that he had a copy of Carnap in his office. Delia Graff teased him for having such an old book, and he said “Oh, not the classics. I keep the classics. Not the classics!”

I found Gil to be inevitably warm, kind, and mild. His mellowness and warmth were a real comfort in a high pressure department. I remember coming under pressure from my first employer to finish my dissertation. He had memorable advice: “How fast can you type? Just put your fingers on the keyboard and don’t take them off til May!”

Shortly before I left Princeton Gil gave a talk at the CHV. The CHV was then notorious for awkward discussions held over dinner. Gil had his dinner at a local restaurant, and admitted quietly that it had been his suggestion, that so that people could actually talk to each other.

At that dinner, Gil told us that Roger Scruton was coming as a visiting professor in the following year. He was extremely excited. “He’s so lovable!” he said. “You have to love someone who stands against everything you believe in!”

I thought that was a beautiful thing too say. But also, I was at odds then (as now) with much of the political consensus of the department, and it was deeply comforting, an expression of the warm welcome I’d received in that graduate program, one that has never to my knowledge been withdrawn.

My deepest condolences to Lucy and Liz and the rest of his family. What a beautiful man, and what a loss.

Susanna Schellenberg
2 years ago

I didn’t know Gil Harman well at all, but in the few interactions I had with him, it was obvious that he was a remarkable and wonderful man. 

This was my favorite interaction with him: Shortly after defending my dissertation, I sent him a paper in which I briefly discuss his work. I had never met him. He sent me back detailed and generous comments within a few days. That itself was wonderful. In the paper I had an apostrophe where I should have had a prime symbol. Gil commented on this and helpfully gave me step by step instructions on how to enter a prime symbol in a word doc. There was something deeply kind about the fact that he took the time to explain something so trivial to someone he had never met and how he explained it to me. 

Chad Mohler
2 years ago

I can second Zena’s comments above (my time as a graduate student at Princeton overlapped with Zena’s). While Bas van Fraassen was my primary dissertation advisor, Gil served as a secondary dissertation advisor to me. In his provision of both comments and time, Gil was exceedingly generous and kind. I have fond memories of reading through his always-perceptive remarks on my work, written as carefully penciled comments in the margins of hard copies of my drafts. Like Barry above, I was always impressed by the speed with which he was able to provide such thorough commentary.

Gil’s generosity shone not just in his attention to his students, but also in his habit, also noted above by Zena, of regularly dispensing with books from his private collection. We grad students were the fortunate recipients of his largesse, as those books would inevitably end up on a side shelf of the lounge in 1879 Hall, with a sign indicating they were free for the taking. Looking at my shelves, I still can pick out several of these “gifts” from Gil.

All of us in philosophy have benefited greatly from having Gilbert Harman in our midsts— I have the deepest gratitude for his contributions to our community. Thank you, Gil.

Alexander Williams
2 years ago

Professor Harman was my senior thesis advisor, Class of ’92. I loved the directness and clarity of his thinking and teaching. Sometimes it was so clear and direct that you felt you must be missing the point. But that itself was inspiring. Also very important was his way of treating philosophy as continuous with science. That both allowed me to find a home after I (like dozens of others) was crushed by Princeton physics, and also later set me on the path that became my career in linguistics. I first imagined that path while on a weeklong train ride through Siberia in 1993, reflecting on Professor Harman’s Philosophy of Cognitive Science class: its mixture of the conceptual with the empirical was just what I wanted, I decided. I am deeply glad I was able to go back and visit him a decade ago, after I got hired at Maryland, to say thank you, and to explain why. My condolences to the family.

Gualtiero Piccinini
2 years ago

I never met Gilbert Harman in person but we corresponded when I was a graduate student. He was kind and helpful to me, a total stranger. And his work on wide functionalism influenced me greatly. I’ll always be grateful.

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley
2 years ago

Gil Harman had an enormous influence on my development as an epistemologist. The issues he was addressing in the 70s and 80s became utterly central again in the first decade of the 21st century. I first became acquainted with him personally when he contacted me as a fellow admirer of Delia Graff Fara’s work on definite descriptions to nominate her now classic paper for the first APA article prize (which she subsequently won). I learned then what I saw again and again over the next decade and more – he was incredibly supportive of younger philosophers whom he regarded as doing good work, generous in his praise, and active and involved in our careers. The last time I saw him was when I gave a memorial address Delia Graff Fara at Princeton. I remain profoundly grateful to him for his role in supporting her and recognizing her immense talent as a thinker. Harman was pathbreaking as an interdisciplinary thinker – he showed how one could be informed by cognitive science, without losing a nose for what is philosophically perplexing. He was both interdisciplinary, and a philosopher’s philosopher.

Now that I am a senior figure myself, I recognize how difficult it is to remain so involved in what younger figures are doing, to stay incredibly active in the field, and to provide the kind of enthusiastic support that Gil did with me and many others throughout his career as one of our most eminent thinkers. I am extraordinarily grateful to him.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
2 years ago

Gil was my advisor, and my friend. He was just the advisor you’d invent for yourself, if you got to do that: quick to correct your mistakes, effortless in understanding what you were trying to say when you weren’t saying it very well, and famously fast and generous in giving feedback.
Gil was famous for his work in mind, metaethics, language, epistemology, as the OP and several commenters have noted. But he knew and did many, many things. How many Daily Nous readers have read “Semiotics and the Cinema”, for instance?

I’ll miss him.

2 years ago

This is a very different sort of remembrance, so I hope it’s okay. But in addition to the sort of things people have mentioned, it’s also worth noting that Professor Harman contributed what may be the single greatest comment ever to appear on a philosophy blog: “More ageism.” I would encourage you to check out the original thread in order to appreciate just how great it was:

Eat your heart out, David Wallace! 🙂

Mark van Roojen
2 years ago

Gil was my advisor and inevitably kind even though I was somewhat shy about showing him my work (or getting it done). He treated this in what was likely the best way, returning what I gave him very quickly, mostly just with “keep going” written on it. Then when I had a chapter that I was going to use on the job market it came back in three installments with much more careful comments. In that particular case mere encouragement was not going to be enough. I think he adjusted his advising to what he figured the person in question needed. This was especially remarkable insofar as he advised a great portion of the grad students when I was there. He was a good listener and a good suggester of ways forward, even though I was to some degree carrying on an argument with him. In hindsight I wish I had had more confidence to engage him more in person.

He was kind in other ways. On my first day in town he invited me on a picnic at that park with the pillars with his family. When I was one unit short two weeks before I was supposed to take my general exam and he was DGS he encouraged me to hand in some old work to Michael Frede even though I had already tried to get John Cooper to give me a unit for it. (John preferred me to write a paper for the class so I had not gotten the unit from him.) I was able to take my general exam on time since Gil’s plan worked. I’m fond of quoting him about why he went into philosophy, IIRC it was “So I didn’t have to specialize.” Which fit him well and also strikes me as one of the best reasons.

Kathleen Cook
2 years ago

As a woman graduate student in ancient philosophy in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, Gil’s somewhat shocking views about the history of philosophy were outweighed for me by his kindness, his wry smile, and his frequent appearances in the Student Center lunchroom pushing Elizabeth in her stroller, bringing his daughter to work long before it became a thing.

Cao Chengshuang
2 years ago

It is a sudden and sad news. When I heard it from my former student on my way to campus, I wouldn’t believe it. From 2018, I was eager to email to Professor Harman because I have started a postgraduate course on moral relativism but Harman had forsaked his inner-judgment argument for moral telativism. My MA dissertation is on Harman’s relativism. His argument is powerful and almost persuaded me. But why forsake so powerful argument? Now I would never know the answer from Harman’s mouth. Let me introduce myself. I am a Chinese from Inner Mongolia University. I never interacted with Harman personally or by letter or email except his works. Now I have lost the last possibility to learn from him. I must have said something for my weakness of procrastinating 4 years. It is the last chance. I had always thought I had a chance to email to him but I was wrong and paid the price for my cowardice.

Brett Sherman
2 years ago

In my first of year graduate school at Princeton, I was advised (in response to a clumsily written paper with a lot of “academic” syntax) to emulate the writing style of Gil Harman. In particular, I was told to pay attention to his use of simple sentence structures and short paragraphs. So, I went to the bookstore and picked up a copy of Thought.

I remember being somewhat mesmerized by the book, in large part because it’s so fun to read. The philosophy isn’t hidden behind a wall of tedium. The interesting problems, and the insightful proposals to solve them, are presented so straightforwardly. I’ve since learned that this feature is common to so much of Gil’s work. I think his style emerges in part from his focus on making an interesting contribution, rather than on decisively ruling out all competing alternatives. I find his approach engaging and lively, and I strive to emulate it to this day.

I was fortunate to work with Gil more closely when he served as one of my dissertation advisors. He was great at getting to the heart of an issue, and also at getting me to continuously move forward with my research. He told me once that he and Donald Davidson had, decades earlier, taken a speed reading course, which involved learning to take a mental scan of each page as a whole. I’m sure others know more about this than I do. If I remember correctly, he attributed his quick turnaround in reading student work to that technique. What I can confirm is that he always got comments back very quickly, and he usually caught a number of typos. I was always impressed by this, and never fully understood how he was able to do it.

As others have mentioned, Gil was a very generous advisor, and I experienced one instance of that generosity when he took me on as a co-author for a couple of papers. This helped me out a great deal, both professionally and philosophically. I’m very grateful to him and will always look back at that time fondly. Gil, I’ll do my best to speak up whenever somebody confuses logical implication and reasoning!

Michaelis Michael
2 years ago

A good friend let me know that Gil Harman had died. This is a sad day. Gil oversaw my Princeton Univ PhD at the end when it mattered after DKL and I realised our working relationship was not working. He did that with solid advice : “Remember a thesis is not your magnum opus, it’s your last bit of student work” and encouragement “It’s fine. Just submit it.”

The entry for Gil in the Philosopher’s Lexicon created originally by Dan Dennett is “Harmanica: an instrument played with tongue firmly in cheek” captured a couple of things so right about Gil. It mentions his humour, which was tinged with a lot of irony. But it also relates something that I haven’t seen anyone comment on: his musicality.

I got Gil to visit Sydney to be part of a wonderful conference John Hawthorne and I ran at UNSW. After the conference I arranged for him to give a set of three Cognitive Science and Philosophy talks at UNSW that were a great success. As he was in Sydney on his own we got to know each other a bit on that trip.

I remember his really intense love of music. He taught me how to listen to Charles Mingus. I had the instrumental version of “Fables of Faubus” which I had not understood at all. Gil was also a talented jazz saxophonist. He played in a professional jazz band through his undergraduate degree from Swathmore where he was a couple of years ahead of Lewis. He jokingly told me that the decision to go to graduate school to do philosophy rather than continue playing jazz professionally was guided by the realization that “Only about six players were just playing jazz for a living. The rest had day jobs.”

I’m saddened by his passing. My sincere condolences to his family.

Dan Everett
2 years ago

Gil Harman was influential in my thinking over the years. I was therefore excited to have lunch with him one day years ago when I was giving a talk at Princeton. He acted surprised that I had heard of him. Humble, brilliant, and kind. I have often remembered that lunch with pride and pleasure. His passing is a significant loss to the aggregate intelligence of our species.

Helen Yetter-Chappell
2 years ago

One of my favorite memories of Gil was of attending his office hours, when his granddaughter Annie was a baby. Gil was alternating talking philosophy (all the while, pushing the stroller back and forth) and making ridiculous baby noises at Annie. I was a young, very anxious female grad student. And seeing this incredibly prominent, senior male philosopher doing philosophy while caring for a baby like it was the most natural thing in the world … it was amazing.

It’s lovely being able to see all the remembrances here, and to see from Kathleen Cook that he was doing the same thing with Liz when she was a baby.

I didn’t know Gil at all well, but I realize thinking back that all of my memories of him are happy (and, often, wonderfully silly). Gil, Paul Benacerraf, and Harry Frankfurt, sharing m&ms during talks and throwing little pieces of paper at one another like rowdy schoolboys … Gil, amused and completely unfazed by my nearly running into him sliding around the halls of 1879 in my socks (tip to current grad students: the halls are really slippery and excellent for sliding down!) … sending Gil a draft for comments, and three hours later unexpectedly having a unit report in my inbox…

If we had more babies, more kindness, more silliness, more helpful responses to those in junior positions … philosophy would be a more wonderful discipline. Thankful I got to be at Princeton to experience some of this.

Hugs to Liz. I’m so sorry.

Errol Lord
2 years ago

Gil was the author of the most exciting email I’ve ever received. This was the acceptance notification to Princeton, which he wrote in his capacity as Director of Graduate Studies. It was characteristically short and to the point. Whether he liked it or not, he was also at all of my other major Princeton milestones. He was one of the examiners of my Generals exam (the bridge requirement between coursework and the dissertation) and he was one of the readers of my dissertation. In my experience he could be a somewhat terrifying interlocutor because he would watch you intently with a sort of bemused grin on his face. Fortunately he always indicated his support somehow, especially after the discussion wound down. He loved arguments but never took himself or whatever discussion he was engaged in too seriously.

Gil amusingly complained about the word count of my dissertation upon submission. This led to a sincere debate about the best method to count words in a pdf document. I managed to convince him it was not in fact significantly longer than 100,000 words. He sent in an amended report with considerable irony. This was more than made up for by perhaps the best compliment I have ever received about my work, given the source: “The dissertation is chock full of interesting arguments.”

RIP Gil. You’ll be greatly missed.

John Doris
2 years ago

A terrible loss. My deepest condolences to Lucy, Liz, Olivia, and the rest of Gil’s loved ones.
Few are as ferociously smart as Gil, and fewer still are at the same time as warm, generous, kind, and genuinely unpretentious. 
Philosophically, I remember Gil best for his sense of fun (in light of which his famous remarks on the history of philosophy ought be understood). Gil had a nose for trouble that all philosophers should emulate, but his delight in a good ruckus was accompanied by a sturdy good sense, as reflected in his advice about counterexamples: “A lot of philosophers spend a lot of their time accommodating counterexamples to their theory. But if they stopped thinking so much about accommodating counterexamples, and took a minute to think about the theory itself, they’d say, ‘That’s a dumb theory!’.”
I still find it incredible that a few sentences in Gil’s introductory ethics text spawned the literature on moral explanations that was central to the resurgence of metaethics in the 1980s. Later, Gil’s pathbreaking work on the page, and his wise and patient mentoring of his colleagues in the Moral Psychology Research Group, played a formative role in establishing another literature, in interdisciplinary moral psychology.
In 2017, Gil and I stood on the steps of 1879 Hall on a grey afternoon, chatting about his upcoming retirement. We marveled that he had taught at Princeton 50 years. Eventually, I watched him walk towards home, only a few blocks from the building where he spent his extraordinary career. How fortunate Princeton was – and we were – to have him.
Rest in Peace, Professor Harman.

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
2 years ago

I was lucky to have Gil as my senior thesis advisor in college. He returned material with astute comments very quickly, agreed to meet with me almost weekly, and helped me to see how a big project like this could be broken up into manageable chunks. Just as importantly, he exhibited just the temperament that I needed in a thesis advisor. I was prone to anxiety about the quality of my work; I think Gil picked up on this. In any case, he was warm and encouraging in our meetings, and doled out advice with a certain lightness. The general message was: don’t judge yourself too harshly, things are progressing just as they should be. I would not have pursued philosophy any further had my first experience doing substantial independent work not been so positive.

I was reminded of Gil’s lightness the next time we met, at a conference while I was in graduate school. Our discussion turned toward some professional kerfuffle, to which Gil’s reaction was a bemused, slightly impish: “It’s all part of the great human comedy!” This was the same conference at which he delivered a keynote address on the irrelevance of guilt to morality, during which he declared that he’d never felt guilt in his life.

I’m thankful to have had Gil as a mentor. My condolences to Liz and the rest of his family.

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
2 years ago

In my junior year as an undergraduate I was writing a paper for another professor that criticized an old paper of Gilbert Harman’s, “Simplicity as a Pragmatic Criterion for Deciding What Hypotheses to Take Seriously.” I thought I had some strong objections, and was excited to put them to him. I remember being a bit deflated when I met with him and found that he wasn’t at all inclined to defend his past work; while he was happy to discuss the topic, the view he’d argued for in the past no longer struck him as all that plausible. In retrospect, I think we’d probably all do well do invest as little ego in our work as it seemed to me he did. I regret not having gotten to know him better.

Cliff Landesman
2 years ago

I remember a talk Derek Parfit gave at Princeton around 1983. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember the content of the talk–perhaps it was about population ethics. At one point Parfit polled the audience. He asked us a question to see if anyone cared to deny a particular assumption. Only Gil raised his hand. He did it with that wry smile of his. After Parfit spoke a little further, everyone realized why Gil has raised his hand. 

What I remember most clearly about this episode is Parfit’s response when he saw that Gil raised his hand. Parfil said something to the effect of: Gil’s vote did not count. It is possible that Gil had read the talk beforehand, but that was certainly not my impression at the time. Rather, I came to believe that Gil had seen where Parfit was going well before the rest of us had a clue. I still believe that Parfit dismissed Gil’s vote that day not because of what Gil already knew, but because Parfit knew Gil. He knew he had a gift for quick and careful thinking. 

Angela Mendelovici
2 years ago

This is so very sad. Gil Harman was my PhD (co-)advisor and the grad program director while I was at Princeton. He was known for being witty, brilliant, straightforward, (non-brutally) honest, and mildly irreverent.

I first met him when I was a prospective student at Princeton. As grad program director, he’d meet with prospective students and offer straight-up advice on which offer they should accept. This was a bit controversial, since he’d often tell students to go somewhere other than Princeton! In my case, he told me I should not make my decision based on one or two faculty members, who might leave, die, or simply not want to work with me, but rather on the quality of the grad students, since they’re the ones I’d be learning from the most (he was right). He also thought he should let me know that a program that had rejected my application did so because they thought the last section of my writing sample was based on a category mistake––and that he agreed with that assessment. (I later wrote my dissertation under Gil’s (co-)supervision on this “category mistake”, and even though he continued to disagree with me, he unconditionally supported me and trusted me to figure things out for myself.) 

Once in the program, Gil encouraged students to move swiftly out of it. He didn’t take his role as grad program director or the program itself too seriously. Any time I had a question about some rule or requirement, he would shrug and say, “Let’s take a look at the website.” Then he would look up the department website, read me the relevant passage, and go with that as the answer. This may sound entirely mundane, but I was struck by (a) how utterly unproblematic it was to him that he didn’t know the answers to most such questions, (b) how perfectly happy he was to look up easily available information for me, and (c) how important it was to him that the program rules and requirements are transparently available to all.

As an advisor, he was straightforward with his students without being critical or judgmental. He was the kind of advisor who would show you your letter of recommendation as if that was the most natural thing in the world. He had strong opinions about philosophy, which he shared freely but never imposed on others. When students disagreed with his views, he would smile and make a quip about how progress in philosophy consists in overturning the work of your advisor. He was a model helpful, open-minded, and good-natured advisor, giving students the support that they needed without creating unnecessary hurdles.

He was also an intellectual giant, and I still find myself engaging with his work in my research and teaching (even with works that are old enough for him to consider of merely historical interest––he had a very “inclusive” view of the history of philosophy!). But, as is characteristic of Gil more generally, he never took himself too seriously. He was the model of intellectual humility, unassuming and good-natured, thoroughly unpretentious, and open to disagreement.

I have not talked to Gil in over a decade. But since leaving Princeton and becoming a supervisor and grad program chair myself, I’ve found myself channelling his outlook and advice (and constantly looking everything up on the website!). Gil showed me that it’s okay to be wrong, that it’s okay to not know the answer, and that it’s possible to be honest without being brutal. He showed me how to care more about people than any institutions you represent, and this model of integrity is probably what will stay with me the most.

My heart goes out to Lucy, Liz, and all of Gil’s family and friends. Goodbye, Gil. 

Jenny Saul
2 years ago

Obviously he was an outstanding philosopher. But what I remember most Is how kind a human being he was. He also helped me tremendously by imparting the view that you’re doing something worthwhile if you have an idea that’s worth thinking about– it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even right. Relatedly, I remember that when I was at Princeton there was a proposal to eliminate the history requirement. Gil famously held that nobody should read anything that was more than 10 years old. So I was surprised to learn that Gil hard argued in favour of the history requirement. It turned out that he felt there was a good argument, worth considering, that nobody else was making. So he made it. I found that really admirable. (And also funny.)

Nick Zangwill
2 years ago

I was very sorry to hear about Gil Harman’s passing. 
I first met Gil at the first conference I ran, which was almost a conference in his honour. (‘Norms and reasoning’, Glasgow 1995.) Of course he made significant contributions all over philosophy. But his distinction between logic and reasoning is like that between necessity and apriority: there is no turning back once it is pointed out. There I first experienced his wry humour and inventiveness. Two years later I sat in on an ethics graduate seminar of his in Princeton, which was relaxed yet demanding. There I remember wrestling with his Good News paper, which is fascinating but somehow hard to categorize. Yes, he was unpretentious, kind and open, but also, what a wonderfully creative fox of a mind! 
Condolences to Liz.

Hilary Kornblith
2 years ago

I was never Gil’s student in any formal sense, but I’ve been learning from him since I was an undergraduate. Reading Thought, and, one of my favorite papers of his (and not just for the title!), “Induction. A Discussion of the Relevance of the Theory of Knowledge to the Theory of Induction (with a Digression to the Effect that neither Deductive Logic nor the Probability Calculus has Anything to Do with Inference),” were formative experiences for me. Gil always had his eye on the big picture, and his interventions were provocative, exciting, and a pleasure to engage with whether one ended up agreeing with him or not. And I did end up agreeing with him more often than not. Engaging with him in person was, as so many others have commented, a real pleasure. All of the virtues of his writing were present in these interactions, together with a generosity of spirit, an obvious pleasure in the back and forth of philosophical discussion, and a delightful mix of seriousness of purpose with an impish sense of humor.
My thoughts are with you, Liz, in this difficult time.

2 years ago

Gil was very supportive of me throughout graduate school, and particularly when I was first on the job market. He would send me kind emails every few weeks to check in on how things were going. That year I ended up with a flyout for a good job with an AOS advertised in moral philosophy. This was rather a long shot, since my dissertation was a historical one on Nietzsche. Gil, with his grin and wry sense of humor, quipped that if it were an AOS in immoral philosophy, I’d be a shoo-in.

Gil told me that he burnished his Nietzsche knowledge assisting in a course taught by Walter Kaufmann. Apparently and somewhat astonishingly, in the 60s at Princeton, in addition to their own lecturing, assistant professors and lecturers served also in essence as TAs, and Gil said at one point, he, Bob Solomon, and (I now forget which, though the story is equally good either way) Tom Nagel or Tim Scanlon were the TAs for Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche course. Quite the starry and unexpected cast.

RIP Gil, and my condolences to Lucy, Liz, and the rest of Gil’s family.

Katy Abramson
2 years ago

Gil Harman’s delight in exploring and hearing about views with which he disagreed is something others have touched on, but I still want to add my own, in part because it’s hard to capture how much this meant to a great many of us. About half my philosophical life is spent studying the work of very dead people. Another substantial portion is spent working on issues in ethics concerning character. Gil, famously, had views about these things. Many years ago, he came to Indiana to give a talk, and we met before hand (coffee? I don’t recall). His honest openness was so on the surface that it somehow inspired me to be equally open and just say to him with a smile, “you know you’re wrong about that, don’t you?” He grinned even larger. “Am I? How is that?” I talked. For too long. At the end of which he smiled, gently, and said “probably so”. I figured he was probably indulging me (at least a bit) but he was so genuine and lovely. Then, a bit later that afternoon, he gave his talk (I wish I could remember on what!). And he answered a bunch of questions (of course). After answering a number, he looked at me, smiled pointed to me and said, “you can’t possibly agree with this. What do you think?” All the while smiling in a way that you could tell it was a genuine, interested, invitation. He had no way of knowing this, but as it happens, I was feeling quite down and small at the time of that visit. Interacting with him wasn’t just philosophically joyful; it also made me feel like a real philosopher at a time I was having difficulty feeling that. I will always be very grateful, and try to remind myself to be more like that myself.

John Collins
John Collins
2 years ago

I didn’t know Gil Harman personally – we once had a brief chat – but since no-one else has mentioned it, I thought it worth noting that he wrote some very interesting papers in linguistics in the 60s, including a proposal for a generative grammar sans transformations, an idea that was to resurface many years later. He also has the distinction of being the only philosopher to whom Chomsky has conceded a point in print (to the best of my knowledge). This occurs in the reply and response to Chomsky’s Rules and Representations in BBS (1980). The point is a nice one. I always admired his thoughtful engagement with linguistics.

Barry Lam
Reply to  John Collins
2 years ago

There were two people whom Gil went out of his way to avoid challenging unless absolutely necessary because he agreed with them so much. What’s funny is that their views are incompatible. One was Quine, the other was Chomsky.

Reply to  Barry Lam
2 years ago

That’s an interesting comment. The other point GH makes in the reply I mentioned is a defence of Quine on the a/s distinction. With this one Chomsky didn’t budge an inch. GH also edited a very nice collection on Chomsky in the 70s – the first of its kind – which incorporated linguistics and philosophy.

Alan Hájek
2 years ago

I greatly admired Gil as a philosopher and as a person. He had tremendous range. When I was a graduate student at Princeton, there was a list of all of the philosophy professors and the areas in which they were willing to supervise undergraduate theses. Gil was willing to supervise a thesis in ANY area. He had a wonderful sense of humour, and he did not take himself too seriously, despite the enduring impact of his work and his huge influence on his students.

2 years ago

I didn’t know Gil well, but three memories:

1. Visiting a couple of east-coast schools as a prospective grad student. Gil was the Princeton grad director at the time and asked me about my interests. As I spoke, he would say ‘oh, you could work with x at MIT’ or ‘hmm, there’s not really anyone here who does that, but there’s y at NYU’…I might have been offended that he wasn’t doing a hard sell to get me to Princeton, but instead I was touched that he genuinely seemed primarily concerned for my philosophical welfare

2. Hearing Gil hype, repeatedly, the potential of machine learning in the mid-00s. As a snot-nosed grad student I would just think ‘sure, sure, whatever’…but, well, he was on the right side of history there, wasn’t he

3. A couple of long car rides where he gave me some good career advice — which I didn’t take! — but we mostly talked for hours about film: de Palma, the Coen brothers, Kurosawa, etc.

Gary Watson
2 years ago

One of my earliest memories of Gil was an exchange that took place on Nassau Street, across the street from campus. On a pleasant spring day, he and several students from the department, including me, were enjoying ice cream cones, after a seminar. A young woman who was doing a survey of passersby stopped to get our opinions. The question, as she put it, was, “Should sex education be taught in the public schools?” Instead of answering her question, Gil corrected its formulation. “No, no,” Gil said, “that’s not what you mean. You mean, ‘Should we teach about sex in the public schools?’ not ‘Should we teach teaching sex in the public schools?’”
I came to see this exchange as entirely characteristic of Gil, who was ever attuned to discursive subtleties and always delighted to share these discriminations with other, even in the most mundane circumstances. He was famously dialectically formidable, and at the same time funny and smart-alecky.  
I didn’t study with Gil, though I took one of his courses. Throughout my career, however, I have been much exercised by his strikingly original work on philosophy of action and on ethics. He was an immensely gifted philosopher, dedicated to his discipline and to Princeton University. I am grateful to have known him.

Dan Sperber
2 years ago

Belatedly: I met Gil in 81, when I was spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as an anthropologist and attending talks in the department of philosophy. His friendliness towards me, his inspiring ideas, his intellectually encouraging and demanding attitude, his institutional support (I believe – it was never mentioned – that he put forward my name for a visiting fellowship in the department) were determinant in my becoming more and more involved in philosophical work. I owe him a lot personally and intellectually.

Barham Ray
2 years ago

Professor Harman was the most mithridatic teacher I’ve ever known.  As my Junior Paper advisor, he believed in me more than I did myself, and he encouraged me into some of the deepest, darkest waters in the study of consciousness.  He never, ever let his views or your fear get in the way of curiosity, and he treated students as fellow wonderers trying to understand nature’s mysteries all while upholding rigor.  The effect was intoxicating.  Before you knew it you had gone far further, far faster than imagined and were discovering within yourself new capabilities, most importantly self-reliance as a researcher and thinker under maximal confusion and complexity.  He brought out the best in you. Years after his guidance in the midst of an unexpected crisis, I found myself with zero medical training in the UCLA Biomedical Library finally getting a hold on problems with which no one had been able to help me.  Gil Harman helped me.  He had taught me to read and reason far outside my comfort zone, and he saved my health and sanity from untold pain.   Since then, I think of him often under conditions of professional or personal adversity to try to emulate his standards of rapid, openminded, deep research from multiple perspectives.