William Newton-Smith (1943-2023)

Philosopher William Newton-Smith, emeritus fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and founding executive chairman of Central European University, has died.

Newton-Smith was known for his work in philosophy of science, authoring The Structure of Time (1980) and The Rationality of Science (1981), among many other works, some of which you can browse here.

In 1991, Newton-Smith helped found Central European University in Prague. In an obituary at Project Syndicate, Ben Rawlence provides some of the background to this. In the early 1980s Newton-Smith arranged for a series of philosophers to travel to Prague to give lectures to informal groups, as many departments there had been shuttered by the government for being too “radical”. Rawlence writes:

The first member of staff Newton-Smith chose to send was Kathy Wilkes, closely followed by Roger Scruton and then himself. By the time Newton-Smith made his own visit, the authorities had become very curious about what was being referred to as “the underground university.” Samizdat, manually reproduced copies of books, including philosophy textbooks, were being passed around, partly financed by Newton-Smith’s informal fundraising and a group that would become the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, of which he was a founding trustee.

In a private flat in Prague, in 1980, Newton-Smith was about to address a gathering of 20 or so about the logic of science when the doorbell rang. A dozen uniformed officers entered to check identity cards, and two in plain clothes came for him. After two hours of interrogation, he was driven to a snowy border crossing with West Germany in the middle of the night. His expulsion from Czechoslovakia created an international sensation; headlines around the world boosted the cause of the dissidents.

Newton-Smith spent most of his career at Oxford. He earned his undergraduate degree from Queen’s University, his MA from Cornell University, and his DPhil from Balliol College, Oxford.

In a memorial notice at the CEU website, his colleagues remember him as a “modest, unpretentious, and good person, who has always downplayed his central role in fighting authoritarianism.”

He died on April 8th, 2023.

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