Sad news from Nate Foster ’01.


Former Williams professor (and close personal friend of Morty) Peter Lipton died suddenly over the weekend. Peter was a full professor at Cambridge and head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. In recent years, he has advised many Herchel Smiths including yours truly. He was one of the best, kindest advisors I ever had.

Indeed. As a philosophy major, I had several classes with Professor Lipton, who taught at Williams from 1985-1990. Each was excellent. Lipton was superb in the art and science of running a Williams classroom. He always had an interesting story about the philosophers we were discussing. He seemed to have read a biography about everyone from Hume to Wittgenstein.

Peter Lipton made me want to be a philosophy professor at Williams, someone who would know all that there was to know about philosophy and spend his life discussing the big questions with Williams students. His classes were my first exposure to the idea of students as teachers. He had us write “reaction papers” to each other’s essays. I have shamelessly stolen the idea ever since.

Lipton was also one of the outside readers for my thesis. It was just 20 years ago this coming May that I nervously presented my big idea in Griffin 3. Lipton listened kindly to my bumbling and then began his comments. Like any good discussant, he started with a summary of what I wrote, or at least what I should have meant if I were thinking clearly and interpreted charitably. In just a paragraph of lucid prose, he summarized perfectly, in words that I never would have found, the point that I was trying to get across. I wanted to stop everything and say, “Yes! That is exactly what I meant!” Lipton’s insight and kindness have stayed with me ever since. Another of his students knows exactly what I mean.

He did this thing I only half-jokingly coined a verb for — to Lipton, I have told people, is to listen to the most garbled, incoherent, muddle-headed drivel that periodically emits from a student or otherwise member of an audience, and to restate it back at them in the most crystal clear terms, so that whatever point hidden in its murky depths is rescued & borne out of the swamps of obfuscation to receive enlightenment from high … seriously. Liptoning also involves clarifying complexity with enviable panache, but always without an iota of hubris — always that incredible modesty and respect for what one does not know — in short, to be an ideal teacher and thinker. What a gift!

A gift that is now lost to all of us. The obituary notes:

Lipton was an extraordinarily gifted teacher. His lecture courses on philosophy of science and philosophy of mind attracted big crowds of students and were marked by the most unusual clarity, critical acumen and his wonderful – and justifiably world-renowned – sense of humour. One year the second-year students so wished to show their appreciation for his performance that in the last lecture of the year they showered him with flowers. Many a student was drawn into philosophy through these lectures. Lipton’s seminars and reading groups were similarly legendary. His ‘Epistemology Reading Group’ – modelled on A. J. Ayer’s Oxford discussion circle that he had attended – was the philosophical centre of gravity in the Department. Lipton supervised numerous students at all levels; he was always working with between six and ten PhD students.

Academia is one of the great apprentice fields, a workplace in which, despite the endless libraries, there are no books to teach you what you really need to know. The only way to learn to be a scholar and a teacher is to find a master to guide you, to show you how it is done. Lipton was just such a master. See how Professor Joe Cruz ’91, another of Lipton’s students, keeps alive his teachings for Williams students yet to come.

In another decade or two or three, it is not clear how many people will read the no-doubt-excellent books that Peter Lipton wrote. The shelf life of scholarly monographs is short, their readers few, their impact small and fleeting. But Peter Lipton’s memory will live on with the students he taught over the last 20 years until they too pass on to the great tutorial in the sky. When that day comes for me, I know that Professor Lipton will be waiting, a patient and understanding philosopher with time for his eager students.

Condolences to all.

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