Former prof Lipton passes

Peter Lipton, a renowned professor of philosophy who taught at the College from 1985 to 1990, passed away suddenly on Nov. 25. At the time of his death, Lipton was serving as the head of the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. He was 53 years old.

“He was an extraordinary teacher – even by the highest of our college’s standards – and was also a fine scholar,” President Schapiro said of Lipton. “Those lucky enough to have studied with him were truly blessed.”

Before coming to the College, Lipton received his B.A. from Wesleyan and his Ph.D. from Oxford. His area of focus was epistemology, and he wrote his doctorate thesis on explanation and evidence. In his years at Williams he was particularly known for his abilities to inspire excitement about the process of philosophical inquiry and to push students to produce quality writing.

“For him, philosophy never appeared to be daunting or frustrating – for him, it was just fun,” said Alan White, a professor of philosophy who taught in the department during Lipton’s time at the College. “And it was clear that his students were fully aware and deeply appreciative of that.”

Dan O’Connor, professor emeritus of philosophy, echoed these sentiments. “Although an impressive scholar, he was primarily devoted to his teaching, I think,” he said. “Many Williams alumni will remember the attention he lavished on their essays.”

Two such students, Will Dudley ’89 and Joe Cruz ’91, are now professors in the College’s philosophy department. Both spoke warmly of their memories of Lipton.

Dudley recalled taking Philosophy 102 with Lipton as a sophomore at the College, and said that the professor’s infectious excitement for the material was a key factor in convincing him to pursue the major. “In his classes he emphasized and made you believe that everyone could be a philosopher, that this was not just some esoteric exercise,” Dudley said.

The numbers suggest that this sense of enthusiasm and relevance inspired quite a few students. During Lipton’s time at the College, the number of philosophy majors in each graduating class jumped considerably, up to about 24 from its previous average of about 12.

Cruz described Lipton as a personal role model. “For me personally, he inspired my hopes for myself in the classroom, first as a young person thinking about knowledge and reality, then later as a professor thinking about how to share a passion for these themes” Cruz said.

In 1991, Lipton published what is widely considered his most significant scholarly work. Titled Inference to the Best Explanation, the text analyzes the process of inferring conclusions based on available evidence. The book is highly respected among academics, who praise its economy and lucidity. The same year his book was published, Lipton left his tenured position at Williams to join the faculty at Cambridge. There he wrote, lectured and advised, eventually assuming the positions as the chair and head of the department of history and philosophy of science.

Lipton stayed connected to the Williams community during his years at Cambridge, mentoring a number of the College’s Herchel Smith fellows studying there. Scott Moringiello ’01 said Lipton was instrumental in easing his transition to the new environment. “He was super nice, and really helped me acclimate to things there,” Moringeillo said.

Nate Foster ’01 recalled Lipton being an exceptionally caring advisor. After completing the first of his two years at Cambridge, Foster was unsure of how he wanted to continue his studies. At the recommendation of someone who knew Lipton had a connection to Williams, Foster contacted the professor to ask his advice and to learn about his department.

“He did a couple things that were remarkable, first taking the time to talk to a complete novice, then advising me so closely,” Foster said. “He was incredibly patient, helping me figure out how to spend a year – it really made an impression.”

Joanna Korman ’07, a current Herchel Smith fellow, spoke of Lipton’s remarkable ability to clarify students’ ideas. A few weeks ago, Korman brought an essay she was working on to Lipton for review. “After weeks, more than a month, of confusion, a half an hour chat with him, and clarity was mine,” she said.

Despite Lipton’s passing, his memory and legacy live on in the Williams community. “I loved the guy and will always miss him,” Schapiro said.

“When I have lunch with my students in Paresky or Dodd, I am imagining the way that Professor Lipton used to do the same with us after PHIL 102,” Cruz said. “When I strive to extend my own research into philosophically innovative areas while aiming to keep it intelligible to all whom might read it, I’m reaching for the same model of joyful effort that Lipton often showed. He will be missed, but he’ll also be there, for me, every time I walk into the classroom.”

Lipton is survived by his wife, Diana, and their sons Jacob and Jonah.

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