John Pollock, 1940-2009

Most will already have noticed at Leiter Reports that John Pollock has died. Given his centrality to epistemology of the last 40 years or so, I note it here as well, with some initial thoughts about his work.

John played a central role in traditional epistemology and in the burgeoning field of formal epistemology, as well as having cross-disciplinary influence in fields related to the latter, including cognitive science and artificial intelligence. I first encountered his work by reading Knowledge and Justification, one of the few book-length treatments in press in the 1970’s on the central topics in epistemology that attracted me to the area, and his OSCAR project is, to my mind, the most sophisticated and detailed investigation of the nature of defeasible reasoning available. Since reading that first book, I made a conscious effort to read everything John wrote. There are very few philosophers about whom I would say that one learns from everything they write, and John is one of those. It is fair to say that he had no aversion for formal devices and distinctions, but the complexity was never unmotivated and the resulting work was always among the central items to be taken into account when working in the area (for examples, see The Foundations of Philosophical Semantics and Nomic Probability and the Foundations of Induction). He was one of the reasons Arizona has been such a force in epistemology over the past 30 or so years, and he will be missed both personally and professionally.


John Pollock, 1940-2009 — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks very much for your post Jon. As one of John’s former students and current colleagues, I want to second everything you said about John’s influence in philosophy. Personally, he had a huge influence on my philosophical development, and I know many of his other students feel the same way. John had one of the finest philosophical minds I’ve ever encountered. His death is a huge loss for philosophy, and a huge personal loss for those who were fortunate enough to know him.

  2. Amen to everything Jon said.

    John Pollock was a very important philosopher but you’d never know it by the way he carried himself. His humble demeanor and big smile were there for everyone lucky enough to be around him.

    One year when I was graduate student at Arizona, John was a assigned to evaluate my teaching, which meant that he would be sitting in on one of my lectures. The day before he was to attend my class, he came to the TA office and called me out into the hallway (the TA offices were very crowded). He did this to tell me his perspective on faculty class visits of TAs: graduate students are always nervous when faculty attend their classes, so its not possible for faculty to see a “typical” lecture. So if you stumble, John said, I’ll figure it’s just because you are nervous; on the other hand, if things go well, that will be impressive. It’s a no-lose situation for you.

    On the day John attended, he arrived very early and sat slumped down in the last row. I don’t think anyone in the class had him pegged as my evaluator. He waited until all the students had left and walked with me back to the department, saying nice things along the way.

    Twenty-two years later this sticks out as one of my very favorite memories of my time in Tucson.

    Man, September was a tough month for my former teachers of epistemology–first Bill Alston and now John Pollock. Tonight, I’ll be saying a prayer for Alvin Goldman and Keith Lehrer.

  3. John was a great friend and a great philosopher. Many of us at Arizona talked about scientific epistemology, and learned something about it. But it was only John who made it operational and truly testable. I knew he was smart when I hired him at Arizona, but I did not see that he would contribute more than any of the rest of us. He did. Iris Oved will carry on his work, I am confident, and see some brilliant unfinished work through to completion. The only appropriate response to the death of John is the recognition of his accomplishments. Those we should celebrate with gratitude and humility.

  4. Around 1981 I spent a year at Arizona–a really exciting and stimulating year. Most of the excitement was due to John. We talked and argued a great–not about epistemology, but about the metaphysics of modality: actualism, serious actualism, etc. I Learned an enormous amount; John was a magnificent philosopher. John, along with Ric Otte, also got interested in rock climbing that year–we climbed just about every week at Mt. Lemon. John approached rock climbing as he did philosophy: great enthusiasm and a full-team-ahead attitude.

    His death is a real loss.

    –Alvin Plantinga

  5. As so many of the comments note, John was not only the very finest of philosophers, but a very, very special human being. I’ve known him since I first arrived at arizona in 1998. I considered him a best friend. The way he was personally was very like the way he was philosophically; buddha-like in his self-sufficiency and yet unfailingly patient and generous in discussions. I’ve never known a mind so finely honed and sure of itself. It was hard to get John to talk about something he had little interest in, but when you caught him on issues he thought worth thinking about, there was a clarity and precision to the way he thought that I have never come across in anyone else. Conversation could be almost breathtakingly exciting: clean, quick, focused. You could be absolutely certain that what he said on technical questions was right, that what he said on conceptual questions was thought through, and that the questions he was asking were deep. I went away from him more times than I can count with a sense of revelation and discovery. I admired him profoundly.

    But aside from all of that, he did things for friends (for me, many times and perhaps others), that were needed but not asked for, and that were profoundly appreciated but went unreciprocated. He was loved. He is missed.

  6. He had a humble demeanor. My first day as a student at UA I thought he was a fellow grad student, till someone told me his name.

  7. I had the great privilege of being John’s first wife for 23 years. He was as great at home as the above comments state. He always had that great smile and twinkle in his eye! He was a good family man who did many things besides philosophy. He loved taking pictures and won many awards for them. He was a good carpenter ,gardener and was great with our two girls. He was a great man and I will truly miss him.

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