The Age of Metaphysical Revolution: David Lewis and His Place in the History of Analytic Philosophy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences


David Lewis (1941-2001) was a metaphysical revolutionary, who played a transformative role in the history of analytic philosophy. In 1986 he published his game-changing On the Plurality of Worlds. He argued that our universe or world is only one of many universes or worlds. Unfortunately we can't travel to them; they are, so to speak, 'island universes', disconnected from one another. But there are infinitely many universes or worlds, and everything that can happen does happen somewhere in one of them. Famously Lewis declared that there are talking donkeys in some of these worlds and unicorns in others. According to Lewis, we, all of us, every day in our ordinary lives, are talking about creatures from other worlds. When you're contemplating the possibility that you might have had different friends, or family, or a different career, you are thinking about someone else in one of those island universes, a real-life doppelgänger, someone like you except for the fact that they have different friends, a different family or a different career.

Lewis raised plenty of eyebrows saying this; famously many philosophers just stared back incredulously. But analytic philosophy wasn't the same afterwards. He had opened the door to metaphysical speculation in the grand manner long out of fashion; visions of reality no less sweeping than his own soon became the order of the day. How did Lewis bring about this paradigm shift even though nobody agreed with him? Why does the Age of Metaphysical Revolution he inaugurated with these extraordinary claims continue today, and, for all expectations, tomorrow?

The short answer is that the lines of history ran through Lewis. Lewis had rediscovered metaphysics between science and commonsense. His own intellectual journey had taken him from Oxford, where he learnt respect for commonsense and ordinary language, tutored by Iris Murdoch and lectured by Strawson, to Harvard, where he imbibed Quine's systematic, science-driven philosophy. Later Lwis was a frequent visitor to Australia where Smart's and Armstrong's forays into materialistic metaphysics had prepared the way for him. Lewis's mature philosophy was extraordinary for being a synthesis of all these influences. He conceived the goal of philosophy to be achieving a balance between science and commonsense. Lewis held metaphysics to be respectable insofar as metaphysics results from the endeavour to capture commonsense and science together in one encompassing theoretical net. He inspired a generation of philosophers to do metaphysics because even though most didn't believe in talking donkeys (so they didn't think he had got the balance right), Lewis wasn't authoritarian. He left everyone at liberty to do their own metaphysics: Lewis left each of us to judge when we have achieved a balance between these forces, a matter for every philosopher to square with her own intellectual conscience.

Lewis was famous not only for his published writings but also his dynamic engagement with philosophers worldwide, evinced by his correspondence with over a thousand of them during his career. His widow, Stephanie Lewis, has given us access to his philosophical correspondence and other posthumous papers. By making this remarkable historical resource available for the first time, she has provided us with a unique opportunity to retrace her husband's intellectual journey from neophyte to metaphysical visionary. A major task of our project will be to select from the thousands of pages of letters between Lewis and his interlocutors the most revealing ones, and edit this material for publication, making it available to future generations of philosophers and historians of philosophy. But understanding what makes this or that exchange revealing is bound up with comprehending the genesis of our current metaphysical age. So our tandem aim will be to write the first ever history of late 20th-century analytic philosophy that explains our Age of Metaphysical Revolution.

Planned Impact

The impact of the project outside academia will fall in three main areas: public engagement, environmental sustainability, and disabled access to university events.

While Lewis is barely known outside analytic philosophy, some aspects of his overall philosophical position (e.g. the existence of a plurality of possible worlds, the central role of common sense in philosophy) and some of the topics he discussed (e.g. time travel) make him a philosopher with the capacity to reach a much wider audience.

We aim to pursue two distinct kinds of public engagement activity, with a view to securing a high level of public exposure to Lewis's philosophy: first, via BBC Radio and a podcast, and second, via a MOOC.

Large collaborative projects usually have significant carbon footprints. This is especially true where there is, as in our case, a high level of international collaboration, with several leading US and Australian philosophers contributing to our project. We plan to minimise our carbon footprint, principally by arranging for all US and Australian contributors to speak virtually rather than in person.

The technology and software that we plan to use to reduce the carbon footprint - GoToWebinar, BigBlueButton, V-Scene, Google Hangout and Skype - have been available to academics for some time, but are infrequently used. While many academics in the UK are actively involved in virtual teaching and learning, virtual research events of the type we are planning are extremely rare.

At the conclusion of the project, we will produce a report outlining our uses of different virtual conferencing technology and software packages and their respective advantages. The report will be disseminated to academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences, university-level research administrators and sustainability committees, as well as non-academic organisations that regularly host conferences and rely upon continued conversations among multiple international partners.

Exposing event participants to relevant technologies, and producing and disseminating the report, will enable academics and other international conference organisers to make significant reductions to their carbon footprints. By helping academics to think creatively about how to develop sustainable research practices, we will contribute to universities playing a positive role in society-wide efforts towards sustainability. By disseminating the report to conference organisers outside academia we also hope to inspire them to embrace green solutions.

There has recently been a fair amount of activism - but not much broader awareness or action - surrounding disabled philosophers, and in particular surrounding disabled access to philosophy workshops and conferences.

As with environmental sustainability, we aim to act as trailblazers in this area, implementing a range of measures to allow both in-person and virtual participation in our workshops and conference by disabled philosophers and those with caregiving responsibilities.

The direct beneficiaries of this aspect of the project will be academics; the immediate benefit to them will be that they will be able to participate in the relevant research events. A further aim is to promote broader awareness of the problems faced by disabled academic researchers, and to provide an exemplar of good practice in this regard, thus, we hope, increasing future use across academia of the kinds of measures we shall adopt. Social responsibility is rightly being viewed by many universities as a key part of their mission. But socially responsible processes often need to begin closest to home. By providing the resources that enable people with disabilities to participate fully in aspects of academic life to which they currently have limited access, universities will become places in which more disabled students will see themselves as having a viable future.


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Fisher A (2018) Structural universals in Philosophy Compass

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Fisher A (2017) Donald C. Williams's defence of real metaphysics in British Journal for the History of Philosophy

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Fisher A (2019) Abstracta and Abstraction in Trope Theory in Philosophical Papers

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Janssen-Lauret F (2017) The Quinean Roots of Lewis's Humeanism in The Monist

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Janssen-Lauret F (2019) Lewis's Global Descriptivism and Reference Magnetism in Australasian Journal of Philosophy

Description Philosophy Bites podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This 15-minute podcast ('Helen Beebee on Possible Worlds') is part of PhilosophyBites -- the world's leading philosophy podcast series, which has had over 35 million downloads since it began in 2007.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018