Obituary: Professor Burton Dreben

BURTON DREBEN'S profound understanding of philosophy and the development of mathematical logic was conveyed in a relatively small number of publications, and in his enormous creative influence on the work of others. He also played a key role in maintaining and developing Harvard University's pre-eminence in research and in guiding the university through the political unrest of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Dreben was born and died in Boston, Massachusetts. Apart from two academic years, he lived in the Boston area for his entire life. From Boston Latin School he entered Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1949, and then stayed on as a graduate student.

On the advice of Isaiah Berlin, he went to Oxford (as a Fulbright Fellow, at Magdalen College) in 1950-51, to study with J.L. Austin, then at the height of his powers as a leader of what was coming to be known as "Oxford philosophy". Austin invited Dreben to become a member of his "Saturday mornings" and was an important figure for Dreben, at least in part through Austin's radical rejection of the philosophy of C.I. Lewis, one of Dreben's teachers at Harvard.

Dreben returned to Harvard as a graduate student, and the following year, 1952, was elected to a Junior Fellowship of the Harvard Society of Fellows, which provides three years of unfettered research. The society had been established by Harvard in the 1930s on the model of the prize fellowships of Trinity College, Cambridge, to provide an alternative to the PhD for young scholars of "rare and independent genius". Dreben was proud of the fact that, in keeping with this founding conception, he never took a PhD.

Also in 1952, he published his first paper, which marked the beginning of his research on Herbrand's theorem, an intricate constructive characterisation of logical validity. This interest spanned nearly 30 years, culminating in publication of a monograph, jointly with his student Warren Goldfarb, The Decision Problem: solvable classes of quantificational formulas, in 1979, which virtually completed that subject. Dreben's work in mathematical logic also included nine years as an editor of The Journal of Symbolic Logic, the leading publication in its field.

In 1955 Dreben became an Instructor at the University of Chicago, a post he held for one year, before returning to Harvard as Assistant Professor. In 1961 he was promoted to Associate Professor, and to full Professor in 1965. In 1976 he became Chairman of the Harvard Society of Fellows. In 1981 he was made Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. In 1991 he also became Professor of Philosophy at Boston University.

I first met Burton Dreben in 1964, when I came to him to discuss choosing philosophy as my undergraduate field of concentration. His immediate advice was, "Be a mathematician first. Philosophy is for old men." Though he was a passionate philosopher throughout his professional life, starting in his undergraduate years, he followed his own precept when it came to publication. His first purely philosophical paper was not published until 1990.

Dreben understood, more deeply than anyone else, it seemed, the sweep of 20th-century analytic philosophy, and, while it may seem odd to speak of a tragically early death at the age of 71, the fact is that his published writings do not adequately convey his vision of philosophy that had such an impact on those who knew his ideas through his teaching and in discussion. A decade or two of vigorous old age was still needed.

Dreben's Nachlass includes transcriptions of tape recordings of seminars and lectures. One can hope that their posthumous publication will help to make his thinking available beyond what is in the work of those he so greatly influenced, and in his own philosophical publications. But access will not be easy, for his lectures were largely extemporised. Even for so grand an occasion as the Shearman Lectures at University College London, which he gave in 1985, he would arrive with an armful of volumes, bristling with bookmarks, and give his lecture in dialogue with these texts, searching for the right passages, speaking from a well-thought- out plan of what he would say, but also finding new understandings as he went along. It was exhilarating.

The difficulty he had in writing down his own philosophy, partly the outcome of principled doubts about the nature of the subject, perhaps also because he did not find writing itself easy (he was not a voluminous correspondent), meant that responding to an interlocutor helped him to express himself. Students would become his collaborators in the quest for understanding. The result was brilliant and inspiring teaching, which had a great impact on many students. Four senior members of the current Harvard faculty are Dreben's doctoral students, and many others hold positions at other leading institutions.

Despite the esoteric nature of his intellectual projects, Dreben was worldly, and found himself drawn into university administration at Harvard. It began with the role of parliamentarian of the Harvard faculty in the mid-1960s, giving formal rulings on procedure to the Dean, and informal advice to members of the faculty who consulted him on how to pursue their causes, and to all parties on how to draw back from confrontation in what became very confrontational times.

Later, as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he reduced the intake of graduate students by 25 per cent, so that those admitted could be better supervised and financially supported. As Special Assistant to a succession of Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he oversaw the system of ad hoc committees of outside experts that are set up to advise the President of Harvard on faculty appointments with tenure proposed by one of the departments. Over 13 years he was responsible for the selection of some 290 such committees. In this way he played a central role (though not a very public one, which led to his being described as the "eminence grise of the tenure process" and its "invisible kingmaker") in shaping Harvard's continuing commitment to research leadership.

Within the Philosophy Department, Dreben persuaded his colleagues to establish a system of fixed-term assistant professorships that combined features of junior faculty appointments with post-doctoral fellowships. These were known as "folding chairs". He conducted a seminar for junior faculty in the department (possibly inspired by Austin's Saturday mornings), called "the Drebenar" by its participants. It has been said that, in these seminars, he taught philosophical depth.

Dreben thrived in fervent philosophical debate. His colleague and friend Hilary Putnam dedicated his book Representation and Reality in 1988 with the words, "For Burton Dreben, who still won't be satisfied". On occasion he expressed deeply held views with brutal frankness. At times a controversial figure, the abiding impression he gave was of ebullience and thoughtfulness.

Burton Spencer Dreben, philosopher and mathematical logician: born Boston, Massachusetts 26 September 1927; Assistant Professor, Harvard University 1956-61, Associate Professor 1961-65, Professor 1965-81, Edgar Pierce Professor 1981-90 (Emeritus); married 1950 Raya Spiegel (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1991), 1995 Juliet Floyd; died Boston 11 July 1999.