David Pears: Philosopher renowned for his work on Wittgenstein

For those who knew and loved him, the philosopher David Pears seemed touched by greatness, not only in his work, but in the rich and accomplished breadth of his interests. These ranged from his self-acquired mastery of butterflies and botany (begun in his bucolic Devon holidays and continued on family walks with his children), to his passion for the visual arts (he was the first curator of the Christ Church Picture Gallery, instrumental in its being built, and a very hands-on chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford at the time when its directors included Nicholas Serota), to his soigné cooking (almost always fish served with a distinguished white wine) for his and his wife Anne's Oxford dinner parties.

Moreover, Pears was a great raconteur, relishing and retailing philosophical gossip on a scale matched only by Isaiah Berlin. It was the most high-minded gossip imaginable. He began a conversation with me exactly a week before his death: "Do you know the American philosopher, X?" When I admitted I didn't, he continued, undeterred: "Ah, pity. But, you see, though she used to think that P [some proposition was true], the strange fate of her much-loved cat convinced her that Q [something quite different] was much more likely."

In Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net (1954; he was the dedicatee of The Unicorn, 1963) the character of Hugo is partly drawn from Pears, and there's also something of him in Dave, the freelance philosopher. The reader can get a good idea of Pears' conversational style from this passage:

"There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was. It was so patently just an ephemeral spurt of beauty of which in a moment nothing more was left. 'That's what all art is really,' said Hugo, 'only we don't like to admit it. Leonardo understood this. He deliberately made the Last Supper perishable.'"

Pears was one of the generation of what will surely be seen as the golden age of philosophy, at least in the English language. It started in post-War Oxford, as his friend and equally eminent colleague, the late Bernard Williams, wrote, and was "a time in the history of Oxford philosophy which is puzzling to many younger people, since it is clear to them that there was great excitement, but less clear what a lot of it was about." Some of it, Williams says, was like that period's "models in fashion" that not "only look bizarre now but, like other 1950s products, rapidly turned out to be unreliable." Whereas Pears' work at that time (including a class on identity they gave together in the late '50s) "engages with some of the deepest concerns of modern philosophy." As a writer and as a teacher, he displayed not only the analytic powers of a remarkable philosopher but also the rarer gift that allies them to a robust imagination. He was proud of having a photographic memory, which also allowed him to read in several languages that he seldom attempted to speak.

Born in 1921 and brought up in a part of west London that he always claimed was obliterated in the building of Heathrow Airport, David was the second of four sons (one, Julian, survives) of Robert Pears, a reluctant businessman, one of the 10 children of his generation who were the beneficiaries of the sale in the mid-1910s of the sale of Pears soap to Unilever (for less than its worth, David always said).

His wife Gladys held the family together, even after the sale of the family holiday house – to the sorrow of David and his brother Michael, who tried but failed to raise the money to buy it themselves. David never lost his taste or Proustian longing for the beaches, fishing smacks and lobster pots of the family holiday home near Salcombe in south Devon. A younger brother, Oliver, farmed near there until his own death.

His intellectual prowess was spotted early; a cherished author was the French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre (1823-1915), the autodidact whose work on the dietary habits of Sphex-wasps some contemporary philosophers take as a model of determinism. The wasp eats a very restricted diet: the paralysed larvae of certain species of insects only. David, himself an autodidact naturalist, was intrigued by this apostrophe to the Sphex, a passage comparing Fabre's own freely-chosen, limited eating habits from More Hunting Wasps:

"By your experiments, from age to age, to have discovered variety in diet; to have practised it, to the great advantage of your race, and to end up with uniformity, the cause of decadence; to have known the excellent and to repudiate it for the middling: oh, my Sphex-wasps, it would be stupid if the theory of evolution were correct!...

I prefer to believe, in short, that the theory of evolution is powerless to explain your diet. This is the conclusion drawn from the dining-room installed in my old sardine-box."

At Westminster School, where he excelled at classics, David made lifelong friendships with future philosophers Richard Wollheim and Patrick Gardiner. He served in the Royal Artillery during the war, suffered a nasty injury when a practice gas attack went wrong; then went up to Balliol to read Greats. Another weird accident resulted in making philosophy his chief interest: as he was being taken to an ambulance with a broken leg, a friend lent him a book to read in hospital. This was his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the 1961 re-translation of which by him and his friend and colleague Brian McGuinness is now the standard version, the result, McGuinness says, of their attending Gilbert Ryle's class on the Tractatus.

He also says that much Oxford philosophy of the time was peripatetic, conducted during long walks in the meadows and regular meetings of small groups. J.L. Austin had his Saturday morning "kindergartens," in which David participated, as he did in A.J. Ayer's Tuesday evenings. (David's working habits often involved his affinity for nature – in California he would rise early and write sitting by the Pacific watching the dolphins. All his life the evening was for thinking, the morning for writing.)

Wittgenstein was the big issue in philosophy – the first problem being to discover what the great Cambridge philosopher, who died in 1951 leaving little finished material other than the Tractatus, actually thought. Pears stressed the strange genius of Wittgenstein that led him to produce not one but two strikingly original philosophies where "the differences between them are clear-cut."

Pears wrote many articles and three books on Wittgenstein. Following his long collaboration with McGuinness on the early work, it seemed only natural that Frank Kermode asked Pears to write Wittgenstein (1971), one of the early titles in the celebrated "Modern Masters" series. It was this widely circulated volume that led Igor Stravinsky to send Pears a fan letter about the beauty of the writing. Bernard Williams characterised it as "his particular ironical taste for formulae which offer the tone or register of rigorous analysis, but actually deliver a condition which is deliberately, and realistically, vague." Williams thought that this "sophisticated stylistic invention" was unique to Pears and "combines in a very pure form the more conversational and the more formal aspects of analytic philosophy," adding in a parenthesis, "it is rather reminiscent of a certain kind of twentieth-century French music."

His continued interest in Wittgenstein resulted in the two volumes of The False Prison (1987, their division caused by the demands of the market for separate volumes corresponding roughly to their subject's two distinct philosophies). Pears suggests we can escape from this prison, which consists of a whole set of illusions, by determinedly thinking through our problems.

McGuinness remarks that in this project, Pears was always "pushing Wittgenstein towards a theory, though that is exactly what Wittgenstein... was trying to avoid, relying on a right view of the practices concerned rather than any reasoning implicit in them." Pears' last book returned to the central theme of his philosophical life, Paradox and Platitude in Wittgenstein's Philosophy (2006).

Early on Pears believed he was participating in a revolution in philosophy, and his were among the papers published in Antony Flew's collections of linguistic philosophy starting in 1956. In the 1950s, he, Anthony Quinton, Peter Strawson and Mary and Geoffrey Warnock participated in talks on the Third Programme that persuaded many that there was a wide audience for philosophy among the educated public.

In 1963 Pears married Anne Drew, now a photographer who specialises in black-and-white images; he put a lot of effort into passing on his own interests, especially in the natural world, to his children Rosalind (the dedicatee of his 1984 Motivated Irrationality) and Julian (to whom he dedicated The False Prison), whose thought processes stimulated his philosophical imagination, and his grandson Theo.

In 1967 he published Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy, followed in 1973 by Russell's Logical Atomism; he also did two books on Hume, David Hume: A Symposium (1963) and then in 1990, Hume's System, an exposition of the common sense view of the world, subtly seen from the vantage point of subjectivism. He had found himself "driven to the conclusion that there must be a causal connection between desire and action, because there seems to be no other theory that fits the phenomenon." This seemingly anti-Wittgensteinian attack on the tenet that reasons cannot be considered causally was soon modish, developed into the causal theory of action by the American Donald Davidson.

Pears' brilliance had been noted immediately at Oxford, and after taking his degree in 1948, he was a research lecturer at Christ Church, then Fellow and Tutor of Corpus Christi from 1950-1960, Student (fellow) of Christ Church from 1960-88; University Lecturer from 1950-72, Reader from 1972-85, and honoured by being given a personal chair in philosophy from 1985-88.

He also had very strong American connections, at Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, Minnesota, and various New York institutions, and continued to accept visiting posts well into his eighties. Indeed, on 11 September 2001, Anne took a series of remarkable photographs from the windows of their downtown Manhattan apartment, where the view at breakfast had been of the twin towers, no longer there when Pears managed to get home from 135th Street.

Pears' monument will be his legion of pupils. The talented were drawn to him, and he would accept students other dons found awkward or difficult. He and Iris Murdoch had many discussions about Plato's metaphor of leaving the cave for the sunshine. As Dame Iris wrote aptly in Under the Net, "No one whom Dave has taught seems ever to lose touch with him ... He blazes upon them with the destructive fury of the sun, but instead of shrivelling up their metaphysical pretensions, achieves merely their metamorphosis from one rich stage into another."

Paul Levy

David Francis Pears, philosopher: born London 8 August 1921; married 1963 Anne Drew (one son, one daughter); died Oxford, 1 July 2009.