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Pears, David Francis (1921–2009), philosopher, was born on 8 August 1921 at the White House, Bedfont, near Staines, Middlesex, the second of four sons of Captain Robert Pears (1891–1986) and his wife, Gladys Eveline, née Meyers (1892–1977). His father was a descendant of Andrew and Francis Pears, producers of the world's first registered brand of soap, with a factory in nearby Isleworth, and was one of the ten members of his generation who sold the company to the Lever Brothers in the mid-1910s.

Pears was educated at Westminster School, where he specialized in classics, and numbered among his friends Patrick Gardiner, Hugh Lloyd Jones, and Richard Wollheim. He had an excellent visual memory and was able to recite, after a single reading, several hundred lines of Greek tragedy and comedy. In 1939 he went to Balliol College, Oxford, as a classical scholar, but after he took a first in war-shortened classical moderations in 1940 his academic career was interrupted by war service in the Royal Artillery, when he was seriously injured in a practice gas attack. On demobilization he returned to take a first in literae humaniores in 1947. He became, as he would say, a philosopher ‘by accident’. After falling and breaking his leg at a student party, he was offered a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by a friend to read in hospital. He left hospital convinced that philosophy was his real interest, and fascinated by Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Pears was appointed a research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1948 and a fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1950. In 1960 he returned to Christ Church as a student (official fellow) and remained there until retirement in 1988, becoming a reader in philosophy in 1972 and a professor in 1985. In 1963 he married Anne Patricia Drew, with whom he had a daughter, Rosalind (b. 1965), and a son, Julian (b. 1966).

Pears entered Oxford philosophy in the beginning of one of its most distinguished and lively periods. His near contemporaries included Peter Strawson, Mary and Geoffrey Warnock, Stuart Hampshire, Patrick Gardiner, Anthony Quinton, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Isaiah Berlin, and Bernard Williams. Together with Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, Paul Grice, and later A. J. Ayer, they comprised a formidable and self-confident group, who made Oxford for several decades the centre of the philosophical world. Although Pears published and lectured on a wide range of subjects in epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and the history of philosophy, he made his most distinctive and significant contribution in two areas: the study of Wittgenstein and the philosophy of mind and action.

Pears's interest in Wittgenstein never faltered. He published, together with Brian McGuinness, what became the standard English translation of the Tractatus (1961), and he also wrote a hugely influential two-volume study of Wittgenstein's developing thought, The False Prison (1987–8), as well as the Fontana Modern Masters volume Wittgenstein (1971) and a final collection of essays, Paradox and Platitude in Wittgenstein's Philosophy (2006). In these works he presented an overview of Wittgenstein's thought as developing from a version of Platonism in the Tractatus to a later account in which the metaphysical debates between Platonism and its traditional opponents, whether conventionalist or phenomenalist, were empty. While Pears was sympathetic to Wittgenstein's final viewpoint, he was open to its difficulties and weaknesses and to those in the arguments that motivated it. Through his subtle and complex discussion of many issues, he presented an independent and critical perspective on Wittgenstein's achievements. His interest in the Tractatus led him to assess Wittgenstein's complex intellectual connection with Russell. In Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy (1967) he presented Russell as drawing on a long-standing empiricist tradition, often restating Humean ideas in a linguistic rather than psychological mode. This was one of the first works to place the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy in a historical context and to examine what was distinctive about twentieth-century linguistic, or analytical, philosophy.

Pears's other major contribution lay in the philosophy of mind and action, where, in the 1960s, he became convinced, in the face of the then current orthodoxy, that there is a causal connection between desire and action. He defended this view with ingenuity and subtlety in a series of papers, some published in his Some Questions in the Philosophy of Mind (1975). While Donald Davidson's version of a similar view became better known, involving as it did an innovative general theory of events, causation, and causal laws, Pears's approach revealed an independent perspective, more sympathetic to the possibility of psychology as a science and more closely engaged with understanding the specific nature of practical rationality and our knowledge of our future actions and the correct characterization of our capacities as agents. These concerns, together with a new interest in cognitive science, were reflected in Motivated Irrationality (1984), which contained, among much else, a detailed critique of Davidson's views on intention, free action, and akrasia. In these years Pears was the leading figure in the philosophy of mind in Britain, interesting several generations of graduate students in these topics.

Pears's range of philosophical interests and ability to grasp quickly and securely what was claimed made him a successful and much sought-after graduate supervisor. He took on students with a wide variety of interests, encouraging them to develop their own projects, not to carry on some line of his. The character of his teaching was well captured by Iris Murdoch's apt description in Under the Net (1954) of a character widely believed to have been modelled on Pears:
No one whom Dave has taught ever seems to lose touch with him … He blazes upon them with the destructive fury of the sun but instead of shrivelling their metaphysical pretensions achieves merely their metamorphosis from one rich stage to another. (p. 27)
There were many former students who went on to teach philosophy in Britain and the United States who would have echoed this description of Pears's supervision.

Throughout his career Pears travelled widely, holding visiting professorships at various times at Harvard, Princeton, Minnesota, Rockefeller, and Yale universities, and at the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles. He continued teaching and lecturing in the United States well into his eighties. He received many honours, most notably election to a fellowship of the British Academy in 1970 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998. He was president of the Institut Internationale de Philosophie from 1988 to 1990 and a volume of essays in his honour was published in 2002.

David Pears had many interests outside philosophy. His idyllic childhood holidays in south Devon had given him a love for botany, for butterflies and moths, and for the natural world in general. While teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, he would regularly rise early to work on the beach near Topanga Canyon, writing and watching whales, dolphins, and seabirds. He found that he did his best work in a good mood and in beautiful surroundings. His strong visual sense encouraged a passion for visual arts, leading him to be the first curator of Christ Church Picture Gallery and later an active chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, interests he shared with his wife, Anne, a photographer specializing in black and white images. He was a brilliant and imaginative raconteur, relishing and retelling stories, often highlighting the absurd or exposing the pompous, with great verve and obvious enjoyment. The dinner parties he and Anne gave were distinguished both for the excellence of their cooking and the liveliness and humour of the conversation. He died on 1 July 2009 in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, of bronchopneumonia after several months in various hospitals. He was survived by his wife, Anne, and their two children.

David Charles


The Times (3 July 2009) · The Independent (9 July 2009) · The Guardian (3 July 2009) · records, Balliol Oxf. · records, Christ Church Oxf. · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · d. cert.


obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£688,882: probate, 24 Sept 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales