Philosophy professor Bas van Fraassen earns Hempel Lifetime Achievement Award

Lifetime Achievement Award

Professor Bas van Fraassen, who recently won a lifetime achievement award, became inspired to study philosophy after reading Plato’s “The Phaedo” and soon started tackling complex concepts. Photo courtesy of Matthew Slater

For some scholars, receiving a lifetime achievement award means the hard work is over.

But not for philosophy professor Bas van Fraassen.

“(I) don’t plan to take it as saying that now I can stop working,” he said.

Van Fraassen was awarded the Hempel Lifetime Achievement Award by the Philosophy of Science Association at a conference in San Diego, which ran from Nov. 15 to 17.

“Learning philosophy of science not only prepares students to live lives that will change because of science, but also for how science itself can change,” Anita Silvers, the chair of the philosophy department, said. “When we spoke initially about news of this award, professor van Fraassen’s first words were about other philosophers he thought were equally worthy of it.”

It was Plato’s work that launched van Fraassen’s quest for knowledge.

“It really started when I was working part time in the local library while in high school, and came across Plato’s dialogue ‘The Phaedo,’ where Socrates argues with his students about whether we are immortal,” van Fraassen said.

In 1970, van Fraassen tackled complex concepts in his first book, “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space,” and since then, coined terms like ‘constructive empiricism’ and wrote several more books, like “Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist View,” which was published in 1991 on the philosophy of science. Modern empiricism is the belief that we can only know what we experience through our senses.

Van Fraassen, who has been at SF State since 2008, is also a founding member of Kira.org, an institute that hosts a virtual reality website where people discuss topics like philosophy, technology and law. He served as president of the Philosophy of Science Association, professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University and co-editor of the “Journal of Symbolic Logic.”

The field of the philosophy of science applies to many occupations, such as law, business administration and journalism. van Fraassen is interested in the pursuit of knowledge, regardless of intended occupation.

“What I value in teaching is to be involved in the students’ research and progress,” van Fraassen said.

Van Fraassen’s involvement with the local community of philosophers has also provided new avenues of growth for SF State students.

“Professor van Fraassen has revived the Bay Area Philosophy of Science Group (which is organized by Stanford, USF and SFSU) and thereby given our SFSU students exceptional opportunity to participate in enjoyable and challenging philosophical conversation,” Silvers said.

Aaron Bentley, a former pupil and current SF State graduate student, said van Fraassen’s open demeanor makes him one of the more accessible teachers on campus.

“His ability to take the complexity of the issues he deals with, formal logic, paradox, formal epistemology and probability theory, issues with quantum mechanics, and describe them and his understanding of them in a way that even one completely unfamiliar with the topic could grasp,” Bentley said. “He is an important defender of the empiricist tradition in philosophy.”

Silvers echoed the sentiment.

“Our students can have the experience of learning philosophy of science, logic and history of 20th century philosophy from the person who arguably is the best philosopher of science in the world,” she said.

Jeuel Wilkerson, a graduate student who will complete a degree in philosophy this fall, cites that with this fame, there is still an air of modesty.

“Professor van Fraassen’s fame has made him a sort of legend around the graduate students at SFSU,” Wilkerson said. “What is most shocking is how professor van Fraassen is able to balance his fame with his kind and humble personality.”

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