Patrick Suppes, Stanford philosopher, scientist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, dies at 92
Patrick Suppes’ long career at Stanford began in 1950. As both a philosopher and scientist, he influenced a large number of fields. Drawing on his experience as an army meteorologist, he once compared predicting the weather to economics, both handling a vast flow of non-experimental data. As a successful entrepreneur he was also a leading donor to educational activities at Stanford.
Patrick Suppes, the Lucie Stern Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, and a member of the departments of Statistics and Psychology and of the Graduate School of Education, died peacefully at his home on the Stanford campus on Nov. 17 at the age of 92.
In 1990 Suppes was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George H. W. Bush in recognition of “his broad efforts to deepen the theoretical and empirical understanding of four major areas: the measurement of subjective probability and utility in uncertain situations, the development and testing of general learning theory, the semantics and syntax of natural language and the use of interactive computer programs for instruction.”
This statement nicely captures Suppes’ uniquely multifaceted career as a philosopher, scientist and entrepreneur.
Suppes joined the Department of Philosophy in 1950 and played a leading role in building it into a world-class academic center with close ties to Stanford’s strengths in mathematics, engineering and the sciences. He published extensively on logic and the axiomatic foundations of probability, physics and psychology, paying special attention to the possibility of empirical measurement in the latter more embryonic science.
This work was ultimately issued in a now-classic three-volume treatise, Foundations of Measurement, co-authored with David Krantz, Duncan Luce and Amos Tversky.
Suppes was not only a leading 20th-century philosopher of science of the post-war period, he also worked tirelessly on the cutting edge of empirical scientific inquiry. He saw this vibrant interaction between his scientific and philosophical work as central to his intellectual identity: “I think the influence of [my] scientific work on my philosophy has been of immeasurable value. I sometimes like to describe this influence in a self-praising way by claiming that I am the only genuinely empirical philosopher I know.”
In particular, although Suppes, like his older Harvard contemporary W. V. Quine, drew deeply on the tradition of American pragmatism and empiricism, Suppes combined his logico-mathematical efforts with detailed attention to the empirical sciences in a way that was both entirely novel and extremely fruitful.
Born in Tulsa, Okla., on March 17, 1922, Suppes attended the University of Tulsa and the University of Oklahoma. In 1943 he was called to active duty in the Army Reserve and graduated as a second lieutenant with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of Chicago. In 1943-1946 he served as an army meteorologist in the Pacific theater, eventually attaining the rank of captain.
After the war he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University and graduated with a dissertation written under the eminent philosopher of science Ernest Nagel in 1950.
Suppes’ early work in meteorology contributed significantly to his anti-foundational and open-ended conception of the physical sciences, a key element in his brand of pragmatism and empiricism: “Knowledge of meteorology has stood me in good stead throughout the years in refuting arguments that attempt to draw a sharp distinction between the precision and perfection of the physical sciences and the vagueness and imprecision of the social sciences. Meteorology is in theory a part of physics, but in practice more like economics, especially in the handling of a vast flow of non-experimental data.”
In a more general vein: “It is my conviction that an important function of contemporary philosophy is to understand and to formulate as a coherent world view the highly schematic character of modern science and the highly tentative character of the knowledge that is its aim. The tension created by a pluralistic attitude toward knowledge and skepticism about achieving certainty is not, in my judgment, removable.”
These words could only have been written by someone who, like Suppes, combined great philosophical sophistication with detailed and varied hands-on experience in the empirical sciences.
In his 64 years at Stanford, Suppes published 34 books and hundreds of articles, many co-authored, in good scientific style, with a number of close collaborators.
Yet his contributions to Stanford ranged far beyond his prodigious scholarship, including both important administrative positions and the creation of new institutions for research and education, such as Stanford’s Institute for Mathematical Research in the Social Sciences, which he directed from 1959-1990, and Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, which he directed from 1990-2010.
These activities at Stanford were continuous with Suppes’ career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In 1967 he founded the Computer Curriculum Corporation, the first company focused on interactive computer-assisted learning in the classroom. The programs he developed were largely based on his highly successful elementary mathematical textbook series, Sets and Numbers.
Suppes applied the profits from this enterprise as a leading donor to educational activities at Stanford that he was especially committed to supporting and encouraging. These include the endowment of the Patrick Suppes Family Professorship in the School of Humanities and Sciences (1990), the endowment of the Patrick Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science (2004) and the building of Nora Suppes Hall as an annex to the Center for the Study of Language and Information (2005).
After his official retirement from Stanford in 1992, Suppes continued to pursue his interests and activities with undiminished energy and enthusiasm. He offered advanced seminars on an astonishing range of topics, often co-taught with other eminent Stanford faculty, with the last one offered in spring quarter of 2014.
Beginning in the late 1990s he pursued a new program of research in psychology and neuroscience that involved studying brain waves with EEGs and modeling associative learning by resonances between harmonic oscillators. He founded the Suppes Brain Lab for developing this program at Stanford and obtained significant empirical results on linguistic learning in accordance with these models that were published in leading neurophysiological journals, including one of the last papers he published (together with his co-workers) in 2014.
This year also saw the publication of an axiomatic treatment of probability theory on which he had worked for many years, based on the qualitative concepts of comparative probability, independence and comparative uncertainty, in the Journal of Mathematical Psychology.
In 2002 Suppes published a major book, Representation and Invariance in Scientific Structures, which itself represented the culmination of all of his work to date, including the beginnings of his new work in brain research. In March 2012, a conference in honor of his 90th birthday was held at the Center for the Study of Language and Information, where a large number of leading workers in a variety of scientific and philosophical fields, many of them former students, contributed cutting-edge papers in which the depth and breadth of Suppes’ contributions to all of these fields became fully apparent.
The result will be a forthcoming volume edited by Colleen Crangle, Adolfo García de la Sienra and Helen Longino, Foundations and Methods from Mathematics to Neuroscience: Essays Inspired by Patrick Suppes, an advance copy of which is to be laid in his casket.
Patrick Suppes is survived by his wife, Michelle Nguyen; his five children, Patricia, Deborah, John, Alexandra and Michael; three stepchildren; and five grandchildren.
Michael Friedman is the founding director of the Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science.