Steve Yablo, Iris Einheuser’s supervisor, has sent us another remembrance of her. Our previous post, by Brit Brogaard, is here.
Iris was my first or second student after coming to MIT from Michigan. I’d been warned that students here had technical skills, but were not so good on the “big picture.” Iris straightened me out about that right way. Our first meeting, to go by the email record, was on everything––the sum total of what there is. This was followed up by logical possibility, response-dependent concepts, Strawson’s Kant, the absolute conception of reality, and finally conventionalism as a theory of material objects.
This last became the topic both of her dissertation and her first publication, “Counterconventional Conditionals.” She shows in that paper how to counter Stroud’s objection that if objects are carved out by us, then they are ontologically dependent on us; there would have been no mountains in Africa, had there been no one around to do the carving. Iris argues that the mistake here is Stroud’s. He has confused two sorts of conditional, the counterfactual and the counterconventional. The second sort are difficult to express in English, but that doesn’t make them any less true; compare the difficulty of saying that there’s no time like the present, if your only word for the present is “now.” She developed a 2 dimensional semantics to bolster these claims. As this suggests, she had the technical skills too, though she wore her learning lightly.
Iris wrote on a number of other topics, including lately truth-relativism and the grounding problem for material objects. But this may the work for which she is best known. (It was discussed here six weeks ago in the Metaphysics Reading Group; I’m not sure people realized the paper was by “one of us.”)
Iris taught at Wellesley College before taking a tenure track position at Duke in 2005. She would come by from time to time when visiting with her husband Peter Koellner, a philosopher at Harvard. She was a lovely, deep, charming, and sympathetic person. She loved the outdoors and was comfortable away from civilization. I will end with an email she sent when, as I imagine it, she was at her happiest.
We went on an 11-day hike in a remote area of Wrangell/St.Elias National Park: Glaciated mountains (we crossed two glaciers and camped on one for a night), beautiful valleys overgrown with blueberries, plenty of bushwhacking and boulder-scrambling, northern lights, alpine lakes and two rainy days in a partially refurbished mining-cabin (with a massive 1923 cast-iron wood-burning stove). Afterward we spent a couple of days in Kenai Fjords National Park where we just did some easy day-hikes. Although it was physically very exhausting, we feel refreshed after two weeks of seeing no people and worrying about nothing but finding a suitable campsite and getting dinner heated up.