In memoriam: Professor Emeritus Colin Howson

Published: January 10, 2020

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Colin Howson, a respected philosopher of science and decision theorist who taught at the University of Toronto’s Department of Philosophy between 2008 and 2014, passed away on Sunday, January 5, 2020, leaving behind his spouse of many years, Professor Emerita Margaret Morrison.

At U of T, Howson led classes on inductive reasoning, probability, logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Students often commented on his kindness and engaging manner—despite the challenging nature of his subject matter—praising him as a professor genuinely interested in fruitful discussion.

Before joining the department in Toronto, Howson had a distinguished career at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where he taught for four decades and chaired the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method from 1999 to 2006. Between 2003 and 2005, he also served as the president of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. He first began honing his philosophical skills working as a research assistant to Imre Lakatos at LSE in the 1960s.

The lifelong Bayesian and prolific writer penned a number of classic works, including Objecting to God (2011), Hume’s Problem: Induction and the Justification of Belief (2000), and, already in 1989, Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach, co-authored with Peter Urbach. The latter text, in particular, has become a canonical account of the Bayesian viewpoint on statistical inference, going into three editions (1989, 1993, and 2005) and garnering citations well beyond, as Howson might have remarked himself, statistical probability.

Colleagues and friends remember Howson not only for his philosophical acumen but also for a generous spirit and a great sense of frequently tongue-in-cheek humour. Jonathan Weisberg, an associate professor of philosophy at U of T’s Mississauga campus, recalls the immense influence Howson’s work on degrees of belief had on him throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies. When the two finally became colleagues in Toronto, the younger scholar eagerly launched into one of his many questions about the topic over lunch—only to have Howson laughingly declare, “There’s no such thing as degrees of belief!” and move the conversation elsewhere.

Wry wit and intellectual dexterity feature in almost all recollections of Colin Howson. Another Toronto colleague, Professor Franz Huber, put it plainly, and perhaps best: “Remembering Colin is remembering good times.” He will be deeply missed.