About Peter

Peter Clark died on 18th August 2021. He was 73, and had been retired since Spring 2015, having given outstanding service to the University of St Andrews since 1978. He was a distinguished scholar, renowned for his work in philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, and philosophy of mathematics, a dedicated teacher who took great care to put students at their ease, and a hugely capable manager and leader who served several Principal’s Office portfolios with distinction, as well as being Head of School.

Peter began his academic life at the University of Manchester in 1966, where he took an honours degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, and met his beloved wife Liz. He moved to the London School of Economics, where he obtained first an M.Sc. in Logic and Philosophy of Mathematics, then a Ph.D. His dissertation – ‘Thermodynamics and the Kinetic Theory in the Late Nineteenth Century: a Case Study in the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’ – was supervised by Imre Lakatos and Elie Zahar. The LSE was central to Peter’s intellectual formation, with Karl Popper very recently retired, and Lakatos a wildly inspiring figure, both personally and philosophically. Peter was at the heart of an influential group of young scholars working between history and philosophy of science; as a master’s student he was closely involved with the influential volume Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, in which Thomas Kuhn engaged with critics including Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and Margaret Masterman. 

Following a period teaching at the LSE, and a Mellon post-doc in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, Peter was appointed Lecturer in Logic and Metaphysics at St Andrews, where his professional and family life would flourish. Peter’s early publications focused on the nature and role of probability in physics, and in particular classical statistical physics; he explored issues about determinism, chance and the direction of time, deftly interweaving philosophical considerations with his knowledge of both science and its history.  As his interests developed Peter investigated the logicist programme of providing foundations for mathematics, and his ‘Logicism, the Continuum and Anti-Realism’ had the great honour of being chosen for the 1993 Philosophers’ Annual, a compilation of the best ten papers published across the entire discipline that year; it was later reprinted in another important volume. Whilst continuing his research on probability, Peter also wrote significant papers on the idea of ‘indefinite extensibility’: this idea is taken to have its roots in Cantor and Russell, and was returned to modern debate by Michael Dummett. 

Unsurprisingly, Peter was often invited to take on important institutional roles in the discipline. In particular he was Editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science here at St Andrews from 1997 to 2004, drawing together a board of associate editors from across Scotland to create a rich local network, and taking this esteemed journal from strength to strength. He served on the Philosophy panel for the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, and was persuaded to serve again in 2001. From 2007 to 2011 he was Secretary-General of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science, attending its 13th International Congress in Beijing and subsequently touring China as representative of the organisation. Peter was the organiser of the annual meeting (Joint Session) of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society (the predominant British philosophy conference) when it met in St Andrews in 1988. He was President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, and gave his Presidential Address at the University of Cambridge in 2014 on the topic ‘Logic, Applied Mathematics and Intuition’.

Peter influenced the lives of many, many students over generations, and was never happier than when he was in front of a class. His teaching was always well received by students, for its clarity of explanation and his ready willingness to engage in discussion. The classes he taught ranged from philosophy of science through philosophy of mathematics to metaphysics and formal logic, topics which many students find daunting and rather dry, but which Peter was able to make accessible and enjoyable.  He was centrally involved in the development of the department’s introductory courses in elementary logic as well as teaching advanced courses in mathematical logic. Early in his time at St Andrews, fresh from his years at the department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at LSE, Peter was keen to extend access to philosophy classes at St Andrews to students in the Faculty of Science and was instrumental in introducing the classes and joint degrees in Logic and Philosophy of Science in that Faculty. He often taught a popular graduate module on the Origins of Analytic Philosophy, reflecting his deep knowledge of the thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who shared Peter’s view that science, mathematics, logic and philosophy can – and must – inform and sustain one another. 

In addition to his own research and teaching, Peter served St Andrews in many ways. Through the 1990s he held a succession of Faculty and University roles: in 1992 he was Associate Dean of Graduate Students, from 1995 to 1997 he was Proctor, and in 1997-98, Peter was Vice-Principal for Research and Provost of St Leonard’s College, working closely with Principal Struther Arnott, and directing the St Andrews-Stirling Graduate Programme in Philosophy on the side. With barely time to draw breath, he returned to the School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies, serving as Director of Teaching in Philosophy and in Social Anthropology, and became Head of School in 2002, standing down only in 2009. Peter presided over a striking period of growth and success in the School, a time which saw the incorporation of Film Studies, expanding academic programmes in Music, the flourishing of the Arché research centre, the full integration of the Philosophy graduate programme with Stirling, and a series of remarkable accolades for both teaching and research across all parts of the School, driven by both long-standing colleagues and new appointments. Peter described his management style as ‘riding the tiger’, and, despite the occasional baring of teeth, both he and the School thrived. Constant good humour, even when facing serious illness, was his hallmark.   Principal Struther Arnott greatly valued Peter’s ability to bring his incisive but calming mind to bear whenever an intractable problem, sudden emergency or a particularly delicate issue might arise.

He served as Proctor and Provost from 2009 to 2011. When his wife Liz died in 2011, he tried to retire but returned to serve Principal Louise Richardson as roaming-Vice-Principal-at-large, taking on responsibility for the 600th anniversary celebrations, helping steer his School and University through the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and lending his wisdom to appointments processes all over the University. He even squeezed in a spell as Dean of Arts during 2013, and on finally retiring decided to study for a Geology degree here in St Andrews. Only the disruption of Covid prevented him from completing it.

Reading of the exhaustive achievements and service of this extraordinary polymath, there is a danger that those who were not fortunate enough to know him or spend time in his company form an incorrect impression of Peter. He was in fact, utterly humble, warm, engaging, quick-witted, self-deprecating to a fault, kind and considerate, and quite wonderful company. He may have taken academic matters very seriously, but never paid himself the same dues. He could speak with authority on a breathtaking range of topics. But despite his towering intellect, he remained humble, and had kinds words and time for everyone.

He will be deeply missed.


[Acknowledgements: The above text was edited from a message circulated by the Principal, which was in turn created with the assistance of Professor Mark Harris, Professor Tony Prave, Dr Simon Prosser, Professor John Haldane, Professor Emeritus Colin Vincent, and Professor Emeritus Stephen Read]