David Harrah (1926-2022)
When David Harrah joined the UCR Philosophy Department in 1955, he arrived with an already unusual background. Growing up in Seattle, he had a conventional education as a child and teenager, attending Lakeside private school, where he was on the track team and an excellent student, graduating at the top of his class. During these early student years at about the age of 14 he began mountain climbing in the Cascades, an important part of his life. Following graduation, he volunteered for the US Army, attended Officer Candidate School and advanced as a commissioned officer. He trained with the 10th Mountain Division of the Army, a quite appropriate assignment, given his early love of the mountains, rock climbing and mountaineering. But mountaineering was not a big part of his tour of duty after World War II: much of it consisted in touring battlefields and identifying and burying fallen soldiers as part of the Grave Registration Division.
Following army service, he enrolled at Stanford University because of its academic excellence and reasonable proximity to rock climbing and mountaineering. While an undergraduate he continued to develop his climbing skills, initially inspired by stories of climbers, training in Seattle Mountaineer climbing courses, and considerable climbing in the Northwest. The Stanford Alpine Club provided opportunities for trips to Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains with like-minded colleagues. His passion for climbing led to a change in majors from engineering, in which students often had to spend weekends completing problem sets (and interfering with climbing), to philosophy with its companion emphasis on logic that fit his mathematical talent.
David interrupted his education after his junior year to accept an invitation from current and former members of Harvard’s mountaineering club to join the 1950 Harvard Andean Expedition. They sought to climb the highest unclimbed peak in the New World, Peru’s 21,768-foot Mount Yerupaja, locally known as “El Carnicero” or “The Butcher”.
The team flew to Lima, Peru, traveled by vehicle to Chiquian, a village at 13,199 feet, and went the rest of the way to base camp on foot with mules carrying provisions. From there, they established a Col Camp and then a High Camp at about 21,300 feet. At that point David and Jim Maxwell were the only members of the team with the strength and will to continue, and they did so by ascending a knife ridge to the summit. Their descent, as described by John Rawlings (and reprinted in the Seattle Times) was far more eventful.
“Down-climbing from the top of Yerupaja in the Peruvian Andes on 31 July 1950, Stanford junior Dave Harrah joined his rope mate Jim Maxwell at a belay platform on the fantastically corniced summit ridge. Maxwell prepared to take a few photos. Just then a section of [overhanging cornice ice] broke under Harrah and he fell the full 120-foot length of the rope that connected them and that had a moment before lain neatly coiled in a pile at their feet... Harrah wrote of himself in the third person: He fell free about fifty feet and then hit nothing worse than seventy-five degree ice. Aware of being battered by falling ice blocks, he realized vaguely that... this was going to result in two deaths... [To Maxwell he shouted] ‘We're in for it!’".
Maxwell buried his ice axe in the snow, but David’s fall pulled Maxwell closer to the edge of the narrow ridge. The rope went slack as David bounced like a yo-yo on the other end, Maxwell reset his ice axe, and David fell to the end of the rope again. Then, he faced a 120’ climb up a steep, often vertical, ice slope. Fortunately, he had violated a lesson from the Seattle Mountaineers— “never use a wrist loop on your axe because during a fall it could easily harm you.” David had both an ice axe and an ice hammer attached by wrist loops; but he hadn’t been injured, and he now had the tools to climb up the ice wall. An hour later he reached the ridge, enduring considerable rib pain that seemed to be from broken ribs, but was “only” severely wrenched cartilage, which followed him for several years. The accident delayed their descent and progress was slow because they took special precautions against another fall. So, darkness caught them before they could reach the High Camp and they had to dig a small cave inside a crevasse to protect them from subzero temperatures and winds. Recalling his Seattle Mountaineer training, David carried the “ten essentials” for wilderness travel, including a candle and matches, but candle heat was not enough to prevent both of them from developing frost bite in their hands and feet.
At daybreak they descended to High Camp for shelter, food, and sleep. After which they descended to the Col Camp where their relieved companions awaited. David knew the importance of reaching a hospital for frostbite treatment. But progress was slowed by a missing mule driver, requiring much travel on foot until other mules could be found. They did eventually reach the vehicle that would take them to the hospital. At the hospital David had the good fortune of being treated by a doctor who was familiar with frostbite, but this did not prevent the loss of all his toes. His shoe size shrank from about size 9 to between 5 ½ and 6.
If you add the terrifying collapse of an ice bridge they were crossing, David’s life might well have ended four different times on that descent.
Despite the ordeal and absence of toes, once he had healed, David returned to rock climbing and about two years after the Yerupaja climb, he thought he could resume climbing with friends in Alaska. However, his feet were too sore for that adventure. Still, he sought further outdoor activities. He had his father deposit money in a bank account so he could purchase an outboard motor boat to take a solo trip down the Inland Passage from Alaska to Seattle. This was completed so far as we know without incident. Sometime later, David developed an enthusiasm for running, which, later in life extended to long-distance running. This found him competing numerous marathons and even running 75 miles through the San Gabriel mountains as he approached 80.
Following his Yerupaja adventure, David returned to a less risky senior year at Stanford to finish a B.A. in philosophy, and completed his education by earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale with an emphasis in the logic of communication. He then accepted a Fulbright fellowship for a year before marrying Rita Giese, and joining the UCR philosophy faculty in 1955. David became the third member of the nascent philosophy department, founded just a year earlier.
David’s excellent teaching anchored the philosophy department’s logic offerings for the next forty years, attracting many students from mathematics, engineering and computer science. He also made significant contributions to the field of linguistics and his technical expertise was widely sought on campus and beyond.
He was one of the world’s experts on the formal logic of communication, a field at the interface between the foundations of logic and linguistics. In his career he developed two closely related inquiries. In the first, he helped invent a formal logic of questions (called erotetic logic) to supplement the long-prevailing logic of assertions. But his ultimate aim, broached in an early MIT book, Communication: A Logical Model (1963), was to address a theory of human communication. The question he posed was, “Can there be a theory of communication for rational beings such that the theory can be precisely defined according to standard desiderata of formal logic?” His answer was “yes,” and he spent much of his career elaborating on that idea in an extensive manuscript on the topic. As often happens, however, whenever he neared completion of a version of it, he would have an insight that needed to be incorporated into the overall structure, affecting many of its components. As a result, the book was never completed to his satisfaction, disappointing many scholars who looked forward to its publication. Fortunately, much of this work eventually became available in Volume II of the Handbook of Philosophical Logic (1984) 715-764, under the title “The Logic of Questions." The editors of this volume, D. Gabbay and F. Guenthner, solicited this long essay because, as they put it,
[Harrah] is to be counted among the foremost researchers in both the theory of communication and the theory of questions. [In the latter area] his contributions are as central as those of [Lennart] Aqvist [Sweden], [Nuel] Belnap [Pittsburgh] and [Jaakko] Hintikka [Finland and Stanford]. His own approach to questions has the additional merit that it deals not only with the logic and pragmatics of questions in their own right, but rather in the setting of a general account of information and communication. This certainly makes him unique among the researchers in these areas.
Beloved by his colleagues, David Harrah was “old school” in many ways. He was always supportive of his colleagues, even outside his expertise. He and Rita would welcome new faculty to their house, often many times over, sometimes even for breakfast. He introduced many of us to running, hiking in the local mountains, and rock-climbing at Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks. He boasted that UCR was the only campus in the country that had its own rock on campus suitable for rock climbing, and would take anyone even slightly interested in the sport to try it out. He continued to engage In challenging climbs himself throughout his residence in Riverside, making one of the more difficult climbs of his life (sans toes), on “Traitor Horn” at Tahquitz Rock in the late-70’s.
Beyond the university, for many years he helped organize and teach the Sierra Club's Basic Mountaineering Course, Snow Camping and Hiking, and its Leadership Training Course, as well as serving as an informal advisor to the campus's Mountaineering Club. He was also an active member of the American Alpine Club serving for numerous years on its Accident Reports Committee.
David Harrah finally succumbed to cancer on August 16, 2022 in Studio City, CA, at the age of 95, following a long, eventful, and interesting life with many professional accomplishments. He was predeceased by his wife Rita of 58 years in 2014. He is survived by his sons Shane and Mark Harrah, his granddaughter Christina.
Carl F. Cranor, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
Larry Wright, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus
David Glidden, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus