Born in Independence, Missouri to Kenneth T. and Evelyn Barwise, he was a precocious child. A pupil of Solomon Feferman at Stanford University, Barwise started his research in infinitary logic. After positions as assistant professor at the Universities of Yale and Wisconsin, during which time his interests turned to natural language, he returned to Stanford in 1983 to direct the Center for the Study of Language and Information.
He began teaching at Indiana University in 1990.
Barwise contended that, by being explicit about the context in which a proposition is made, the situation, many problems in the application of logic can be eliminated. He sought.. to understand meaning and inference within a general theory of information, one that takes us outside the realm of sentences and relations between sentences of any language, natural or formal.
In particular, he claimed that such an approach resolved the liar paradox. He made use of Peter Aczel"s non-well-founded set theory in understanding "vicious circles" of reasoning.
Unlike the Handbook of Mathematical Logic which was a survey of the state of the art of Mathematical Logic c.
1975, and of which he was the editor, this work targeted elementary logic. The text is notable for including computer-aided homework problems, some of which provide visual representations of logical problems. During his time at Stanford, he was also the first Director of the Symbolic Systems Program, an interdepartmental degree program focusing on the relationships between cognition, language, logic, and computation.
The K. Jon Barwise Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Symbolic Systems Program has been given periodically since 2001.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences.