Strawson, Sir Peter Frederick
British, b: 23 November 1919, London. Cat: Analytical philosopher of logic and language. Ints: Epistemology; metaphysics. Educ: St John’s College, Oxford. Infls: Analytical and Oxford philosophy, in particular H.P.Grice. Appts: 1946, Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, University College of North Wales; John Locke Scholar, University of Oxford; 1947–68, Lecturer in Philosophy (1947), Praelector (1948), Fellow (1948–68), Honorary Fellow (1979) of University College, Oxford; 1960, Fellow of the British Academy; 1966–87, Reader (1966–8), then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy (1968–87), University of Oxford; 1968–87, Fellow, then Honorary Fellow (1989), Magdalen College, Oxford; 1971, Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 1977, Knighted; 1990, Member, Academia Europaea; several visiting appointments in the USA and Europe.
The influence of analytical and ordinary language philosophy account for Strawson’s interest in language, thought and their ‘objects’. This interest appears already in ‘Truth’ (Analysis, 1949), which attacks the semantic theory of truth: ‘true’ does not describe semantic or other properties; rather, ‘true’ and ‘false’ are performative or expressive—to say a sentence is ‘true’ is to express agreement with it. This article prompted his controversy with J.L.Austin, a defender of the correspondence theory of truth: explaining truth as correspondence between statements and facts fails, argues Strawson, since facts are not something statements name or refer to—‘facts are what statements (when true) state’ (1971, p. 196).
Strawson’s 1950 article ‘On referring’ (collected in 1971) attacks Russell’s ‘theory of definite descriptions’. For Russell, a sentence such as ‘The King of France is wise’ is false, since, when analysed, it contains an assertion of existence (namely, ‘There is a King of France’). Russell’s analysis, Strawson argues, compounds the notions of referring to something and asserting its existence—‘to refer is not to assert’ (p. 15)—though in referring to something one may ‘imply’ (in the special sense Strawson reserves for this word) that it exists. Strawson argues that Russell fails to distinguish sentences (or expressions), their use and their utterance. Whereas for Russell a sentence is true, false or meaningless, Strawson maintains that a sentence is significant in virtue of conventions governing its use, irrespective of whether the sentence, when uttered, is about something. A sentence such as that concerning the King of France is meaningful but, if not used to refer to something, the question of its truth or falsity does not arise.
Interest in the relation between formal logic and ordinary language continues in Introduction to Logical Theory (1952), which partly aims ‘to bring out some points of contrast and of contact between the behaviour of words in ordinary speech and the behaviour of symbols in a logical system’ (p. iv). Formal logicians cannot, Strawson argues, give the exact, systematic logic of expressions of everyday speech, ‘for these expressions have no exact and systematic logic’ (p. 57). Formal logic is an ‘idealized abstraction’ revealing certain structural traits of ordinary language but omitting others. The notion of a gap between formal logic and ordinary language has drawn criticism (for example, Quine in Mind, 1953), but it motivates Strawson’s criticisms of the formal semantics popularized by Donald Davidson (see ‘On understanding the structure of one’s language’, in Freedom and Resentment, 1974).
Strawson’s concerns also appear in Individuals (1959), the subtitle of which, however, marks a new interest in ‘descriptive metaphysics’. This enterprise differs from ‘revisionary metaphysics’, in that while ‘descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure’ (p. 9), and from conceptual analysis in its scope and generality, since its aims ‘to lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure’. The book’s first part maintains that material bodies are the basic particulars to which we refer and of which we predicate qualities, kinds, etc. Chapter 3, ‘Persons’, argues for the primitiveness of the concept of a person, ‘a type of entity such that both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics…are equally applicable to a single individual of that single type’ (p. 102). Making states of consciousness secondary in relation to the concept of a person enables Strawson to avoid traditional difficulties concerning the mind-body problem. The book’s second part examines the distinction between logico-grammatical subjects and their predicates. Reflection on two traditional criteria for this distinction allows Strawson to view particulars as paradigm logical subjects and thus to explain ‘the traditional, persistent link in our philosophy between the particular-universal distinction and the subject-predicate (reference-predication) distinction’ (p. 188). In arguing that a subject expression presupposes some empirical fact identifying a particular, Strawson comes to regard particulars as ‘complete’ and universals as ‘incomplete’, thus giving added depth to Frege’s notion of ‘saturated’ and ‘unsaturated’ sentence constituents.
The conclusions reached in Individuals form the basis for later works, notably The Bounds of Sense (1966) and Subject and Predicate (1974), but also underpin Strawson’s examination of scepticism and naturalism in 1985, where he rejects philosophical scepticism and reductive naturalism by appeal to certain traits in ordinary ways of thinking and speaking/Certain essays in Freedom and Resentment, however, show Straw-son’s work in other areas of philosophy (notably ethics and aesthetics); and in his most recent publication (1992, published in France in 1985), based on introductory courses taught at Oxford, he examines the nature of philosophical practice (which turns out to be largely his own). In this work, he distances himself from ordinary language philosophy and reductive analytical philosophy, regarding philosophy as the attempt to understand the relations between concepts, an attempt that, while broadly ‘analytical’, does not aim to reduce such concepts to others more simple.
Sources: P.F.Strawson (1988) ‘Ma philosophie: son développement, son thème central et sa nature générale’, RTP 120:437–52; WW; IWW; Burkhardt; Edwards.
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