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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


STRAWSON

(1919 — 2006)

 

ANALYTICAL PHILOSOPHY

Sir Peter Strawson was born in London and educated at Christ's College, Finchley and St John's College, Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of University College and later of Magdalen when he succeeded Ryle as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics in 1967. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1960.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE AND LOGIC

[1] Strawson [Introduction to Logical Theory, 2, III, & 8] makes a distinction between the grammatical and syntactical structures of 'ordinary' informal language and the structures of formal logic. He does not believe the structures of informal language are completely represented in those of formal logic, and rejects its reducibility or reconstruction in formal terms [a]. He also distinguishes between sentences and the use of sentences to make statements — which are occurrences in time and space. [See 'On Referring']. The use of sentences involves what he calls the relation of presupposition. This differs from entailment [b]. To see this consider the statements 'John's children are asleep' (S) and 'John has children' (S1). Entailment is a relation such that it would be self-contradictory to conjoin S with the denial of S1 if S1 is a necessary condition of the truth of S. Presupposition, however, is a relation such that if S presupposes S1 it is not self-contradictory but still logically absurd to conjoin S and the denial of S1. If a statement A presupposes B, then A can be true or false only if B is true. These distinctions are evident in Strawson's approach to a number of problems in philosophical logic

The Theory of Descriptions. Russell had sought to avoid the problem raised by expressions purporting to name non-existent entities by re-expressing them in terms of what he supposed to be their underlying logical structure. Names are definite descriptions. Thus 'The King of France is bald' becomes 'There is a King of France; there is not more than one King of France; and that thing is bald'. Such a complex as a whole is meaningful but false when the first sentence 'There is a King of France' is false. Strawson argues ['On Referring'] that reference of a naming expression does not entail the existence of its denotation, but that this does not mean the expression is meaningless. It has meaning in use, that is, as a statement; and when the sentence is used correctly the existence of the referent of 'the King of France' is presupposed. Only the statement can be said to be true or false [c]. We thus avoid the "bogus trichotomy" — true, false, or meaningless — of the sentence 'The King of France is bald'. (Similar considerations apply to the problem of 'existential import', which gives rise to difficulties in the interpretation of traditional Aristotelian syllogistic logic. Strawson argues that when sentences of the form 'All S is P' are used in ordinary discourse they must be taken to presuppose the existence of members of the subject class.) The reference of a name is understood by Strawson as being determined by a 'cluster' of descriptions, which at the same time expresses that name's sense [Individuals, ch. 6] [d].

Strawson's concern with the use of language is apparent also in his treatment of the concept of truth [see 'Truth']. He rejects semantic theories of truth. The word 'true', he says, does not describe any properties. Rather, it is used in everyday language as a kind of 'performative' — to express our acquiescence in what is being said. It follows that he rejects correspondence theories of truth which assume there is a 'mapping' between statement and 'facts' or 'states of affairs' which supposedly constitute or belong to the world [e]. This is because, according to Strawson, the notion of a fact already presupposes a relationship between language and the world and cannot be what language is about. Instead we should say that facts are what true statements state.

He also rejects attempts to deny or obscure the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. These terms, he says, have an established philosophical use. And he argues that the concept of analyticity can be satisfactorily grounded in the notion of 'meaning the same' as used in ordinary discourse [f]. It is mistaken or inappropriate to apply strict standards which 'analytic' cannot meet without paradox, in that the notion of sense would itself, by the same standards, have no role to play in language. Included among analytic truths, according to Strawson, is the claim that it is reasonable to expect as true the conclusions of inductive arguments whose premisses are known to be true. This claim forms the basis of his rejection of the problem of induction. [See Logical Theory, ch. 9.] He argues that part of what we mean by the terms 'reasonable' and 'rational' is learned by reference to paradigm cases of standard inductive arguments [g]. To deny that their conclusions are true is thus as unreasonable as it would be to deny the truth of such as statement as 'All bachelors are unmarried'.

More recently Strawson has been concerned with the systematic study of explanatory foundations of grammar, which he thinks underpins the relationship between language and our conceptual scheme. This leads on to his 'metaphysics'.

 

METAPHYSICS

[2] In his analysis of the grammatical structures of language Strawson argues that subject expressions have different grammatical functions. However, he later ['Metaphysics' and Individuals] seeks to look behind these forms to "lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure". He sees this as the concern of what he calls 'descriptive' metaphysics (for example, in the work of Aristotle or Kant), which utilizes categories and concepts "which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all" [Introduction]. This is contrasted with the 'revisionary' metaphysics of, for example, Descartes, Leibniz, and Berkeley, the aim of which is "to produce a better structure". He regards the latter as valuable only to the extent that it can assist descriptive metaphysics. Descriptive metaphysics for Strawson is similar in intention to philosophical, logical, or conceptual analysis but differs in scope and generality [a].

According to Strawson subject expressions are 'complete' in that they pick out 'empirical facts' and thereby enable us to identify particulars. This identification is another example of a presupposition — in the proper use of such expressions. Predicate expressions on the other hand are 'incomplete', and they introduce universals. This does not involve any presupposition or reference to empirical facts, but predicate expressions have a role to play in contributing to the meaning of propositions. What are 'particulars'? Strawson is not looking for any 'ultimate' particulars such as (it has been claimed) private thoughts, events, sense-data out of which other particulars might be constructed. Rather he is concerned to discover particulars which are basic in that they can be identified without reference to particulars of other types or categories than their own. All identifiable particulars, he says, if not themselves locatable in a spatio-temporal framework must be uniquely related to particulars which can be so located. It is these which are the basic particulars; and for Strawson they are material objects [b].

In his account of mind [Individuals, ch. 3; see also 'Self, Mind and Body'] Strawson starts by rejecting two theories which seek to identify states of consciousness.

(1) The "no-ownership theory". This holds that states of consciousness do not belong to persons or, indeed, to anything at all, though it is allowed that perhaps they may be causally related to a body. But how then can I refer to 'my' experiences as dependent on the state of a body without appealing to some kind of concept of ownership? If not, the statement 'All my experiences are dependent on the state of a given body' would be analytic and empty; and we have no way of identifying particular experiences.

(2) Similarly, if we adopt the (Cartesian) theory that experiences belong to a private ego or self, not only can we not ascribe states of consciousness to other people, we cannot even ascribe them to ourselves. This is, Strawson argues, because the ascription of states of consciousness itself cannot he a private matter. We must first know how to ascribe them to other people if we are to ascribe them meaningfully to ourselves; and this possibility is grounded in the structure of our language [c]. Strawson's own solution is to regard the concept of a person as a primitive unanalysable concept. Persons are basic particulars to which we can ascribe (a) material object predicates (M-predicates), for example, 'weighs 10 stone', and (b) person predicates (P-predicates), such as 'is in pain', 'believes in God'. We can ascribe the latter to ourselves by virtue of our own feelings and consciousness. And such predicates can be ascribed to other people on the basis of observed behaviour [d] — which Strawson thinks provides us with logically adequate criteria for the purpose of that ascription.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Firmly rooted in the 'analytical' tradition Strawson is yet a systematizer, and is important particularly for his own contribution to what he himself has called 'descriptive' metaphysics, which he sees as revealing the overall structure of our conceptual scheme. He is notable also for his use of the concept of 'presupposition' to criticize Russell's 'Theory of Descriptions', for his performative theory of truth, and for maintaining the analytic-synthetic distinction.

Criticisms of Strawson's philosophy of language generally come from two sources: (1) philosophers who (like Russell) either accord primacy to formal 1ogical structures, which they believe can be extracted from informal language, or who seek to eliminate intensional terms from our philosophical discourse (for example, Quine); and (2) some recent philosophers who, while generally sympathetic to Strawson, have disagreed with him on technical grounds — in relation to difficulties with, for example, the concepts of presupposition and reference.

Objections to his 'metaphysics' centre on his preference for descriptive rather than revisionary metaphysics. It has been suggested that he is mistaken in ruling out (in a Kantian manner) the possibility of revision particularly where it might afford some primacy to our scientific concepts). It has also been argued (for example, by Ayer) that Strawson's attempts to show that the concept of a person is logically primitive have been unsuccessful; and that his anti-sceptical view of ascribing consciousness to oneself as being grounded in our language, and as predicated on the assumption that we know how to ascribe consciousness to others, is false. Moreover, it can also be argued that his theory of M- and P-predicate ascription to the 'primitive concept' of person (an instance of the so-called double aspect' theory) is as poorly equipped as traditional 'substance dualism' is to cope with problems arising from the supposed interactions of the 'mental' with the 'physical'.

 

READING

Strawson: [of many writings] Introduction to Logical Theory (1952); 'Metaphysics' (1957) (with H. P. Grice & D. F. Pears), in D. F. Pears (ed.), The Nature of Metaphysics; Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959; 1965); 'Truth' (1949) — in D. Macdonald (ed.), Philosophy and Analysis; 'On Referring' (1950) and 'Truth: a reconsideration of Austin's views' (1965) — both in Logico-Linguistic Papers (1971); 'In Defense of a Dogma' (1956)(with H. P. Grice) — in H. Feigl et al. (eds), Readings in Philosophical Analysis; 'Self, Mind and Body' (1974) — in Freedom and Resentment (1974); Scepticism and Naturalism (1987); Entity and Identity (1997). See also 'Determinism' (1963) (discussion with G. J. Warnock & J. H. Thompson), in D. F. Pears (ed.), Freedom and the Will.

Studies

A. J. Ayer, 'The Concept of a Person', in The Concept of a Person and Other Essays.

C. A. Brown, Peter Strawson.

R. Kirkham, Theories of Truth, ch. 10 (on Strawson's performative theory of truth).

Collection of essays

L. E. Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Strawson

 

[1a] 'Ordinary' informal language cannot be restructured in terms of formal logic

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Quine

   Hampshire

[1d]

[3a]

[1a b]

[1h i]

[1a]

 

[1b] Sentences used to make statements; use involves 'presupposition'

   Russell

   Ayer

[1c]

[1c]

 

[1c] Criticism of Theory of Descriptions; existence of referents presupposed in use; only statements true or false

   Frege

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

Habermas

Searle

[2g 2j]

[1c]

[2a]

[2a]

[3b]

[1d]

 

[1d] Description ('cluster') theory of reference — cluster expresses sense/ meaning

   Frege

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

Putnam

Searle

Kripke

[2f]

[1c]

[2e]

[1a e]

[1f]

[1d]

[1a c]

 

[1e] Rejection of semantic and correspondence theories of truth; truth performatory

   Aristotle

   Brentano

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Austin

   Davidson

   Dummett

Habermas

Searle

[2a]

[1c 2b]

[1g]

[1a]

[1d]

[1a]

[1b]

[3b]

[2d]

 

[1f] Clear distinction between analytic and synthetic statements

   Kant

   Quine

   Ayer

Putnam

Searle

Kripke

[1a]

[1b d f]

[1a]

[1d]

[1e]

[1a]

 

[1g] Induction does not need to be justified; claim that expectation of truth of conclusions is reasonable is analytic

   Hume

   Carnap

[2b]

[5b]

 

[2a] 'Descriptive' and 'revisionary' metaphysics; fixed features of conceptual scheme; more general kind of philosophical or conceptual analysis

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Quine

   Ayer

   Hampshire

[3c d]

[1a b]

[1i]

[3a]

[1a]

 

[2b] Subject expressions and particulars; predicate expressions and universals; search for 'basic' particulars (= material objects)

   Aristotle

   Frege

[4b]

[2c]

 

[2c] Rejection of Cartesian and 'no-ownership' theories of consciousness; ascription not private; others presupposed (grounded in language use)

   Descartes

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Searle

[2a]

[2c 2d]

[3a-c 4a]

[2a]

 

[2d] Concept of person basic particular: material object predicates (ascribed to others through observation) and person predicates (to self through own feeling/ consciousness)

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Ayer

   Hampshire

Ricoeur

   Searle

[2c]

[4a c]

[3d e]

[1b]

[5b f 6a b]

[2a]