Bennett, Jonathan (1930–)

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Born in 1930 and educated in New Zealand and at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Bennett taught philosophy at the University of Cambridge for twelve years before taking up professorial positions in Canada (at the University of British Columbia) and the United States (at Syracuse University). He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy. Now retired, he continues to write from his home on an island near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Bennett's work covers a wide range of issues in analytic philosophy and the history of philosophy, especially the early modern period. His first book, Rationality (1964), explored the differences between human intelligence and the intellectual capacities of other animals, and the role of language in these differences. Subsequently influenced by Paul Grice's seminal work on meaning and communicative intentions, he significantly modified his views about such matters in a later book, Linguistic Behaviour (1976), which incorporates an account of convention building on but also differs in certain respects from David Lewis's ground-breaking theory.

Bennett's interest in the nature of intentional behavior connects his work in philosophical psychology and the philosophy of language with his work in the metaphysics of actions and events. His major contribution to the latter topic is Events and their Names (1988), in which he explores the distinction between events and facts through an examination of the semantics of everyday language, focusing on the differences between two kinds of sentence nominals, exemplified by the pair Quisling's betrayal of Norway/Quisling's betraying Norway. In this book Bennett addresses the important question of whether facts or events should properly be regarded as the things related by causal relations; he contends that both may be but that fact-causation statements and event-causation statements require different kinds of analysis, whether in terms of counterfactual conditionals or in terms of causal laws. Bennett concludes, however, that the language of event-causation, though useful, is impoverished compared with that of fact-causation and that the former must be analysed in terms of the latter. He also offers an analysis of the "by" locution employed in action sentences of the form S did such-and-such by doing so-and-so.

In a later book on the theme of agency, The Act Itself (1995), Bennett discusses in depth the moral dimension of human action, including the thorny question of whether a morally significant distinction can be drawn between doing something and letting something happen: for example, between killing someone and letting someone die. He makes it clear, early in the book, that he is a moral nonrealist, denying that moral judgements are answerable to independent moral facts and hence denying that they have, in that sense, truth values.

Closely connected with Bennett's work on actions and events is his important contribution, over a period of more than thirty years, to philosophical debate on the semantics of conditional statements. This work culminated in his book A Philosophical Guide to Conditionals (2003), perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of the subject available. On a number of key issues in this debate, Bennett has shifted his position over the years, notably on the question of whether there is a significant distinction to be drawn between counterfactual and indicative conditionals. Reversing his earlier opinion, formed under the influence of the work of V. H. Dudman, he now thinks that there is and that these two classes of conditionals demand radically different analyses: the former a possible-worlds analysis along the lines proposed by David Lewis and the latter a probabilistic analysis of the sort pioneered by Ernest Adams. As a consequence, he holds that indicative conditionals, unlike counterfactuals, lack truth conditions and hence truth values. At the same time, he tries to explain why, despite their radically different analyses, there are close similarities between the logics of the two kinds of conditionals and why it is often correct to move from asserting an indicative conditional at one time to asserting a corresponding counterfactual at a later time.

Bennett's work in the history of philosophy has centred on the core texts of the British EmpiricistsLocke, Berkeley and Humeand those of certain eminent continental philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially Spinoza and Kant. Kant's Analytic (1966) was followed eight years later by its sequel, Kant's Dialectic (1974), with Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes (1971) appearing in between. Bennett's next major project of this kind was A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (1984); at about the same time he collaborated with Peter Remnant to produce an important new edition and translation of Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding (1981).

The culminating synthesis of Bennett's thoughts about the major philosophers of the early modern period is provided by his magisterial two-volume magnum opus, Learning from Six Philosophers (2001). The first volume treats Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz and the second Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Bennett has always been clear about his own approach to the writings of the great philosophers of the past: although he does not ignore their historical context, he is concerned chiefly with the ideas and arguments to be found in themnot merely as illustrative of the philosophical thought of their times, but for their own sake and for the light that they can shed on present-day philosophical debate. Inevitably, this sort of approach has attracted criticism from certain quarters, especially from historians of philosophy who are skeptical about the very notion of philosophia perennis the idea that there are perennial philosophical problems and arguments that transcend cultural and historical boundaries. But whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute might be, it is manifest that Bennett's approach is motivated not least by his concern, as a teacher of philosophy, to keep the seminal texts of past philosophers alive for succeeding generations of students.

See also Berkeley, George; Conditionals; Counterfactuals; Descartes, René; Empiricism; Event Theory; Grice, Herbert Paul; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lewis, David; Locke, John; Ontology; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


works by bennett

Rationality: An Essay Towards Analysis. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Kant's Analytic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Kant's Dialectic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Linguistic Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

A Study of Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Events and their Names. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

The Act Itself. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Learning from Six Philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

A Philosophical Guide to Conditionals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

E. J. Lowe (2005)

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Bennett, Jonathan (1930–)

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Bennett, Jonathan (1930–)