Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–)

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Peter Frederick Strawson, the British philosopher, was educated at Christ's College, Finchley, and St. John's College, Oxford. He holds the BA and MA degrees and is a fellow of University College, Oxford.

Language and Logic

Strawson is a leading member of the circle of philosophers whose work is sometimes described as "ordinary language philosophy" or as "Oxford philosophy." Of his early work, the most influential and most controversial is the famous article "On Referring" (Mind, 1950), a criticism of the philosophical aspects of Bertrand Russell's theory of definite descriptions. According to Russell's theory any sentence of the form "The f is g "for example, "The king of France is bald"is properly analyzed as follows (in terms of our example): "There is a king of France. There is not more than one king of France. There is nothing which is king of France and which is not bald."

Strawson argues that this analysis confuses referring to an entity with asserting the existence of that entity. In referring to an entity, a speaker presupposes that the entity exists, but he does not assert that it exists, nor does what he asserts entail that it exists. Presupposition is to be distinguished from entailment. In asserting something of the form "The f is g," a speaker refers or purports to refer to an entity with the subject noun phrase, and to do so involves presupposing that there is such an entity, but this is quite different from asserting that there is such an entity.

According to Strawson this confusion between referring and asserting is based on an antecedent confusion between a sentence and the statement made in a particular use of that sentence. Russell erroneously supposes that every sentence must be either true, false, or meaningless. But, Strawson argues, sentences can be meaningful or meaningless and yet cannot strictly be characterized as true or false. Statements, which are made using sentences, but which are distinct from sentences, are, or can be, either true or false. The sentence "The king of France is bald" is indeed meaningful, but a statement made at the present time using that sentence does not succeed in being either true or false because, as there is presently no king of France, the purported reference to a king of France fails. According to Russell the sentence is meaningful and false. According to Strawson the sentence is meaningful, but the corresponding statement is neither true nor false because one of its presuppositionsnamely, that there is a king of Franceis false.

In another well-known article of this early period, "Truth" (Analysis, 1949), Strawson criticizes the semantic theory of truth and proposes an alternative analysis to the effect that "true" does not describe any semantic properties or, indeed, any other properties at all, because its use is not to describe; rather, we use the word true to express agreement, to endorse, concede, grant, or otherwise accede to what has been or might be said. Strawson explicitly draws an analogy between the use of the word true and J. L. Austin's notion of performatives. Like performatives, true does not describe anything; rather, if we examine its use in ordinary language, we see that it is used to perform altogether different sorts of acts.

This article gave rise to a controversy with Austin, a defender of the correspondence theory. The gist of Strawson's argument against the correspondence theory is that the attempt to explicate truth in terms of correspondence between statements on the one hand and facts, states of affairs, and situations on the other must necessarily fail because such notions as "fact" already have the "wordworld relationship" built into them. Facts are not something which statements name or refer to; rather, "facts are what statements (when true) state."

In his first book, Introduction to Logical Theory (New York and London, 1952), Strawson continued his investigation of the logical features of ordinary language by studying the relations between ordinary language and formal logic. The book, he says, has two complementary aims: first, to compare and contrast the behavior of ordinary words with the behavior of logical symbols, and, second, to make clear the nature of formal logic itself. It is in the first of these two enterprises that he has shown the more originality and aroused the more controversy. The theme of this part of the book is that such logical systems as the propositional and predicate calculi do not completely represent the complex logical features of ordinary language and indeed represent them less accurately than has generally been supposed. He argues that the logical connectives, especially "," "," and "," are much less like "or," "if," and "if and only if" than is often claimed. In his discussion of predicate logic (Chs. 5 and 6), he continues the themes of "On Referring," arguing that certain orthodox criticisms which are made of traditional Aristotelian syllogistic fail because of a failure to appreciate the fact that statements made in the use of a sentence of the form "All f 's are g " presuppose the existence of members of the subject class.

Thus, for example, the question whether it is true that all John's children are asleep does not even arise if John has no children. Once it is seen that statements of the form "All f 's are g " have existential presuppositions, it is possible to give a consistent interpretation of the traditional Aristotelian system. The failure to understand this and the misconception regarding the relation of the predicate calculus to ordinary language are in large part due to the same mistakes that underlie the theory of descriptions: the failure to see the distinction between sentence and statement; the "bogus trichotomy" of true, false, or meaningless; and the failure to see the distinction between presupposition and entailment.

The final chapter of the book contains a discussion of probability and induction in which Strawson argues that attempts to justify induction are necessarily misconceived, since there are no higher standards to which one can appeal in assessing inductive standards. The question whether inductive standards are justified is as senseless as the question whether a legal system is legal. Just as a legal system provides the standards of legality, so do inductive criteria provide standards of justification. Underlying this point is the fact that inductive standards form part of our concept of rationality. It is, he says, a necessary truth that the only ways of forming rational opinions concerning what happened or will happen in given circumstances are inductive.


In the middle 1950s Strawson's concerns shifted from investigations of ordinary language to an enterprise he named descriptive metaphysics. This enterprise differs from "revisionary metaphysics" in that it is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world rather than attempting to produce a better structure, and it differs from ordinary conceptual analysis in its much greater scope and generality, since it attempts to "lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure."

These investigations resulted in the publication of a second book, Individuals (London, 1959). The book is divided into two parts. Part One, titled "Particulars," deals with the nature of and preconditions for the identification of particular objects in speech; Part Two, "Logical Subjects," concentrates on the relations between particulars and universals and on the corresponding and related distinctions between reference and predication and subjects and predicates. The first important thesis of the book is that from the point of view of particular identification, material objects are the basic particulars. What this means is that the general conditions of particular identification require a unified system of publicly observable and enduring spatiotemporal entities. The material universe forms such a system. Material objects can therefore be identified independently of the identification of particulars in other categories, but particulars in other categories cannot be identified without reference to material objects. This provides us, then, with a sense in which material objects are the basic particulars as far as particular identification is concerned.

A second thesis, one of the most provocative of the book, concerns the traditional mindogon;body problem. In Chapter 3, titled "Persons," Strawson attacks both the Cartesian notion that states of consciousness are ascribed to mental substances, which are quite distinct from but nonetheless intimately connected to bodies, and the modern "no-ownership" theory, according to which states of consciousness are not, strictly speaking, ascribed to anything at all. Both views, he argues, are ultimately incoherent. The solution to the dilemma posed by these views is that the concept of a person is a primitive concept. It is a concept such that both states of consciousness and physical properties are ascribable to one and the same thingnamely, a person. The concept of a mind is derivative from the primitive concept of a person, and the concept of a person is not to be construed as a composite concept made up of the concept of a mind and the concept of a body. The recognition of the primitiveness of the concept of a person enables us to see both why states of consciousness are ascribed to anything at all and why they are ascribed to the very same thing to which certain physical states are ascribed.

Most of Part Two of Individuals is devoted to an investigation of the problems of the relations of subjects and predicates. Strawson considers two traditional ways of making the distinction between subject and predicate: a grammatical criterion in terms of the different kinds of symbolism for subject and predicate expressions and a category criterion in terms of the distinction between particulars and universals. He investigates the "tensions and affinities" between these two criteria, and he concludes that the crucial distinction between the way a subject expression introduces a particular into a proposition and the way a predicate expression introduces a universal into a proposition is that the identification of a particular involves the presentation of some empirical fact which is sufficient to identify the particular (this harks back to the doctrine of what is presupposed by identifying references in "On Referring" and Introduction to Logical Theory ), but the introduction of the universal term by the predicate term does not in general involve any empirical fact. The meaning of the predicate term suffices to identify the universal that the predicate introduces into the proposition. One might say that identifying reference to particulars involves the presentation of empirical facts; the predication of universals involves only the presentation of meanings. This enables us to give a deeper sense to Gottlob Frege's notion that objects are completein contrast to concepts, which are incompleteand it enables us to account for the Aristotelian doctrine that only universals and not particulars are predicable.

In tone, method, and overall objectives, Individuals stands in sharp contrast to Strawson's earlier work. Piecemeal investigation of ordinary language occurs here only as an aid and adjunct to attacking large traditional metaphysical problems. One might say that Individuals employs essentially Kantian methods to arrive at Aristotelian conclusions. Yet much of the book is at least foreshadowed by Strawson's earlier work, particularly "On Referring" and certain portions of his first book. The notion of descriptive metaphysics itself has been as influential as the actual theses advanced in Individuals. More than any other single recent work, this book has resurrected metaphysics (albeit descriptive metaphysics) as a respectable philosophical enterprise.

See also Performative Theory of Truth.


additional works by strawson

"Necessary Propositions and Entailment Statements." Mind (1948).

"Ethical Intuitionism." In Readings in Ethical Theory, edited by Wilfrid Sellars and John Hospers. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952.

"Particular and General." PAS supp. 27 (19531954).

"Critical Notice of Wittgenstein." Mind (1954).

"Presupposing: A Reply to Mr. Sellars." Philosophical Review (1954).

"A Logician's Landscape." Philosophy (1955).

"Construction and Analysis." In The Revolution in Philosophy, by A. J. Ayer et al. London: Macmillan, 1956.

"In Defense of a Dogma." Philosophical Review (1956). Written with H. P. Grice.

"Singular Terms, Ontology and Identity." Mind (1956).

"Logical Subjects and Physical Objects." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (19561957).

"Logic and Knowledge by Bertrand Russell." Philosophical Quarterly (1957).

"Metaphysics." In The Nature of Metaphysics, edited by D. F. Pears. London: Macmillan, 1957. Written with H. P. Grice and D. F. Pears.

"Professor Ayer's The Problem of Knowledge." Philosophy (1957).

"Proper Names." PAS supp. 31 (1957).

"Propositions, Concepts and Logical Truths." Philosophical Quarterly (1957).

"Singular Terms and Predication." Journal of Philosophy (1961).

"Social Morality and Individual Ideal." Philosophy (1961).

"Freedom and Resentment." Proceedings of the British Academy (1962). Annual philosophical lecture.

"Determinism." In Freedom and the Will, edited by D. F. Pears. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963. A discussion with G. J. Warnock and J. F. Thomson.

"Identifying Reference and Truth Values." Theoria (1964).

"Truth: A Reconsideration of Austin's Views." Philosophical Quarterly (1965).

Meaning and Truth. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

Logico-Linguistic Papers. London: Methuen, 1971.

Freedom and Resentment. London: Methuen, 1974.

Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar. London: Methuen, 1974.

"Does Knowledge Have Foundations?" Teorema MONO1 (1974): 99110.

"Universals." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1979): 310.

Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

"Ma Philosophie: Son Developpment, Son Theme Centrale et Nature Generale," Revue de Theologie et de Philosophie 120 (1988): 437452.

"Two Conceptions of Philosophy." In Perspectives on Quine, edited by Robert Barrett and Roger Gibson. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

"Comments on Some Aspects of Peter Unger's 'Identity, Consciousness and Value,'" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1) (March 1992): 145148.

"The Incoherence of Empiricism." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. 66 (1992).

"Knowing from Words." In Knowing from Words, edited by B.K. Matilal and A. Chakrabarti. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992.

"Individuals." In Philosophical Problems Today, Vol. I, edited by G. Fløistad. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994.

"The Problem of Realism and the A Priori." In Kant and Contemporary Epistemology, edited by Paolo Parrini. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994.

"My Philosophy" and "Replies." In The Philosophy of P. F. Stawson, edited by Pranab Kumar Sen and Roop Rekha Verma, New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1995.

Entity and Identity and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

"Intellectual Autobiography" and "Replies." In The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn, Library of Living Philosophers Vol. 26, Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1998.

"Entailment and its Paradoxes." In Realism : Responses and Reactions (Essays in Honor of Pranab Kumar Sen). New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2000.

"What Have We Learned from Philosophy in the Twentieth Century?" In The Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Vol. 8: Contemporary Philosophy, edited by Daniel Dahlstrom. Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2000.

"A Bit of Intellectual Autobiography." In Strawson and Kant, edited by Hans-Johann Glock. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

Logico-Linguistic Papers. Rev. ed. Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar. Rev. ed. Aldershot, Hampshire, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

Strawson, Peter Frederick, and Arindam Chakrabarti, eds. Universals, Concepts and Qualities: New Essays on the Meaning of Predicates. Aldershot, Hampshire, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

works on strawson

Aune, Bruce. "Feelings, Moods and Introspection." Mind (1963).

Ayer, A. J. "The Concept of a Person." In The Concept of a Person and Other Essays. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Bradley, M. C. "Mr. Strawson and Skepticism." Analysis (1959).

Campbell, Scott. "Strawson, Parfit and Impersonality." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 30 (2) (June 2000): 207224.

Caton, C. E. "Strawson on Referring." Mind (1959).

Coval, S. C. "Persons and Criteria in Strawson." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1964).

Geach, P. T. "Mr. Strawson on Symbolic and Traditional Logic." Mind (1963).

Hacker, Peter. "Strawson's Concept of a Person." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 102 (2002): 2140.

Hahn, Lewis Edwin, ed. The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson. Library of Living Philosphers, Vol. 26. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1998.

Hutcheson, Peter. "Vindicating Strawson." Philosophical Topics 13 (spring 1985): 175184.

Jarvis, Judith. "Notes on Strawson's Logic." Mind (1961).

Lewis, H. D. "Mind and Body." PAS (19621963).

Millican, Peter. "Statements and Modality: Strawson, Quine and Wolfram." International Journal of Moral and Social Studies 8 (3) (autumn 1993): 315326.

Pears, D. F. Review of Individuals. Philosophical Quarterly (1961).

Quine, W. V. "Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory." Mind (1953).

Russell, Bertrand. "Mr. Strawson on Referring." Mind (1957).

Sellars, Wilfrid. "Presupposing." Philosophical Review (1954).

Sen, Pranab Kumar, and Roop Rekha Verma, eds. The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson, New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1995.

Szubka, Tadeusz. "P. F. Strawson." In British Philosophers, 19002000, edited by Peter S. Fosi. Columbia, SC: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Gale, 2002.

Urmson, J. O. Review of Individuals. Mind (1961).

Van Straaten, Zak, ed. Philosophical Subjects: Essays Presented to P. F. Strawson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

Williams, B. A. O. Review of Individuals. Philosophy (1961).

John R. Searle (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vicki Lynn Harper (2005)