Sir Peter Fredrick Strawson

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Sir Peter Fredrick Strawson

Peter Fredrick Strawson (born 1919) was regarded as one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century. He was especially active in the movement known as ordinary language philosophy.

Sir Peter Fredrick Strawson was born November 23, 1919. He received his master's degree in philosophy from St. John's College, Oxford University, in 1940. After serving in the British Armed Forces during World War II, where he achieved the rank of captain, Strawson began his professional career in philosophy as a lecturer at the University College of North Wales. In 1948 he was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University, serving first as praelector and later as reader in philosophy. In 1968 Strawson succeeded Gilbert Ryle as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford University, where he remained into the 1990s. Strawson was a member of the British Academy and an honorary member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. In 1977 he was appointed Knight Bachelor.

Strawson's work influenced 20th-century philosophy considerably, especially the movement known as ordinary language philosophy. In an early article, entitled "On Referring," he launched an attack against Bertrand Russell's famed "theory of definite descriptions." Russell had argued that propositions must be either true, false, or meaningless. Strawson did not disagree totally with Russell, but he felt that the theory was inadequate for showing that meaning is a function of a sentence. He believed that a sentence could have a sense or convey meaning without one knowing whether the constituents of the sentence actually exist. For example, the sentence "the present King of France is bald," might be uttered during a play. In this case, all those involved in the situation—that is, the actors and the audience—would understand the meaning of the sentence without entertaining the question of its truth or falsity.

The situation or context in which a sentence is made was important for Strawson. This notion carried over into his first book, Introduction to Logical Theory. While Strawson did not deny the validity of logical axioms, he did assert that logic as a discipline is limited in its ability to analyze language. Logic's primary business is to establish rules of entailment—that is, rules for showing how one statement follows from another. So limited, logic is unable to show the sense of an expression. For example, if one were asked, "Are you looking forward to going?" he might answer, "I am and I'm not." Logic would construe this statement as a contradiction. However, ordinary language analysis might reveal that the speaker meant that in certain respects he was looking forward to going while in other respects he was not. Strawson's primary objective in this work was to establish that ordinary language analysis is a primary discipline, whereas logic is a second order discipline, or one that takes place after situational analysis. As such, logic is descriptive, showing the form of the language but not the content.

Strawson's most significant impact on philosophy derived from his second book, Individuals. In many ways Individuals is a working out of themes implicit in earlier work. The work might be termed an essay in "descriptive metaphysics." Strawson believed that a more exact analysis of what there "really" is will be gained by description rather than by speculation. First, Strawson utilized the Kantian notion that all perception takes place in a spatio-temporal framework. Given this, what is basic to all perception is that it is of particular objects. In that many statements can be made about an object, and since Strawson was seeking to find the basis of all perception, he had to qualify exactly what he was trying to establish. The criteria used toward this end was that objects must be identifiable in a spatio-temporal conceptual scheme. In other words, quantitative statements are to be understood as the basic object statements. This means that the objects of a statement must be locatable in a spatial and temporal scheme without relying upon anything else for their construal. Further, objects of this scheme must be re-identifiable in the same sense over a lapse of time. This is possible with quantitative statements only, not with qualitative statements. Quantitative statements are made of an object, if that object is locatable in space and time, without depending upon anything else for that identity except the scheme itself. This is not the case with qualitative statements. Qualitative statements are attributive; hence, they presuppose an object already identified before they are applied. For example, to say of someone that he is wise means that one is applying the attribute of wisdom to a subject already identified. In other words, quantitative statements do not depend upon anything else, but qualitative statements depend on quantitative identities already established. Thus Strawson concluded that matter is to be understood as the basic particular upon which al statements about reality are grounded.

Strawson took the implications of his metaphysics seriously, especially when dealing with the traditional problem of how the mind and body are related. He asserted that the whole problem is a confused one. Further, he said that The concepts "mind" and "body" are abstract or second order concepts. Both concepts presuppose something even more basic, which Strawson argued is the concept of the "person." The person is what is given in perception. The distinction between the mind and body is made after the person has already been identified. Likewise, the person is re-identifiable by virtue of publicly observable behavior.

Part two of Individuals is more or less a working out of the first part from a strictly linguistic perspective. It deals in part with the relation of the subject to predicate and how particulars and universals are to be construed in discourse. Strawson drew a distinction between the logical and grammatical subjects of a sentence. For example, wisdom, or a derivative of the term, could be the grammatical subject of a sentence. In this case, however, the term would have no referent unless the logical subject stood in the position of predicate in the sentence. The logical subject must always be a particular, whereas the grammatical subject need not be. As a particular, the logical subject is always complete; that is, it is not dependent upon anything else. The logical subject is based upon an empirical fact—that is, a particular material object. The universal is introduced into discourse by its relation to the logical subject. As such, it is incomplete. In other words, the universal is dependent upon the logical subject and not on an empirical fact. Thus, the logical subject cannot be applied to anything other than the fact with which it has been identified. On the other hand, the universal may be applied to another subject, if the situation demands, since it is not rooted directly in fact nor identifiable directly in a spatio-temporal framework.

Strawson did much work after the publication of Individuals. Most of this work was a more specific, albeit brilliant, explication of his earlier work. Nonetheless, Strawson's earliest work was the most significant and the most likely to assure him a prominent role in the history of philosophy.

Further Reading

A good general essay on Strawson's philosophy can be found in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Numerous critiques of Strawson have been offered by noted philosophers. Of particular interest are: Bertrand Russell, "Mr. Strawson on Referring," Mind (1957); W. V. O. Quine, "Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory," in Quine's book The Ways of Paradox (1966); and A. J. Ayer's critique of Strawson's analysis of the person found in The Concept of the Person (1963). Other critiques can be found listed in the Philosophers Index.

Strawson's own works, also listed in the Philosophers Index, include the following books: Introduction to Logical Theory (1952), Individuals (1959), The Bounds of Sense (1966), Logico-Linguistic Papers (1971), Freedom and Resentment (1974), Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar (1974), and Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (1985). The reader should also note two of Strawson's early articles as extremely important works by Strawson. They are "On Referring" and "Truth." These two articles, and others, can be found in most any reputable anthology on the philosophy of language. □

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