Sir Peter Strawson

1919–, British philosopher, grad. Oxford. An influential spokesman for so-called ordinary language philosophy, he began teaching at Oxford in 1947 and from 1968 to 1987 was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics.  In his first book, Introduction to Logical Theory (1952), Strawson studied the relationship between common language and the language of formal logic.

       Even in application to logical theory, conceptual analyst P.F. Strawson proposed reliance upon
     attention to language rather than to formal logic, with its over-emphasis on truth and falsity. Thus, Strawson
     resisted positivistic efforts to provide pseudo-deductive foundations for empirical reasoning and dared to
     challenge the legitimacy of Russell's vaunted theory of descriptions.

       In an early article, “On Referring” (Mind, 1950), he disputed Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite descriptions, drawing a distinction between referring to an entity and asserting its existence. He also disputed, on linguistic grounds, the correspondence theory of truth, maintaining that a “fact” is not something that corresponds to a true statement but something stated; facts are not something to which statements refer, rather “facts are what statements (when true) state.”  On Strawson's view, Russell failed to distinguish between meaningful sentences on the one hand and their customary use to refer on the other, mistakenly supposing that all successful reference must either name or describe that to which it refers. In some cases (including the notorious, "The present king of France is bald.") a sentence can be meaningful even though—because its customary reference fails—it is neither true nor false.  Because Russell failed to heed ordinary language in use and retreated to an ideal perfect language in which all meaningful propositions are true or false, he was misled by a confusion between type and token.  Strawson argues that  As always, more careful attention to the context of ordinary language will avoid the philosophers' muddles.

       Later his concern shifted to what he calls descriptive metaphysics, a description of the actual structure of our thought about the world. His development of and work in this area revived interest in metaphysics as a respectable philosophic enterprise. Strawson’s other works include Individuals (2d ed. 1965), The Bounds of Sense (1966), Logico-Linguistic Papers (1971), and Freedom and Restraint (1974).In his later work, Strawson employed similar methods in pursuit of  "descriptive  metaphysics," an effort to report accurately the conceptual framework embodied in ordinary language without altering it through abstract speculation. (Just such a cautious procedure, Strawson supposed, underlies the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant.) Consider, for example, the ways in which particular things are identified through time in everyday speech. Since references to the spatio-temporal framework, Strawson argued, are necessary even for the re-identification of mental states, it follows that persons are irreducible unitary particulars, identifiable in space and time.

Two Quotations:

"To refer is not to assert, though you refer in order to go on to assert." Logico-Linguistic Papers, p. 15.

"The concept of a person is logically prior to that of an individual consciousness. The concept of a person is not to be analysed as that of an animated body or an embodied anima."  Individuals, p. 103