Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006)
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Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006)

Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0414

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Peter Frederick Strawson was born in London on 23 November 1919 and died in London on 13 February 2006. He was educated at Christ’s College, Finchley and at St John’s College, Oxford. There he read PPE, receiving a BA in 1940. He interrupted his academic career to serve, from 1940 to 1946, in the Royal Artillery, and then the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, attaining the rank of captain. In 1946 Strawson took up a position as assistant lecturer in philosophy at the University College of North Wales, which he left in 1947 to become a lecturer at University College, Oxford. Strawson became a fellow of University College the following year, and remained in this position until 1966, when he was promoted to reader. He remained at University College until 1968, when, upon succeeding Gilbert Ryle as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy, Strawson moved from University College to Magdalen College, the traditional home of the Waynflete Chair. Strawson retired in 1987.

During his career Strawson has received numerous visiting appointments, including visiting professorships at both Duke University (1955–6) and Princeton University (1960–61, 1972). He is the recipient of various honours, among them election as a fellow of the British Academy in 1960, as a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, and as an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford in 1973. Strawson was knighted in the Queen’s Jubilee year, 1977.

Strawson’s contributions to philosophy are remarkable for their breadth, penetration and originality. He has contributed fundamentally to logic, the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, metaphysics, moral philosophy and Kant scholarship, and has sparked lively and ongoing debates in the secondary literature in each of these domains. That Strawson is a philosopher of the highest order is indicated not only by his debates with such singular philosophers as Russell , on the theory of descriptions, and Quine, on issues of philosophical logic and the nature of meaning, but also by the outstanding philosophers who have acknowledged their debt to Strawson in their own philosophical work, among them Gareth Evans and John Mcdowell .

The enormous scope of Strawson’s work, coupled with the fact that Strawson devoted much of his energy to developing and modifying his positions and relatively little to critical exegesis of his own contributions, makes it difficult to distil a set of doctrines that might be characterized as a Strawsonian system. Nevertheless, a few themes emerge as recurring preoccupations. Perhaps chief among these is Strawson’s view of one of the central projects of philosophy as explicating the ‘massive central core of human thinking which has no history – or none recorded in histories of thought; [the] categories and concepts which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all’ (Individuals, p. 10). Strawson called this project ‘descriptive metaphysics’, contrasting it with ‘revisionary’ metaphysical projects that attempt to produce better conceptual schemes, but the same motivation characterizes his work in domains of philosophy other than metaphysics as well.

In this discussion we will focus on four of Strawson’s central contributions. We begin with a presentation of Strawson’s critique, in ‘On Referring’ (1950; reprinted in Logico-Linguistic Papers, 1971), of Russell’s analysis of definite descriptions. Following this we consider Strawson’s arguments, in Individuals (1959), concerning the centrality of material bodies for identification, the role of space in our conceptual scheme, and the nature of persons. Third, we discuss Strawson’s attempts to deal with sceptical challenges in their development from Strawson’s response to inductive scepticism in Introduction to Logical Theory (1952), through the Kantian transcendentalism of The Bounds of Sense (1966), to the Wittgensteinian quietism of Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (1985). Finally, we consider Strawson’s influential account of freedom and determinism, in ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1962; reprinted in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, 1974).

Although it is one of his earliest works, ‘On Referring’ remains perhaps the single most famous of Strawson’s writings. Its core is a critique of Russell’s theory of definite descriptions, but the article’s richness has led to its influence outside the philosophy of language proper, particularly in logic and linguistics. In the course of his discussion, Strawson argues for a number of theses concerning the use of linguistic utterances, introduces a variety of distinctions between types of linguistic entities and their use, suggests that there is a fundamental distinction between logical subject and logical predicate, and insists that the study of ordinary language is distinct from the study of formal systems, and is of central importance to philosophy.

Russell argued that, if we are not to suppose that we refer to objects in a realm of non-existent entities, we must analyse sentences containing definite descriptions – for example, The present King of France is bald’ – as involving the conjunction of three claims. Thus, the example given should be analysed as: (1) there is a present King of France, (2) there is at most one present King of France, and (3) everything that is the present King of France is bald. Thus, according to Russell, an utterance of the sentence ‘The present King of France is bald,’ given that there is no present King of France, is false.

Strawson presents two central lines of critique of Russell’s account. First, Strawson objects that Russell’s notion simply of sentences and their meanings is too imprecise; when one examines the various uses of linguistic utterances, Strawson maintains, one realizes that more subtle distinctions are required. Roughly, Strawson’s suggestion amounts to an argument for the distinction between the sentence itself, the use of that sentence (i.e. as an assertion), and the utterance of the sentence, a distinction that is of importance in current work on demonstratives and indexicals. Second, Strawson claims that Russell confuses the meaning of the sentence with the conditions required for meaningful utterance of the sentence. Strawson suggested that someone saying ‘The present King of France is bald’ is not thereby asserting that there is a present King of France. Rather, he is implying that there is a present King of France through the use of ‘the present King of France’. For this reason, Strawson argues, the assertion ‘The present King of France is bald,’ given that there is no present King of France, would not be regarded as false, but, in some sense, unsuccessful. In such sentences, if the grammatical subject of the sentence (‘The present King of France’) fails to refer, then there is no question as to the truth or falsity of the sentence. Instead, the sentence involves a ‘truth-value’ gap.

One of the central themes of Strawson’s work that is merely suggested in ‘On Referring’ involves the distinctive roles of logical subjects and logical predicates. There, the difference may be seen in the ways in which Strawson sees their contributions to the determination of the conditions governing appropriate utterance of the sentences of which they are components. Thus, if one says ‘So and so is bald,’ one has done so correctly if, and only if, the person belongs to the set of bald things. That is, the conditions governing the satisfaction of … is bald’ are bound up in the conditions governing the assertion of ‘So and so is bald.’ This is not the case with ‘The present King of France’, however. Rather, that there is one and only one present King of France – i.e. that ‘The present King of France’ is in fact a directly referential term – is implied, but not asserted, by the person uttering the sentence ‘The present King of France is bald.’

In Individuals Strawson makes central the distinction between subject and predicate that remained merely implicit in ‘On Referring’. In the later work, the central contrast is both the logical one of subject/predicate and the metaphysical one of particular/universal. Indeed, the work may be characterized as exploring the metaphysical foundations of the logical distinction between reference and predication. In this context, however, we must limit ourselves to a discussion of one of the core projects in Individuals, Strawson’s attempt to demonstrate that certain types of particulars, material bodies and persons, have a fundamental role in our conceptual scheme.

Concerning material bodies, Strawson argues for three main points. First, he suggests that we identify items to which others refer either by locating them among those items that we currently perceive or by employing uniquely identifying descriptions that those items satisfy. Second, he argues that in order for us to make sense of the idea of locating objects spatio-temporally, we must presuppose that there is a framework of reidentifiable objects – i.e. objects that, when encountered on one occasion, we can identify as the same objects encountered on a previous occasion. This presupposition is incompatible with, and thus proof against, scepticism concerning reidentification. Third, Strawson maintains that, although our ability to identify bodies does not depend on an ability to identify any other sort of particular, the ability to identify bodies is fundamental for the ability to identify those other sorts, such as private experiences (e.g., the toothache in my lower right molar), unobservables and particular events.

In his discussion of our ability to identify bodies, Strawson ceded a central role to space in our conceptual scheme. In order to investigate the notion of space at work in that scheme, Strawson introduces a series of thought-experiments that test the limits of that notion. The experiments involve subjects inhabiting a world only of sound; that is these subjects lack all visual, tactile, olfactory and taste experiences. Strawson then asks whether such subjects could reidentify objects, and whether they could distinguish themselves from other objects. If we consider a world of such subjects containing only sounds varying in timbre, pitch and loudness, Strawson argues, then such subjects could not reidentify objects. This is because, if a subject were to hear a tone of the same pitch, timbre and loudness at two different times, nothing underwrites the notion that the tones in question are numerically identical tones, as opposed to merely qualitatively identical. However, Strawson suggests, if we were to supplement the thought-experiment as described with the experience of a master sound, varying in pitch and loudness, but of constant timbre, then subjects in the world could ‘locate’ particular sounds by means of their position along the master sound, represented by changes in the pitch and loudness of the master sound accompanying the particular sounds in question.

Despite the construction of an analogy to space through the use of the master sound, and thus an affirmative answer to the question as to whether reidentification would be possible in the world of Strawson’s thought-experiment, Strawson suggests that the answer to the question concerning whether subjects in such a world could distinguish themselves from other objects is very likely to be negative. Even if, as Strawson demonstrates, one would be able to introduce elements into the world of the thought-experiment corresponding to our notions of action and cause, Strawson sees no way to conceive of the subjects in that world as being able to develop a concept of themselves as subjects, and thus to distinguish themselves from other objects in the sound world.

Given the conclusion of Strawson’s discussion of the sound world, a natural question remains that of how one does draw a distinction between oneself and other entities. Strawson’s central contention is that our ability to do so rests on our conceiving of ourselves as single entities to which both physical properties and psychological properties are attributable. That is, according to Strawson, we are subjects of whom both M-predicates, predicates applicable to all material bodies, and P-predicates, predicates applicable only to persons, are predicable. This account can be correct only if both the ‘no-ownership view’, which holds that states of consciousness ought to be attributed literally to nothing, and the Cartesian view, which holds that states of consciousness ought not to be attributed to the same thing to which one attributes physical properties, are false.

Against the no-ownership view, Strawson notes that this view must account for our experiences of seeming to ascribe conscious states to ourselves. Strawson suggests that the only account available to the no-ownership view is that experiential states are causally dependent on bodies. The problem with this position for the no-ownership view is that it is only my experiences that are causally dependent on my body, and not all experiences. Thus, according to Strawson, any attempt to explain the causal dependence of my experiences on the states of a particular body, without reference to myself as a way of identifying the experiences and the body linked in the explanation, is doomed to failure.

Against the Cartesian view, Strawson advances two lines of argument. One is that the notion of a non-spatially located particular, such as the Cartesian ego, is unintelligible. This is because, given the fact that we have no recourse to distinguishing them spatially, there would seem to be no way to conceive of two egos existing at the same time. The other argument rests upon Strawson’s contention that, one can’t have a concept of one’s own experiences unless one possesses a concept of oneself as the subject of those experiences. However, one can’t possess the concept of oneself without thinking of oneself as one among many potential persons other than oneself. This, further, requires that one be able to identify other persons, that is other subjects of experiences. However, it would seem that the only way for one to identify other subjects of experiences is by identifying their bodies. Therefore, one must identify subjects of experiences by identifying their bodies. Now, according to Strawson, it is not at this point open to us merely to suppose that others’ bodies stand in some relation to their experiences in a way that would allow us to maintain the Cartesian view. For this would require us to be able to conceive of the relation of others’ experiences to their bodies in the same way that the Cartesian wishes to conceive of the relations of one’s own experiences to one’s own body. The problem for the Cartesian, according to Strawson, is that the Cartesian has not yet demonstrated how it is that one conceives of one’s own experiences as one’s own experiences. Since this was the original phenomenon to be explained, Strawson points out, we have thereby demonstrated that the Cartesian view is untenable.

The discussion of ‘On Referring’ and of Individuals centred upon two elements of a triad that Strawson considers central to his philosophical work. Thus, in The Bounds of Sense) he writes:

The theory of being, the theory of knowledge, and the theory of statement are not truly separable; and [the duality of intuitions and concepts] necessarily appears in all three, under different forms. In the first, we cannot avoid the distinction between particular items and general kinds or characteristics they exemplify; in the second, we must acknowledge the necessity of our both possessing general concepts and becoming aware in experience of things, not themselves concepts, which fall under them; in the third, we must recognize the need for such linguistic or other devices as will enable us both to classify or describe in general terms and to indicate to what particular cases our classifications or descriptions are being applied.

 --(The Bounds of Sense, p. 47)

We now turn to the third element of that triad, the theory of knowledge. In our discussion here, we will focus exclusively on the development of Strawson’s responses to the sceptic.

Strawson considers specifically the challenge of inductive scepticism in his discussion of induction in Introduction to Logical Theory. There he understands the sceptical challenge as involving the claim that no justification of induction can be provided. Rather than face the sceptical challenge head-on, Strawson suggests that, in the sceptical challenge, the word ‘justification’ can have no meaning. Strawson supports this claim by considering possible interpretations of the notion of justification employed by the sceptic. One such interpretation would involve understanding justification to involve only deductive justification. Such an interpretation, however, would make the sceptic’s challenge obviously wrong-headed in that it would simply reject the possibility of a distinctive, inductive, form of reasoning from the outset. A second interpretation would involve understanding ‘justified’ as ‘reasonable’; thus, the claim that no justification of induction can be provided is simply the claim that one cannot demonstrate justification to be reasonable. According to Strawson, this cannot be what the sceptic means, because our very understanding of ‘being reasonable’ involves following induction as a paradigm case of reasonability. A further interpretation of the sceptic’s notion of justification would take a justification of induction to involve a proof that induction is guaranteed to yield true conclusions. Such a proof, however, is impossible, and further seems to rely upon a conflation of justification with deductive justification. Thus, according to Strawson, all of the possible interpretations of the inductive sceptical challenge that have been canvassed fail to yield a meaningful challenge.

In Individuals Strawson suggests that, if one is to possess concepts of a particular sort, one must take a non-sceptical attitude towards the core cases to which those concepts may be applied. Thus, as we saw above, Strawson suggests that, if we are to have a concept of reidentification, we must presuppose that there is a framework of reidentifiable objects, and that this presupposition is incompatible with scepticism concerning reidentification. Similarly, Strawson argues that having mental concepts involves being able to apply those concepts to others. Since this latter ability requires that the criteria for correct application of those concepts be logically adequate, the having of mental concepts is, on Strawson’s account, incompatible with scepticism concerning other minds.

Strawson’s central anti-sceptical argument in The Bounds of Sense concerns the issue raised in the passage from that work quoted above, where Strawson notes that it is part of the nature of experience that, in experience, we are aware of things. That is, Strawson answers the sceptic by answering the question of why experience must sometimes be objective. In doing so, he begins with the assumption that we are concerned with the experiences of a self-conscious subject, one capable of self-attributing experiences. As we saw previously, in our discussion of the thought-experiment in Individuals, Strawson thinks that self-conscious subjects, those possessing a concept of themselves as subjects, must distinguish themselves from other objects. Thus, it would seem that one argument available to Strawson would be that any self-conscious subject must recognize himself to be part of a world of objects.

This argument, however, is not the argument that Strawson advances in The Bounds of Sense. Rather than focusing on the self-consciousness of the subject, Strawson concentrates on the experiences the subject ascribes to himself. In order for such ascriptions to have content as ascriptions of experiences, Strawson continues, the self-ascribing subject must have some contrast class against which experiences may be measured. However, since the application of any concept must be underwritten by experience, the subject can possess such a contrast class only if his experiences underwrite the application of non-experiential concepts. This, however, is only possible if some experiences are of, or represent, non-experiential things. These things, however, just are objects. Thus, if Strawson’s argument is successful, the description of experience presupposes the existence of objects. Given this, however, and given that the sceptic’s argument presupposes the possibility of describing experience without presupposing the existence of objects, the sceptical project is demonstrated to be incoherent.

More recently, in Scepticism and Naturalism, Strawson has traced a response to the sceptic that he locates in the naturalism of Hume and Wittgenstein . Strawson sees in both thinkers the realization that our most fundamental beliefs, say, in the general reliability of induction or the existence of body, do not rest on further reasons; nor, however, are they open to doubt. One recognizes in Strawson’s reading of Hume and Wittgenstein Strawson’s own preoccupation with explicating and defending the ‘massive central core of human thinking which has no history’. Strawson suggests that Hume’s and Wittgenstein’s observation that these core beliefs are not open to doubt itself provides a way to answer the sceptic, not by meeting his challenge, but by ignoring it as idle.

That is, according to Strawson, the point of his latest response is ‘not to offer a rational justification of the belief in external objects and other minds or of the practice of induction, but to represent sceptical arguments and counter-arguments as equally idle – not senseless, but idle – since what we have here are original, natural, inescapable commitments which we neither choose nor give up’ (Scepticism and Naturalism, pp. 27–8). The distinction between this latest answer to the sceptic and Strawson’s earliest answer, in Introduction to Logical Theory, is that Strawson no longer takes this answer to rest upon interpreting the sceptic as nonsensical or incoherent. This latest response and the responses of Individuals and The Bounds of Sense share a certain affinity, however, to the extent that one understands those earlier attempts simply as ways to make explicit which commitments belong to the ‘massive central core of human thinking’, and not as attempts to offer a rational justification for those commitments or as attempts to demonstrate the senselessness of the sceptic’s challenge.

Strawson’s most recent answer to the sceptic bears a remarkable resemblance to Strawson’s discussion of determinism and responsibility in ‘Freedom and Resentment’, which, despite being one of very few essays Strawson wrote in moral philosophy, has been extremely influential. In that paper Strawson presents a novel way to reconcile determinism and responsibility, without succumbing to incompatibilism or the over-intellectualizations of traditional compatibilists. The failing of traditional compatibilism, according to Strawson, is that it explains our commitment to the practices of praise and blame, even in the face of determinism, merely in terms of the utility of those practices. This, however, is radically to misconstrue why it is that we in fact are committed to those practices. In fact, we are committed to those practices because those commitments arise out of core reactive attitudes, such as the other-directed resentment and gratitude and the self-directed guilt and remorse, which are ineluctable products of our lives as social beings interacting with others. The fact that we can, in exceptional cases, suspend these reactions provides no comfort for incompatibilism, which Strawson terms ‘pessimism’. This is for two reasons. First, although the reactions can, in specific cases, be suspended, we cannot universally suspend them. Second, the reasons for which we suspend them – for example, in our dealings with people who are clearly mentally disturbed – are not based upon a commitment to determinism, but are in fact independent of determinism. Thus, since we cannot abandon the reactions upon which our practices of praise and blame are based, and since our commitments to those practices are independent of our support for, or rejection of, determinism, Strawson claims that determinism is no threat to the legitimacy of such commitments.


Introduction to Logical Theory (1952).

Individuals (1959).

The Bounds of Sense (1966).

Logico-Linguistic Papers (1971).

Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (1974).

Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar (1974).

Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (1985).

Analysis and Metaphysics (Oxford, 1992).

Entity and Identity (Oxford, 1997).

Philosophical Writings . Oxford (UP) 2011.

Further Reading

Hahn, L.E. (ed.), The Philosophy of P.F. Strawson (La Salle, Illinois, 1998).

Snowden, P.F. ‘P. F. Strawson’, in A.P. Martinich and D. Sosa (eds), A Companion to Analytic Philosophy (2001), pp. 334–49 .

Van Straaten, Z. (ed.), Philosophical Subjects (Oxford, 1980).