Sir Peter Strawson

Distinguished Oxford philosopher whose spare, elegant work made sense of Kant's metaphysics
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The Independent Online

Encountering philosophy as an undergraduate in 1959 was a wonderful and astonishing experience. That was the year in which two philosophical works appeared whose impact on the discipline was out of all proportion to their modest size and unpretentious prose. One was Stuart Hampshire's Thought and Action; the other, by Peter Strawson, was Individuals. Its demure sub-title, "An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics", gives no hint of the revolution it wrought.

Almost any student fresh from school at the end of the Fifties would have thought that philosophy in England was defined by Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer, that "metaphysics" was the name of something foreign and obscure, and that a thinker such as Immanuel Kant was wilfully opaque and unreadable. It turned out that the attempts of English empiricists to build the world out of sense-data wouldn't wash; and it soon became possible to read Kant with pleasure - or at any rate to see in Kant some of what Strawson had so usefully taught us to see in Kant's work.

For most of his career in Oxford, Peter Strawson defined what philosophy was, and how it should be practised; he had already acquired a considerable reputation by the time he published Individuals and it was succeeded in 1966 by The Bounds of Sense, which remains one of the best ways in to the vertiginous difficulties of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Strawson was born in west London in 1919 and attended Christ's College, Finchley (followed by his younger brother, the future Maj-Gen John Strawson); from there he went to St John's College, Oxford in 1937. Unlike most Oxford philosophers of his day, he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics rather than Greats. It was still regarded as a scandal 20 years later that the examiners gave him a second class degree when he graduated in 1940.

The tale went that Isaiah Berlin had very much admired his brisk and combative philosophy papers and had given them clear first class marks, but that Sandy Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, and a survivor from the days of Oxford Idealism, had found them brash, and too dismissive of philosophers he admired, and had marked them down accordingly. The Second World War was on, Berlin was heading for the United States, there were no viva voce examinations, and the old Oxford rule that the lower mark prevailed cost Strawson his First. It was rumoured among the undergraduates of the Sixties that Berlin had anyway left the scripts in a taxi . . .

At all events, Strawson went off to war, first in the Royal Artillery and then in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was demobilised as a captain in the REME. In 1945, he married Grace Hall Martin - universally known as Ann - with whom he would have two daughters and two sons. After the war, he was appointed to an assistant lecturership in philosophy at the University College of North Wales at Bangor. He returned to Oxford almost immediately; in 1946 he won the John Locke Scholarship, and in 1947 became a lecturer in philosophy at University College, Oxford. The following year he was elected to a permanent fellowship in philosophy at the college.

During the 20 years he was there, the fellows of University College were strikingly more interesting than most of their peers, and part of the reason was the high standard set by Peter Strawson. He was courteous, urbane and readily amused - he frequently looked as though he was sharing some small joke with the Almighty while he conversed with his colleagues - but, without ever insisting on it, he left one in no doubt that he expected intelligent conversation.

Those were the qualities he brought to his work as an undergraduate tutor and a graduate supervisor; like some other very distinguished philosophers, he was as good at getting through to the less philosophically talented as he was at stimulating the very brightest. He never looked for, and never attempted to make, disciples, and was very much a representative of the old Oxford tradition of regarding philosophy as an extended conversation about interesting and difficult topics, whose pleasures were the pleasures of the chase rather than those of founding an orthodoxy.

All the same, he had a strong conviction that when he had settled an issue to his own satisfaction, he had got it right. In 1950, he published two essays. The first, "Truth" (in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society), was his half of a dialogue with J.L. Austin. It offered two very unusual spectacles: the first was the sight of someone unequivocally getting the better of Austin; the second the sight of someone turning against Austin the emphasis on the resources of everyday language that Austin habitually employed against hasty theories of meaning and existence proffered by others.

The other, "On Referring " (published in Mind), picked a fight with one of Bertrand Russell's major philosophical inventions. Almost 50 years earlier, Russell and many other logicians had been puzzled by the fact that terms that referred to non-existent objects had a meaning; and from there he had advanced a theory - the so-called Theory of Definite Descriptions - that explained why sentences such as "the present King of France is bald" were meaningful, even though there is today no present King of France for the sentence to be about. Russell analysed such deviant sentences as making an existential claim, "there is a King of France", and a claim about the monarch's baldness. Since there was no king, the sentence, like all such sentences, was false.

Strawson unpicked the theory in a few pages: the sentence was meaningful because, under appropriate conditions, it could be used to make a true or false statement; used inappropriately, it was neither true nor false, simply inappropriate. This chimes with the plain man's view that when a bachelor is asked, "Have you stopped beating your wife?", the proper answer is "I'm unmarried", rather than yes or no.

Russell very much disliked the essay. He thought the emphasis on our ordinary linguistic intuitions was symptomatic of Oxford philosophers' incapacity for logic, and reflected a conservative affection for the linguistic habits and the metaphysical commitments of the peasantry. But by this time, Russell was too old to inflict serious intellectual damage on his youthful opponent, though not too old to compose some amusing diatribes against ordinary language philosophy both in general and in Oxford. For the past 50 years, some very sharp minds have wrestled with the questions Strawson raised and in other contexts empirically minded students of linguistics have pressed the question of the role of presuppositions as distinct from literal meanings.

But Individuals and The Bounds of Sense were the high water mark of Strawson's work. Individuals started from the question that Descartes had first raised. If what we know is only the contents of our minds, how do we know that anything beyond ourselves exists? With immense delicacy, Strawson demonstrated that the very idea of starting with the contents of our minds and building a world by inference from them could not withstand analysis. It is only because we are embodied beings in a world of objects that can be located in space and time that we can come to think of ourselves as creatures that have sensations, emotions, and the rest of our mental lives. Our understanding of ourselves comes from the outside in, rather than our understanding of the world coming from the inside out. Contemplating the thinned-out existence that a disembodied being might have, he drily observed that the orthodox had been wise to insist on the resurrection of the body.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Strawson's work was its sheer elegance. He was himself an elegant figure, as photographs and drawings attest. But, it was a commonplace among students that his lectures had the elegance of architecture - spare, classical constructions, with every sentence placed just so, and the spectator led to think that not a word was out of place or could be replaced with another.

Applied to the first part of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the effect was mesmerising; it was as though Kant had left a large quantity of rough- hewn blocks littered about the site with some hard-to-interpret drawings of the building he had in mind, and Strawson had come along and cleaned them up, discarded the unusable stuff, and created not exactly what Kant had had in mind but what any rational person would build with those materials. The Bounds of Sense read very much as the lectures had sounded, and saved a good many readers of Kant from despair.

In 1968 Strawson succeeded Gilbert Ryle as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and moved to Magdalen College; he survived the administrative obligations of the professorship unscathed, though he never showed any ambition to load more administrative burdens on himself than necessary, and he continued to write and to respond to critics not only until his retirement in 1987 but for some years afterwards. In 1977 he was knighted.

He had been elected to the British Academy in 1960, and it was a British Academy Lecture delivered in 1974 (and published as Freedom and Resentment) that showed how wide his philosophical range was, and what a very considerable moral philosopher he would have been if he had turned his attention in that direction.

Freedom and Resentment tackled the old puzzle about the compatibility of free will and determinism from a quite novel direction. In retrospect, it is easier to see that Strawson's exploration of "descriptive metaphysics" was an element of his respect for our natural responses and reactions to the world, on which he drew in this lecture. Simply put, he distinguished our reactive attitudes to each others' behaviour - liking, disliking, resenting what other people do - from our explanatory concerns - asking what caused someone to act the way they did.

The first is our natural and immediate response to what others do to and for us, the latter our attitude when we step back from, or out of, our reactive attitude. The strong implication is that it is only occasionally, and for particular purposes, that we make such a move; and Strawson was explicit that the idea of abandoning wholesale attitudes that it was simply impossible to abandon just made no sense.

Russell had been right to say that Strawson's metaphysics were conservative, and he never ceased to defend the resources of ordinary language against the attempts of logicians to tidy it up, and the resources of everyday psychology against the new wave of materialists insistent on the identity of mind and brain.

Socially and politically, Strawson was a small-c conservative, too; he was sure of the difference between high and low culture, unembarrassed at describing himself as an élitist. Even when one of his sons was having a hard time at Winchester, he insisted that the abolition of private education would be an affront to human nature. But he did it with the lightness of touch that characterised his approach to life and made him such good company.

Alan Ryan