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Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Strawson taught at the University of Oxford from 1947, becoming Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in 1968, and retiring in 1987. A sequence of influential books and articles established him as one of the leading philosophers in Oxford during that period. He had a crucial role in the transition there from the dominance of Austin and linguistic philosophy in the 1950s to the more liberal and metaphysical approaches in the 1960s and later. The principal topics about which he has written are the philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy.

Strawson became famous with ‘On Referring’ (1950), in which he criticized Russell for misconstruing our ordinary use of definite descriptions. Strawson endorses the slogan ‘ordinary language has no exact logic’, a viewpoint which is explored in Introduction to Logical Theory (1952). He argues that the utility of formal logic in its application to ordinary speech does not imply that the meaning of ordinary language is captured by the semantics of standard formal systems.

In Individuals (1959), Strawson’s most discussed work, his task is descriptive metaphysics. He attempts to describe the referentially basic subject matter of our thought. They are relatively enduring, perceptible and reidentifiable bodies. The other element in the basic framework is what Strawson calls persons, enduring entities with both material and psychological features. In The Bounds of Sense (1966), Strawson continued the development of his metaphysical and epistemological ideas, by combining a critical study of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, with the defence of some transcendental claims similar to Kant’s. To think of oneself as an enduring subject of experience requires that one recognize objects which are independent of oneself. So the major epistemological problem in the empiricist tradition, of building up to the external world from private experiences, cannot arise.

Skepticism and Naturalism; Some Varieties (1985a) studies the conflicts between fundamental opinions which are natural to us, such as that we know things, and philosophical viewpoints claiming that these opinions are mistaken. Strawson argues that scepticism about these natural views can and should be resisted. Throughout his career, Strawson has tried to describe the basic content of our thoughts and experiences, to counter scepticism about or revisions of such thoughts, to illuminate them by making analytical connections between their basic elements, as well as investigating language, our vehicle for expressing these thoughts. He has linked his explorations to the insights of philosophers of the past, while engaging in critical debate with the period’s other leading philosophers, such as Austin, Quine, Davidson and Dummett.

Citing this article:
Snowdon, Paul F.. Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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