David Pears

David Pears is a reader in philosophy at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Christ Church. His books include What is knowledge? and Some Questions in the Philosophy of Mind.

An Identity of My Own

David Pears, 19 January 1989

The unity of my mind is something that I can appreciate when I use it, but it is hard to isolate and analyse. Without it, I could not have checked that sentence or added this one to it, and yet, when I turn my mind inwards onto itself, the source of its unity remains elusive. Is it something additional to all my thoughts and feelings, wholly au-dessus de la mêlée? What are the vicissitudes through which this anima vagula is capable of maintaining its own identity? How separate is it from the rest of the natural world? That last question forces itself on us not only when we think about the possibility of surviving death but also when we make any ordinary choice in daily life. For whatever people end by thinking after they have studied philosophy and considered the arguments for determinism, there is no doubt that they begin with the conviction that they are genuine orginators of their own actions, that when they choose to do them and do them, they could have chosen to refrain and refrained.


David Pears, 19 February 1987

Philosophy’s critics have a variety of criteria from which to choose. The first question to ask about any philosopher’s claims is whether they are true. But there are other questions which sometimes crowd this one out. Is his work accessible and persuasive? Does it touch our lives? Will it last? With so many options there is no pretending that it is obvious what counts as success. Certainly we can’t always hope to have everything now that the subject has acquired a complexity which makes it almost impossible to combine accuracy and accessibility. The technicalities of philosophy may not be as great as those of science, but they are enough to put much of what is written beyond the reach of most people. Even etnics, which touches our lives more closely than any other branch of philosophy, is now developing formidable intricacies, and in theory of knowledge, logic and metaphysics the questions themselves often need specialists to formulate them. So we look back with envy at earlier ages when the fruit that few could pick was shared and digested by many.


David Pears, 5 June 1986

As a child I collected butterflies, and I remember being impressed by a comic cartoon which showed another collector, older and more experienced than myself, who had accidentally swallowed a specimen he had been chasing. Later I felt the same sense of incongruity when I read Berkeley’s claim that everything he perceived was really in his mind. Surely he was overdoing it. True, his was only a case of mental ingestion, and anyway the butterfly would not be taken in by a single act: first, the blue of its wings, then with more difficulty their shape and size, and finally even the grainy arrangement of their scales which would only show up under a microscope. But how could he do it? His portrait does not show him with his hand over his mouth and an expression of dismay on his face like the man in the cartoon. On the contrary, he looks like someone who is happy to have made his point.

The seventh volume of Russell’s Collected Papers contains the core of a book which he never completed. He stopped working on it, probably because he felt that he could not honestly go on. He had hoped that Wittgenstein would approve of what he had been writing, but when they met in May 1913, Wittgenstein told him that it was all wrong, and, as Russell admitted to Ottoline Morrell, he did not know how to answer Wittgenstein’s objections. He never published the whole of what he had written, and it is likely that what he did publish was the part that did not particularly interest Wittgenstein, while he suppressed the part on which the fire of Wittgenstein’s criticisms had been concentrated.

Man as the Measure

David Pears, 18 August 1983

The human mind is a measure of nature and, like all such devices, ought to maintain constancy. But it is also part of nature and so it may be affected by the kind of inconstancy that it often claims to detect in the other part which it measures. Wittgenstein in some of his later work was concerned with a fundamental form of this problem. Do the meanings of our words remain stable and unchanged through all the vicissitudes of our lives? If Crusoe talked to himself during his solitary period, may there not have been some slippage, not evident to him, in his use of his vocabulary? Ruskin believed that the growth of industry had dimmed the bright colours of nature that had surrounded him in his early years, and he might have gone further and suspected that the common use of colour-words was shifting in the same direction. The Gypsy Moth acquired a darker camouflage in the industrialised Midlands. Who knew how words would react? Would they remain unchanged and show up the change in the rest of nature or would they change with it?

The Egocentric Predicament

Thomas Nagel, 18 May 1989

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the Fifties, it was the only American university where Wittgenstein’s later work was the object of intensive study. He had died in 1951 and

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Ian Hacking, 4 February 1988

This is the first half of a survey of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. The division into two quite slim volumes does not mean that Professor Pears accepts a received view: that the man had two...

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When three is one

Paul Seabright, 20 September 1984

Outside the community of analytic philosophers (and occasionally, subtly, within it) few figures are regarded with quite the mixture of coolness and condescension accorded to the thoroughly...

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