Michael Dummett

Michael Dummett The Game of Tarot and Twelve Tarot Games were reviewed in the last issue of this paper. He is Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. His book, Frege: Philosophy of Language, was published in 1973.

Blood and logic

Michael Dummett, 6 January 1994

Jean van Heijenoort was a mathematical logician who had once been Trotsky’s secretary, and if only those who have already heard of him read this book, a great many people will miss a fascinating story. The community of those interested in mathematical logic is one of which the public is very little aware. The name of van Heijenoort is known to everyone within it, not for any great discovery he made, but because of what is probably his most lasting contribution: the large and immensely useful source book, From Frege to Gödel, which he published in 1967.


Michael Dummett, 25 July 1991

Excitement was aroused by the announcement, last September, of a double discovery: the actual rules, on a cuneiform tablet, of a board game thought to date from 3300 BC, of which only some surviving boards had previously been known, and a living individual from a Jewish community in Cochin who had herself played that very game before she migrated to Israel, and could recall the rules in accordance with which she had then played it. Academics gathered at the British Museum to confer about board games of the ancient world.


Michael Dummett, 24 January 1985

The history of a game, like that of an art form such as ballet, has an external and an internal aspect, which in neither case can be kept sharply separated. Under the external aspect, we must, for each period, ask such questions as these. In what countries was it played? Among which social groups? Did they play at home, or in cafés, clubs or gaming houses? Was it played only at the local level, or were there organised regional, national or international competitions? Was there an authority to lay down the rules? Was the game played for high stakes, for moderate ones or for none? Did the players regard it as a serious pursuit or a light recreation? Did they play rapidly or with deliberation, talking as they played or in intent silence? Was it generally regarded with respect, despised as a frivolous waste of time, condemned as degrading or treated with indifference?

Power and Prejudice

Michael Dummett, 7 October 1982

This short book was originally presented as a report to the international consultation held in the Netherlands by the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism in June 1980. It is a portrait of the society we live in, as it presents itself to its black citizens; and it is a horrifying portrait. Though its author, who teaches at Thames Polytechnic, has hopefully entitled it Now you do know, he expresses in his Preface pessimism about whether many white people in Britain will read it, or will believe it if they do. I do not intend in this review to summarise its contents: it is already very compressed, and quickly read. Instead, I will try to remove the principal obstacle to people’s reading it or taking it seriously. This obstacle is the thought: ‘This is a portrait of a rampantly racist society; though I know there is a certain amount of racism around, I simply cannot recognise such a portrait as depicting the country I live in.’ This thought is very natural: it is one for which those, like Downing, who know how things are here for black people and try to communicate that knowledge, usually make no allowance. It is enormously important to grasp why the thought is mistaken. Someone may be aware that he knows very little about the workings of, say, the magistrates’ courts or the welfare services, particularly as they affect black people. But he knows, or he thinks he knows, what the level of racial prejudice is amongst the people with whom he comes into contact. He acknowledges that such prejudice exists, even that it is deplorably prevalent; but, he thinks, it is not virulent enough or widespread enough to render credible the picture Downing presents of a society utterly racist in character. His common experience simply does not match this picture: no specialised knowledge is required to judge that it must be false.

Linguistics demythologised

Michael Dummett, 19 August 1982

This book, a follow-up to the same author’s The Language Makers, published in 1980, is a wholesale onslaught on ‘orthodox modern linguistics’. It is, and is meant to be, provocative and stimulating, and will prompt fruitful debate in an area still made murky by difficult conceptual problems, but surely rightly seen as critical in our present state of knowledge of ourselves and of the world.

Objections to Chomsky

Michael Dummett, 3 September 1981

The first few pages of this book declare a general attitude, wholly admirable in combining the firmest commitment to rationality with intellectual humility, that contrasts not only with the widespread irrationalism of our day but with the equally repellent scientism usually opposed to it. The book is divided into two parts, the first a revision of a lecture course given in 1978 and again in 1979, and the second consisting of two single lectures, both previously published. Part I presents a continuous argument, while the two chapters of Part II restate the same position in slightly different ways. Part I, in particular, is to a large extent polemical: Chomsky cites a great many criticisms of his work, and other expressions of views contrary to his own, and replies to them. The polemical mode of philosophical writing is not his forte.

Frege and Analytical Philosophy

Michael Dummett, 18 September 1980

In the course of 1936, Professor Heinrich Scholz of Münster completed the collection of Frege’s unpublished writings, of which he had charge, by obtaining from those, such as Russell and Husserl, whose letters to Frege were included in the collection, the letters Frege had written to them. On 25 March 1945 the US Air Force bombed Münster. I believe that the object was to destroy an important telephone exchange: a large part of the town was destroyed, but the telephone exchange was left intact. Among the things destroyed were all Frege’s manuscripts and the original letters to and from him; there survived typescripts of some of the papers and of part of the correspondence. Even these took a very long time to appear in print: the papers only in 1969, the correspondence not until 1976. An English translation of the former was brought out by Blackwell last year, a decade after the German version. Now we have the correspondence in English, only four years after the German volume, but 44 years after the collection was originally made.


Objections to Chomsky

3 September 1981

SIR: It always feels churlish to disagree with one who professes himself an ally: but, whether or not the effect of my review of Noam Chomsky’s Rules and Representations was, as Professor Harris maintains (Letters, 1 October), to demonstrate his view of the knowledge of a language to be ‘either vacuous or incoherent’, that was not my intention.According to certain of Chomsky’s...

It’s a riot

20 August 1981

SIR: In the LRB of 1 October, you published a letter from Mr Gerald Lynn of Liverpool, quoting and endorsing an article from the National Front journal Spearhead. The article stated that the underlying cause of urban riots in Britain and the United States is the constitutional inferiority of ‘the negro’, since this causes him to fail in a racially mixed society and this failure generates...

Translating Frege

18 September 1980

Michael Dummett writes: In the prefatory note to the third edition of their translations from Frege, Professors Geach and Black say that, in addition to their new renderings of the quasi-technical terms, they have made ‘a few other changes’. In Professor Geach’s letter of complaint, these have now become ‘many small but significant changes’. I regret that, in reviewing...

Tarot Triumph

4 September 1980

SIR: Sir William Empson considers it improbable that ‘the tarot pack was used merely for games’ (Letters, 18 September). I think that the clue to his opinion lies in his use of the word ‘merely’. Intellectuals, scholars and other serious-minded people are prone to consider playing games a trivial occupation on which no one would expend any genuine effort; for some reason that...

Frege and his Rivals

Adam Morton, 19 August 1982

Philosophy is a bitchy subject. That is not to say that philosophers are nastier to each other in print than people in other subjects are, but that in philosophy the distinction between academic...

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Tarot Triumph

Edmund Leach, 4 September 1980

During recent decades a variety of very distinguished academics have taken time off from their learned pursuits to write imitation Agatha Christie detective stories, so when I first learned that...

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