P.F. Strawson

P.F. Strawson is Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in the University of Oxford. He is the author of many philosophical works, including Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar.

Hot Pursuit

P.F. Strawson, 19 July 1984

It has been said that philosophy of language, or the theory of meaning, should be recognised as the foundation of philosophy in general. That claim may reasonably be viewed with the scepticism that any such claim inspires, but it is certainly true that language is, and has long been, a major matter of concern among analytical philosophers, and few have applied themselves to the subject with the tenacity and thoroughness which, over the last twenty years, Donald Davidson has displayed in the influential series of articles now collected in the present volume. ‘Tenacity’ is here a key word, for there is one idée maîtresse which sets the tone and provides the key to all the arguments and views developed, with impressive force and fertility, from the first essay to the last.

Gains in Clarity

P.F. Strawson, 4 November 1982

‘Philosophy in the 20th century’ or ‘Analytical philosophy in the 20th century’? Ayer is well aware that the two descriptions are not co-extensive. He marks his recognition of the fact by devoting one chapter of his history to Collingwood and another to selected representatives of phenomenology and existentialism. But the rest of his 20th-century pundits are analytical philosophers, and few professionals in the English-speaking world would quarrel with this choice. It is true that Ayer himself speaks of the greater part of his book as devoted to two main schools: he distinguishes American pragmatism from ‘the analytic movement’ and assigns Goodman and Quine as well as James and Lewis to the former, while the coverage of the latter runs from Russell to Dummett via the members of the Vienna Circle and a number of familiar English and American names. But if Lewis, Quine and Goodman were, or are, content to call themselves pragmatists, one suspects that it is more from local piety than from any sense of belonging to a different ‘school’ from that which accommodates the representatives of the ‘analytic movement’. Quine owes more to Russell and Carnap than he does to William James. James is really the odd man out. Apart from Ayer himself, who has devoted some sympathetic pages, here and elsewhere, to his work, James has not received much attention from philosophers in the last fifty years.

What can be done

P.F. Strawson, 18 February 1982

In earlier essays, not reproduced in this volume, Quine wrote, ‘Philosophy, or what appeals to me under that head, is continuous with science’; and, more bluntly: ‘Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.’ There are pages in the present collection of 26 papers which seem to invite a still narrower construction of these apparently restrictive remarks: to invite one, in a word, to gloss ‘science’ as ‘physics’. Deploring Goodman’s proliferation of worlds or world-versions, Quine holds out for one world only: the world of physical theory. To the question, ‘Why this special deference to physical theory?’ he has a ready answer. Although ‘not everything worth saying, not even all good science, can be translated into the technical vocabulary of physics,’ yet ‘nothing happens in the world, not the flutter of an eyelid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of microphysical states … Full coverage, in this sense, is the business of physics, and only of physics.’

The Sponge of Apelles

Alexander Nehamas, 3 October 1985

Thales of Miletus, with whom histories of Western philosophy conventionally begin, was said to have been so concerned with the heavens that he fell into a well while he was gazing at the stars....

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