Peter Frederick Strawson

Peter Frederick Strawson
Peter Frederick Strawson

Peter Frederick Strawson, the British philosopher, was educated at Christ’s College, Finchley, and St. John’s College, Oxford. He holds the BA and MA degrees and is a fellow of University College, Oxford.

Language and Logic

Strawson is a leading member of the circle of philosophers whose work is sometimes described as “ordinary language philosophy” or as “Oxford philosophy.” Of his early work, the most influential and most controversial is the famous article “On Referring” (Mind, 1950), a criticism of the philosophical aspects of Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite descriptions.

According to Russell’s theory any sentence of the form “The f is g”—for example, “The king of France is bald”—is properly analyzed as follows (in terms of our example): “There is a king of France. There is not more than one king of France. There is nothing which is king of France and which is not bald.”

Language and Logic

Strawson argues that this analysis confuses referring to an entity with asserting the existence of that entity. In referring to an entity, a speaker presupposes that the entity exists, but he does not assert that it exists, nor does what he asserts entail that it exists.

Presupposition is to be distinguished from entailment. In asserting something of the form “The f is g,” a speaker refers or purports to refer to an entity with the subject noun phrase, and to do so involves presupposing that there is such an entity, but this is quite different from asserting that there is such an entity.

According to Strawson this confusion between referring and asserting is based on an antecedent confusion between a sentence and the statement made in a particular use of that sentence. Russell erroneously supposes that every sentence must be either true, false, or meaningless.

referring and asserting

But, Strawson argues, sentences can be meaningful or meaningless and yet cannot strictly be characterized as true or false. Statements, which are made using sentences, but which are distinct from sentences, are, or can be, either true or false.

The sentence “The king of France is bald” is indeed meaningful, but a statement made at the present time using that sentence does not succeed in being either true or false because, as there is presently no king of France, the purported reference to a king of France fails.

According to Russell the sentence is meaningful and false. According to Strawson the sentence is meaningful, but the corresponding statement is neither true nor false because one of its presuppositions—namely, that there is a king of France—is false.

semantic theory
semantic theory

In another well-known article of this early period, “Truth” (Analysis, 1949), Strawson criticizes the semantic theory of truth and proposes an alternative analysis to the effect that “true” does not describe any semantic properties or, indeed, any other properties at all, because its use is not to describe; rather, we use the word true to express agreement, to endorse, concede, grant, or otherwise accede to what has been or might be said.

Strawson explicitly draws an analogy between the use of the word true and J. L. Austin’s notion of performatives. Like performatives, true does not describe anything; rather, if we examine its use in ordinary language, we see that it is used to perform altogether different sorts of acts.

sorts of acts - Winter, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
sorts of acts

This article gave rise to a controversy with Austin, a defender of the correspondence theory. The gist of Strawson’s argument against the correspondence theory is that the attempt to explicate truth in terms of correspondence between statements on the one hand and facts, states of affairs, and situations on the other must necessarily fail because such notions as “fact” already have the “word–world relationship” built into them. Facts are not something which statements name or refer to; rather, “facts are what statements (when true) state.”

Thus, for example, the question whether it is true that all John’s children are asleep does not even arise if John has no children. Once it is seen that statements of the form “All f’s are g” have existential presuppositions, it is possible to give a consistent interpretation of the traditional Aristotelian system.

Aristotelian system - Kyoto, Japan Autumn Leaves
Aristotelian system

The failure to understand this and the misconception regarding the relation of the predicate calculus to ordinary language are in large part due to the same mistakes that underlie the theory of descriptions: the failure to see the distinction between sentence and statement; the “bogus trichotomy” of true, false, or meaningless; and the failure to see the distinction between presupposition and entailment.

The final chapter of the book contains a discussion of probability and induction in which Strawson argues that attempts to justify induction are necessarily misconceived, since there are no higher standards to which one can appeal in assessing inductive standards. The question whether inductive standards are justified is as senseless as the question whether a legal system is legal.

Welcome To My World by *N-Deed on deviantART
legal system

Just as a legal system provides the standards of legality, so do inductive criteria provide standards of justification.Underlying this point is the fact that inductive standards form part of our concept of rationality. It is, he says, a necessary truth that the only ways of forming rational opinions concerning what happened or will happen in given circumstances are inductive.


In the middle 1950s Strawson’s concerns shifted from investigations of ordinary language to an enterprise he named descriptive metaphysics. This enterprise differs from “revisionary metaphysics” in that it is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world rather than attempting to produce a better structure, and it differs from ordinary conceptual analysis in its much greater scope and generality, since it attempts to “lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure.”

descriptive metaphysics - Dillion Harper
descriptive metaphysics

These investigations resulted in the publication of a second book, Individuals (London, 1959). The book is divided into two parts. Part One, titled “Particulars,” deals with the nature of and preconditions for the identification of particular objects in speech; Part Two, “Logical Subjects,” concentrates on the relations between particulars and universals and on the corresponding and related distinctions between reference and predication and subjects and predicates.

The first important thesis of the book is that from the point of view of particular identification, material objects are the basic particulars. What this means is that the general conditions of particular identification require a unified system of publicly observable and enduring spatiotemporal entities.

Logical Subjects - Marian Rivera (Philippines)
Logical Subjects

The material universe forms such a system.Material objects can therefore be identified independently of the identification of particulars in other categories, but particulars in other categories cannot be identified without reference to material objects. This provides us, then, with a sense in which material objects are the basic particulars as far as particular identification is concerned.

A second thesis, one of the most provocative of the book, concerns the traditional mindogon;body problem. In Chapter 3, titled “Persons,” Strawson attacks both the Cartesian notion that states of consciousness are ascribed to mental substances, which are quite distinct from but nonetheless intimately connected to bodies, and the modern “no-ownership” theory, according to which states of consciousness are not, strictly speaking, ascribed to anything at all.

primitive concept
primitive concept

Both views, he argues, are ultimately incoherent. The solution to the dilemma posed by these views is that the concept of a person is a primitive concept.

It is a concept such that both states of consciousness and physical properties are ascribable to one and the same thing—namely, a person. The concept of a mind is derivative from the primitive concept of a person, and the concept of a person is not to be construed as a composite concept made up of the concept of a mind and the concept of a body.

composite concept - Bree Olson
composite concept

The recognition of the primitiveness of the concept of a person enables us to see both why states of consciousness are ascribed to anything at all and why they are ascribed to the very same thing to which certain physical states are ascribed.

Most of Part Two of Individuals is devoted to an investigation of the problems of the relations of subjects and predicates. Strawson considers two traditional ways of making the distinction between subject and predicate: a grammatical criterion in terms of the different kinds of symbolism for subject and predicate expressions and a category criterion in terms of the distinction between particulars and universals.

grammatical criterion - Katarina ❥ڿڰۣ--
grammatical criterion

He investigates the “tensions and affinities” between these two criteria, and he concludes that the crucial distinction between the way a subject expression introduces a particular into a proposition and the way a predicate expression introduces a universal into a proposition is that the identification of a particular involves the presentation of some empirical fact which is sufficient to identify the particular (this harks back to the doctrine of what is presupposed by identifying references in “On Referring” and Introduction to Logical Theory), but the introduction of the universal term by the predicate term does not in general involve any empirical fact.

The meaning of the predicate term suffices to identify the universal that the predicate introduces into the proposition. One might say that identifying reference to particulars involves the presentation of empirical facts; the predication of universals involves only the presentation of meanings.

Aristotelian doctrine
Aristotelian doctrine

This enables us to give a deeper sense to Gottlob Frege’s notion that objects are complete—in contrast to concepts, which are incomplete—and it enables us to account for the Aristotelian doctrine that only universals and not particulars are predicable.

In tone, method, and overall objectives, Individuals stands in sharp contrast to Strawson’s earlier work. Piecemeal investigation of ordinary language occurs here only as an aid and adjunct to attacking large traditional metaphysical problems.

metaphysical problems - Really amazing eyes and a great smile.
metaphysical problems

One might say that Individuals employs essentially Kantian methods to arrive at Aristotelian conclusions. Yet much of the book is at least foreshadowed by Strawson’s earlier work, particularly “On Referring” and certain portions of his first book.

The notion of descriptive metaphysics itself has been as influential as the actual theses advanced in Individuals. More than any other single recent work, this book has resurrected metaphysics (albeit descriptive metaphysics) as a respectable philosophical enterprise.

philosophical enterprise - Cathleen Nguyen (Cát Lynh)
philosophical enterprise

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