Michael Dummett Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: By investigating metaphysical issues concerning the objectivity of reality in terms of meaning-theoretic concepts such as truth and understanding, Dummett makes the case that realism is an incoherent conception of thought and the world.

Early Life

Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett, the son of a prosperous London businessman, George Herbert Dummett, and his wife, Iris Dummett, was educated at Sandroyd School and Winchester College. Although he was from a Congregationalist background, he became a devout Roman Catholic when he was eighteen. He joined the British army in 1943 and served in the Intelligence Corps while stationed in India and Malaya. By the time of his discharge in 1947, he had made the rank of sergeant. After his army service, he attended Oxford University and received his B.A. (with first class honors) in 1950 and his M.A. in 1954. Dummett was made a fellow of All Souls College in 1950.

Philosophy at Oxford during the 1950’s was dominated by the ordinary language philosophy of J. L. Austin, a philosophical orientation that eschews generality and replaces systematic theorizing with piecemeal descriptions of the everyday usage of language. During this period, Dummett regarded himself as a follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and he has said that this inoculated him against the influence of Austin. In the mid-1950’s, while at the University of California, Berkeley, on a Harkness fellowship, he witnessed the early struggles against segregation in the United States and met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. He and his wife, Ann, whom he married in 1951, became active in the fight for racial justice and equality in Britain.

Life’s Work

In the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, Dummett began exploring in a series of papers, many of which were later published in Truth and Other Enigmas, the debate between realism and a view he calls “antirealism.” Realism, in general, is the view that reality exists independently of our knowledge of it. One of Dummett’s insights was that while this is not a single issue, the various instances of the debate are structurally similar enough to make a unified treatment of them profitable. The debate between realism and antirealism arises for a variety of aspects of the world. Perhaps the best known concerns the physical world of medium-sized objects: Commonsense realism says that they are mind-independent objects apprehended in sense experience, while antirealism (typically some version of idealism or phenomenalism) holds that sense experiences are constitutive of the physical world. Another area is mathematics, where realism (called in this context Platonism) maintains that mathematicians discover the constitution of a preexisting mathematical reality, while antirealism holds that their activity creates mathematical reality. Dualism is a form of realism about the mental according to which observable behavior is merely evidence of someone’s inner states; in contrast, the behaviorist version of antirealism holds that pain is nothing over and above pain-behavior. As even a short list such as this suggests, a realism/antirealism dispute can arise for any area of thought, knowledge, or experience.

What do these various issues over realism have in common? Rejecting the traditional answer that they concern whether entities of a certain sort exist, Dummett suggests what they have in common is that the realist employs a notion of truth subject to the principle of bivalence: the principle that reality renders statements either true or false independently of our capacity to discover their truth value. The central contention of antirealism is that no intelligible conception of truth is so radically divorced from people’s capacity to discover it. One argument used by the antirealists focuses on people’s acquisition of the concept of truth. When people learn what it is for a sentence to be true, they are presented with evidence that is accessible to them. How, then, are people to get from this training a conception of truth that transcends their capacity to discover it? It appears the realist’s conception of truth is not one that people could acquire. This leads the antirealist to abandon the principle of bivalence and with it the idea of reality as fully determinate in the sense of rendering each statement as either true or false. The picture of reality that emerges is a reality that becomes fully determinate only as people investigate it.

Dummett’s first book was his study of Gottlob Frege, a nineteenth century German mathematician and logician. This work, titled Frege: Philosophy of Language, was published in 1973 and makes the case that Frege was a revolutionary thinker who altered the course of philosophy. Because Frege is the founder of mathematical logic, his stature as a logician has never been in doubt. It is Dummett’s contention, however, that Frege’s greatness does not lie solely, or even principally, in virtue of his great achievements in logic. Rather, Dummett argues, Frege’s greatness lies in having initiated a revolution in philosophy comparable in significance to the revolution initiated by philosopher René Descartes in the seventeenth century. Descartes’s revolution consisted of making questions of knowledge and justification the fundamental problems in philosophy; epistemology thus came to be regarded as the foundation of the rest of philosophy. Frege’s revolution, according to Dummett, consisted of making questions of meaning fundamental; from this perspective, it is the theory of meaning (or philosophy of thought) that is rightly viewed as the foundation of philosophy. Dummett regards this as a great achievement because for the first time in the history of philosophy, the proper object and methodology of philosophy had been identified. Frege had identified the goal of philosophy as the analysis of the structure...

(The entire section is 2424 words.)