Peter Strawson Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Strawson developed a relatively informal logic in comparison to W. V. O. Quine’ s unrelentingly formal approach, offered a chastened and influential account of Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology, and presented an account of the general conceptual scheme as an exercise in descriptive metaphysics.

Early Life

Peter Frederick Strawson was born in the London borough of Ealing to schoolteacher parents, the second child among three brothers and a younger sister. His parents met when they were graduate students in English literature at Goldsmith’s College. He was brought up in Finchley, near London, and attended Finchley County School. After a year there, his parents transferred him to Christ’s College, a male-only school with high academic standards. There his specialist subjects were French, Latin, history, and English. He particularly enjoyed English prose, poetry, and grammar. He earned an open scholarship in English to St. John’s College, Oxford.

In 1937, at the age of seventeen, Strawson entered Oxford and switched his field of study to philosophy, specifically to the program in philosophy, politics, and economics. Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du contract social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, 1764) and the semipopular philosophical writings of C. E. M. Joad, he found himself skillful both at constructing arguments and at critiquing the arguments of others. At the same time, although a lover of poetry, he found his own poetic skills not of the same caliber as his philosophical talents. He was unexcited by economics and the history of politics, finding philosophy more congenial. He therefore focused his studies on logic, the philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. His principal tutor was J. D. Mabbott, known for his work in political philosophy and ethics and a fine small book on David Hume’s philosophy. However, the major philosophical influence among his teachers was the well-known philosopher of language H. P. Grice. Upon graduation in 1940, Strawson was inducted into the Royal Artillery, where he took courses in radar technology and became the commander of a radar station in Sussex. He was commissioned in 1942 in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He reached the rank of captain, was posted to Italy and Austria, and served as a defending officer at various courts-martial. In 1945, he married Grace Hall Martin. He was demobilized in 1946.

Life’s Work

Leaving the armed forces in 1946, Strawson became assistant lecturer of philosophy at the College of North Wales, lecturer at University College (1947-1948), and fellow and praelector in philosophy at University College, Oxford (1948-1968, promoted to reader in 1966). He was appointed to the Chair of Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysics and Fellow of Magdalen College, in which position he served from 1968 through 1987. He was visiting professor at Duke University (1955-1956), Princeton University (1960-1961), and the University of Colorado-Boulder (fall, 1991). Among his many honors, he was created Knight Bachelor in 1977.

Perhaps Strawson’s interest in English prose, poetry, and grammar led naturally to his interest in logic and the philosophy of language and influenced him to prefer a more informal approach to these topics than some other philosophers have taken. Strawson took this approach in rejecting one of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s analyses. Russell held that sentences such as “The present king of France is bald” should be thought of as expressing two propositions, namely (1) that there is a present king of France and (2) that this person is bald. In an approximation of the formal talk of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), which Russell wrote with Alfred North Whitehead, this becomes, “There is an x such that x is the present king of France and x is bald.” Thus the original sentence is seen as expressing not one proposition but two, and the resulting conjunction is true only if both its parts, or conjuncts, are true (“P and Q” is true if and only if P is true and Q is true). In Russell’s view, “The present king of France is bald” is false because “There is a present king of France” is false.

Strawson found that this idea violated both common sense and good sense. His view is that “The present king of France is bald” expresses neither a truth nor a falsehood. The reason for this, he holds, is that judgments to the effect that something has or lacks a property presuppose the existence of the thing said to have or lack the...

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