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The intent of Peter Strawson’s Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, in accord with the linguistic philosophy that characterized the philosophy being conducted at Oxford when Strawson wrote his book, was to give an accurate description of the fundamental features of “our” conceptual system, not (as in most of traditional metaphysics) of the world itself. The intended system is “ours” in that it is shared by everyone, learned or unlearned, Greek or barbarian, wise or unwise, living ten thousand years ago or now.

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The justification for taking the scheme to be “ours” in this wide sense, Strawson contends, is that everyone who is able to think and experience at least begins with this system of concepts. Of course, even philosophers who agree that there is such a conceptual system, possession of which is fundamental to thought and experience, may differ in the way in which they describe this scheme. For example, Greek philosopher Aristotle and German philosopher Immanuel Kant, both of whom influenced Strawson, offer a theory of categories or basic concepts whose logical interconnections define a cognitive system. However, while there are significant points of agreement among them, there are also differences. Any effort to offer a description of our conceptual system will have to include a defense of the claim that our system is as described. All such endeavors are subject to the question of why one should think that our concepts are properly mapped by the offered account. Even with such a defense, a descriptive metaphysic will face competitors.

Other Philosophers’ Views

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Aristotle was a descriptive metaphysician, an articulator of the assumptions of common sense. Kant, Strawson suggests, is also fundamentally a descriptive metaphysician with (unfortunate) revisionary tendencies. George Berkeley and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, as idealists, are revisionists. Thomas Hobbes, as a reductive materialist (assuming he is one), is equally revisionist. Revisionists see our conceptual system as in some way fundamentally faulty, perhaps by way of some basic inconsistency or through holding together diverse elements that cannot be combined into a coherent whole. A revisionist then proposes a way of gaining consistency and coherence by excising some part of our conceptual system and then either adding new material or making do with what is left. There are both speculative revisionary metaphysicians (those who add) and reductive revisionary metaphysicians (those who make do)

Aristotle took himself to be investigating the fundamental characteristics of being—of things as they are independent of human thought. Proper thought reflects, corresponds to, represents the structure and content of the world, as well as of the structure of our thought concerning it. Kant took himself to be investigating the logically necessary conditions of our thought and experience, with the crucial addition that the results tell us the ways in which we must think of things, not the way the things thought about mind-independently are. Strawson, in contrast to Aristotle, takes the task of metaphysics to be the correct description of our shared conceptual system and, in contrast to Kant, does not hold that our conceptual scheme is closed off from what exists distinct from and independent of our thinking.

The Concept of a Person

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Our conceptual system, Strawson says, is one in which particular things exist and are identifiable (and reidentifiable) by reference to their places in a single spatiotemporal framework. These particulars are conceived of as relatively enduring, publicly observable physical bodies. Among these are persons, bodies so conceived that it is their nature to be describable by mental and physical predicates. The concept of a person, Strawson contends, is primitive or unanalyzable either into a mind plus a body or a collection of mental and/or physical states. This approach to persons echoes Aristotle and rejects both French philosopher René Descartes’s (and Greek philosopher Plato’s) view that persons are centers of self-consciousness that may or may not be embodied and David Hume’s theory that a person at a given time is simply a bundle of states and over time is a series of such bundles. Both of these accounts—Descartes’s and Hume’s—are, in Strawson’ s view, revisionist and hence objectionable. Descartes presumably would deny that his account is revisionist; he seems (not implausibly) to think that his mind-body dualism, in which self-conscious things and spatially extended things are viewed as belonging to different kinds, to be as commonsensical as anything can be.

Berkeley also (perhaps rather less plausibly) also took his idealism (the view that there are self-conscious minds but that what talk of bodies refers to is, in the end, really only sensory experiences that these minds have) to be but common sense. He thought that philosophers (in particular, Aristotle) have perverted common sense and that his idealism merely returned thought to its original commonsense purity. Even Hume, in his Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748; best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758) takes his account of our experiences as composed, not of awareness of Strawsonian enduring things, but of fleeting impressions and ideas, and speaks as one who is merely describing what is evident to every observant participant in thought and perception. The salient point, then, is that in claiming merely to be describing “our” conceptual scheme, Strawson arguably is unintentionally engaging in what he designates as revisionary thought. Whether or not this is so is controversial.

To say that a kind of individual is primitive in our conceptual scheme is to deny that there is any other sort of individual that we need refer to in order to identify or refer to it. A sort of individual is nonbasic if, in order to refer to it, we must refer to particulars or individuals and predicate terms represent and indicate characteristics of individuals. Predicate terms can be negated; if having a quality is a feature of an individual, so would lacking that quality be a feature of an individual. However, subject terms cannot be negated; this claim links Strawson’s idea that sentences of the form “The A is Q” are neither true nor false if there is no individual that A designates. Strawson had earlier claimed that a sentence of the form “The A is Q” does not entail a corresponding sentence of the form “There is an . . . ” because (he argued) there can be entailments only between things that have truth value (are either true or false), and the former sentence lacks truth value if there is nothing that is indicated by A.

Strawson rejects the idea that belief in a publicly accessible and mind-independently existing world requires justification by appeal to something whose existence is more securely known. He writes, “It is difficult to see how such beliefs could be argued for except by showing their consonance with the conceptual scheme [with] which we operate, by showing how they reflect the structure of that scheme.”

The idea is that there is nothing more basic to appeal to than the discerned presuppositions of our common conceptual scheme. With this, presumably, goes the dialectical point that denying such presuppositions is self-defeating in some way, perhaps in that one (allegedly at least) could not make one’s objection were it well founded.


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Additional Reading

Ayer, A. J. The Concept of a Person. London: Macmillan, 1964. Contains A. J. Ayer’s discussion of Peter Strawson’s view of what a person is.

Hahn, Lewis Edward, ed. The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson. Library of Living Philosophers series. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1998. An intellectual biography of the subject. Contains some twenty essays on his philosophy and a reply to each by the subject himself.

Sen, P. B., and R. R. Verma, eds. The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson. New Delhi, India: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1995. A collection of papers on Strawson’s work with his replies.

Van Straaten, V., ed. Philosophical Subjects. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. A collection of papers that touch on Strawson’s work. Contains some difficult material.

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