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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 of thought, and the proper way of performing such an analysis is the analysis of language. Philosophy, then, is not concerned with seeking out new facts or telling people what reality is; rather it seeks to understand how people think about reality. Because Dummett regards this perspective as constitutive of what is known as “analytic philosophy,” he names Frege as the founder of the type of philosophy that has been dominant in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the United States in the twentieth century.

In 1979, Dummett succeeded A. J. Ayer as the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford. Both before and after taking this prestigious post, his main philosophical concern was with outlining an adequate theory of meaning. Important papers in this regard are “The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic” (collected in Truth and Other Enigmas), “What Is a Theory of Meaning? (II),” and “What Do I Know When I Know a Language?” (both collected in The Seas of Language). This investigation was also the focus of Dummett’s William James Lectures, delivered at Harvard University in 1976. These lectures were published in book form as The Logical Basis of Metaphysics.

According to Dummett, a theory of meaning is an attempt to describe what is known when someone knows the meaning of a sentence. The most popular answer in contemporary philosophy is given by the truth-conditional theory of meaning. This theory holds that what is known is the truth condition of the sentence—the condition that must be satisfied in order for that sentence to be true. Because this condition is held to be either satisfied or not satisfied irrespective of whether anyone can make that determination, the concept of truth employed satisfies the principle of bivalence, and hence, truth-conditional theories are committed to realism.

Building on Wittgenstein’s ideas underlying the slogan “meaning is use,” Dummett argues that the truth-conditional theory of meaning cannot give an acceptable account of what it is to understand a sentence. An adequate account of meaning and understanding must specify how a speaker manifests or displays an understanding of a sentence: The understanding must be correlated to a practical ability. If the meaning of a sentence is its truth condition, then the relevant practical ability would be the capacity to recognize whether that condition is satisfied in a variety of circumstances. However, this gives rise to a problem for truth-conditional theories. There are sentences whose truth conditions transcend people’s capacity to recognize whether they are satisfied; for these sentences, it is therefore impossible to correlate the speaker’s understanding with a practical ability. Dummett takes this to mean that the central notion in a theory of meaning cannot be a concept such as truth, which can transcend people’s capacity to recognize it, but rather should be some nontranscendent notion such as verification. It does not escape Dummett’s notice that verificationist theories of meaning have antirealist implications. Because there are sentences that are neither verifiably true nor verifiably false, bivalence will fail for these sentences, and this implies, once again, that reality cannot be viewed as fully determinate.

Dummett retired in 1992, becoming professor emeritus at Oxford. In addition to his professional philosophical work, Dummett avidly pursued a wide range of other interests and hobbies. He wrote a book on the theoretical underpinnings of voting procedures and a monograph on the role of the Catholic Church in social issues. An internationally recognized authority on tarot cards as artistic objects and on the games of skill that can be played with them, Dummett published a book, The Game of Tarot, in 1980 and several articles on the subject. In writing on tarot cards, he tried to discredit their use as instruments for divining the future. In the preface to The Game of Tarot, Dummett remarked that this hobby probably would not have gripped him to the degree it did if he had not needed a refuge from the emotional strain of his involvement in the late 1960’s in the fight against racism in Britain. Along with his wife, Ann, Dummett played a major role in the struggle for racial justice. The Dummetts were founding members of the Oxford Committee for Racial Integration and have written scores of articles and letters to the editors in support of the cause. They also served in the trenches of the struggle, spending many hours, for example, at Heathrow Airport helping Asians avoid being turned back by the immigration authorities and picketing Oxford businesses that refused service to black customers.


Dummett’s influence on philosophy, especially in Britain, has been great. One area of influence has been the belated recognition that Frege was a philosophical genius of the first rank. Before Dummett, Frege was acknowledged as a great logician, but his achievements were seen as technical advances and tangential to the main concerns of philosophy. Dummett makes the case that Frege’s achievements, far from being confined to a technical area, led to a revolutionary change in perspective that gave birth to analytic philosophy. If Frege is now seen as just as important in the development of analytic philosophy as philosophers Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, and a philosopher comparable in importance to the Greek philosopher Aristotle or the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this is largely because of the efforts of Dummett. Related to his role in bringing about a reappraisal of Frege has been Dummett’s vigorous defense of the view that the theory of meaning is the foundation of philosophy and that this is the only proper method for approaching philosophical problems. Dummett himself suggested that if he has made any worthwhile contribution to philosophy, it is in developing the view that the theory of meaning underlies metaphysics.

Dummett’s analysis of the realism/antirealism debate probably is the aspect of his thought that has exerted the greatest influence on contemporary philosophy. (Dummett coined the expression “antirealism” in 1959, terminology that has become a part of the contemporary philosophical lexicon.) Issues over realism go back to the beginnings of philosophy. However, despite this being well-trod ground, Dummett has articulated a novel approach to the issue that many philosophers have found illuminating. He shows that when the issue of realism is approached through the theory of meaning, the problems of realism are made more visible. Although almost everyone comes to this issue with a strong predilection toward realism, Dummett shows that philosophical progress is not made by merely consulting our intuitive convictions; it is made by deeper and deeper analyses of the arguments for a position and the counterarguments against it. Even those not convinced by Dummett’s case against realism have gained a deeper understanding of what they are believing when they believe in realism.

Additional Reading

Devitt, Michael. Realism and Truth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. An interpretation and assessment of most contemporary forms of antirealism from a naturalistic and physicalist standpoint. Devitt devotes a lengthy chapter to a detailed exposition and criticism of Michael Dummett’s antirealism.

French, P., T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein, eds. Realism and Antirealism. Vol. 12 in Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. A collection of papers exploring many aspects of the realism/antirealism debate. Many of the papers discuss issues raised by Dummett’s treatment of realism and antirealism.

Heck, Richard G., ed. Language, Thought, and Logic: Essays in Honour of Michael Dummett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Many of the papers in this collection focus on Dummett’s contributions to the philosophy of language, especially issues concerning the relationship between thought and language. Others concern Dummett’s views on the nature of time, Gottlob Frege, and the philosophy of mathematics.

Luntley, Michael. Language, Logic, and Experience. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1988. Building on Dummett, the author articulates and defends an antirealist account of logic, truth, and reality. For advanced undergraduates.

McGuinness, B., and G. Oliveri, eds. The Philosophy of Michael Dummett. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1994. This collection contains papers on Dummett’s philosophies of language, mathematics, time, mind, and religion. Also includes Dummett’s replies to his critics.

Taylor, Barry, ed. Michael Dummett: Contributions to Philosophy. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987. Although most of the essays in this collection focus on Dummett’s antirealism, the book also includes papers on two of his nonphilosophical passions: the history of playing cards and card games and the struggle for racial justice and equality in Britain. Also contains Dummett’s responses.

Wright, Crispin. Realism, Meaning, and Truth. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987. A collection of Wright’s papers on Dummett and topics relating to antirealism. Wright’s introductory essay is especially valuable for beginning students of the realism/antirealism debate.

Wright, Crispin. Wittgenstein on the Foundations of Mathematics. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1980. While the nominal subject of the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics, many of Dummett’s central ideas are explored. A difficult book but worth the effort.

Young, James O. Global Anti-realism. Aldershot, England: Avebury, 1995. A brief and readable defense of antirealism. Recommended for undergraduates interested in realism and antirealism.