Peter Strawson

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1960

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.

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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 property. Because there is no such being as the present king of France, there is no truth about the baldness or otherwise of such a thing. A follower of Russell will find this inadequate; Strawson’s proposal will entail that the logician is unable to represent sentences (or the propositions they seem to express) such as “The Canadian unicorn is silver” and “Santa Claus takes a yearly world tour.” Plainly such sentences can be represented in logical expressions and appear in arguments (only truths and falsehoods can appear in standardly represented arguments). They can be seen to entail and be entailed by other sentences (or the propositions these sentences express).

We can, without trying to adjudicate this dispute here, note one argument relevant to it. Assuming that Strawson’s account is right, suppose I offer to sell you my beautiful horse for a thousand dollars, you hand over the money, and I leave, telling you my horse is in the stable all saddled and waiting for you to ride it. Suppose, further, I have never had a horse. When you confront me about the matter, I tell you that, because I had no horse, my telling you “My horse is beautiful and is worth a thousand dollars” cannot be false. It could be false only if there had been such a horse. Because lying to you includes telling you something false, I cannot have lied to you. You cannot say that (1) “My horse is beautiful and is worth a thousand dollars” entails (2) “I have a horse,” because given that “I have no horse,” the statement “My horse is beautiful and is worth a thousand dollars” is neither true nor false, and only things that are true or false have any entailments. (It follows that “P presupposes Q” cannot mean “not-Q entails not-Q.”) A Strawsonian response will assert that I have misled you to suppose that the presupposition of “My horse is beautiful and is worth a thousand dollars” had truth value when it lacked it.

Strawson’s most famous books are Introduction to Logical Theory, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, and The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” In the first book, he argued that induction needs no justification and offers his views of the connections between logic and natural language.

In Individuals, Strawson examines the idea that there is a conceptual scheme that all human beings share. The task of descriptive metaphysics is to map this scheme, identifying its basic concepts and their interrelationships. A revisionary metaphysic would proffer and contend for changes in this scheme. In accord with the overall linguistic orientation in British philosophy in the years in which he worked, Strawson takes the primary object of metaphysics to be not the world per se but people’s thoughts about it. Those thoughts, he holds, occur within the context of a general conceptual system in which the notion of a spatiotemporal basic particular to which both mental and physical properties may be ascribed is central.

In The Bounds of Sense, Strawson offers a somewhat chastened version of Kantianism. Kant embraced what he termed transcendental idealism. This theory held that perception provides people with objects as experienced and that empirical knowledge is not knowledge of how things are but how they appear. Strawson finds Kant’s arguments for transcendental idealism wanting. He finds Kant’s view in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1873) much more defensible without transcendental idealism than with it.

What Strawson wishes to retain from Kant is essentially the idea that if a series of experiences are to be the experiences of a single experiencing subject, they must also be the experiences of an objectively ordered world. An essential element in such objectivity is the possibility of distinguishing between how things merely appear and how they actually are. According to Kant, subjectivity requires objectivity; being a subject of experience and viewing the world as distinct from and independent of oneself inherently go together.

Strawson agrees with Kant’s claims and finds in them the basis for a refutation of skepticism. According to Strawson, skeptical philosophers, who doubt or deny the existence of any external world perceived through the senses, must use in the formulation of their doubts the concepts of enduring objects and individual perceivers. However, these concepts themselves, Strawson argues, are such that skeptics can hold them only if they believe there is a genuine distinction between experiencing subject and experienced objective world. It remains controversial whether, in their Kantian or Strawsonian form, arguments of this sort—transcendental arguments—succeed. For example, skeptics could respond that the fact that there seems to be an objective world is sufficient for one to have the concepts needed for the formulation of skepticism, and that is all skeptics need. However, there can seem to be an objective world in the absence of there actually being one.

In Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, Strawson pursued a line of thought suggested in different ways by David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein: We cannot in fact doubt that there is an external world that we experience; we are not psychologically up to this feat. This correlates with the thesis that skepticism about induction is inappropriate because inductive rules define a practice we engage in (a form of life that has its own internal rules that cannot be questioned and rejected without abandoning the practice they define). Similarly, our practice of formulating perceptual beliefs based on sensory experiences is a practice that has its internal rules, and we cannot escape the practice.

Philosophers have questioned, however, whether—even granting the psychological claim that we cannot actually protractedly accept an explicit skepticism—this shows skepticism to be false. It is logically possible that continuing to trust induction or perception has no rational justification, and neither the fact that even heroic efforts to continually believe this nor the fact that there are practices that assume such trust is rationally appropriate shows that this logical possibility is not also the fact of the matter. Thus philosophers who are not themselves skeptics have doubted that Strawson’s adaptations of Hume and Wittgenstein refute the skeptical position regarding either induction or perception.


Strawson’s work, done in the context of the linguistic philosophy dominant in Oxford during the years he wrote and taught, did much to return an interest in metaphysics to respectable status in Anglo-American philosophy. His work on informal logic, the philosophy of language, Kant’s philosophy, and descriptive metaphysics was widely discussed in seminars, articles, and books.

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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