No one who witnessed Sir Michael Dummett engage in debate could fail to be struck by the passion with which he upheld his views
Sir Michael Dummett obituary
Philosopher who focused on falsehood and truth in language
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 28 December 2011 18.21 GMT
Sir Michael Dummett, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th century. He was also an international authority on tarot cards, a campaigner for racial justice and a devoted family man. His wife, Ann, was a co-worker in his fight against racism and collaborated with him on a number of publications on the subject.
Dummett was a staunch advocate of "analytic" philosophy, the fundamental tenet of which he took to be that "the philosophy of language is the foundation of all other philosophy". He also once characterised it as "post-Fregean philosophy", the 19th-century German philosopher Gottlob Frege having done as much as anyone to treat the philosophy of language in this way. Much of Dummett's own work was accordingly devoted to the interpretation and exposition of Frege's ideas, and he will be as well remembered for his exegesis of Frege as he will for his own seminal contributions to analytic philosophy.
Frege held that the way in which the words in a sentence combine reflects the structure of the thought that the sentence expresses. In the sentence "Michael smokes," a proper name combines with a verb so as to express the thought that a particular person, Michael, indulges in a particular activity, smoking. This thought is true if Michael does in fact smoke, and false otherwise.
On this apparently innocuous and simple basis, Frege erected an elaborate set of ideas that have had an immense influence. Nevertheless, Dummett believed that Frege made certain assumptions concerning truth and falsehood that could be called into question. Frege allowed for the possibility of a thought that was neither true nor false. An example would be the thought that Father Christmas smokes. Given that there is no such person as Father Christmas, then neither is there anything to make this thought true or false. But Frege was not in the least reluctant to admit that a thought could be true or false without our having any way of telling which. An example might be the thought that Plato would have enjoyed smoking. This is what caused Dummett to pause.
He did not see how we could understand a sentence without having some way of manifesting our understanding. And he did not see how we could manifest this without being able to tell whether the thought expressed was true or false. So the assumption that a given thought could be true or false even though we had no way of telling which – an assumption that Dummett called "realism" concerning the thought – was immediately problematical.
Not that Dummett flatly denied this assumption; his point was only that it needed justification. He was issuing a challenge. Although the challenge was something close to a lifelong crusade, he undoubtedly retained a sympathy for realism. It was as if he was engaged in a continual internal struggle with himself. Furthermore, it is hard to escape the feeling that this in turn had something to do with his deep religious convictions, many of which may well have had a realist cast which the philosopher in him found problematical.
It is certainly true that, although he rarely made explicit contributions to the philosophy of religion, what he did write was often motivated by religious concerns. One topic about which he wrote a great deal, for example, was the possibility of backward causation. Certainly, his interest in this derived from an interest in the efficacy of retrospective prayer.
No one who witnessed Dummett engage in debate could fail to be struck by the passion with which he upheld his philosophical views. Nor could anyone who came into professional contact with him fail to be struck by the passion with which he defended all that was precious to him in academia. In 1984, for example, he resigned from the British Academy, partly because of his belief that it had failed in its duty to defend universities against funding cuts.
Indeed, Dummett seemed to be constitutionally incapable of undertaking anything half-heartedly. Not only was similar commitment manifest in the way he lived out his Christianity (he converted to Catholicism when he was a young man) and in the tireless way in which he opposed racism in all its forms, there was even evidence of it in his recreational interest in the history of card games.
Dummett was uncompromising in his convictions. This often led to bruising encounters with opponents. But although his opposition to another person's views could occasionally spill over into opposition to that other person, his sole motivation was a desire to see truth prevail.
He also took great pleasure in the good things in life, and had a wonderfully infectious sense of humour. He was always a generous and inspirational teacher. He never lectured twice on exactly the same material, preferring to maintain as much freshness as possible in his delivery. It was impossible to hear him lecture and not to have a profound sense of thought in action. He would pace up and down, cigarette in hand, pausing periodically to formulate in his own mind how best to proceed, referring only occasionally, if at all, to his notes. The upshot would always be a beautifully structured and wonderfully conceived argument in which ideas about the most abstract topics were seamlessly woven together.
In supervisions with his graduate students, he was similarly intent on the issues, but with an additional determination to see what his students were getting at. He inspired not only great philosophy but great affection.
Born in London, Dummett was educated at Sandroyd school in Wiltshire; Winchester college; and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated with a first in philosophy, politics, and economics in 1950, having served in the Royal Artillery and Intelligence Corps in India and Malaya from 1943 to 1947. Upon graduating, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford. He remained there until 1979, when he was elected to the Wykeham professorship of logic and a fellowship at New College. He retired in 1992. He received the Lakatos award in the philosophy of science in 1994, was awarded the Rolf Schock prize for logic and philosophy in 1995, was knighted in 1999, and was awarded the Lauener prize for an outstanding oeuvre in analytical philosophy in 2010.
Throughout his career he held numerous additional academic posts, including a readership in the philosophy of mathematics at Oxford and various visiting positions at universities around the world. He gave several of the most prestigious lecture series in philosophy, including the William James lectures at Harvard University in 1976 and the Dewey lectures at Columbia University in 2002. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1968, later settling his differences and being re-elected in 1995. In 1966 he chaired the Oxford Committee for Racial Integration, of which he had been a founder member the previous year. In 1966–67 he was a member of the executive committee of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, and in 1970–71 chairman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
His first major publication, Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973), appeared when he was at the comparatively ripe age of 48. One reason why it had not appeared earlier was that he had made a conscious decision to pursue what he conceived as his duty to oppose the racism that had become manifest in Britain. He completed the book when he reluctantly concluded that he no longer had any significant contribution to make to the fight and felt justified in returning to "more abstract matters of much less importance to anyone's happiness or future". He commented in the book's preface on the deep shock of having discovered, some years previously, that Frege himself, whom he had always revered "as an absolutely rational man", was a virulent racist. "From [this discovery]," he wrote, "I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe, also."
Several other books on Frege followed: The Interpretation of Frege's Philosophy (1981), a defence of the main ideas of the earlier book; Frege and Other Philosophers (1991), a collection of essays; and Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics (1993), the long-awaited sequel to the first book, which Dummett had originally intended to publish along with it as a single volume.
He also wrote Elements of Intuitionism (1977), on the intuitionist school in logic and mathematics; The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1991), a systematic statement of his own most basic ideas; The Origins of Analytic Philosophy (1993), in which he emphasised the significance of Frege to the analytic movement; Truth and the Past (2004), in which he applied some of his basic ideas to claims that we make about the past; Thought and Reality (2006), in which he set out his views about anti-realism; and The Nature and Future of Philosophy (2010), in which he gave a succinct account of his conception of his discipline.
Many of his numerous articles were anthologised in Truth and Other Enigmas (1978) and The Seas of Language (1993). The reverence with which he approached Frege's ideas, and the irritation and puzzlement with which he often approached the ideas of other philosophers, prompted one reviewer of the collection Frege and Other Philosophers to remark that Dummett seemed to regard the parallel between the title of that collection and the earlier collection Truth and Other Enigmas "as more than just a parallel".
Dummett's many non-philosophical publications included books on immigration, Catholicism, tarot cards, and voting procedures (he devised the Quota Borda system of voting), as well as Grammar and Style for Examination Candidates and Others (1993), the culmination of his relentless fight against low standards of literacy.
That fight occasionally found amusing expression in his other work. His last book on Frege included a delicious footnote in which, having forestalled a possible misunderstanding of one of the sentences in the main text, he went on to lament the fact that the only reason for the note was that few writers or publishers nowadays "evince a grasp of the distinction between a gerund and a participle". He continued, with characteristic tetchiness: "People frequently remark that they see no point in observing grammatical rules, so long as they convey their meaning. This is like saying that there is nothing wrong with using a razor blade to cut string, so long as the string is cut. By violating the rules, they make it difficult for others to express their meaning without ambiguity."
Some readers of Dummett would say that it was ironic that he was so preoccupied with style, since his own prose left much to be desired. It is true that his sentences often displayed a rather unwieldy complexity. But they also displayed an acute sensitivity to the structure of the thoughts that they were intended to convey; and that fact, combined with the precision with which Dummett chose his words, meant that there was a real clarity about his writing, however lacking it might have been in facility. The writing was in some respects like the man – marked by honesty and integrity, though it could at times be difficult.
Dummett is survived by Ann, whom he married in 1951, and by three sons and two daughters. A son and daughter predeceased him.
• Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett, philosopher, born 27 June 1925; died 27 December 2011
• Michael Dummett discussing Gottlob Frege at Philosophy Bites
• Frege in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
• Realism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
• Dummett in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Professor Sir Michael Dummett
Professor Sir Michael Dummett, who has died aged 86, was among the most significant British philosophers of the last century and a leading campaigner for racial tolerance and equality.
Logic, language and mathematics were his chief philosophical preoccupations. He was particularly interested in the work of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), a German mathematician who tried, but ultimately failed, to demonstrate that formal logic could govern all mathematical truths.
In his book, Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics (1991), Dummett attempted to pinpoint precisely where the German had gone wrong, and in the course of his analysis he argued that Frege’s work had two significant by-products for philosophy. First, Frege had invented a new formal language for logic in which, for example, it is possible to describe the difference between the phrase “everybody loves somebody”, and the phrase “there is somebody whom everybody loves”, and to demonstrate clearly how different conclusions can be derived from each of these propositions. Second, Dummett suggested, Frege’s theses about the nature of logic opened up a whole new field – the philosophy of language, through which philosophers might account for thought through an analysis of grammar and semantics.
As well as his work on Frege, Dummett was known for his struggle to resolve the argument between what he termed “realist” philosophers and “anti-realists” (idealists, nominalists etc), who disagree about the logical principles they apply to propositions that are under dispute. For Dummett, the championing of anti-realism meant a rejection of the realist principle of bivalence — the idea that any sentence which attempts to make an assertion must be either true or false. Dummett held that this was not the case for sentences that discuss certain subjects — for example, mathematics.
In particular, Dummett argued that metaphysical debates – such as whether unicorns are real – are properly understood as debates about logical laws and the nature of truth. He delivered his most complete statement of the nature of such metaphysical debates, and the means by which they can be resolved, in The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1991). Thought and Reality (2006) was a further disquisition on anti-realism.
Though he influenced a whole generation of analytic philosophers, including such figures as John McDowell, Christopher Peacocke, and Crispin Wright, Dummett’s work was not easy reading. His stature amongst colleagues was immense, but inevitable difficulties in communicating his theories concisely prevented him from achieving the wider attention he deserved. When asked by his publisher to supply a new introduction to a work on Frege, for example, Dummett supplied 500 pages of material.
But his commitment to truth had very practical applications, and ones which he pursued with vigour and personal courage. In particular, throughout his career he maintained a deep interest in the ethical and political issues concerning refugees and immigration, informed by what he described as “an especial loathing of racial prejudice and its social manifestations”.
In the post-war period, Dummett and his wife Ann were among the earliest and most dogged campaigners on race relations. In 1958 they co-founded the Institute of Race Relations think tank and in the 1960s, as the trickle of immigration became a flood, they drove a battered van to Heathrow Airport day after day to take up the cases of Asian and West Indian immigrants threatened with deportation. On one occasion they were arrested and prosecuted after staging a protest against a market stallholder who refused to serve black customers. Police dropped charges and the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, apologised.
Dummett saw the root of the problem as lying in the political system. In his book On Immigration and Refugees (2001), he argued that lurking behind the egalitarian veneer of democracy is the more manipulative principle of playing on people’s prejudices to gain votes. This, when applied to issues of immigration, has invariably led to a jingoistic policy – a policy founded, essentially, on racism. In Britain, according to Dummett, much of the blame rested with the Home Office, a department which he accused of “decades of hopeless indoctrination in hostility”, first against Commonwealth immigrants, and later against asylum seekers and refugees. “For the Home Office,” he once wrote, “the adjective 'bogus’ goes as automatically with 'asylum seeker’ as 'green’ does with 'grass’.”
Dummett’s political concerns made him increasingly convinced that political parties were essentially undemocratic institutions which, through a distorted voting system and the use of whipping procedures in Parliament, had become little more than “devices for frustrating the will of the majority”. In Voting Procedures (1984) and Principles of Electoral Reform (1997) he proposed a proportional representation system known as the Quota Borda or Quota Preference Score system, a highly complex arrangement designed to encourage consensus by giving candidates the incentive to appeal to as wide as possible a cross-section of voters.
But Dummett was perfectly capable of turning his mind to lighter matters. He was an avid reader of science fiction and an enthusiastic player and historian of card games – the Journal of the Playing Card Society was one of many to which he contributed articles. In The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (1980) one of several publications in this field, he argued that in the Middle Ages the Tarot was used as a set of playing cards and that it only acquired its association with the occult in the 18th century.
Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett was born on June 27 1925. He attended Winchester College, where he was a Scholar, and served in the Armed Forces from 1943 to 1947, first in the Royal Artillery, and then in the Intelligence Corps in India and Malaya. After his military service, he went on a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, graduating with First Class Honours in PPE in 1950, whereupon he was immediately given a fellowship at All Souls.
He remained based in Oxford all his life and in 1979 was appointed Wykeham Professor of Logic, a chair which he held until his retirement in 1992. Concurrently with these appointments, however, he frequently lectured abroad, particularly in America, where he was variously a visiting professor at Stanford, Minnesota and Princeton. In 1976 he was William James Lecturer in Philosophy at Harvard.
Although Dummett was brought up an Anglican, by the age of 13 he regarded himself as an atheist. In 1944, however, he converted to Roman Catholicism. In the early part of his career he regarded himself as a “Wittgensteinian” but he did not accept the view, expressed by some admirers of Wittgenstein, that philosophy has no practical relevance to people’s lives or that metaphysics is an ultimately futile pursuit. Further, Dummett never saw faith and logic as in any way mutually exclusive.
Dummett’s first philosophical article was a book review, published in Mind in 1953. He went on to publish many more, his articles later being compiled into three volumes. His first book, Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973), was a long time in coming partly because he had put his academic career on hold to campaign against racism. A second, enlarged, edition of the book was published in 1981, the same year that saw the publication of The Interpretation of Frege’s Philosophy.
In the 1970s Dummett also published Elements of Intuitionism (1977) and his first collection of papers, Truth and Other Enigmas (1978). Later works included Frege and Other Philosophers (1991) and The Seas of Language (1993). Also in 1993 he published Grammar and Style, a book prompted by his infuriation with declining standards of literacy. Last year he summed up the intellectual pursuit to which he had dedicated his life in The Nature and Future of Philosophy.
Dummett was a Fellow of the British Academy and was knighted in 1999 for “services to philosophy and to racial justice”. He celebrated the award with a demand that the Home Office’s entire immigration staff be replaced.
Michael Dummett married, in 1951, Ann Chesney. She survives him with three sons and two daughters; a son and a daughter predeceased him.
Professor Sir Michael Dummett, born June 27 1925, died December 27 2011