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Summary Article: Strawson, Peter Frederick (1919–2006) from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Epistemology

P. F. Strawson spent most of his career at the University of Oxford, becoming Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in 1968. He published extensively, principally in metaphysics and philosophical logic. Though he did not offer a general theory of knowledge, a dominant aim was that of devising a response to scepticism. Strawson offered different reasons for rejecting scepticism, but he also thought that it was wrong to provide “justifications” for our opinions resting on a supposedly privileged foundation. In 1952 he argued that inductive scepticism has its source in confusion, and no justification of our practices is required (see PROBLEMS OF INDUCTION). His basic reason, though, was that our fundamental objective categories cannot be abandoned at any stage in our thinking, nor can we even describe our experiences without them (see Strawson, 1979). Strawson’s chief preoccupation as an epistemologist was to substantiate and explore the consequences of this.

In Individuals and The Bounds of Sense, he tried to show that scepticism is involved in a deep incoherence, because the intelligibility of the concepts which the sceptic himself employs requires acceptance of things the sceptic is doubtful of. Arguments to show this are called transcendental arguments (see TRANSCENDENTAL ARGUMENTS).

In Individuals, Strawson argued that for us space-occupying bodies are the basic objects of thought. We also think about possessors of consciousness, persons, and they must, at least characteristically, have both psychological and material attributes. The chief epistemological thesis is that it is a condition for having such a conceptual scheme that the basis we standardly regard as sufficient for certain judgements must in fact be sufficient. Thus, our normal ways of telling that another is in a given psychological state must be “logically adequate kinds of criteria” (Strawson, 1959, p. 105).

In The Bounds of Sense Strawson further developed such arguments by defending many of Kant’s central views (see KANT) after detaching them from transcendental idealism. In particular, Strawson supported a version of Kant’s thesis that for a sequence of experiences to belong to a self-conscious subject they must constitute experience of an objective world. The central idea is that a substantive concept of an experiencing subject has employment only where we can apply the distinction between how in those experiences things seem to be and how they really are.

This distinction can apply only if the experience is thought of as being of an objective world.

Debate about these arguments has centred on whether the conceptual dependencies are strongly enough established, and also on what the requirement of objective experience amounts to.

In Scepticism and Naturalism Strawson presented a new response, with its roots in Hume and Wittgenstein (see HUME; WITTGENSTEIN). The thesis is that sceptical arguments should be dismissed as idle, since they cannot persuade us. Counter-arguments, even of a transcendental type, are not needed, though they may reveal conceptual connections. The reason for this is that we cannot help believing in (say) bodies and other minds.

While the psychological claim seems indisputable, criticisms of Strawson’s naturalism have focused on whether the psychological facts justify a dismissal of sceptical arguments. It is widely felt that a rejection of scepticism is unsatisfactory unless, at the very least, some mistake can be located in such arguments.

See also OTHER MINDS; PROBLEMS OF INDUCTION; TRANSCENDENTAL ARGUMENTS.

WRITINGS
  • Introduction to Logical Theory (London: Methuen, 1952).
  • Individuals (London: Methuen, 1959).
  • The Bounds of Sense (London: Methuen, 1967).
  • Scepticism and Naturalism (London: Methuen, 1985).
  • Perception and Its Objects,” in Perception and Identity, ed. Macdonald, G. F. (London: Macmillan, 1979).
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY
  • Ayer, A. J.: “The Concept of a Person,”, in his The Concept of a Person and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1963).
  • Evans, G.: “Things without the Mind - a Commentary upon Chapter Two of Strawson’s Individuals,” in his Collected Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).
  • Stroud, B.: “Transcendental Arguments,” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968), 241-56.
  • Wiley ©2010

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