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Peter Strawson (1919-2006): A Sort of Obituary

John Heawood gives us an overview of Peter Strawson’s subtle philosophy, and explains why his insights about predicates and persons still matter.

Sir Peter Strawson, who died this year aged 86, was a major figure in a great era of English-language philosophy, and a pioneer of what is generally called conceptual analysis. Strawson’s own name for his philosophical method was ‘descriptive metaphysics’ – defined as an attempt to describe “the actual structure of our thought about the world” – as opposed to the revisionary metaphysics of, say, Descartes or Leibniz, which was “concerned to produce a better structure” (Individuals p.9).

His most fundamental work in this vein is found in two books: Individuals and The Bounds of Sense (which he dubbed “a scaled-down Kantianism”). But Strawson wrote other books, and many papers: on logic and epistemology, on philosophy of language, ethics and aesthetics. And he dealt with a breadth of topics from truth and meaning to free will, from causation and perception to scepticism.

Two famous early papers foretold both his breadth and his depth. The first, ‘On Referring’, was a study in philosophical logic, challenging Bertrand Russell’s ‘On Denoting’. The other, ‘Persons’ (which reappears in Individuals), was a study in the philosophy of mind. I’ll say something here about the argument of ‘Persons’, Strawson’s best-known essay in descriptive metaphysics.

Predicates, Properties and People

Strawson starts, blandly enough, by distinguishing between two sorts of ‘predicate’ or descriptive term: P-predicates and M-predicates. P (Psychological?) predicates are those we apply only to conscious beings, such as ‘thinks’, ‘is worried’, ‘hoped’. M (Material?) predicates, such as ‘was heavy’, ‘falls’, ‘is noisy’ are those applied also to material objects which we do not regard as conscious. (We may speak also of P-properties and M-properties, as the features which these predicates pick out.)

What follows takes the form of a Kantian ‘transcendental argument’, like this:

If we are able to employ certain descriptions of people (namely P-predicates), our concept of a person must be of a certain kind; but we do employ these descriptions of people; therefore our concept of a person must be of this kind.

So – of what kind is our concept of a person? Descartes the dualist would allocate P-predicates to an immaterial mind, and M-predicates to the material, visible body. He’d say that the mind is the real person: it can only directly apply P-predicates to itself: applying them to ‘other minds’ is indirect (via bodies) and thus unreliable.

The Soul of Strawson’s Argument

For Strawson, this violates the fundamental nature of a predicate – any predicate! His crucial point, which one commentator (C.B. Martin) pleasantly calls the ‘soul’ of his argument, appears bizarrely at the end of a long footnote:

“The main point here is a purely logical one: the idea of a predicate is correlative with that of a range of distinguishable individuals of which the predicate can be significantly, though not necessarily truly, affirmed.”
(Individuals p.99 note 1)

Strawson is saying that I can’t apply a predicate, be it ‘red’ or ‘hungry’, in any one case, unless I’m prepared to apply it, on appropriate occasions, in a whole range of other cases. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a predicate at all – just a scribble, or a noise. I can’t meaningfully call this flower red, or this person hungry, unless I’m prepared to call lots of other things red, lots of other people (or animals) hungry. A predicate is, and must be, not a one-off tag, but an endlessly reusable implement.

So – I can only ascribe P-predicates to myself if I’m ready to ascribe them to a range of other eligible (ie conscious) subjects as well. But I can only ascribe predicates to things that I can identify or pick out in my surroundings, and this I can’t do by ‘pure consciousness’ alone. As Strawson puts it:

“One can ascribe states of consciousness to oneself only if one can ascribe them to others. One can ascribe them to others only if one can identify other subjects of experience. And one cannot identify others if one can identify them only as subjects of experience, possessors of states of consciousness.” (Individuals p.100)

Strawson reasons that I couldn’t even call myself (say) happy, unless I could also call others happy when occasion arose. And I couldn’t do this unless I could pick out these others as, at one and the same time, both bodily and conscious beings. They must be bodily, so that I can pick them out. They must also be conscious, so that I can pick them out as beings like myself, capable of – for example – happiness.

Strawson accepts that, to call someone else happy, I need to observe their (happy) behaviour; whereas I can say “I’m happy today” without needing to observe myself. But he insists that both ways of ascribing this P-predicate are and must be ‘logically adequate’, ie in principle reliable. If not, then there would be no range of potential (happy) subjects for such a predicate to be applied to, and so – no predicate!

Our Concept of a Person is Primitive

Suppose I describe someone as shy and clever, tall and dark: then a dualist would say that, strictly speaking, the first two predicates belong to the mind, while the last two belong to the body. Strawson would reply that all four predicates belong to the same subject – a person – and no one of them belongs more or less properly than another.

He sums all this up in the thesis that our concept of a person is primitive. By this he means, not that people are primitive, but that our concept of a person, as the unitary bearer of both P-predicates and M-predicates, is logically primitive and irreducible – more basic than that of a human mind or a human body considered on its own:

“The concept of a person is logically prior to that of an individual consciousness. The concept of a person is not to be analysed as that of an animated body or an embodied anima.” (Individuals p.103)

Or, to borrow from a later, more accessible statement of his views in ‘Self, Mind and Body’: my history is not the history of ‘two one-sided things’, a Cartesian mind and a Cartesian body, but of ‘one two-sided thing’ – a person. (see Freedom and Resentment p.170.)

Strawson’s modest presentation of his work as descriptive metaphysics should not deceive us. He isn’t just saying that this is, as it happens, our concept of a person. He’s claiming, on the basis of his transcendental argument, that any concept of a person must have these same basic features. If so, then the Lego-like conception of ‘immaterial mind’ and ‘unthinking body’ as basic categories, and a person as mind-plus-body, is not ‘revisionary metaphysics’ but failed metaphysics – it doesn’t even make sense! Rather, it is the concept of a person that is primary and irreducible, while ‘mind’ and ‘(human) body’ indicate derivative, secondary ways in which we sometimes talk about people.

The Ripples Spread

If Strawson’s transcendental argument is correct, then the ripples of its implications spread far and wide. Not only is mind-body dualism incoherent, but the traditional ‘problem of other minds’ is solved. Or rather it’s dissolved, since scepticism about other minds only arose from the incoherent dualist view, according to which all we can reliably apply to other people is M-predicates (‘big’, ‘loud’), while P-predicates (‘greedy’, ‘sad’) can only be ascribed on the basis of an unreliable inference.

But, as Strawson has already shown, if I had not in the first place had a range of wholly adequate subjects for my ascription of a P-predicate, (such as ‘sad’), I could never have acquired that P-predicate at all, nor applied it to myself or anyone else. Still less could I have found myself in the situation of saying: ‘I know that I’m sad, but I can’t really tell if anyone else is sad, or ever has been’.

Strawson’s argument doesn’t threaten only the long-suspected thesis of dualism. It holds the same message for the still very popular doctrine of materialism – which after all has never abandoned the Cartesian dichotomy into two mutually exclusive categories of ‘immaterial mind’ and ‘unthinking body’, but only jettisoned the more problematic one! So it shares with dualism one fatal assumption: namely, that all we ever encounter in the ‘physical realm’ is material bodies with M-properties.

This being so, I found it curious when Strawson once hinted at sympathy with the mind-brain identity theory (ie that what we call the mind is in reality none other than the brain), which is usually regarded as a form of materialism! But then Strawson was often more modest than his admirers in what he held to follow from his views. For example, he didn’t believe his transcendental argument ruled out the possibility of a sci-fi ‘exchange of bodies’ between persons; nor of disembodied existence, or at least the disembodied survival of a ‘former person’. However, his portrayal of such a survival is so bleakly unattractive that I can only hope it is not, as you read this, the present lot of the former person formerly known as P.F. Strawson.

Strawson and Science

Back here on earth, we would do well to study the implications of Strawson’s views for psychology, and indeed for all the sciences. In the heyday of his ‘Persons’, and related work by other philosophers, it seemed obvious that any valid conception of human beings, even within the sciences, must be on Strawson’s terms.

But how to reconcile this viewpoint with physical science? This was meanwhile operating, with notable success, in a world of M-properties alone: a world where P-properties could only feature, if at all, as ghostly ‘epiphenomena’, and in which Strawsonian people – ie, people! – seemed to figure mainly as an embarrassment.

Strawson did not live to see such a reconciliation. We still do not possess a real ‘theory of everything’, which can accommodate not only stars and atoms and sticks and stones, but also people – people who have psychological properties as well as material ones, people whose thoughts and feelings are acknowledged to have real effects in the physical realm, as much as their bodily presence does.

As it is, the pendulum seems merely to have swung back to more subtle forms of materialism, such as the mind-brain identity theory, or variations on functionalism. Sadly these theories are often championed by clever philosophers who have either ignored the force of Strawson’s arguments, or else ludicrously misconstrued them and dismissed him as just another dualist. Perhaps real progress won’t ever be made until Strawson’s insights into personhood are once more given their due!

Of course Strawson did not reach these insights in a vacuum. His work on the concept of a person has close analogies with views of Wittgenstein, of Husserl, and of two very different followers of Husserl, namely Sartre and Ryle. But even if his views were fully in keeping with the spirit of his times, still the explicit elegance of his arguments, and the clarity and precision of their expression, are very much his own; and for me they remain the hallmark of Strawson as a philosopher.

Of Peter Strawson as a person, others have written with far greater knowledge than myself. I encountered him only at conferences, and as a visitor, generous with his time, who came to read papers to the student Philosophy Society during my years at the University of York. In person he seemed the best sort of philosopher: friendly and courteous, sophisticated but accessible, formidable and yet unassuming: for him, the P-predicates of praise come readily to mind!

And I relish the memory of one formal dinner, before Strawson read his paper, when he told a rueful anecdote against himself, about a disconcerting encounter with one teenage son (perhaps it was Galen, now himself an eminent philosopher). One of us hastened to reassure him, a bit too eagerly: “Perhaps some sons are embarrassed by their famous fathers.” Strawson said simply: “I think sons are embarrassed by their fathers.” And that was that.

© John Heawood 2006

John Heawood was a senior lecturer in philosophy (now retired) at the University of York. He is aware that even his retrospective views are probably out of date.

• The papers mentioned in this article have been reprinted in many philosophical collections; ‘Self, Mind and Body’ is reprinted in Strawson’s Freedom and Resentment.

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