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Michael Dummett (1925-2011)

Menno Lievers tells us about the ideas and life of an influential British philosopher.

Philosophy in the 20th century, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, has been dominated by ‘the linguistic turn’. This shift in ideas said that philosophical problems could only be solved by attending carefully to the terms in which these problems were phrased. The recently deceased Oxford philosopher Sir Michael Dummett not only endorsed this view, but pushed this methodology to its limits.

What could possibly justify the outlandish proposal that philosophical problems ought to be rephrased as questions about language? Shouldn’t philosophy be concerned with actual problems? Dummett’s work provides us with at least two arguments for the linguistic turn. The first is that an analysis of thought necessarily proceeds via an analysis of language. The second argument is that the structure of our world is determined by the structure of our language. He developed both claims while studying the work of the German philosopher and mathematician to whom he devoted so much of his intellectual efforts: Gottlob Frege (1848-1925). Dummett ranked Frege among the greatest philosophers of all time.

After Aristotle (384-322 BC), philosophers were engaged with ontological questions such as ‘What exists?’ and ‘What is being?’ But since Descartes (1596-1650), the most important question became ‘What do I know with absolute certainty?’ In Dummett’s view of the history of philosophy, Frege replaced this question with the even more fundamental one: ‘What is meaning?’ As a result, the philosophy of language should take centre stage as ‘primary philosophy’. To some this might seem an all-too-metaphysical interpretation of the direction taken by philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world , but the title of one of Dummett’s major works, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1989), testifies that this was indeed his view. In this book he argued that a philosopher’s attitude to logic implied either a realist or an antirealist view on reality. Thus, if one makes the logical claim that all assertions are either true or false, because reality determines their truth or falsity (whether we have a proof of them or not), then one is committed to the metaphysical, realist view that a determinate reality exists.

Perhaps because Dummett did address these big questions, he attracted a large number of philosophers from abroad, who came to Oxford to discuss their work with him, or simply to listen to his lectures. In this Dummett was extremely generous with his time, often paying more attention to unknown elderly philosophers from Taiwan who couldn’t express themselves very clearly in English than to famous American philosophers who were cruising through Oxford.

His lectures were something of an event. When he entered the classroom, his presence dominated the room without any apparent effort on his part. His cheerful laugh created a relaxed atmosphere. But the moment he started lecturing he displayed a seriousness which manifested the infectious intensity with which he practised philosophy.

As an Oxford don, Dummett was unconventional without being extravagant. He often enjoyed a simple sandwich for lunch, sitting on the steps of the Sheldonian Theatre. As a supervisor of graduate students who were working on their PhD theses, Dummett was always constructive. He gave me tutorials in his room on the ground floor in Saville House, Mansfield Road. After listening to what I hd to say, he would shut his eyes, not just for a minute but for quite a while before responding. In these moments I remembered the rumours that the intellectual energy that sparked from his eyes could be condensed into an impatient flash of lightning directed towards me (this never happened). Whilst looking at the piles of books and photocopies on his desk and table, I recalled the famous claim in the Preface to his seminal book Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973), that some chapters of the first version of that book had physically disappeared. Then he finally opened his eyes and said something along the lines of, “You could not possibly mean this… Therefore you must have meant this…” And all the time Frege’s portrait was swinging above the heater.

Prof. Dummett was one of the few faculty members who was also a member of the Ockham Society – the society for graduate students in philosophy at Oxford University. He attended its meetings frequently. When, on his retirement it organised a series of lectures on his work, he specifically requested that it should not be called ‘The Philosophy of Dummett’.

When I thought that it would be a good idea to stay in Oxford during one Christmas break, Michael invited me over, together with Philippa Foot, for Christmas Day at his home. After dinner I remember his wife Ann asking me what I felt about Michael’s view on the reality of the past, which she rejected as simply unbelievable. Later he sat in his armchair in the living room surrounded by his grandchildren, who were running around and watching television. He smiled, and remarked, true to his philosophy: “If only they would possess the concept of authority.”

© Menno Lievers 2012

Menno Lievers is a philosopher based at the University of Utrecht, and also an editor of the Dutch literary magazine De Revisor.

• We must with sadness also report the death of Lady Ann Dummett on the 7th February 2012, age 81.

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