Peter Strawson

Peter Frederick Strawson

23 November 1919
Ealing, London, England
Died13 February 2006(2006-02-13) (aged 86)
London, England
Alma materSt John's College, Oxford
Children4, including Galen
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Notable studentsGareth Evans
Main interests
Philosophy of language · Philosophy of mind
Notable ideas
Ordinary language philosophy
Personal reactive attitudes[1]
The distinction between sortal and characterising universals[2]
The distinction between particular individuals (such as historical events, material objects and persons) and non-particular individuals (such as qualities, properties, numbers, species)[3]
The "descriptive metaphysics" and "revisionary metaphysics" distinction[4]

Sir Peter Frederick Strawson FBA (/ˈstrɔːsən/; 23 November 1919 – 13 February 2006) was an English philosopher. He was the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford (Magdalen College) from 1968 to 1987. Before that, he was appointed as a college lecturer at University College, Oxford, in 1947, and became a tutorial fellow the following year, until 1968. On his retirement in 1987, he returned to the college and continued working there until shortly before his death.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Strawson "exerted a considerable influence on philosophy, both during his lifetime and, indeed, since his death".[5]

Early years

Strawson was born in Ealing, west London, and brought up in Finchley, north London, by his parents, both of whom were teachers. He was educated at Christ's College, Finchley, followed by St John's College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Philosophical work

Strawson first became well known with his article "On Referring" (1950), a criticism of Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions (see also Definite descriptions) that Russell explained in the famous "On Denoting" article (1905).

In philosophical methodology, there are (at least) two important and interrelated features of Strawson's work that are worthy of note.[6] The first is the project of a 'descriptive' metaphysics, and the second is his notion of a shared conceptual scheme, composed of concepts operated in everyday life. In his book Individuals (1959), Strawson attempts to give a description of various concepts that form an interconnected web, representing (part of) our common, shared, human conceptual scheme. In particular, he examines our conceptions of basic particulars, and how they are variously brought under general spatio-temporal concepts. What makes this a metaphysical project is that it exhibits, in fine detail, the structural features of our thought about the world, and thus precisely delimits how we, humans, think about reality.

Strawson distinguished between 'revisionary' and 'descriptive metaphysics', he wrote - "Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure".[7] The purpose of the former is to "lay bare the most general features of our conceptual scheme" and to understand structures which do not "readily display itself on the structures of language but lies submerged" by analysing those metaphysical concepts which have always existed. He lists Aristotle and Kant as descriptive and Descartes and Leibniz as revisionary.[8]

Strawson was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960 and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1969 to 1970. He was knighted, in 1977, for services to philosophy.

Personal life

After serving as a captain in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers during World War II, Strawson married Ann Martin in 1945. They had four children, including the philosopher Galen Strawson. P.F. Strawson lived in Oxford all his adult life and died in hospital on 13 February 2006 after a short illness. He was elder brother to Major General John Strawson.

The obituary in The Guardian noted that "Oxford was the world capital of philosophy between 1950 and 1970, and American academics flocked there, rather than the traffic going the other way. That golden age had no greater philosopher than Sir Peter Strawson."[9]

In its obituary, The Times of London described him as a "philosopher of matchless range who made incisive, influential contributions to problems of language and metaphysics."[10] The author went on to say:

Few scholars achieve lasting fame as dramatically as did the philosopher Sir Peter Strawson. By 1950 Strawson, then a Fellow of University College, Oxford, was already a respected tutor and a promising member of the group of younger Oxford dons whose careful attention to the workings of natural languages marked them out as 'linguistic' philosophers. [He published] extraordinary papers, which are still read and discussed more than 50 years later and which are prescribed to tyros as models of philosophical criticism.[10]

His portrait was painted by the artists Muli Tang and Daphne Todd.[11]

Partial bibliography




  1. ^ Personal reactive attitudes are reactions we display when we are hurt by the actions of an agent (see Strawson, P. F. (2008), Freedom and resentment and other essays, Routledge, p. 12).
  2. ^ N. Milkov, A Hundred Years of English Philosophy, Springer, 2013, p. 201.
  3. ^ Clifford A. Brown, Peter Strawson, Routledge, 2015, p. 51.
  4. ^ Peter Frederick Strawson (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  5. ^ "Peter Frederick Strawson". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2022.
  6. ^ P.F. Strawson, Individuals
  7. ^ Phillips, R.L. (1967). "Descriptive versus Revisionary Metaphysics and the Mind–Body Problem". Philosophy. 42 (160): 105–118.
  8. ^ Strawson, P. F. (1964). Individuals. University Paperbacks. pp. 9–10.
  9. ^ The Guardian – Obituary Archived 1 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b February 13, 2006, November 23, 1919-. "Sir Peter Strawson". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 15 November 2020.((cite news)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Todd, Daphne. "Bill Sykes, Peter Strawson, George Cawkwell and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann". Art UK. UK. Retrieved 23 January 2015.
  12. ^ Quine, W. V. (1953). "Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory". Mind. 62 (248): 433–451. doi:10.1093/mind/lxii.248.433. ISSN 0026-4423. JSTOR 2251091.

See also