Michael Dummett was born in London and educated at Winchester College and
Christ Church, Oxford. He was elected
Fellow of All Souls and subsequently became Reader in the Philosophy of
Mathematics at the University of Oxford, lecturing at New College.
From 1978 until his retirement in 1992 he was Wykeham Professor of
Logic. He has also taught at Berkeley
and Stanford, and at the University of Ghana; and he was the Gifford Lecturer
for 1997. He was knighted in 1999.
PHILOSOPHY OF LOGIC AND LANGUAGE
 Throughout his career Dummett's major
concern has been to
formulate a systematic philosophy of language, that is, to develop the
appropriate methods and criteria for its study, which may also, he thinks,
result in a 'system' or body of theory for the philosophy of language. He believes this is required because analysis of language is analysis
of the thought communicated by it "without residue", and hence of the 'reality'
expressed by means of it [a].
Dummett is especially interested in the conceptual
relationships between meaning and truth. He rejects the view
that truth is implicitly understood (for example, in correspondence
theories). While truth-conditions are
sometimes explicit, in many situations we do not know what they are
particularly with reference to future facts or, in the case of subjunctives, to
counterfactual conditionals; they
transcend the evidence. Hence he rejects
realism and argues that to understand 'truth' that we need to grasp meaning. We therefore need a theory of meaning [b]. This will
firstly (a) set out the meaning of logical constants and hence the logical laws
of a natural language, and (b) uncover the correct model for the language and
thus clarify the concept of truth by showing how it relates to meaning. But, secondly, he says such a theory must include an
account of what knowledge or
understanding consists in when we use it, and it requires reference to the
concepts of both 'sense' and 'force' [c]. The latter characterizes the various
linguistic acts involved in linguistic usage, such as asserting, commanding,
interrogating. In the context of his theory of meaning Dummett argues further that the distinction
between sense and reference must be
preserved. Sense is an ingredient
in meaning in that to give an account of the sense of an expression is to give
a partial account of what a speaker knows when he understands that
expression. It cannot simply consist in
having that reference. Indeed sense determines reference [d]. He therefore rejects causal theories of reference [e] (according to which terms refer to what
they are linked to without users necessarily identifying or knowing those
referents). He recognises the insight
they offer into the the way the reference of some kinds of proper names (such
as names of persons, animals) is determined, but he has reservations about this
and in any case argues that it fails to give an account of the functioning of
proper names in general. [See 'Frege's Distinction between Sense and
searching for evidence-transcendent truth-conditions, Dummett argues for a
verificationist-pragmatist approach to meaning. In line with the antirealist position he adopts with regard
to logic and mathematics, he favours an intuitionist approach according to
which the 'truth' of a statement is understood in terms of our ability to
recognise that there is a proof for it. 'Truth' is to be understood with reference to the procedures we use when trying to find out
truth-values, and is to be associated with such notions as 'justifiability' and
'assertability' of individual beliefs. And he therefore rejects the view that the approach to language must be
There are several important consequences for Dummett's
antirealism. For example, he has to reject the bivalence
of classical logic [g], that is the view
that every statement in the language is determinately true or false. Further, his thesis necessitates a revision of the way we
understand reality through thought expressed in language. The solution of metaphysical problems for him
lies not in a quest for illegitimate usage but in finding the 'model',
associated with the account of meaning, which emerges from his meaning-theory [h].
Dummett is regarded by many commentators as
one of the outstanding analytical philosophers of the twentieth century not
only for his own philosophical thinking but also for his writings on
Frege. How one responds to his views on
language depends largely on whether one accepts that the concept of meaning
must ground the concept of truth, rather than holding that an implicitly
understood notion of truth is needed to elucidate meaning. If one does follow Dummett, however, there
are serious difficulties to contend with.
(1) Some opponents argue that
it is mistaken to suppose that the language we use determines our
world-view. On the contrary, they say,
the nature of the world determines the way we talk about it and limits what can
be said. Metaphysical problems are
therefore prior to semantic issues.
(2) Antirealism requires the
overturning of long-established traditions and linguistic conventions in
relation to classical logic, deductive inference, talk about the past, and so
on. Against this it might be said that
the 'revision' necessitated by the antirealist is no less radical than that
required by many truth-based theories, for example, Davidson's. And even if difficulties with bivalence and
the like can in some way be met, it might be argued that on Dummett's thesis
problems with transcendental realism remain. However, a definitive view has
not yet emerged, as controversy between realists and antirealists in relation
to meaning and truth is on-going; and much of the literature has become highly
Dummett: Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973; revd edn
1981); The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1991). See also 'Truth' (1959), in Truth and other Enigmas (1978) also
includes 'Frege's Distinction between Sense and Reference'; 'What is a Theory of Meaning?' in Mind and Language, ed. S. Guttenplan;
'What is a Theory of Meaning II?' in Truth
and Meaning, ed. G. Evans and R. McDowell. See also 'Can Analytical Philosophy be Systematic, and Ought It to Be?',
in After Philosophy, eds. K. Baynes et. al.
K. Green, Dummett: Philosophy of Language.
D. Gunson, Michael Dummett and the Theory of Meaning.
B. Weiss, Michael Dummett.
Collections of essays
B. McGuinness and G. Oliveri (eds.), The Philosophy of Michael
J. L. Brandl and Peter Sullivan (eds.), New Essays on the
Philosophy of Michael Dummett.