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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DUMMETT

(1925 — 2011)

 

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY

Sir 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

[1] 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 Reference'.]

Instead of 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 holistic [f].

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].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

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 technical.

 

READING

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.

Studies

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 Dummett.

J. L. Brandl and Peter Sullivan (eds.), New Essays on the Philosophy of Michael Dummett.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Dummett

 

[1a; cf. 1h] Systematic philosophy of language — hence analysis of the thought (and 'reality') expressed through it

   Frege

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

   Ryle

   Austin

   Davidson

[2b]

[2b 3a c d]

[1c]

[1a b]

[1a]

[1g]

 

[1b] Rejection of correspondence theory and 'realism'; understanding of 'truth' requires theory of meaning

   Aristotle

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

   Austin

   Davidson

   Strawson

   Putnam

   Searle

[2a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1d]

[1d]

[1e]

[1g]

[2d]

 

[1c] Meaning theory and knowledge/ understanding; sense and force

   Frege

   Wittgenstein

   Austin

[2k]

[2b]

[1e]

 

[1d] Sense-reference distinction; sense determines reference

   Frege

   Quine

Putnam

Kripke

[2e]

[1a e]

[1a b f]

[1a c]

 

[1e] Rejection of causal theories of reference and 'possible world' approach

Putnam

   Kripke

[1c f]

[1d]

 

[1f] Verification/ pragmatic approach to meaning — no appeal to transcendent truth-conditions; justifiability/ assertability; rejection of holism

   Frege

   Dewey

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

   Quine

   Davidson

   Putnam

[2h]

[2b]

[1c 2a]

[1a]

[1f 3a]

[1a-d f]

[1h]

 

[1g] Rejection of bivalence    Aristotle [3b]

 

[1h; cf. 1a] Metaphysical problems solved through 'model of meaning not quest for 'illegitimate' usage

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Austin

[3a c d]

[1a b]

[1a]