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Peter Frederick Strawson (1919 – 2006) was an English philosopher of ordinary language and mind at Oxford. No philosopher understands his predecessors until he has re-thought their thought in his own contemporary terms.

P. F. Strawson, philosopher at Oxford

Peter Strawson, philosopher


Quotations from P.F. Strawson

You do not abolish your commitments by refusing to be explicit about them, any more than you can get rid of unpleasant realities by employing euphemisms.

Part of my aim is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular things.

What principles should govern human action? As rational beings, we should act rationally. As moral beings, we should act morally. What, in each case, are the principles involved? What is it to act rationally, or morally? It is often thought, or said, that philosophers are preeminently the people who have (and have neglected) a moral obligation to apply their rational skills to these great questions.

If I talk about my handkerchief, I can, perhaps, produce the object I am referring to out of my pocket. I can’t produce the meaning of the expression, “my handkerchief,” out of my pocket. Because Russell confused meaning with mentioning, he thought that if there were any expressions having a uniquely referring use, which were what they seemed (i.e. logical subjects) and not something else in disguise, their meaning must be the particular object which they were used to refer to. Hence the troublesome mythology of the logically proper name.

To ask to be forgiven is in part to acknowledge that the attitude displayed in our actions was such as might properly be resented and in part to repudiate that attitude for the future; and to forgive is to accept the repudiation and to forswear the resentment.

Neither Aristotelian nor Russellian rules give the exact logic of any expression of ordinary language; for ordinary language has no exact logic.

A man who contradicts himself may have succeeded in exercising his vocal chords. But from the point of view of imparting information, of communicating facts (or falsehoods) it is as if he had never opened his mouth. He utters words, but does not say anything.

No philosopher understands his predecessors until he has re-thought their thought in his own contemporary terms; and it is characteristic of the very greatest philosophers, like Kant and Aristotle, that they, more than any others, repay this effort of re-thinking.

The concept of a person is logically prior to that of an individual consciousness.

The concept of a person is not to be analyzed as that of an animated body or an embodied anima.


Sources for quotations of Peter Strawson from: WikiQuote, GoodReads, Stanford edu,  BooksGoogle


COMMENTS on Peter F. Strawson

You do not abolish your commitments by refusing to be explicit about them, any more than you can get rid of unpleasant realities by employing euphemisms. This seems like an obvious statement, and yet it is necessary to state it clearly, and that in part is what philosophy is about.

To forgive is to accept the repudiation and to forswear the resentment. When we hear of the families of murder victims proclaiming their forgiveness of the murderer of a loved one, it appears they are primarily forswearing their legitimately felt resentment, but the Strawson quote would also include the acceptance of the repudiation of the murder, and I don’t know if that is included in the typical idea of forgiveness, because that would include the acceptance that the murderer felt justified in his hatred and violent action. Thus, for the forgiveness to be meaningful it would presuppose the murderer had changed their mind and no longer held their hostile feelings. However, that change of feeling of the murderer is not within the power of the victims to control or to know, or to know with certainty. Therefore, it would be necessary for the victims to accept the ill feelings perhaps still felt toward them as part of their forgiveness. To forgive someone who had injured you and still hates you would be difficult, but not impossible.

A man who contradicts himself may have succeeded in exercising his vocal chords. But from the point of view of imparting information, of communicating facts (or falsehoods) it is as if he had never opened his mouth. He utters words, but does not say anything. This is a very high standard for communication, because language is filled with so many ambiguities that almost any statement can be construed to have meaning when applied to a local situation. And as a general rule, it is implied that in communication the listener is expected to assemble the words of the speaker into thoughts that are meaningful. We must assume the speaker intends to convey meaning and it is our part of the social contract of communication to make sense of his words. If words are directed towards us we must assume there is some information the person intends for us to receive, and this is true even if there are contradictions in his statements and in our construction of their intended meaning.

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