Philosophy Index

P. F. Strawson

Peter Frederick Strawson (1919–2006) was an English analytic philosopher best known for his work on philosophy of language and philosophy of mind.

Life

Born in London, Strawson studied at Christ's College, Finchely and then at St. John's College at Oxford from 1937 to 1940, where he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Strawson then served for the British military during World War II, after which he taught at the Welsh Bangor University.

Strawson then earned a position at Oxford University and was awarded the John Locke Prize. By 1948 he was made a Fellow at Oxford's University College. In 1968, he succeeded Gilbert Ryle as Magdalen College's Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy.

In 1977, Sir P. F. Strawson was knighted for his contributions to philosophy.

P. F. Strawson’s son, Galen Strawson, is also a well-known philosopher. In addition to Galen, Peter Strawson had three other children.

Theory of Descriptions

P.F. Strawson became well-known internationally for a 1950 article in the philosophy journal Mind, in which he argued against Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite descriptions. Strawson argued that Russell missed the meaning of definite descriptions (phrases like “the chicken” and “the present king of France”). In Strawsons view, these claims are not existential — they are not claims that the described objects exist, but simply uses of the phrase.

In a sentence such as, “The present king of France is bald”, Russell's analysis suggests that the sentence begins by asserting that there is a present king of France, and then says things about it. Thus, for Russell, the sentence is false. Strawson argues that the sentence is neither true nor false, because the phrase “the present king of France” is not an existential statement, but merely a reference to something that does not exist. Thus, the sentence is not about anything, and therefore is neither true nor false in its assertion.

Selected Works

  • “On Referring” (Mind, 1950)
  • “Self, Mind and Body” (Common Factor, 1950)
  • “Is Existence Never a Predicate” (Critica, 1967)
  • Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar (1974)
  • Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (1985)
  • Entity and Identity (1997)

Vitals

Name: Sir Peter Frederick Strawson
Born: November 23, 1919
Died: February 13, 2006