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Michael Dummett dead

December 28, 2011

Michael-DummettOne of my personal heroes died yesterday, Michael Dummet (Oxford).  Not only was Michael particularly important in my own philosophical development, but I greatly admired the way he fought tirelessly against racism, his commitment to religion, and his commitment to family (he was married for 60 years.)  Some of my comments about backward causation were inspired by Dummett’s interest in the subject.

From the Guardian obituary:

Sir Michael Dummett, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th century. He was also an international authority on tarot cards, a campaigner for racial justice and a devoted family man. His wife, Ann, was a co-worker in his fight against racism and collaborated with him on a number of publications on the subject.

Dummett was a staunch advocate of analytic philosophy, the fundamental tenet of which he took to be that “the philosophy of language is the foundation of all other philosophy.” He also once characterised it as “post-Fregean philosophy,” the 19th-century German philosopher Gottlob Frege having done as much as anyone to treat the philosophy of language in this way. Much of Dummett’s own work was accordingly devoted to the interpretation and exposition of Frege’s ideas, and he will be as well remembered for his exegesis of Frege as he will for his own seminal contributions to analytic philosophy.

Frege held that the way in which the words in a sentence combine reflects the structure of the thought that the sentence expresses. In the sentence “Michael smokes,” a proper name combines with a verb so as to express the thought that a particular person, Michael, indulges in a particular activity, smoking. This thought is true if Michael does in fact smoke, and false otherwise.

On this apparently innocuous and simple basis, Frege erected an elaborate set of ideas that have had an immense influence. Nevertheless, Dummett believed that Frege made certain assumptions concerning truth and falsehood that could be called into question. Frege allowed for the possibility of a thought that was neither true nor false. An example would be the thought that Father Christmas smokes. Given that there is no such person as Father Christmas, then neither is there anything to make this thought true or false. But Frege was not in the least reluctant to admit that a thought could be true or false without our having any way of telling which. An example might be the thought that Plato would have enjoyed smoking. This is what caused Dummett to pause.

He did not see how we could understand a sentence without having some way of manifesting our understanding. And he did not see how we could manifest this without being able to tell whether the thought expressed was true or false. So the assumption that a given thought could be true or false even though we had no way of telling which – an assumption that Dummett called “realism” concerning the thought – was immediately problematical.

Not that Dummett flatly denied this assumption; his point was only that it needed justification. He was issuing a challenge. Although the challenge was something close to a lifelong crusade, he undoubtedly retained a sympathy for realism. It was as if he was engaged in a continual internal struggle with himself. Furthermore, it is hard to escape the feeling that this in turn had something to do with his deep religious convictions, many of which may well have had a realist cast which the philosopher in him found problematical.

It is certainly true that, although he rarely made explicit contributions to the philosophy of religion, what he did write was often motivated by religious concerns. One topic about which he wrote a great deal, for example, was the possibility of backward causation. Certainly, his interest in this derived from an interest in the efficacy of retrospective prayer.

No one who witnessed Dummett engage in debate could fail to be struck by the passion with which he upheld his philosophical views. Nor could anyone who came into professional contact with him fail to be struck by the passion with which he defended all that was precious to him in academia. In 1984, for example, he resigned from the British Academy, partly because of his belief that it had failed in its duty to defend universities against funding cuts.

Indeed, Dummett seemed to be constitutionally incapable of undertaking anything half-heartedly. Not only was similar commitment manifest in the way he lived out his Christianity (he converted to Catholicism when he was a young man) and in the tireless way in which he opposed racism in all its forms, there was even evidence of it in his recreational interest in the history of card games.

Dummett was uncompromising in his convictions. This often led to bruising encounters with opponents. But although his opposition to another person’s views could occasionally spill over into opposition to that other person, his sole motivation was a desire to see truth prevail.

He also took great pleasure in the good things in life, and had a wonderfully infectious sense of humour. He was always a generous and inspirational teacher. He never lectured twice on exactly the same material, preferring to maintain as much freshness as possible in his delivery. It was impossible to hear him lecture and not to have a profound sense of thought in action. He would pace up and down, cigarette in hand, pausing periodically to formulate in his own mind how best to proceed, referring only occasionally, if at all, to his notes. The upshot would always be a beautifully structured and wonderfully conceived argument in which ideas about the most abstract topics were seamlessly woven together.

In supervisions with his graduate students, he was similarly intent on the issues, but with an additional determination to see what his students were getting at. He inspired not only great philosophy but great affection….

Dummett’s many non-philosophical publications included books on immigration, Catholicism, tarot cards, and voting procedures (he devised the Quota Borda system of voting), as well as Grammar and Style for Examination Candidates and Others (1993), the culmination of his relentless fight against low standards of literacy.

That fight occasionally found amusing expression in his other work. His last book on Frege included a delicious footnote in which, having forestalled a possible misunderstanding of one of the sentences in the main text, he went on to lament the fact that the only reason for the note was that few writers or publishers nowadays “evince a grasp of the distinction between a gerund and a participle.” He continued, with characteristic tetchiness: “People frequently remark that they see no point in observing grammatical rules, so long as they convey their meaning. This is like saying that there is nothing wrong with using a razor blade to cut string, so long as the string is cut. By violating the rules, they make it difficult for others to express their meaning without ambiguity.”…

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