quinta-feira, 5 de janeiro de 2012
Remembering Michael Dummett, grande filósofo e importante intelectual católico
Ele foi um dos mais importantes filósofos do seculo passado e grande intelectual católico. Recomendo a leitura de dois livros do Dummet "Truth and the past" e "The nature and future of philosophy, ótimos exemplos do conhecido rigor da filosofia analitica, mas leitura acessivel ao iniciante, como é o meu caso.
Sir Michael Dummett, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, died last week in Oxford, England. He held the position of Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University from 1979 until his retirement in 1992. Below is a gathering of reminiscences from fellow philosophers, including Hilary Putnam, Timothy Williamson, Dorothy Edgington, Daniel Isaacson, and several others who knew Dummett, worked with him or were influenced by his life and work. We invite readers to offer their own contributions in the comments section.
— Simon Critchley and Ernie Lepore
A Half Century
I met Michael Dummett in 1960, when I had a leave and I elected to spend the first months of that leave at Oxford. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted more than 50 years, and the news of his death is devastating. At the beginning we differed strongly in philosophy (I began my stay at Oxford by giving a lecture titled “Do True Sentences Correspond to Reality” that was about as far from Dummettian views as it is possible to go); later, when I was writing what became “Reason, Truth and History,” I came very much under his influence. There were still disagreements, but he told me that the important thing was that another philosopher he respected recognized that the questions he had raised were important, and calling them “important” is a huge understatement. Still more recently our philosophical trajectories began to diverge again, and I am saddened that there won’t more exchanges between us.
Apart from realism and antirealism, our discussions touched on many topics, including the importance of fighting racism, an area in which Michael was exemplary, not just as a thinker, but as a human being. In addition to our philosophical conversations, Michael’s loving nature, and his total informality are what I best remember. Michael Dummett cared about ideas, he cared about people, he cared about society, and he rightly connected caring about any one of the three and caring about the other two.
Hilary Putnam, professor emeritus, Harvard University
Smoke and Milk
I met Michael Dummett only once, though I don’t think he met me. I was in a pub in Oxford sometime in the 1980s, and Dummett came in and asked the barman for “40 Benson & Hedges, please” in a real smoker’s voice. I recognized him, of course: I was a graduate student in philosophy and a real philosophy nerd.
But I also recognized him because when I was a child I used to attend the same church as he did. I was brought up Catholic and my family went to the Dominican priory (Blackfriars) in Oxford. Blackfriars was politically liberal but liturgically conservative, a combination which I think suited Dummett. I have memories of him as a rather frightening figure, with his huge head and white hair stained yellow at the front. What sticks in my mind is that on Good Friday, when there was the traditional “veneration” (kissing) of the cross, Dummett would take off his shoes before joining the procession. This intense, uncompromising seriousness is also manifest in his philosophical writing.
Those who knew him say he had a jovial side too. When I saw him in that pub many years later, I was waiting to be served while the barman found Dummett his cigarettes. Dummett pointed to a sign on the bar that said “draught milk.” “Draught milk? Is that a joke?” he cackled. I smiled enthusiastically, but was completely lost for words. It was only later that I learned the story of how Dummett had met Wittgenstein at Elizabeth Anscombe’s house in Oxford. Wittgenstein had only said one thing to him: “Do you know where the milk is?” Dummett did not know.
I like the fact that these two meetings over milk linked me to Dummett, and Dummett to Wittgenstein.
Tim Crane, University of Cambridge
Teacher for Life
A couple of years ago, after I had given a lecture in China, a student said something like this: “I believe that your doctoral dissertation was supervised by Sir Michael Dummett. Yet in your books you advance theories that are contrary to his views. How is this?” It was a polite way of asking, “How can you be so disloyal to your old teacher?”
I felt that explicitly telling the assembled students not to be too loyal to their teachers might go down badly, especially as many of those teachers were sitting there. Several Chinese philosophers had told me the saying that your teacher is your teacher for life. So I talked about the difference between respecting one’s teachers and agreeing with them. My attitude had been encouraged by Michael Dummett himself. In the drafts of dissertation chapters I gave him, my methods of argument and conclusions were often radically wrong-headed from his perspective, as I well knew. He never said a word about that. He seemed to enjoy entering the alien world of my callow thoughts, mildly raising a question from within that looked minor at first, but as our conversation developed turned out to go to the heart of the matter. Neither of us persuaded the other; indeed, I realized that our disagreement over methodology went even deeper than I had thought. But simultaneously my respect for him became all the greater, for the breadth of his philosophical empathy, his capacity to discern underlying patterns at the most abstract level, and his intellectual seriousness — manifested not least when he burst into laughter on noticing another of the absurdities around us. I hope that some trace of his virtues as a teacher has rubbed off on me. The disagreements my students and ex-students have with me are reassuring signs.
Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic, Oxford University
A Simple Solution
Michael Dummett supervised my graduate work in philosophy at Oxford from 1965 to 1967. We worked mainly on mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics. He had a remarkable ability to turn the obscure into the perspicuous: often I would have struggled with a proof in a text book, finally convincing myself that its conclusion did indeed follow from the axioms. Then Michael would talk about it and with a flash of illumination — an “Ah, yes” — I would see for the first time why it was true.
I had never before, and I think never since, felt myself to be in the presence of so powerful an intellect. One small instance, circa 1979: my son had been given a puzzle in number theory at school (“What is the third number which is both square and triangular?” The first is 1; the second is 36, a square and the sum of the numbers 1 to 8.). My colleagues and I were highly irritated by being stuck on such a simple-seeming question.
Then Michael came to London for a session of our seminar on his work. A group of us were having dinner afterwards, and the question arose. After head in hands and total silence for a minute or two, Michael said “49 times 25.” He had seen a very simple method: go up through the odd square numbers, asking whether an adjacent number is twice a square.
Of his writings, among my favorites are the first Frege book, which not only illuminates Frege’s contribution to the philosophy of language but does much more for the subject itself; and the 58-page preface to the first collection of his essays, “Truth and Other Enigmas,” which contains a very clear account of the challenge to realism that has been central to most of his work.
Dorothy Edgington, Birbeck College, University of London
A Passion for Action
Michael Dummett was so remarkable in so many ways it would be impossible within the confines of a few paragraphs to capture his greatness. He was, of course, one of the finest philosophers of the second half of the last century. His 1973 book on Gottlob Frege catapulted the 19th-century mathematician into the philosopher’s pantheon, changing how most of us thought not only of Frege but also of how to pursue philosophy. Once after I presented work critical of certain formal techniques for understanding vague language, Michael reproached me for lack of a positive proposal. He saw no point in a critique that didn’t aim to advance the subject.
He was also passionate regarding how philosophers, particularly Anglo-Americans, failed to give Europeans their due. In 1984, at a conference on the philosophy of Donald Davidson, at the banquet on the final night, one of the philosophers who feted Davidson described him as heir to the founding fathers of analytic philosophy — Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. Michael stormed the stage with his ubiquitous cigarette in hand to rail against what he saw as a “grave historical distortion” of our Anglo-Austrian, indeed, Central European roots. From this impromptu speech rose his influential book, “Origins of Analytic Philosophy.”
Beyond the Academy, Michael separated himself from most other giants of the profession through his enduring commitment to eradicating injustices wherever he found them; I can’t recall how many times he backed out of an appointment because he and Ann had to be somewhere for a rally, a protest, or just to assist someone whose civil rights were being violated. Most academics never leave their study except to lecture. Though Michael did that too, his lifetime pledge to causes that moved him is incomparable.
One night in Florence while he and his wife Ann and I were watching an Italian newscast on orphans created by the Bosnian conflict, I turned to ask them what they thought; they were both weeping.
Michael will be missed; to honor him we should all examine the world we live in and weep; and then do something about it. Michael would approve.
Ernie Lepore, Rutgers University
Profound and Generous
I first met Michael Dummett shortly before I arrived in Oxford as a graduate student in 1967, when I attended the ICLMPS in Amsterdam. There I heard him present his paper “Platonism.” In that congress I was awed to hear lectures by great names from my undergraduate education, including Tarski, Bernays, Kreisel and Kleene. Dummett was new to me. After his lecture I was all the more thrilled that I was coming to Oxford.
In my first term Michael lectured on “The Authorities for the Rise of Mathematical Logic.” His lectures were beautifully clear and illuminating. The next term I focused on the Strawson-Austin debate over truth, which led me to Michael’s “Truth.” I was deeply impressed by its originality, profundity, and difficulty. This paper and the whole issue of verificationism became the focus of my doctoral thesis. I was supervised by Freddie Ayer, but Michael was incredibly generous in helping me to get to grips with his ideas. He was also hugely generous to people whose very lives were threatened by racism. A telephone call in the midst of discussing truth in his rooms in All Souls would inform Michael that an East-African Asian person attempting to enter Britain was about to be sent back to the country from which he or she was fleeing, and transform him from philosopher to activist, telephoning the Chief Immigration Officer to obtain a stay of immediate deportation, then dashing to the airport to argue the case. Michael’s humanity and his philosophy have been profound.
Daniel Isaacson, Oxford University
Philosophers are chiefly remembered for what they wrote, but my personal memory of Michael Dummett is of a very challenging but very supportive supervisor and a superb lecturer. In 1971 I was lucky enough to attend one run of the course that subsequently became his 1977 book “Elements of Intuitionism.” Dummett liked to use the then newfangled white boards, on which he wrote using variously colored water-soluble pens, erasing by means of a contraption that combined the qualities of a water pistol with a square of blotting paper. He lectured with an extraordinary fluency, hardly ever referring to his notes, at the same time producing highly legible, multicolored text on the board almost as fast as he could speak it, spraying, smudging and erasing as he went along, and smoking incessantly using a cigarette holder which, along with the pens, he lodged between his fingers — we waited for him to put one of the pens in his mouth and take a drag, or inadvertently extinguish his cigarette with a spurt from the eraser, but it never happened.
The lectures contained a wealth of detail, both technical and philosophical. Dummett’s erudition was remarkable — his undergraduate background had been in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), and his grasp of logic and mathematics had been almost entirely self-taught. But my abiding memory is of the passion of his delivery, the determination to get things right, and the sense he radiated of the deep interest of the issues and the huge importance of thinking about them well.
Crispin Wright, New York University
A Clash of Titans
There is no doubt that Michael Dummett made a stunning contribution to philosophy and was for many years Britain’s leading philosopher, as well as one of our leading humanitarian activists. I met and talked with him on a number of occasions, largely about his seminal works on Frege, logicism and the philosophy of mathematics in general. These conversations were hugely influential on me at least, though one of them I remember was at the time quite terrifying. It occurred at the Birmingham 1993 Joint Session of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society. There was to
be a session lead by George Boolos and Sir Michael on the origins of the Russell paradox and the contradiction in Frege’s Basic Law Five. I was a speaker, Boolos was a speaker and Sir Michael was to chair.
I was incredibly nervous because I was speaking along with two of the world’s leading authorities on Frege, and they were clearly in very deep disagreement — Boolos suggesting that Frege’s failed consistency proof in the Gründgesetze was just that, while Sir Michael argued that the whole matter hung, in his phrase, “on Frege’s extraordinary insouciance over the second order quantifier.” The clash of the two great minds was somewhat rancorous to say the least.
The following morning George and I met Sir Michael for breakfast accidentally, but the mood had completely changed. Sir Michael was affability itself and the conversation about Basic Law Five on the train up to Oxford with Sir Michael and George Boolos was one of the most enlightening I have ever had the privilege to witness.
Peter Clark, University of St Andrews
I appeared in Oxford in 1985 to work toward the B.Phil. degree (a British analogue of the master’s degree) and was determined to work with Michael Dummett to study Gottlob Frege and the foundations of analytic philosophy. Dummett had not initially been assigned as my tutor, but I, the unsubtle Yank, cornered him at a cocktail party and announced that I had come from America to be his student. Too polite to turn me down, Dummett granted my request, and so began our weekly meetings.
Our sessions would begin with his reading my weekly essay, which would usually criticize some aspect of his own work, while puffing on his cigarette through its long holder. Then he would fix his piercing blue eyes on me and ask me what my approach to the problems at hand would be, given that I was dissatisfied with his. When I would trot out my own position, Dummett would gently show me its limitations. This would in turn help me to appreciate the value of the ideas I had so confidently attacked in my paper. But not once did Dummett attempt to proselytize, and I left Oxford differing from him on a great many philosophical issues. In the quarter-century since, however, I’ve come to appreciate the breadth and systematicity of his philosophical work, and have striven to emulate his generosity both to his students and to those beyond the charmed circle of academic privilege.
Mitchell Green, University of Virginia
Shouting Across the Gulf
Around 1999, I began commissioning books for a new series called “Thinking in Action,” where philosophers were invited to write short books on topics of general, public concern. I had read Dummett since I was an undergraduate, but also knew of and was deeply impressed by his long-standing political work on refugee protection, immigrant rights and anti-racism. More in hope than expectation, I wrote him a long letter asking him to consider writing a short book on the topic. To my amazement, he wrote back right away saying that this was an excellent idea and that he would begin to write immediately, which he did. I believe he finished “On Immigration and Refugees” (2001) within three or four months. It is a stunning account of the historic failures of the British government to address questions of racism and protect refugees and an elegant philosophical argument for an immigration policy broadly based on natural law that would not respect national frontiers.
The book was launched with great fanfare at an event at the then newly-opened Tate Modern Museum in London and I spent the evening watching Dummett and his daughter smoke cigarettes with exactly the same mannerisms. Even the patterning spirals of their cigarette smoke seemed to echo each other.
As is well known, professional philosophers are broadly and lamentably divided into two opposed camps: analytic and Continental. It is Dummett’s conviction that the only way to reestablish communication amongst philosophers is by going back to the historical and conceptual point where those traditions divided. This is Dummett’s strategy in his hugely influential 1993 book “Origins of Analytical Philosophy.” Dummett recounts the history of analytic philosophy from Frege onwards in the laudable hope that a clearer understanding of the philosophical past will be a precondition for some sort of mutual comprehension between contemporary philosophers. He wrote:
I do not mean to pretend that one should pretend that philosophy in the two traditions is basically the same; obviously that would be ridiculous. We can re-establish communication only by going back to the point of divergence. It’s no use now shouting across the gulf. It is obvious that philosophers will never reach agreement. It is a pity, however, if they can no longer talk to one another or understand one another. It is difficult to achieve such understanding, because if you think people are on the wrong track, you may have no great desire to talk with them or to take the trouble to criticize their views. But we have reached a point at which it is as if we’re working in different subjects.
Dummett was a wonderful example of how philosophers might behave towards each other and usefully engage with the public realm. His death is a massive loss.
Simon Critchley, The New School for Social Research
Proofs of Frustration
In the early 1990s, soon after I started working as philosophy editor for Oxford University Press, I received a phone call. After a pause that I came to recognize as a familiar beginning to our conversations, I heard “This is Michael Dummett, [I sat up straight] I’m in the John Radcliffe.” He was phoning to tell me that an evening of frustration in front of the proofs for “The Seas of Language” had left him in such a bad way that he had been obliged to go to hospital.
Fortunately the crisis had passed and my fears of having precipitated the demise of the Wykeham Professor were dispelled. He was phoning not in bad humor, and not really for the sake of complaining, I felt, but because it amused him to inform me courteously that O.U.P.’s work had had such a pernicious effect on him.
Peter Momtchiloff, Senior Commissioning Editor, Oxford University Press
Exciting and absorbing as his lectures were, I remember Michael best in one-to-one conversations (often lasting hours) and in small discussion groups. Dialogue with very senior philosophers can be disappointing. Too often, the eminence slips into defending his or her position on the topic at hand, sometimes repeating arguments already advanced in print.
Discussion with Michael was never like that. He would take up what you were saying, sift the various elements, and suggest how the more promising of them might be developed further. If it sometimes turned out that the development brought you to a point not so far from a thesis that he had already propounded, well, one had at least a new reason for taking that thesis seriously.
Gratitude for these conversations is multiplied by the realization that talking philosophy in this wonderfully fresh way imposed a real strain, even on an intellect as powerful as Michael’s. In around 2007, he told me that he could no longer do it, although we still met up to talk about his life and about some of the many other things in which he was interested. But we still have the books. Few of these are treatises (some people find them hard-going because they try to read them as though they were). Rather, they are records of the intense philosophical conversation that, for 60 years, Michael had with himself. Through reading them, we can still join in that quite extraordinary discussion.
Ian Rumfitt, Birbeck College, University of London
The Philosopher’s Laugh
Dummett’s stratospheric philosophical reputation and his occasional fierceness were such that one could easily forget that he had a great sense of humor and freely laughed his strange infectious laugh. I had just finished telling him a joke about self-knowledge, at which he had chuckled, when he said that he knew one of the same kind. “A prominent politician is running for election and goes to visit a nursing home to campaign,” he began. “He is standing in the middle of the garden and the residents are passing him by without so much as a hello. Finally, he loses his patience and shouts at the next elderly lady who walks by: ‘Do you know who I am!?’ And she replies, ‘No, dear, but if you ask Matron over there, she’ll tell you.’” And then came that rolling laughter that slowly built — ha, haha, hahaha — until his body shook and his eyes became glistening slits.
Alexander George, Amherst College
As a senior in college, I read parts of Dummett’s “Frege: Philosophy of Language” for a term paper on Frege. I was blown away by it and started reading everything by Dummett I could find. It got so bad that I went to Oxford in 1985, as a Marshall Scholar, specifically to study with Dummett. It took me a semester’s worth of begging to get him to take me on, but it was worth it for an hour or two a week, every week, with Michael in his room in Saville House.
Michael had a great sense of humor, and what I most remember about him will always be his laugh. Michael was a big man, and when he laughed he put his whole self into it. But what I most admired about him were the integrity and determination he exhibited both in his academic life and in his public life. He believed fiercely in what is true and right, and he strove to instill similar values in his students.
Michael spoke at the annual graduate dinner at New College in 1987. As port and cigars were passed, Michael rose to speak about the ivory tower, urging us not to forget our obligations to the community outside the university. As he talked about the need for continued vehemence in battling racism, someone laughed. They weren’t paying attention. But the thought that someone would be so rude would not have occurred to Michael, and his demeanor changed immediately. He said something like, “If you are going to laugh at that, I need to give a different address,” and he launched into an animated sermon on racism that would have been worthy of the greatest of preachers. I was in tears by the end of it, and I was not the only one.
Richard Heck, Brown University
A Lesson of Truth
“What we call ‘culture’ is not submitted to a truth criterion, but no great culture may be based on a wrong relationship to truth.” This saying attributed to Robert Musil might work as a motto for the life’s work of Sir Michael Dummett, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Should I point out the most precious contribution among the many he gave to contemporary philosophy, I would mention his anti-skeptical arguments, as embedded in his general theory of meaning and truth. Dummett did not content himself with proving that any issue in metaphysics can be reduced to some assumptions on one’s logics and truth theory, a result which by itself could justify a life of philosophical research. He made it clear that if there is no agreement on the conditions under which we would recognize a statement as true, then that statement simply does not express any definite thought. If the cultural relativist persuaded most people to cease taking the truth claim of their assertions seriously, then “curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”
How grateful I was to my Oxford supervisor for throwing such a clear light on the recurrent puzzlement I used to suffer about the hermeneutic, Derridean narratives which any Italian student had to fill her pads with in those days. How grateful I am still, in this dark time of Europe.
Roberta De Monticelli, San Raffaele University, Milan
The Role of Logic
I met Michael Dummett only a couple of times — one of which was when he examined my doctorate. When I asked him whether he would examine it, I explained that it was a piece of work that fell down the crack between mathematics and philosophy. “I inhabit the crack,” he replied.
It is clear that Dummett was one of the most important — perhaps the most important — British philosopher of the last half century. His work on the philosophy of language and metaphysics, inspired by themes in intuitionist logic, was truly groundbreaking. He took intuitionism from a somewhat esoteric doctrine in the philosophy of mathematics to a mainstream philosophical position.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, as far as I am concerned, was to demonstrate beyond doubt the intellectual respectability of a fully-fledged philosophical position based on a contemporary heterodox logic. Philosophers in the United Kingdom, even if they do not subscribe to Dummett’s views, no longer doubt the possibility of this. Dummett had an influence in Australia, too. It was quieter there than in the U.K., but the relevant philosophical lesson was amplified by logicians who endorsed heterodox logics of a different stripe (for which, I think, Dummett had little sympathy). The result has been much the same.
In the United States, though, Dummett had virtually no significant impact. Indeed, I am continually surprised how conservative philosophy in the United States is with regard to heterodox logics. It is still awaiting a Dummett to awaken it from its dogmatic logical slumbers.
Graham Priest, City University of New York Graduate Center, and the University of Melbourne (Australia)
No Shortage of Problems
Wittgenstein once complained that Russell suffered from “loss of problems.” No one could say that about Michael Dummett. He identified new problems, and they were always deep. His treatment of the justification of deduction initiated discussions continuing to this day. Depth and intensity were also present in his philosophical conversation. He devoted the same energy to discussion with students as he did to his public engagements with his famous contemporaries Quine and Davidson. He was unstinting with his time. I sometimes appeared at his home expecting an hour’s supervision session, stayed for lunch, talked philosophy while Michael drove his wife to the station, and returned for more, leaving only at dusk.
His well-intentioned advice could be formidable. He told me, as a 22 year-old, at the start of a series of supervisions on Frege, on whose work he was then the world expert: “I know the literature, and I’ll assume you’ve read it too: so just write new stuff for me each week.”
The gap between Michael’s theory and his practical life was a reliable source of pleasure to his friends. He published original contributions to the theory of voting; yet he designed a system for a Wardenship election in Oxford that permitted — and produced — massive tactical voting. He published a book on writing style in philosophy, an enterprise described by one philosopher as comparable to Attila the Hun producing a book on etiquette. But his anti-racism work, and efforts on behalf of immigrants, was effective and much admired.
I visited Michael in Oxford four years ago, and he told me that he had written his last piece of philosophy. I took the opportunity to say he should be pleased about what he had written in his life. He replied, “Yes, I certainly am!”
Christopher Peacocke, Columbia University
A Matter of Insight
I first met Michael Dummett in 1979, when he was at the height of his influence and philosophical power. In seminars and discussions in Oxford, the central question was how to respond to his attacks on the notion of objectivity. When I finally wrote something he did like, defending the notion of an “objective past” against his attacks, he said, “This is exactly the kind of response I was trying to provoke!’” He was never pushing a paradoxical view for its own sake. He was following the argument where it led. The whole point was always to achieve a deeper understanding of our relation to our world by giving an analysis of the phenomena of meaning and truth.
In the last lectures I heard him give, Dummett criticized the natural idea, on which his attacks on objectivity had been based, that understanding a language is simply a matter of being able to use it correctly. In these lectures he said someone who understands language uses it with some sense of “what they are about” in using it. An ordinary speaker of a language has some “oversight” of the language, some insight into what they are doing with it. The really hard problem is to explain what that “insight” is. It can’t be a matter merely of knowing definitions, because definitions give out somewhere. It can’t be a matter simply of using the language correctly, because it’s a matter of having insight into what one is doing.
Dummett was a warm, cheerful, passionate philosopher who believed deeply in the importance of philosophical questions. His laughter held real amusement, warmth and a touch of irascibility. I will miss it very much.
John Campbell, University of California at Berkeley
A Guide Lost
Sir Michael was not only one of the most important philosophers of our times, but his interests in a variety of cultural issues and civil rights movements made him an exceptional personality. Other than logic, philosophy of language and mathematics, and the history of analytic philosophy, he was interested in the game of Tarot and its history iconography; voting procedures that would guarantee democratic representation; and together with his wife Ann, he critically studied British legislation in matters of immigration and refugees and actively engaged in the fight against racism. Sir Michael was a profoundly religious person and found it hard to understand the preconceived hostility of many Italian intellectuals towards the Catholic Church. He greatly loved Italy, and all of those who have had the fortune of having personally known Sir Michael feel deprived today of an irreplaceable intellectual guide.
Eva Picardi, University of Bologna
Through the Smoke, a Clearing
I was drawn into philosophy by the works of Kant, Hegel, and Husserl. In these authors, the big questions are very much at the forefront. Soon after, I discovered Gottlob Frege’s seminal essay, “Uber Sinn und Bedeutung.” It had an immediate effect on me. Yet it was not obvious how Frege’s crisp and lucid arguments about logic and language connected to the big questions.
I began to worry that it was difficult to make progress on the questions I was interested in with the tools one finds in these authors. Just then, in 1987, I happened upon Michael Dummett’s book, “Origins of Analytical Philosophy” (which had just appeared in German). The book connected some of the philosophy I was reading to Frege, and explained how Frege’s arguments related to idealism and skepticism. I immediately went out and purchased Dummett’s, “Frege: Philosophy of Language.” From it, I learned that there might be a clear path through the smoke. If the realism/anti-realism dispute depends on what the best logic and semantics for language, then there is a clear path to resolving a big question. Dummett’s ability to connect resolutions of big questions with tractable details inspired a passion for the subject that has yet to cool.
My first job, in 1995, was as a stipendiary lecturer in Oxford, a position in the Oxford academic hierarchy just a bit lower than assistant janitor. Dummett was nevertheless extremely generous with his time. Some people kiss up and kick down; Dummett was someone who kicked up and kissed down. As it has been noted, Dummett smoked constantly. At the time, I smoked as well, but trying to match him cigarette for cigarette would invariably make my brain quite foggy. Dummett’s brain, by contrast, was never foggy.
Many years later, I found myself sitting in the New College Senior Common Room after lunch discussing the meaning of the word “if” with another philosopher. Dummett was huddled over a newspaper elsewhere in the room. I remarked how odd it was to think that the word “if” could have radically different meanings on different occasions of use, for example one meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, someone else did,” and another meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald hadn’t of killed Kennedy, someone else would have.” From a cloud of tobacco smoke halfway across the room, Dummett piped up, “I wonder if you really think that.”
Jason Stanley, Rutgers University
The Fundamental Questions
I met Michael Dummett only a few times in my life, and quite late in my philosophical career; although I had admired him for many years before, stretching back to my undergraduate beginnings in philosophy. It was the late 70’s, when Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language was ascendant, and truth conditional theories of meaning were constantly being discussed. One could feel the buzz around these new ideas and I was keen to understand them. I read everything I thought might help and that’s when I discovered Dummett’s brilliant essay “What is a Theory of Meaning?” Suddenly a whole world of powerful ideas was opened up to me.
Strange, maybe, that a philosopher as demanding as Dummett should appeal to a beginner. But his work engaged me then for the same reason it continues to engage so many practiced philosophers today: it addresses fundamental questions. What is the connection between meaning and truth? How exactly can one construct a theory of meaning without first saying what it is for a speaker to understand a language? What is the relation between language and our knowledge of language? He pushed these questions further than anyone else, taking nothing for granted; showing that even fundamental assumptions could be questioned, thus reminding his interlocutors that deeper explanations are needed. It is this exploratory characteristic trait of Dummett’s philosophy, rather than any single body of doctrine that made him a philosopher’s philosopher. Starting from an initially simple question, Dummett would weave an increasingly intricate discussion of the fundamental nature of reality, truth, the past, meaning and understanding, logic and language.
After undergraduate days, there were two books I had to have: “Frege: Philosophy of Language” and “Truth and Other Enigmas,” later joined by a third, “The Interpretation of Frege’s Philosophy.” These three massive works by Dummett challenged us, changed what we thought, left us important questions that still need to be tackled. More than most he taught us what it is to do philosophy at its best. It’s a great loss but through all those who continue to respond to the challenges he posed, he left us a great legacy.
Barry C. Smith, School of Advanced Study, University of London
Truth Outside the Box
Are there truths that are hidden from us, doomed to forever await a discovery that never happens? Or must every truth be, at least in principle, recognizably so? Must every statement be either true or false? Or should we refrain from thinking that we can always sort the world so neatly?
These are dizzying questions — questions that compel us to think about the very essence of meaning, of logic, and ultimately, about the nature of truth itself. They were also Michael Dummett’s questions, questions which, through the power of his thought and insight, he compelled many of us — and certainly myself — to think about as well.
Of course, I didn’t always agree with Dummett’s own answers. But ever since first reading his seminal essay “Truth” I’ve always felt an exhilarating sense of kinship with him about the importance of the questions. Reflection on the nature of truth — reflection on what it consists in, as Dummett would have said — is of fundamental philosophical importance. You’d think that for philosophers, this would be obvious. But it is a lesson that, surprisingly, many philosophers who work on truth for a living tend to ignore or repudiate. Many philosophers desire that the world be simple, with straight lines and tidy boxes. Dummett knew better; many philosophical knots are due to the messy entanglement of logic and truth. His work stands in wise testimony to this fact.
Michael P. Lynch, University of Connecticut
It Was All in the Cards
Michael Dummett possessed a rare philosophical virtue that we might describe, in Renaissance fashion, as curiositas subtilitate compensata: curiosity compensated by exactitude. He wrote about what interested him, and he penetrated to his subject’s core, without any of that common philosophical ambition to make all of his sundry interests fit together in a single system.
Dummett is best known among philosophers for his interpretation and expansion of Frege’s work in the philosophy of language and mathematics, yet if you are a connoisseur of card games it is more likely that you will have come across his name as the author of books on the history of the tarot game. This side of his work, while of no obvious philosophical interest (in the way we conceive the discipline today anyway), I believe reveals something important about Dummett’s intellectual character, and something not irrelevant to our understanding of his contributions in philosophy proper.
In his 1980 book, “The Game of Tarot,” Dummett painstakingly traced the origins of the game, as well as its unique deck, back to the 15th century in northern Italy. A decidedly secondary thesis of the work was that the occult significances of the various cards were a much later calque, added by a certain Antoine Court de Gébelin in the late 18th century. It was at this point that what had hitherto been a straightforward game became laden with pseudo-Egyptian and Kabbalistic mystification, and the cards took on a new role as the centerpiece of dark divinations. In a subsequent review, Frances Yates, the great intellectual historian, attempted to defend the purported occult origins of the game. Dummett replied with a truly masterful display of the sort of rigorous curiosity which I have suggested was one of his principal intellectual virtues. He argued against Yates that occult origins need not be invoked where simpler explanations are available. But only a rigorous iconographic history could reveal what those simpler explanations might be, and only someone with a truly rare endowment of curiosity could produce such a history.
Justin E.H. Smith, Concordia University
An Inspiration, and a Neighbor
Oxford in the late 1970’s and early 80’s was a very special place for philosophy. Philosophers were not just writing the books we were all reading, but they were to be found as heads of Oxford Colleges and even as vice chancellor of the university.
Philosophy was exciting and one wanted to be a part of it. There were visiting philosophers like Donald Davidson and Saul Kripke spending time in Oxford, seminars by young talents such as John McDowell and Gareth Evans, and lectures by the likes of Peter Strawson and J.L. Mackie,. Pre-eminent among these was Michael Dummett, newly elected Wykeham Professor of Logic. He taught only graduates — and the best worked with him. And he gave seminars to a packed seminar room in Merton Street. We all wanted to understand anti-realism and Michael held the intellectual key. We listened to him debate anti-realism with Davidson, and anti-anti realism with John McDowell. That Michael was a passionate campaigner (along with his wife Ann) for race relations only made him more admirable in our young eyes. He was an intellectual with his feet on the ground and his heart in the right place. And then we learned that he not only played Tarot, but wrote a history of the game. (Some of us formed groups and tried to learn the game from his book.)
Some years after arriving in Oxford I became a colleague, and then a neighbor. As colleagues we met regularly as members of the Tuesday Group (originally called the Freddie group after its founder, Freddie Ayer). Long after his retirement Michael attended regularly, and was a formidable contributor to discussions. As a neighbor he was a regular at residents’ events — be it welcoming new neighbors, or celebrating the millennium. Ann and Michael were full of stories of Park Town and its inhabitants. Park Town is where he raised his family, and he was as much a part of Park Town life as he was of university life. Over a cup of tea he would tell a story or make an observation — followed by his infectious giggle. Michael once explained that he made a telephone call only to be put through to the answering machine. He observed: “They call it an answering machine but it’s not. You can ask it questions, but it won’t give you any answers.”
One day when my daughter was about 7 or 8 I let her walk to the shops on her own with a friend who lived on the street. On the way home she and her friend got into an “argument” about some topic or other. They came home to report that Michael Dummett had been walking behind them, and interrupted to put them straight on a point — if only she could remember what it was! It seems such a short time ago that Michael could be seen shuffling down the street of Park Town to church, to New College for lunch, or just to buy a pack of cigarettes. He is a figure I shall very much miss in both my home and my working lives.
Anita Avramides, St Hilda’s College, Oxford
I met Michael Dummett at Columbia University in 1970, when I was a third-year graduate student, and had taken upon myself some of the donkey-work for the Philosophy Colloquium. He presented “Wang’s Paradox,” named for a version of the Sorites due to Hao Wang. Michael linked it to: strict finitism; issues in the phenomenology of experience; and the connections between truth and assertion. All of this in a prose so plain, clear and forceful that you felt you could take it in at a glance, and at the same time probe its depths for hours together.
My good friend Jim Fessenden was then living with Gillian Rose, who had known Michael in Oxford (Gillian went on to a distinguished career of her own). They invited me and Michael to a small dinner in their apartment. I remember talking at length with Michael on whether a combination in chess could be beautiful in the strictest sense of that term (I said it could). Later I realized that he was really probing what I thought and why, with a suggestion here and there that brought me new understanding; in short, he was teaching me.
My subsequent interactions with Michael over the years, in Oxford and elsewhere, were various and memorable. Among these his remarks as commentator on my paper presented to the Philosophical Society in 1990, and the subsequent general discussion, stand out. Above all, he exemplified for me that purity of philosophical commitment and character to which I hoped to aspire.
James Higginbotham, University of Southern California
Fonte: NY Times