P. F. Strawson

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Sir Peter Frederick Strawson
P. F. Strawson.jpg
Born23 November 1919
Ealing, London
Died13 February 2006(2006-02-13) (aged 86)
Alma mater St John's College, Oxford
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Main interests
Philosophy of language  · Philosophy of mind
Notable ideas
Ordinary language philosophy
Personal reactive attitudes [1]
The distinction between sortal and characterising universals [2]
The distinction between particular individuals (such as historical events, material objects and persons) and non-particular individuals (such as qualities, properties, numbers, species) [3]
The "descriptive metaphysics" and "revisionary metaphysics" distinction [4]

Sir Peter Frederick Strawson FBA ( /ˈstrɔːsən/ ; 23 November 1919 – 13 February 2006), usually cited as P. F. Strawson, was an English philosopher. He was the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford (Magdalen College) from 1968 to 1987. Before that, he was appointed as a college lecturer at University College, Oxford, in 1947, and became a tutorial fellow the following year, until 1968. On his retirement in 1987, he returned to the college and continued working there until shortly before his death. His portrait was painted by the artists Muli Tang and Daphne Todd. [5]

The Waynflete Professorships are four professorial fellowships at the University of Oxford endowed by Magdalen College and named in honour of the college founder William of Waynflete, who had a great interest in science. These professorships are statutory professorships of the University, that is, they are professorships established in the university's regulations, and which are by those regulations attached to Magdalen College in particular. The oldest professorship is the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy. The three science professorships were created following the recommendation of the University Commission in 1857, in recognition of William of Waynflete's lifetime support of science. The professorships are the Waynflete Professor of Chemistry, the Waynflete Professor of Physiology, and the Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics.

University of Oxford University in Oxford, United Kingdom

The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England. There is evidence of teaching as early as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's second-oldest university in continuous operation. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled north-east to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge. The two 'ancient universities' are frequently jointly called 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Oxford has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Magdalen College, Oxford constituent college of the University of Oxford in England

Magdalen College is one of the wealthiest constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, with an estimated financial endowment of £273 million as of 2018. Magdalen stands next to the River Cherwell and has within its grounds a deer park and Addison's Walk. The large, square Magdalen Tower is an Oxford landmark, and it is a tradition, dating to the days of Henry VII, that the college choir sings from the top of it at 6 a.m. on May Morning.


When he died, the obituary in The Guardian noted that, "Oxford was the world capital of philosophy between 1950 and 1970, and American academics flocked there, rather than the traffic going the other way. That golden age had no greater philosopher than Sir Peter Strawson." [6]

<i>The Guardian</i> British national daily newspaper

The Guardian is a British daily newspaper. It was founded in 1821 as The Manchester Guardian, and changed its name in 1959. Along with its sister papers The Observer and The Guardian Weekly, the Guardian is part of the Guardian Media Group, owned by the Scott Trust. The trust was created in 1936 to "secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian free from commercial or political interference". The trust was converted into a limited company in 2008, with a constitution written so as to maintain for The Guardian the same protections as were built into the structure of the Scott Trust by its creators. Profits are reinvested in journalism rather than distributed to owners or shareholders.

Early years

Strawson was born in Ealing, west London, and brought up in Finchley, north London, by his parents, both of whom were teachers. He was educated at Christ's College, Finchley, followed by St John's College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Ealing suburb of London, England

Ealing is a district of west London, England, located 7.9 miles (12.7 km) west of Charing Cross. It is the administrative centre of the London Borough of Ealing, and identified as a major metropolitan centre in the London Plan.

Finchley district of North London, England in the London Borough of Barnet

Finchley is an area of northwest London, England, in the London Borough of Barnet. Finchley is on high ground, 11 km (6.8 mi) north of Charing Cross.

Christ's College is a secondary school with academy status in East Finchley, London, United Kingdom. It falls under the London Borough of Barnet Local Education Authority for admissions. Since September 2018, Christ’s College Finchley has offered outstanding education to both girls and boys joining Year 7. The school presently has 967 students and specialises in Maths and IT.

Philosophical work

Strawson first became well known with his article "On Referring" (1950), a criticism of Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions (see also Definite descriptions) that Russell explained in the famous "On Denoting" article (1905).

Bertrand Russell British philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer, and activist

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, essayist, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. At various points in his life, Russell considered himself a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, although he also confessed that his sceptical nature had led him to feel that he had "never been any of these things, in any profound sense." Russell was born in Monmouthshire into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom.

Theory of descriptions

The theory of descriptions is the philosopher Bertrand Russell's most significant contribution to the philosophy of language. It is also known as Russell's theory of descriptions. In short, Russell argued that the syntactic form of descriptions is misleading, as it does not correlate their logical and/or semantic architecture. While descriptions may seem fairly uncontroversial phrases, Russell argued that providing a satisfactory analysis of the linguistic and logical properties of a description is vital to clarity in important philosophical debates, particularly in semantic arguments, epistemology and metaphysics.

A definite description is a denoting phrase in the form of "the X" where X is a noun-phrase or a singular common noun. The definite description is proper if X applies to a unique individual or object. For example: "the first person in space" and "the 42nd President of the United States of America", are proper. The definite descriptions "the person in space" and "the Senator from Ohio" are improper because the noun phrase X applies to more than one thing, and the definite descriptions "the first man on Mars" and "the Senator from some Country" are improper because X applies to nothing. Improper descriptions raise some difficult questions about the law of excluded middle, denotation, modality, and mental content.

In philosophical methodology, there are (at least) two important and interrelated features of Strawson's work that are worthy of note. [7] The first is the project of a 'descriptive' metaphysics, and the second is his notion of a shared conceptual scheme, composed of concepts operated in everyday life. In his book Individuals (1959), Strawson attempts to give a description of various concepts that form an interconnected web, representing (part of) our common, shared, human conceptual scheme. In particular, he examines our conceptions of basic particulars, and how they are variously brought under general spatio-temporal concepts. What makes this a metaphysical project is that it exhibits, in fine detail, the structural features of our thought about the world, and thus precisely delimits how we, humans, think about reality.

In metaphysics, particulars are defined as concrete, spatiotemporal entities as opposed to abstract entities, such as properties or numbers. There are, however, theories of abstract particulars or tropes. For example, Socrates is a particular. Redness, by contrast, is not a particular, because it is abstract and multiply instantiated.

Strawson was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960 and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1969 to 1970. He was knighted, in 1977, for services to philosophy.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences United States honorary society and center for independent policy research

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Founded in 1780, the Academy is dedicated to honoring excellence and leadership, working across disciplines and divides, and advancing the common good.

The Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy, more generally known as the Aristotelian Society, was founded at a meeting on 19 April 1880, at 17 Bloomsbury Square.

The British honours system is a means of rewarding individuals' personal bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories. The system consists of three types of award – honours, decorations and medals:

Personal life

After serving as a captain in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers during World War II, Strawson married Ann Martin in 1945. They had four children, including the philosopher Galen Strawson. He lived in Oxford all his adult life and died in hospital on 13 February 2006 after a short illness. P. F. Strawson was elder brother to Major General John Strawson.

Partial bibliography




  1. Personal reactive attitudes are reactions we display when we are hurt by the actions of an agent (see Strawson, P. F. (2008), Freedom and resentment and other essays, Routledge, p. 12).
  2. N. Milkov, A Hundred Years of English Philosophy, Springer, 2013, p. 201.
  3. Clifford A. Brown, Peter Strawson, Routledge, 2015, p. 51.
  4. Peter Frederick Strawson (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  5. Todd, Daphne. "Bill Sykes, Peter Strawson, George Cawkwell and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann". Art UK . UK. Retrieved 23 January 2015.
  6. The Guardian – Obituary Archived 1 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  7. P.F. Strawson, Individuals

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