Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Sir Michael Dummett, RIP

I learned from Brandon at Siris that Sir Michael Dummett has died.

It is too often the foolish caricature of Analytic philosophy that it contents itself with the question of the meanings and syntax of statements and has stepped back from the grand questions--the questions the "man in the street" thinks of then the word "philosophy" comes up: questions of the nature of space and time, of the relation between truth and appearance, and the meaning of life. Dummett--a student of Quine, a specialist on Frege--was unapologetic about the "linguistic turn" in one way; he maintained that
Other forms of intellectual enquiry seek to determine which propositions are true. Metaphysics seeks to determine what it is for them to be true. (Thought and Reality, p23)
This meant that metaphysics had
to unravel the nature of propositions – of the thoughts we are capable of thinking.(ibid.)
But Dummett did not believe we needed to stop there, and he provided over the years many explorations into the question of time, of ethics, and indeed of the existence of God, for which he resuscitated the usually scoffed-at argument of Berkeley. I'll add parenthetically that I consider this ability to make use of discarded and discredited arguments one of the signs of the catholicity of thought that philosophy requires--a feeling at ease with the whole stream of the millennia-long conversation and an indifference (which is not the same as hostility) to contemporary trends.

Somewhat presciently, he ruminated in his book on The Nature and Future of Philosophy that
It is by no means obvious that universities...should support philosophy but for historical precedent. If universities had been an invention of the second half of the twentieth century, would anyone have thought to include philosophy among the subjects that they taught and studied? It seems very doubtful.
Dummett attributed the continuing existence of philosophy departments to the inertia of tradition; but as the last few years have shown, when pressed down against the bottom line with the heel of the call for "results" on their throat, universities will be ready to cut loose from tradition without thinking twice.

He had a wide range of other interests. I remember my astonishment years ago when a friend informed me that Dummett had written two books of the tarot deck. I have read A Wicked Pack of Cards, and while I am not persuaded by him that there is no esoteric tradition behind the deck, Dummett makes a strong case that it was primarily a tool of recreation, not divination; and that it likely had its origin in the 15th century,pace the fanciful speculations of the 18th-century occultists (and their successors). (See his response to Frances Yates' review of The Game of Tarot.)

Maybe more significantly, Dummett did serious work in election theory; and he was for about half a century a champion against racism in the U.K. He and his wife co-founded the Institute of Race Relations in 1958. In 2001 Dummett was still at it, arguing that much European opposition to immigration was at least tacitly racist, this being particularly so in Britain. (When he was knighted, he called for the replacement of the entire staff of the British Home Office.)

I cannot of course demonstrate this, but I suspect that Dummett's work in this regard shared a root with his religious faith as a Roman Catholic, a confession he quietly maintained since the 1940's. Dummett was thoughtfully engaged with his faith in its doctrinal and its ritual dimensions. Staunchly in sympathy with the calls for a vernacular Mass, he was appalled by any number of other innovations that came in its wake. His essay on the matter (here) insists and laments:
Liturgy is an art form; one especially in the service of God, but an art form none the less.... [I am] one who for many years longed for the liturgy to be translated into the vernacular; and I was sustained by the thought that, when it happened, it would be carried out by people who would have such sensitivity to language.... Alas, it has been carried out by people with tin ears both for English and for Latin, who moreover thought themselves entitled to revise the liturgy when it did not please them, not just to translate it.
(This sort of thing will get knowing nods from the choir, and raise a "huh?" of incomprehension for the rest; that's fine.) Dummett did not restrict himself to questions of liturgical style. He defended the doctrine of Real Presence (while criticizing the Thomistic presentation thereof); he argued against the Roman church's position on contraception; he criticized modern philosophers for "worshiping" science and insisted that (as Ombhurbhuva reminded me in a comment on the last post)
the price of denying that God exists is to relinquish the idea that there is such a thing as how reality is in itself.
Dummett's colleague Philippa Foot, a professed atheist, recounted in an interview (included here) that she once asked him,
“What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?” And he said, “How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.”
But Dummett insisted his faith had experienced long periods of doubt, often brought on by reflection on the problem of evil, which, as he wryly conceded in his Gifford lectures, gave the atheists "a local argumentative advantage." In an autobiographical essay included in the book The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, he gives an account that will sound familiar to anyone who has done any of this wrestling:
I have undergone several periods when I have been overcome by such doubts; during them, I have not ceased to attend Sunday Mass, but have abstained from the sacraments. My doubts have always been global rather than local; my reasons for believing in God are philosophical rather than affective; they can suddenly strike me as unconvincing. ...But most usually my doubts have been engendered by what troubles everyone: can a world in which such suffering occurs be one made by a God who is said to love?...That world looks as if governed by uncaring forces. The pain of animals is a good example ...As for human pain, it is not its mere occurrence that has usually troubled me: after the Cross, no one can say to God, ‘You don’t know what it is like.’ ...What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyone’s soul is supposed to pass into eternity?
Dummett did not shy from the matter:
I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found...I remain a Catholic, and hope to die one.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.


  1. "Skholiast", you may be interested in the unflattering account of his impressions of Dummett given by Colin McGinn in his autobiographical book The Making Of A Philosopher.

    Underlying Dummett's sentimental and manipulative rhetoric is an irrational refusal to "follow the evidence".

    He was troubled by the problem of evil? How astonishing!

    If I believe that lions are friendly to antelopes because a "holy" book told me that, of course I am going to be in "agony" over the fact that lions kill and eat antelopes! But this is a farce because I did not look at the facts before forming my belief.

    "because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found.."

    What is the basis of his "confidence" that he will find the answers to the questions generated by the conflict between his religious beliefs and reality and that the answers will be identical to the silly ones he is already familiar with?

    Again, it's all deeply irrational and glossed over by euphemisms such as "confidence" or "faith". It's really just blind belief at odds with reality.

    He remains a Catholic? That means he believes in the weird idea that a single being is also three beings at the same time, that it is its own father and "only begotten Son" at the same time, that it has sent itself to be crucified to death on earth out of love for humanity and at the same time cries out to itself "Why hast thou forsaken me?" while dying on the cross, that it condemns disbelievers to eternal suffering, and on and on.

    And it is a twenty first century analytical philosopher who still says he believes in all that?

    "the price of denying that God exists is to relinquish the idea that there is such a thing as how reality is in itself."

    Atheism does not imply any such thing!

    If you affirm the existence of God (P), then you affirm an objective reality, a being, whose nature and existence does not depend on anything (Q). But it is a logical fallacy to infer from this that if you deny the existence of God (Not P), you must deny that there is anything which has an objective reality (Not Q). God is not the only entity with an objective reality.

    In fact, if you deny that anything has an objective reality or reality independent of an observer, then you must deny the existence of God since God is objective reality par excellence!

    Thus, it is the denial of objective reality which entails atheism and not that atheism entails the denial of objective reality.

  2. Thill,

    re. the "unflattering... impressions of Dummett given by Colin McGinn", this is (as you note) in The Making of a Philosopher. The pages are 176-77 (though he mentions Dummett elsewhere in the book too, in part to criticize Dummett's stance on anti-realism, to which I think he takes Dummett to be more committed than he is -- or was, anyway (D. clarifies his position re. anti-realism in the preface to Truth & other enigmas)). (I might add that this was not the only matter upon which McGinn disagreed with Dummett philosophically.) The anecdote I take you to be citing (Dummett attacks McGinn--a junior colleague at the time--in a way that takes McGinn by surprise and seems uncalled-for to onlookers; eventually there is an apparently half-hearted apology) is surely an unfortunate one. Doubtless Dummett was irascible; it sounds (if we believe McGinn's reporting of what "everyone told him") like he could be downright mean sometimes. If only we all had better manners, no?

    "And it is a twenty-first century analytical philosopher who still says he believes in all that?"

    Yeah, I know! It's just the damndest thing.

  3. "It's just the damndest thing."

    It is. The sanctification of absurd, irrational beliefs, e.g., a being can be its own father and son, and the consequent intolerant demand that one abstain from their denigration because they are embedded in a religion, only maintains the prevalence of irrationality in the human condition.