Michael Dummett, 1925-2011
I have been traveling for the past few days, and am sorry to be slow in noting the death of Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford from 1979-1992 and undeniably one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Dummett was also a faithful Catholic, something I noted back in 2009 when I quoted an excerpt from his conversion story. One sometimes encounters the suggestion that Dummett’s deep religious convictions were irrelevant to his philosophical views; but this is clearly wrong, as A.W. Moore’s obituary in the Guardian suggests:
[Dummett] 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.
What is also true is that Dummett usually kept his explicitly theologically-oriented writing (which included, among other things, an important essay on the metaphysics of transubstantiation, a number of essays and reviews in the British Catholic periodical The Tablet, and a famous yearlong exchange in New Blackfriars that began with his forceful condemnation of liberal scripture scholars in the pages of that journal) separate from his secular philosophical work. But Dummett’s 1996-1997 Gifford Lectures, published in 2006 under the title Thought and Reality, suggest to me that Moore is wrong in the passage quoted above to suggest that the “realist cast” of Dummett’s religious convictions were in any sort of tension with his antirealist view of meaning: rather, according to Dummett it is precisely the assumption that a Mind exists which possesses a way of understanding reality that is different in kind from our own, that provides the only way of making sense of a concept of how things “really are” beyond any of our particular apprehensions of them. Yet to do away with such a concept is to give up hope for genuine scientific (or philosophical) progress.
The theistic argument of Dummett’s Gifford Lectures was also presented in an essay in his 2010 book The Nature and Future of Philosophy. Elsewhere in that book is Dummett’s critical discussion of Humanae Vitae‘s position on the use of the birth control, which he viewed as a corruption of the Church’s teaching on more traditional forms of contraception — a position Dummett himself had defended in earlier writings. Dummett’s argument was excerpted in Commonweal earlier this year, and it prompted a (to my mind convincing) reply by Joseph Komonchak in this space. In addition to his important philosophical and religious writings, Dummett was also a leading historian of the Tarot, and he and his wife Ann campaigned forcefully to improve race relations, which led him to take a serious academic interest in social and political issues, as is explained in this obituary from the Telegraph:
In 1958 [Ann and Michael Dummett] co-founded the Institute of Race Relations think tank and in the 1960s, as the trickle of immigration became a flood, they drove a battered van to Heathrow Airport day after day to take up the cases of Asian and West Indian immigrants threatened with deportation. On one occasion they were arrested and prosecuted after staging a protest against a market stallholder who refused to serve black customers. Police dropped charges and the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, apologised.
Dummett saw the root of the problem as lying in the political system. In his book On Immigration and Refugees (2001), he argued that lurking behind the egalitarian veneer of democracy is the more manipulative principle of playing on people’s prejudices to gain votes. This, when applied to issues of immigration, has invariably led to a jingoistic policy – a policy founded, essentially, on racism. In Britain, according to Dummett, much of the blame rested with the Home Office, a department which he accused of “decades of hopeless indoctrination in hostility”, first against Commonwealth immigrants, and later against asylum seekers and refugees. “For the Home Office,” he once wrote, “the adjective ‘bogus’ goes as automatically with ‘asylum seeker’ as ‘green’ does with ‘grass’.”
Dummett’s political concerns made him increasingly convinced that political parties were essentially undemocratic institutions which, through a distorted voting system and the use of whipping procedures in Parliament, had become little more than “devices for frustrating the will of the majority”. In Voting Procedures (1984) and Principles of Electoral Reform (1997) he proposed a proportional representation system known as the Quota Borda or Quota Preference Score system, a highly complex arrangement designed to encourage consensus by giving candidates the incentive to appeal to as wide as possible a cross-section of voters.
It should be noted that the “other” great Catholic Oxford philosopher, G.E.M. Anscombe, had a similar history of activism: as a young college student she distributed leaflets opposing Britain’s entry into World War II, then later on as a research fellow at Somerville College she organized a protest against the decision to grant an honorary degree to Harry Truman. Years later, after abortion had been legalized in Britain, Anscombe was arrested for protesting outside an abortion clinic. Philosophically, she and Dummett could hardly have been any different, but in neither case can their lives or the full scope of their thought be comprehended except against the background of their shared conception of our final end.