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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. Sothe 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 achallenge. Although the challenge was something close to a lifelong crusade, he undoubtedly retained asympathy 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 peoples 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.

Dummetts 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.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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I am pleased to see the notice here on the death of Sir Michael Dummett. I was invited some years ago to contribute to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Dummett invitation came about due to an article I had published on Dummett and Lonergan. My contribution to the volume is entitled Dummett: Philosophy and Religion, and is followed by a lengthy response by Dummett. While writing my piece Sir Michael kindly furnished me with the then unpublished Gifford Lectures, upon which I commented, in addition to writing on other matters such as his views on transubstantiation and contraception. It is not true to say that his earlier writing on the latter clearly stated his support for the teaching of the Church, and one of the things I wanted to do was to get him, in his reply, to clarify his views on this.During the time of writing for the volume Sir Michael also very kindly helped my family in the case of a family friend from Africa who was an asylum seeker to the UK. So I have many thoughts at this time of Dummetts death and have been remembering him in prayer.I would have to say, however, that as I made clear in the contribution to the 2007 volume, I find his argument for God unconvincing - although there are promising aspect to it I think and I find his criticism of the Churchs teaching on contraception equally unconvincing. A recent article on the Heythrop Journal and offered a very good critique of that.Dr. Andrew Beards,Maryvale Institute,UK

Dr. Beards is right that Dummett's support for the Church's traditional position on contraception was not unambiguous in his earlier writings, and that the full extent of his disagreement with the teaching of Humanae Vitae only came out in their exchange in the volume he cites. As for the critique of Dummett in the Heythrop Journal, I believe that I am actually the author of the article he references, so I am happy to hear his opinion of it!

Here are Dummett's views of the reformed liturgy, with something for all sides to agree, and disagree, with: .

Thanks! -- I should have thought of linking that.

HEre's another UK obit, from The Telegraph. Some of the comments are interesting for various reasons.

And here is a fine essay by John Haldane, with some details on the extent of Dummett's work in support of immigrants that I hadn't known of before, and a better account than I offered of the continuity between his earlier metaphysical views and the argument of his Gifford Lectures:"Dummett was the leading scholar at Winchester and won a history scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, but before proceeding to university he began military service. This would lead him into the Intelligence Corps, but it began in the Royal Artillery for which he was trained in Scotland. During this period he sought religious instruction from the Dominican Ivo Thomas, then chaplain to the Catholic Student Union at Edinburgh University. Thomas was himself a philosophically trained Catholic convert and Dummett followed him into the Church in 1944, much to the displeasure of his parents. The following year, Dummett was transferred to Military Intelligence and posted to Malaya, where he encountered the easy mixing of different ethnic groups but also the racism of the colonial administration."Thus, even before his delayed arrival at Oxford at the age of 22, Dummett had acquired religious and political convictions rooted in experience and reflection. Thereafter he excelled in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), was elected a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, and began to develop his own highly distinctive, and initially seemingly eccentric philosophical theories about truth and reality. These involved the idea that truth must be knowable, at least in principle."Arguing for this idea involved elaborate, often technical work in logic and mathematics, but it also led to a notion that he occasionally hinted at but left undeveloped. In 1996, however, having retired as Wykeham Professor of Logic from Oxford, he returned to Scotland to deliver the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews. Published a decade later as Thought and Reality, they argue that since the world or reality is ultimately what is knowable and known, it follows that there must be an ultimate Knower: God."The link is here:

[...] sul Guardian, sul Telegraph, sul NewScotsman, su Commonweal; intervento di Roberta de [...]

I took a (modest ) part in the Telegraph discussion of the Dummett obituary. What shocked me( thought perhaps it shouldn't have shocked me.) was the vitriol poured on Dummett's mmeory by some of the Telegraph's readers. A few condemned his 'evil' racial views, at least one voiced shock at his religious beliefs. I would like to share two footnotes.In 1977, the British Tory Church historian, Edward Norman ( Then Dean of Peterhouse) attacked liberation theology- and almost attempts to mix religion and politics in his Reith Lectures, Chrisitainity and The World Order. Dummett replied to Norman with an eloquent, quite devestating lecture called "Catholicism and Thge World Order."I first heard of Dummett when I read a reference to him in a National Catholic Reporter obituary of the brilliant, slightly crazy, Oxford orientalist and comparitive religionist, R.C. Zaehner. Dummett was quoted as calling his All Souls colleague and fellow convert, "eccentric extraordinary". Later, I read an fascinating posthumous collection of essays by Zaehner, The City Within The Heart. The introduction was by Dummett. I reccomend it to anyone who wishes to grasp how profound- and how devout- Dummett actually was.

"I first heard of Dummett when I read a reference to him in a National Catholic Reporter obituary of the brilliant, slightly crazy, Oxford orientalist and comparitive religionist, R.C. Zaehner."Mr. Harder --Yes, Dummett was indeed a deeply spiritual man. Do you know if he was a friend of Zaehner's and not just a colleague? I wouldn't be surprised. Both were mavericks of sorts, both in having converted to Catholicism and both were out of the mainstream of their own fields to some exten. Also, they both appreciated both spirituality and rationality -- as Dummett appreciated spiritual reality, so Zaehner appreciated logic. Zaehner caught hell for defending rationality against many of the scholars of mystical experience, but persisted against them all in no uncertain terms. I was at one time very familiar with some of Zaehner's works. I used his theory of non-religious mystical experience to criticize some of Maritain's ideas in my doctoral dissertation. I think Zaehner's thesis about non-religious mysticims is true, and I strongly suspect that as the Catholic Church in the West becomes more familiar with the Catholic Church in the East that his works will become highly relevant. Already I've seen an instance of an Eastern theologian, de Mello, who crossed the line into pantheism, and I've heard of another, whose name I've forgotten.Did you know that Zaehner was also an extremely courageous British spy in WW II? It's a wonder to me that no one has written a biography of him. Diplomat, spy, gay, alcoholic, linguist as able as Richard Burton, and great though highly controversial scholar of mystical experience. I'm so glad that Dummett had such good things to say about him after all his controversies. (The City Within the Heart was published posthumously.) I fear that because Zaehner was so eccentric that he wasn't taken as seriously as he deserved to be. But with all his warts, I see him as an very holy man. And his work is extremely important for the Church.

Dear Ms. Oliver: Sorry for my belated reply, but am i pretty busy Community college teacher ( who is also writing a book oin Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.) Iam fairly certain that Dummett and Zaehner knew each other fairly well. All Souls has alwys been a pretty close knit community, and as Zaehner and Dummett were among the few Catholics there in the fifties and sixties, the probablity that they influenced each other is more than alittle strong. I first discovered Zaenhner in a weird way. He was one of the editorial advisors to , Heaven Help Us, The "encyclopedia of the supernatural', Man Myth and Magic. I later read a bizarre, brilliant, essay by him called Manson, Murder and Mysticism, which appeared in Encounter, which then was the world's best magazine( Though The CIA was no longer finaincing it.) When he died, Encounter contributing editor Geronwy Rees ( "R") wrote an obituary for him which described how his "tormented soul" had found 'refuge in the Church of Rome". It also mentioned his deep fear of ghosts and said that in his pre-conversion days, he had developed adeep crush on Mickey Rooney, whom he wrote love poems about. Joe Harder is NOT making this up. Zaaehners sucessor as Spalding professor was a Hindu anlaytic philoospher and logician, B.K. Matilal, who was also a close friend of Dummett.

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