Obituaries: SIR PETER STRAWSON Distinguished Oxford Philosopher Whose Spare, Elegant Work Made Sense of Kant's Metaphysics
Ryan, Alan, The Independent (London, England)
Encountering philosophy as an undergraduate in 1959 was a wonderful and astonishing experience. That was the year in which two philosophical works appeared whose impact on the discipline was out of all proportion to their modest size and unpretentious prose. One was Stuart Hampshire's Thought and Action' the other, by Peter Strawson, was Individuals. Its demure sub-title, "An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics", gives no hint of the revolution it wrought.
Almost any student fresh from school at the end of the Fifties would have thought that philosophy in England was defined by Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer, that "metaphysics" was the name of something foreign and obscure, and that a thinker such as Immanuel Kant was wilfully opaque and unreadable. It turned out that the attempts of English empiricists to build the world out of sense- data wouldn't wash' and it soon became possible to read Kant with pleasure or at any rate to see in Kant some of what Strawson had so usefully taught us to see in Kant's work.
For most of his career in Oxford, Peter Strawson defined what philosophy was, and how it should be practised' he had already acquired a considerable reputation by the time he published Individuals and it was succeeded in 1966 by The Bounds of Sense, which remains one of the best ways in to the vertiginous difficulties of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Strawson was born in west London in 1919 and attended Christ's College, Finchley (followed by his younger brother, the future Maj- Gen John Strawson)' from there he went to St John's College, Oxford in 1937. Unlike most Oxford philosophers of his day, he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics rather than Greats. It was still regarded as a scandal 20 years later that the examiners gave him a second class degree when he graduated in 1940.
The tale went that Isaiah Berlin had very much admired his brisk and combative philosophy papers and had given them clear first class marks, but that Sandy Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, and a survivor from the days of Oxford Idealism, had found them brash, and too dismissive of philosophers he admired, and had marked them down accordingly. The Second World War was on, Berlin was heading for the United States, there were no viva voce examinations, and the old Oxford rule that the lower mark prevailed cost Strawson his First. It was rumoured among the undergraduates of the Sixties that Berlin had anyway left the scripts in a taxi...
At all events, Strawson went off to war, first in the Royal Artillery and then in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was demobilised as a captain in the REME. In 1945, he married Grace Hall Martin - universally known as Ann - with whom he would have two daughters and two sons. After the war, he was appointed to an assistant lecturership in philosophy at the University College of North Wales at Bangor. He returned to Oxford almost immediately' in 1946 he won the John Locke Scholarship, and in 1947 became a lecturer in philosophy at University College, Oxford. The following year he was elected to a permanent fellowship in philosophy at the college.
During the 20 years he was there, the fellows of University College were strikingly more interesting than most of their peers, and part of the reason was the high standard set by Peter Strawson. He was courteous, urbane and readily amused he frequently looked as though he was sharing some small joke with the Almighty while he conversed with his colleagues but, without ever insisting on it, he left one in no doubt that he expected intelligent conversation.
Those were the qualities he brought to his work as an undergraduate tutor and a graduate supervisor' like some other very distinguished philosophers, he was as good at getting through to the less philosophically talented as he was at stimulating the very brightest. He never looked for, and never attempted to make, disciples, and was very much a representative of the old Oxford tradition of regarding philosophy as an extended conversation about interesting and difficult topics, whose pleasures were the pleasures of the chase rather than those of founding an orthodoxy. …