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Michael Dummett. Thought and Reality

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Michael DUMMETT, Thought and Reality. Oxford University Press, 2006, ix + 111 pp., €21.74, ISBN-10: 0199207275; ISBN-13: 978-0199207275

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1God only knows to whom this small volume of philosophy will appeal, though I’m sure there will be some. I mention God intentionally since Dummett’s essay ends up with a chapter devoted to His knowledge of the world in itself. Anyone who happens to spend more time reading Analytic Philosophy than paging through the Holy Scriptures may indeed be surprised to see such a fine analysis of the theory of meaning end on a religious note. Linguistic philosophers rarely wax lyrical or theological. But this oddity can be explained by the nature of the exercise. Thought and Reality is a transcription of Dummett’s 1996 contribution to the famous Gifford Lectures; given the nature of this series of public conferences (“100 Years of Renowned Lectures on Natural Theology” according to the website), the final allusions to God are par for the course. One is forced to admire, however, the intelligence and flexibility of the audience attending these lectures, since, apart from the relatively clear theology he finishes with, Dummett spends most of his time on highly technical metaphysical, linguistic or logical speculation. No doubt aware that his audience would not be able to pursue all of these intricacies without some comic relief, Dummett throws in here and there a few passages of general introduction to the problems of philosophy (if I may refer to a famous title by Bertrand Russell). But that is precisely the problem. Those who will be up to following the debate about “minimalism” in semantic theory (33) won’t need to be told that “facts correspond to true statements (3). These movements back and forth between the technical and the pedestrian make for an odd reading experience, to say the least.

2Nonetheless, Thought and Reality does provide an interesting study of basic philosophical problems and gives a clear presentation of essential concepts (such as the concept of a “fact”). It can also serve as an efficient introduction to the thought of Gottlob Frege. The average reader will come away with a solid grasp of many of the distinctions essential to contemporary British philosophy – such as the difference between a statement and a proposition (4). There are fascinating pages on the relation between truth and time. Dummett argues in the Preface for a certain timelessness of truth, (p.VIII); and he also works out some of the paradoxes of “presentism” – that is, the philosophy that claims that only the present exists (18). More importantly, the lay reader will be given a good grasp of the way Analytic Philosophy links together metaphysical and linguistic questions, this connection between “thought and reality” (the title is indeed apt) being summed up in the various components (logical, epistemological, and grammatical) that are necessarily involved in a coherent theory of meaning. Dummett’s initial presentation of metaphysics might appear puzzling to those of us with a more “Continental” background. At the outset he writes, “The fundamental question that metaphysics strives to answer is ‘What is there?’, or, expressed more sententiously, ‘Of what does reality consist?’” (1). This isn’t exactly what Kant would say – for a Kantian, metaphysics seeks to describe the conditions of existence, rather than merely to catalogue the things which happen to meet these requirements (a job allotted to ontology).

3Quite naturally, there is also much of Wittgenstein in Dummett’s volume, either explicitly or in between the lines. Dummett even outdoes the Austrian master, however, in pithiness, when he comes to the following conclusion in a stylistically typical passage on the limits of language and thought: “What we cannot say we cannot say, and therefore we cannot think what we cannot say. Or better: what we cannot think we cannot think, and therefore we cannot say what we cannot think” (25). I find this statement vaguely Carrollian and droll – perhaps it is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But ultimately it amounts to a practical dismissal of the very idea of a reality beyond our grasp. There is thus a certain dose of positivism in these pages: “…arrogance is not a logical vice: the fact that it is arrogant to maintain a certain thesis [here the thesis that man’s mind could in principle grasp all aspects of reality] has no tendency to show that it is false, or even improbable. We are certainly ignorant of many features of reality, and we may never in fact succeed in grasping what some of them are: but no proof has been advanced to show that there are features of it that we could never in principle comprehend” (26). However, those of us who are ready to ponder the consequences of such a statement won’t need the bread-and-butter work on the basics of linguistic philosophy that Dummett also provides.

4The defect of the volume could turn into the defect of this review. Should I go into the detail of Dummett’s excessively rapid rejection of scepticism (22-23)? Might I argue that his decision to replace “the somewhat confusing term Bedeutung” by “semantic value” (45) is a way of illicitly side-stepping essential aspects in the debate about reference and reality? Should I keep in mind my own audience and limit myself to a simple presentation of Dummett’s “justificationist theory of meaning” (roughly the idea that understanding a statement involves knowing how to justify it – see pp. 56 ff.) or should I assume that the rough work is taken as read, and get on with my own doubts about Dummett’s rejection of the “realist fantasy” (87)? Should I go through the steps of his deconstruction of the concept of “the world in itself” (98) or (less ambitiously) explore his comparison of God and authors of fiction, with a few timely references to Flaubert (“présent partout, et visible nulle part”)? Either way, I would be boring some readers and mystifying others.

5So instead, I’ll end with a little thought experiment. As I’ve said, Dummett’s Thought and Reality analyses with extreme clarity the concept of fact. But would there even be such a concept if the “facts” of existence themselves were radically different? The concept of fact can only arise for a consciousness that deems itself in some way separate from reality, from the ontology that surrounds it. Because of this separation, untruth, error, etc. are thus possible and it is this margin of error that makes the concept of a “fact” interesting or indeed possible. If consciousness (or we might say “Being”) had, for some reason, never conceived of such a separation, there might be a concept of “is-ness” but there would be no such thing as a “fact”. That is, for this non-separated consciousness, it wouldn’t be a “fact” that p (where p is a proposition), on the contrary, for such a consciousness, pwould just “be”.

6Wittgenstein indeed takes one step towards this when he says “The world is that which is the case”. But if Wittgenstein had been (for instance) a sponge instead of a human being, that is, if he had been one indistinguishable cell of an essentially undividable whole, then he never would have reached this initial sentence of his Tractatus. For this initial sentence grammatically postulates two things – “the world” and “the case” – where the Infinite Sponge would see only one. In other words, if there were no outer and inner, if our eternal Sponge Consciousness occupied in some way the totality of all space and time, there would be no copula, no x is y, no syntax, there would only be Undivided Being. Only God knows what that would be like, and, as I should have mentioned at the outset, this is indeed part of Dummett’s point in his final chapter. There is, after all, only a fine line between such metaphysics and Natural Theology.

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Ronald SHUSTERMAN, « Michael Dummett. Thought and Reality », E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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