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I want to read Michael Dummett's The Logical Basis of Metaphysics. Is it hard to read ? I would like an answer for the same question regarding his other texts.

Do I need a prior exposition to other concepts, texts (even from himself) or other authors ?

I mostly have a technical background in Logic (especially related to Computer Science) and I'm aware of only a few philosophical ideas.

  • Have a go at the introduction: thedivineconspiracy.org/Z5258M.pdf – Mr. Kennedy Mar 14 '17 at 0:37
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    & here's a decent primer on Dummett: iep.utm.edu/dummett – Mr. Kennedy Mar 14 '17 at 0:41
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    Who knows you have to try, but my guess is that it will be difficult because to understand philosophy is to understand a narrative, the history behind and the context of the problems being discussed. My suggestion would be to first read an accessible introduction that gives you a sense of the bigger picture maybe: Dummett: Philosophy of Language by Karen Green. I think I have read favorable reviews of that book and have read parts of it. – Johannes Mar 14 '17 at 6:26
  • Maybe useful: B.F. McGuinness and G. Oliveri (editors), The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, Springer (1994); see also Dag Prawitz, Menaing Theory and Anti-realism, page 79-on. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 14 '17 at 15:48
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    fwiw i find very hard to read indeed. you might want to start with some of his essays. i would also recommend dag prawitz, you can find some of his papers online. – user20153 Mar 14 '17 at 17:36
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Something like "is it hard to read" is a really subjective question and I'm not sure how well its going to be received in terms of allowing for an objective answer. Perhaps something that might help illuminate the question is that this book is a piece of professional philosophy by a professional philosopher that is intended for (not strictly professional) philosophers. This differs from things that are not professional philosophy but still written by professional philosophers with an intended audience of beginning or non philosophers, for example. It assumes background knowledge of the work that it discusses, because much of it is Dummett's critique of the ideas of Wittgenstein, Frege, Davidson, Quine, and Tarski, among others, and his offerings of solutions to the problems discussed therein.

In regards to "what sort of content does this work cover and what will I need to know to understand it", this work uses a lot of background from the general lexicon of 20th century philosophy of language and metaphysics. This book is Dummett giving a very intricate evaluation of the debate between realism and anti-realism, but it strongly goes through its points in light of conversations about meaning, intension and extension, definability of truth, etc. which are central to logic and the philosophy of language. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it this way:

The difference between the realist and the anti-realist, in each case, concerns the correct logical laws, because, for reasons explained in section 2.2, Dummett thinks that metaphysical debates are properly understood as debates about logical laws. Dummett's most complete statement of the nature of such metaphysical debates, and the means by which they can be resolved was The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (Dummett, 1991b).

You might be lost if any of the central ideas discussed in the philosophy of language are foreign to you. There is a lot of attention paid to Wittgenstein and Frege in the beginning of the book. To that extent, if you've never read the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations, or Frege's Sense and Reference or some of his other philosophical essays, you might not have a grasp of what is being discussed, even if you have had light introductions to what the work says.

In this book he also dives heavily into Tarski's study of semantics, both his formal results in model theory as well as the philosophical impact it has had. If you aren't familiar with model theory or you've never seen a proof of Tarski's undefinability theorem you will probably want to find those things before reading this book. With a background in logic, even just a focus of CS related logic, it won't take that long to understnad them. Davidson's truth-conditional semantics and Quine's meaning holism are also discussed, elaborated on, and critiqued. It would help to have read their canonical writings on these issues such as Davidson's Truth and Meaning and Quine's Word and Object and From a Philosophical Point of View. Dummett offers his rejection of Tarski and Davidson's definition of truth, and its relation to the interactions between object and meta languages, so you will be lost without an understanding of those ideas.

Additionally, of course, there is also the terminology that is used in contemporary metaphysics. It's not enough to merely understand what the terms "realism", "nominalism", "reductionism", "idealism", etc. mean; you should also be aware of the common arguments against, arguments for, and critiques of these ideas. Granted, it's not as if the book is unreadable if you don't have this background, but there will be a lot of things taken for granted, or things that are assumed as background knowledge, if these concepts seem foreign to you. It is also not traditionally the best thing to introduce yourself to concepts by reading a formal critique of them intended as a piece of professional philosophy, you might come out being heavily biased against them. For a beginning introduction to the metaphysics that is being discussed I would read the third section The Problems of Metaphysics: the “New” Metaphysics from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article Metaphysics as well as the SEP article Realism.

I should say that a lot of what I've said before now sounds very harsh and off-putting. The Logical Basis of Metaphysics is not some arcane tablet that is indecipherable unless you've spent a decade studying it; it's not even that technical of a book, comparatively to some of his other work. However, it isn't an introduction either. It's a professional philosopher's critique of a lot of other professional philosopher's views mixed with his own theories as to how we are going to be able to solve major philosophical problems. It references a lot of work that is central to some major branches of philosophy and as such it would be a good idea to understand those works, or better yet the ideas illuminated by those works, before reading this book.

In terms of Dummett's other work, using his classic text Frege: Philosophy of Language as an example, I would suggest the same sorts of things. That text is not an introduction to the ideas of Frege for someone who has never heard any of them, or has never heard any discussion of the philosophy of language. It is a heavy philosophical text that uses logical notation freely (sometimes even modal logic) and assumes an understanding of terminology such as "intensional transitive verbs", "opaque quantification", "referential opacity", etc. The writing is very heavy as well, an example from page 5:

Here we are concerned with the form which a general account must take of what it is for a sentence to have a sense (or: what it is to know the sense of a sentence), and of what it is for a word to have a sense (or, likewise, of what it is to know the sense of a word). For the purposes of such a general account, the notion of the sense of a sentence has the priority: for this can be explained by reference to the notion of truth-conditions, whereas the general notion of the sense of a word can be explained only in terms of that of the sense of a sentence in which the word may occur. Of course, this highly generalized notion of the contribution made by a word to determining the sense of a sentence in which it occurs is merely programmatic: to give it any substance, we have first to categorize words and expressions according to the different kinds of contributions they can make to the sense of sentences containing them, and then give, for each such category, a general account of the form taken by the semantic rule which governs them.

This is part of Dummett's explanation of Frege's principle of compositionality. As stated, this is taken from only the 5th page of a very detailed and intricate 700 page book. If the terminology or concepts seem unfamiliar, then you would probably be better off getting a firm background in the philosophy of language before reading this work. As an introduction to the philosophy of language I would highly recommend first reading a historical overview that touches on some of the main ideas, such as The IEP's article on the topic and then reading Scott Soames' Philosophy of Language. Soames' work is a little bit more technical than an introductory textbook but it does a great job of explaining the entire field from Frege onwards.

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Michael Dummett's The Logical Basis of Metaphysics should be a difficult book to read since it challenges the common sense of many people. It may be difficult to see what his point is, or to take that point seriously, given that common sense. On the other hand Dummett is an analytic philosopher. His attempts at precision are not intended to confuse but to lead to clarity.

One approach to the book is to read the introduction, "Metaphysical Disputes over Realism", and then the last chapter, "Realism and the Theory of Meaning". The introduction will describe realism in terms of the principle of bivalence and the last chapter will illustrate various ways an anti-realist might respond. Using that as a framework, one can read (and re-read) the entire book.

First let's consider the introduction.

Dummett takes metaphysical topics such as the soul, free will, God, ethics or the future seriously. Up front, in spite of the "destructive phase" of analytic philosophy that may have treated such topics as meaningless, he asserts: (page 1)

...if philosophy does not aim at answering such questions, it is worthless.

He just stepped on the common sense of anyone still enchanted by logical positivism.

Since he is an analytic philosopher he will approach metaphysics through language and logic. To understand these problems better he breaks metaphysical topics into classes of statements and notes that people who take a particular class of statements as representing something real also take a particular logical attitude toward those statements: (page 9)

It is difficult to avoid noticing that a common characteristic of realist doctrines is an insistence on the principle of bivalence - that every proposition, of the kind under dispute, is determinately either true or false.

He just stepped on the common sense of those who only accept classical logic.

Now let's look at the last chapter.

A person who accepts realism does so only with respect to a particular class of statements. If some person accepts the realism of Cantor's transfinite numbers, that does not mean that the person also accepts the realism of statements about the future. Each dispute is over a specific class of metaphysical statements. (page 322)

...these are all disputes concerning the correctness of a realistic interpretation of some class of statements, which we may call 'the disputed class'.

While realism is split between different classes of statements, there may be many anti-realist responses for the realist position supporting bivalence for statements in a particular disputed class. Anti-realism is not a unified position against the realist. This chapter attempts to show the different ways one can be an anti-realist although generally the anti-realist interprets the disputed class, not realistically, but in terms of other statements called "the reductive class" (page 322). These can be so interpreted in a "weak form of reductionism" or a "full-blooded reductionism" (page 323).

This steps on the common sense of those who think of oppositions as unified positions. These disputes over metaphysics are not disputes between a unified realist position opposed by a unified anti-realist position.


Dummett admits in the preface that he has not completed his task: (page x-xi)

My aim was to achieve a prolegomena to the work I still hoped to do in philosophy, and regard as one of its major tasks, to resolve the problems concerning realism in its various specific manifestations. I have not yet made substantial progress with this task, and now probably never shall; I shall be content if I have persuaded sufficiently many people of its importance, and of the correctness of my strategy for tackling it, to make it likely that others will achieve what I once hoped to.

Hopefully the above provides the context the OP is looking for to begin reading Dummett's work.


Dummett, M. The logical basis of metaphysics. (1991) Harvard University Press

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