Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Peter Strawson’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture


            Professor Sir Peter Strawson, born of teachers in north London, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics in Oxford, and, after returning from the war, became a Fellow at University College Oxford and subsequently Oxford's Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics. At 31 he became known for his contending against Bertrand Russell's Theory of Descriptions, and subsequently he was distinguished by his metaphysics in the English descriptive or analytic way, not speculative in the German way, and by his books Individuals and Introduction to Logical Theory and many articles.  

            A car accident resulted in his being unable to give an arranged and anticipated Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture. The editor and the publisher of the present volume have decided to include the present paper. It like most of the lectures is not in much need of an introduction for clarification but more to lead readers into a confident anticipation that even if the thinking is not easy, concentration on it will be rewarded.

            The paper is an adjudication of two views of our ordinary sense perception of things and a defence of a third view. The first is that of the Logical Positivist A. J. Ayer in the tradition of what is called phenomenalism, having to do with internal and somehow subjective entities in perception, what historically were called ideas and subsequently have been spoken of as sense data, qualia, representations and the like. The second view by John Mackie is in a tradition of what is called scientific realism, having to do with the science of perception and the nature of what is perceived. As against these two views, the third view or attitude, to which Strawson is at least inclined, is what he speaks of as a kind of common-sense realism about the world.

            Ayer, we are reminded, takes it in a late book that our ordinary perceptual experience of a thing, seeing it, is such that what we judge or think about what we see goes beyond what we actually experience. What we have in mind, maybe a room, is more than what, strictly speaking, we do experience in the subjective episode. That is accepted in a certain careful way by Strawson. But it is also maintained that we do not need to embrace sense data, which need is a myth. We have to remember instead that our perceptual experience in a way immediately includes or involves a concept of the object itself. It is only the theory of phenomenalist philosophers that in a way leads us away from this fact. We can and must stick to common-sense realism.

             Mackie's scientific realism is approached first by way of a comparison with a fourth view, which, for Strawson, has still less claim to attention. This is what has laboured under the name of being Naive Realism -- but has recently had at least the sympathy of strong philosophers. It is in fact a confused realism in Strawson's judgement, since it fails to draw a distinction that it itself must presuppose, say the distinction between our visual experience of dappled deer and the deer themselves. Mackie's scientific realism, also very different indeed from common-sense realism, is to the effect that objects have only the physical properties allowed to them in scientific theory, say a psychology of vision, and that we cannot perceive them as they really are, that our representations of them do not deliver their reality.

            Strawson's common-sense realism, is taken by him to be a real realism, something of which scientific realism is a distortion. It credits things with visual and tactile properties that are immediately or directly perceived by us. They are not a matter of any inference or construction on our part, either in the phenomenalist way or a scientific way. A causal story about them can be told, despite impediments. Much more is explained about the bases and defence of this realism. More is explained too of the weakness of the two alternatives, including some nonsense, and an attempt to blend the two together.

            It is possible to question and to disagree with common-sense realism, as I myself do. Are the dappled deer yet more and more literally the story of your seeing them than Strawson supposes? Is it possible to go still further in Strawson's realist direction and and to suppose that our actual consciousness in perception can be very explicitly analysed? But one cannot but be affected by his line of thought in its informal astuteness. What is conveyed and evoked has the excellence of making you think. It is easy, too, to be enlightened by much along the way, say the incidental observation near the end that science is not the only offspring of common sense, and remains its dependant.