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In Memoriam: Michael Dummett (1925-2011)

It is with sadness that we report the death of Sir Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford from 1979 until his retirement in 1992. He passed away peacefully at home on 27 December 2011.

Michael Dummett


An abridged version of the following obituary was published in The Independent on Tuesday 24 January 2012, p. 48, and online, with a photograph of Michael and Ann Dummett with their children in 1958.

One of the most important philosophers of the English speaking world in the second half of the 20th century has died at the age of 86. Professor Sir Michael Dummett was Wykeham Professor of Logic in the University of Oxford. He was enormously influential as a philosopher through major publications and supervision of many outstanding graduate students. He also played a significant role throughout his career combatting racism in the United Kingdom, and when he was knighted, it was “for Services to Philosophy and to Racial Justice”. He was also a world authority on voting procedures, a highly theoretical study of the very practical problem how to ensure that voting systems deliver fair results free, as much as possible, from distortion by tactical voting. Brought up in an irreligiously Anglican family, and a self-declared atheist at thirteen, he converted to Catholicism at the age of eighteen, and a deep religious faith remained central throughout the rest of his life. He pursued a passionate side interest in the games played with tarot cards, and in the cards themselves, and published major scholarly studies which have transformed understanding of the history of tarot cards and of the games played with them. He also loved jazz, and was proud to have heard Billie Holiday sing (in a small bar on the South Side of Chicago, in 1956).

Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett was born in London in 1925. His father, George Dummett, was a silk merchant (who later found it necessary also to deal in rayon). His mother, Iris née Eardley-Wilmont, was the daughter of a colonial administrator who had been head of the Indian Forestry Service. In September 1939 (just after the onset of World War II) Dummett began his secondary education, as a Scholar at Winchester College. After a compulsory year on the classics ladder, he opted for science, but was “deeply disappointed” by it and switched to history. In 1943 he obtained a history scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, but now 18 and with the war still on, went into the Royal Artillery instead of Christ Church. He was sent on a six month “short course” in Edinburgh. While there he contacted the University Catholic Chaplaincy and underwent instruction by the Chaplain, Father Ivo Thomas, and was received into the Catholic Church in February 1944. After Basic Training he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and sent to Bedford for a six month course of training to translate written Japanese, and then to the Wireless Experimental Centre outside Dehli, in which intercepted Japanese wireless message were translated. When the war with Japan ended, Dummett was sent to Malaya as part of Field Security. He wrote recently that “it must have been in Malaya that a passionate hatred of racism was first born in me. I learned of the means by which the British masters of pre-war colonial Malaya had maintained and acted out the myth of white racial superiority”, though Michael Screech remembers Dummett expressing anger about racism already when they were together on the Bedford course and at the Wireless Centre.

Dummett was demobilized in 1947, just in time to go up to Christ Church that year. He felt that after four years in the army he had forgotten much of the history he had learnt, and decided instead to read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He was “soon captivated by philosophy”. In Finals, in Trinity Term 1950, he took a paper “invented by John Austin” for first examination in that term called “The origins of Modern Epistemology”. Candidates were expected to study four texts from a list of seven, one of which was Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, newly translated by Austin for this purpose. The examiners’ report records that seven candidates took this paper and that Boole and Frege “attracted the least attention”. One can infer that perhaps only one or two candidates studied Frege for this exam. Nonetheless, there was a class on Frege’s Grundlagen in Hilary Term 1950 that met twice a week, given by Mr. W. Kneale and Mr F. Waismann. Dummett’s ensuing work on Frege has transformed understanding of Frege’s philosophy. Dummett wrote recently of Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, “I thought, and still think, that it was the most brilliant piece of philosophical writing of its length ever penned.”

Upon taking Finals, for which he was awarded a First, Dummett was appointed to a one year assistant lectureship in philosophy at the University of Birmingham. That October he sat the Fellowship examination at All Souls College and was elected. Such elections are with immediate effect, but he nonetheless fulfilled his commitment to Birmingham, rushing back to Oxford during term to pernoctate as required by All Souls.

The first project Dummett set himself as a Prize Fellow at All Souls was to read all the published work of Frege, most of which at that time had been neither translated nor republished. He also visited the Frege archive in Münster to study what survived of Frege’s unpublished work. Despite his passion for the work of Frege, Dummett began his philosophical career thinking of himself as a follower of Wittgenstein, arising from the impact of the arrival in Oxford during his last year as an undergraduate of typescripts of The Blue and Brown Books and of notes of Wittgenstein’s classes on philosophy of mathematics, and his philosophical contact and friendship with Elizabeth Anscombe, then a Fellow of Somerville College, to whom he had been sent for tutorials in his Finals year. By 1960 he no longer considered himself a Wittgensteinian. Late in life he wrote, “I should like to come to terms with Wittgenstein: I am sure I have not yet.” At the end of 1951, in his second year as a Prize Fellow, he married Ann Chesney, who had taken Finals in History from Somerville that year. Fifty years later, in his Library of Living Philosophers volume, he wrote of Ann, “she has been my constant support and delight throughout my life.” At the time of Michael’s death they were a few days short of their 60 th wedding anniversary. He and Ann had seven children, of whom two died in infancy.

Early in his All Souls Fellowship, Dummett had the idea of doing a second B.A. in Mathematics, but the Warden of All Souls refused (on the grounds that it would disgrace the college if he failed to obtain a First), and Dummett settled for some tutorials with a Fellow in Mathematics at one of the colleges. In 1955 he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to spend a year at the University of California in Berkeley studying logic and mathematics. Ann and their then two young children joined him there. He learnt a great deal from Leon Henkin, Raphael Robinson, John Myhill, Paul Halmos, and others (but not Tarski, who was away that year). He also came to know Donald Davidson, at Stanford, during that year, and they remained friends and philosophical interlocutors to the end of Davidson’s life.

While in Berkeley, Dummett became very involved with the American civil rights movement. He noted later that “at that time the United States was the most racist country in the world after South Africa”. He and Ann joined the N.A.A.C.P. and attended a rally by Dr Martin Luther King in San Francisco. Part of the duty of a Harkness Fellow was to travel around the United States during the summer, and he decided to devote himself to visiting black Americans after Ann and the children returned to England. He travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, where the boycott organised by Martin Luther King to end segregation on the city’s bus system was in progress, and there he met with Dr King, whom he admired greatly. He promised Dr King that back in England he would rebut malicious articles by Alistair Cooke in the Manchester Guardian Weekly about the black protest movement and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, which he attempted to do, first by writing an article for the Guardian, which they refused to print, then by a letter to the editor, which they also refused to print, then by a shorter letter, also refused, then by offering to give a talk on the Third Programme, also rejected, at which point he gave up and felt he had broken his promise to Dr King.

In 1957 Dummett was elected to a further seven year term as a Fellow of All Souls. In the next year he spent one term on his own at the University of Ghana, lecturing on the philosophy of time, one of his developing philosophical interests. While in Ghana he was offered a position in the Philosophy Department at Berkeley, which he accepted after consulting Ann by post, but when reunited they decided they did not want their children to grow up “in an environment alien to us which we did not truly understand”, and Dummett withdrew his acceptance.

Michael Dummett


In 1959 Dummett published his paper, “Truth”, a seminal work and his most important single paper, which contains within it seeds of all his later philosophy. It adumbrates the opposition between realism and anti-realism, as Dummett characterises these positions, and surveys a variety of contexts in which this opposition arises. Mathematical intuitionism is cited, in a few brief remarks, as a paradigm of anti-realism, but on a basis altogether different from that of L.E.J. Brouwer, intuitionism’s founder. A connection between these considerations and Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use is sketched. This is a heady mixture of ideas which have taken decades to explore. In a Postcript to that paper in 1972 he wrote, “I am no longer so unsympathetic to realism: the realist has a lot more to say for himself than is acknowledged in the article. The dispute is still a long way from resolution. On the one hand, it is unclear whether the realist’s defence of his position can be made convincing; on the other, it is unclear whether the anti-realist’s position can be made coherent. I remain convinced, however, that the issue between realism and anti-realism, construed roughly along the present lines, is one of the most fundamental of all the problems of philosophy.”

In 1962 Dummett applied for and was appointed to the Oxford University Readership in Philosophy of Mathematics (a post originally held by Friedrich Waismann, for whom it was created, and then by Hao Wang, who Dummett succeeded). Dummett held this post in conjunction with a Fellowship of All Souls. Between 1960 and 1966 Dummett was regularly a visiting professor in the Philosophy Department at Stanford for the summer quarter (in part to earn money so he could take his family on holiday). During one of those appointments, in 1964, he gave a course of lectures as a preliminary version of a book he hoped to write surveying every variety of realism and of denial of realism. By 2000 he came to realise he would never write such a book. Some would argue that there are intrinsic philosophical considerations that stand in the way of realizing the programme of Dummett’s “Truth” paper, but in any case a mundane explanation as to why Dummett did not pursue this project when he returned to Oxford from Stanford in 1964, and thereby lost its momentum, was that he and Ann decided then, “that the time had come for organised resistance to the swelling racism in England”.

From that moment, for the next four years, while keeping up with his heavy teaching commitments, Dummett devoted every moment he could spare to the fight against racism. He abandoned his book on Frege, as well as his work on realism and anti-realism. During this period Michael and Ann Dummett were deeply committed both to organizational activity to combat racism as a trend in British government and society, and to work on behalf of individuals threatened by racist policies and attitudes. A Philosophy graduate student newly arrived in 1967 and keen to discuss Dummett’s paper “Truth” with him recalls that Dummett was hugely generous in time and attention in helping to get to grips with his ideas, even when Dummett was also making himself completely available to the fight against racism. A telephone call in the midst of discussing philosophy in his rooms in All Souls would inform Dummett that an East-African Asian attempting to enter Britain was about to be sent back to the country from which he or she was fleeing, and transform Dummett from philosopher to activist, telephoning the Chief Immigration Officer to obtain a stay of immediate deportation, then dashing to the airport to argue the case. Dummett later described this time as “the most exhausting period of my life”. Dummett’s organizational work against racism included playing a key role in founding the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in 1967. He chaired its founding meeting at the Dominion Theatre in Southall in September 1967. The JCWI continues to do important work to the present day and Dummett maintained his association with it to end of his life. Its website contains an obituary expressing gratitude and admiration for all he did for the organization and its purposes.

During this period of maximum commitment to anti-racism, Dummett not only continued to be a generous and inspiring teacher but also played a key role in establishing mathematical logic within Oxford University. This resulted in the creation in 1966 of a University Lecturership in Mathematical Logic, to which John Crossley was appointed, and together with Crossley, Dummett then established a new Oxford undergraduate degree course in Mathematics and Philosophy, with Philosophy of Mathematics, and Mathematical Logic as bridge subjects. Some of the best undergraduates to have studied philosophy in Oxford have come from this course. One of them holds the Wykeham Professorship of Logic, in succession to Dummett’s successor in that chair. Dummett also secured the establishment of a Professorship in Mathematical Logic, to which Dana Scott was appointed. These posts in mathematical logic that Dummett established have become the core of a world renowned group in mathematical logic based in the Mathematical Institute.

The period in which Dummett gave the fight against racism highest priority among all his commitments lasted until the Spring of 1968, when he left Oxford to spend a term as visiting professor at the University of Minnesota (“a visit bracketed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy”). When he returned to Oxford, he returned to writing philosophy. Also in 1968, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (from which he resigned in 1984, in protest at policies of the British Academy at the time; in 1995 he accepted re-election as a Senior Fellow).

His first book, Frege: Philosophy of Language, was published, to enormous critical acclaim, in 1973. In the Preface to that book he explains that “by 1968 Britain had become irretrievably identified by the black people living here as a racist society […] The alienation of racial minorities is now so great that a white ally in the struggle can, except in special circumstances, play only the most minor ancillary part. It was only at the stage at which […] I felt that I no longer had any very significant contribution to make that I thought myself justified in returning to writing about more abstract matters of much less importance to anyone’s happiness or future.”

Having completed his major study of Frege’s philosophy of language, the focus of Dummett philosophical research was now much broader than philosophy of mathematics, and to avoid being constrained by the specific focus of his Readership in the Philosophy of Mathematics, as well as to have more time for his research, he applied for and was elected to a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls in 1974, a post he held for five years.

In 1976 he gave the William James Lectures at Harvard, on “The Logical Basis of Metaphysics”. In 1977 he published Elements of Intuitionism, 1977, a remarkable accomplishment of great significance philosophically, mathematically, and pedagogically. Pedagogically, this is a textbook of intuitionist mathematics and logic, in which role it played an important part in making intuitionism more accessible. Mathematically, it contains new results about intuitionism on many topics, including an intuitionistically correct proof of the completeness of the negation free fragment of intuitionistic logic (Kreisel, using ideas of Gödel, had shown that there could be no such proof for the whole of intuitionistic logic), a result that obtained, as it turned out, independently by Harvey Friedman at around the same time, but by very different means. Philosophically it is extremely important in establishing that intutionist mathematics and logic can indeed be cast in the form of a Dummettian anti-realism—a very different basis from that by which Brouwer argued for this development, and thereby has an integral place in the realization of Dummett’s philosophical programme from “Truth”.

In 1979 Dummett was elected to the Wykeham Professorship of Logic, in succession to Sir Alfred Ayer (and moved from All Souls, which had been his academic home for twenty-nine years, to New College, to which the Wykeham chair is attached). The question in that election was not whether Dummett would be elected but whether he would accept, which entailed giving up his Research Fellowship at All Souls, with its very limited formal demands. His doing so was a selfless act of loyalty to Oxford Philosophy. Almost immediately he was called upon to supervise as many as fifteen graduate students at a time. This was in part because professors have a statutory obligation to do a lot of graduate supervision, but mostly because his publications were now setting the agenda for important philosophical developments and graduates flocked to Oxford specifically to study with him.

In 1982 Dummett was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Research Prize which he used for four months at the University of Münster, working on Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics. In 1985 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1988-89 he spent the year in Stanford as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. In this only full year of sabbatical leave in his whole career, he finished two major books begun earlier, Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, and The Logical Basis of Metaphysics.

In 1987 Dummett gave a set of lectures at the University of Bologna under the title, “The origins of analytical philosophy” in which he offered an account of analytical philosophy as arising from the “fundamental axiom” that “a philosophical account of thought can be attained through a philosophical account of language, and, secondly, that a comprehensive account can only be so attained.” Dummett published these lectures the following year and in revised form in 1993. Dummett’s formulations were offered as a means of understanding the history of analytical philosophy, and in particular the relationship of Frege and Husserl, but also brought into sharp relief key issues in the present development of analytical philosophy.

Dummett retired from Oxford in 1992. He gave many lectures in retirement, including the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews University in 1997 and the John Dewey Lectures at Columbia University in 2003. He received many honours, including five honorary degrees, the Lakatos Prize for his book Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics in 1994, the Rolf Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy in 1995, he was knighted in 1999, and he was awarded the Lauener Prize in 2010. Award of the Lauener Prize involved a two-day symposium on his philosophy in which he was attentive though not critically engaged, as earlier he would have been, but he gave a wonderfully graceful acceptance speech, in which he took as his text the declaration by the Dodo after the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, “All must have prizes”. His last major publication, Thought and Reality, in 2006, at the age of 81, was a reworking of his Gifford Lectures. He continued to attend philosophical meetings and to participate in the philosophy of mathematics seminar in Oxford until his last few years. He died peacefully at home, with his wife and children around him.

One can wonder how Dummett was able to pursue so many disparate interests to such great accomplishment in each. An element of an answer must be his extraordinary facility at expressing himself in writing. The speed with which he composed at a typewriter was audibly that of an highly efficient copy typist, and he once prefaced a talk to an undergraduate society with an apology for the length of the paper he was about to present, noting that he had forgotten he was to give this talk until someone reminded him of it the day before, so that he’d had time to write the paper but not to shorten it.

Though he was always incisively clear what he held to be correct in his detailed articulation of how to respond to each problem he addressed, there is also in his philosophy a striking tentativeness. Thus in 2000 he characterised the aim of his 1997 Gifford lectures as having been “to describe the conception of the world—of reality—that would be proper to one who accepted the version of anti-realism that has been associated with me, namely a generalisation to all language of the intuitionist understanding of mathematical language, which I have never for long more than provisionally accepted.”

Everyone who knew Dummett has vivid memories of his smoking, which for most of his life he did using a short cigarette holder into which a replaceable filter was fitted, though not initially, to judge by a recollection of him in his army days, tapping the end of his cigarette many times before lighting it, an action so characteristic that it came to be called “dummetting” by those around him.

It gave Dummett enormous pleasure to learn recently (a fact discovered by one of his children) that Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot, grandfather of his mother’s father, campaigned for the abolition of slavery and is in the painting of the Anti-Slavery Society Convention of 1840 which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Michael Dummett’s philosophy lives on, not only in his own publications, but in numerous publications by others that discuss his work. These include nine books devoted to his philosophy, among them the ultimate accolade, a volume in the Library of Living Philosophers.

Daniel Isaacson


An obituary by Adrian Moore has appeared in The Guardian, and can be found online here: 

The obituary which appeared in the Telegraph newspaper on 28 December 2011 can be found online here:

A gathering of reminiscences from fellow philosophers appeared in the New York Times blog on 4 January 2012, and can be found here:  

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