The "Other" Michael Dummett
A renowned philosopher, who just happened to be interested in Tarot
In Tarot circles, Michael Dummett is recognized as a key commentator on the history of Tarot cards, and (with art historian Ronald Decker) on the origins of esoteric Tarot. It’s well known that Dummett took a scholarly approach to these topics—and it’s sometimes mentioned that he was a professor of philosophy.
But “professor” is quite an understatement. Dummett was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century philosophy, reshaping modern debate about the relationship between metaphysics, mathematics, and logic.
Several years ago I wrote an introduction to Dummett’s work, for one of Gale’s online reference series. And it’s just now occurred to me that Tarot enthusiasts might be interested in a more detailed view of Dummett’s “day job” and his personal interests. I think some might be surprised to discover that Dummett was a devout Roman Catholic, as well as a tireless crusader for racial justice.
So here’s an abbreviated and slightly modified version of my original (unedited) draft. There’s almost nothing in it about Tarot—but I found that knowing more about Dummett’s life and work provided a fascinating background to his interest in Tarot.
Michael Dummett (1925 –2011)
Michael Dummett is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers, best known for examining the work of German logician and mathematician Gottlob Frege, for advancing the importance of language theory in philosophical inquiry, and for focusing attention on the underlying logics of various philosophical positions. A prolific writer and noted academic, Dummett also distinguished himself as a political activist who fought publicly against racism and other injustices. In addition, he was an expert on the history of card games.
Dummett held Oxford’s Wykeham Chair in Logic from 1979 until his retirement in 1992, and in 1999, was awarded a knighthood in recognition of his contributions both to British philosophy and to racial justice.
Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett, the son of silk merchant George Herbert Dummett and Iris Eardley-Wilmot Dummett, was born in London on 27 June 1925. After studying at Sandroyd School, he excelled at Winchester College, and in 1943, was awarded a major scholarship to study history at Christ Church, Oxford. He was called into military service the same year, however, and served until 1947—first in the Royal Artillery, then in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army. During this time Dummett rejected the atheist position he had adopted as a teenager, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He remained a devout and very conservative Catholic for the rest of his life.
Discharged from the army, Dummett took up his studies at Christ Church, completing his B.A. in 1950 with first class honors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He then secured a prestigious fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, and the following year married Agnes Margaret Ann Chesney. Dummett and Chesney not only raised five children but also founded the Oxford Committee for Racial Integration, and Chesney wrote a number of works on immigration policy and race relations.
In 1954, Dummett received an M. A. from Oxford, where he was to spend the rest of his career, except for occasional periods abroad as a visiting scholar. His 1959 paper entitled “Truth” attracted attention, and Dummett was soon regarded as a rising star in the philosophical community. But during the 1960s, he transferred much of his energy to political activism, focusing particularly on the issue of immigration law in Britain. Consequently, Dummett’s first book—Frege: Philosophy of Language—was not published until 1973.
Three more works establishing the fundamental direction of his thinking followed within a few years: The Justification of Deduction (1974), Elements of Intuitionism (1977), and Truth and Other Enigmas (1978). In 1979 he was awarded the Wykeham Chair. During the 1980s, in addition to his academic work and political activism, he also produced three books on the Tarot, a distinctive set of suited playing cards probably developed in the 15th century. Dummett dismissed occultist interpretations of the Tarot, focusing instead on the iconography and social history of the cards.
Well into the 21st century, he continued publishing books and articles on philosophy (including Truth and the Past, 2005, and Thought and Reality, 2006), immigration reform, Catholic doctrine, and the Tarot. His final work, The Nature and Future of Philosophy (2010), defends the relevance of philosophy as a discipline and summarizes his own views. Dummett passed away on 27 December 2011.
Thought and Works
Dummett’s philosophical positions are difficult to summarize, in part because his thought crosses boundaries and engages a wide range of issues. In addition, his writing is often very dense, and deals with aspects of philosophy that are not easily understood by non-specialists. All together, he published twelve books categorized as philosophy, including three collections of essays (Truth and Other Enigmas, Frege and Other Philosophers, 1991, and The Seas of Language, 1993), three books dealing directly with Frege (the last being Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, 1991), and perhaps his most seminal work, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1993).
In each of his publications, Dummett developed or expanded interrelated ideas, continually modifying, clarifying, and revising his positions. Therefore none of his books can be described individually, as if it were “about” a single topic, or made a distinct argument. Similarly, it is difficult to isolate specific concepts or positions advanced by Dummett, since his ideas follow a complex, branching progression that must be referenced across the whole body of his work.
There are, however, at least three characteristic themes that can be recognized in Dummet’s work:
First, he consistently prioritizes the question of meaning, and focuses on the role of language with respect to meaning.
Second, he attempts to identify fundamental issues underlying philosophical disagreements, rather than merely taking a particular side.
Third, he treats logic not as a specialized aspect of philosophy, but as an underlying component of all philosophical inquiry.
Although Dummett’s philosophical positions resist summarization, attempts to characterize his work concisely usually include several specific points. Most often mentioned are his rejection of bivalence as a general semantic principle and his popularization of the term “anti-realism.”
Those two points fit together as follows: Bivalence is a tenet of classical logic holding that every declarative statement is either true or not true. So on any given day, the statement “Today is Tuesday” is either true or false. There may be no evidence to prove the statement either way, but that does not matter as long as it is possible to understand the conditions under which the statement would be true (or false). Bivalent logic is therefore said to be “evidence-transcendent.”
Generally speaking, that is the position of “realist” philosophers, who hold that truth does not depend on human constructions or intuitions—so it is or is not Tuesday even if no one knows (or supposes) what day it actually is. But other philosophical approaches are based on a different kind of logic, which can be broadly called “intuitionist.” From that perspective, the truth value of a statement depends on whether the statement can be verified.
In a bivalent logic, every statement always has one (and only one) truth value, but in an intuitionistic logic, an unverified (or unverifiable) statement has no truth value. Since Dummett contends that some statements are undecideable (the conditions that would establish truth or falsity cannot be determined), he concludes that bivalent logic does not provide the best foundation for a theory of meaning.
Moreover, looking at the ongoing debates that have long divided philosophers, Dummett recognized that although the arguments may seem to be about a variety of topics—involving a variety of philosophical positions—they should actually be viewed as essentially the same disagreement, setting realist positions against what Dummett calls “anti-realist” positions.
The term anti-realism can take in an assortment of approaches, such as idealism and phenomenalism, that differ from one another but share a common bond in the sense that they are not using the same logic as the realists. Some commentators would say that Dummett’s most enduring contribution is the idea that metaphysical arguments (for example, about the nature of the future, the existence of mathematical entities, or the question of universals) are essentially logical arguments.
His emphasis on language converges here, because the underlying logic of different positions shapes the way words are used in discussing them—and for Dummett, the meaning of words is inextricably related to their use. Paradoxically, perhaps, Dummett himself was a famously opaque writer, whose works were often very long but not well organized.
Dummett is accurately described as an analytic philosopher—that is, part of a 20th-century Anglo-American school of thought that emphasizes logic and clarity. It is typically contrasted with continental philosophy, a term that incorporates such widely different approaches as existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalytic theory. Frege, who figures prominently in Dummett’s work, is often described as the father of analytic philosophy, and Dummett also utilizes the ideas of prominent analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Although it is an oversimplification, there is general truth in the idea that analytic philosophy tends to be realist, while continental philosophy tends to be anti-realist. Also oversimplified but broadly true: analytic philosophy is more closely related to mathematics while continental philosophy is more closely related to literature and the social sciences.
For the first half of the 20th century, these two styles of philosophical inquiry were quite distinct—but more overlap began to occur later on. Through his efforts to clarify the grounds of anti-realism, and also through his willingness to engage with metaphysical questions and political issues, Dummett helped to close the gap.
In 1981, when Dummett’s book The Game of Tarot was published, Dame Frances Yates (an authority on Renaissance history and occult philosophy) wrote a detailed review in the New York Review. Dummett wrote an equally detailed reply. The exchange is very interesting! And available to read, with a free registration.