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Prior to Ryle to Prior: 'Logic' to 'Logic' to Logic

ERI 149
Wednesday 25 April 2018 (13:00-14:00)

Philosophy Society Seminar Series 2017/18

Wednesday 25 April 2018, 13:00-14:00 in ERI 149. All welcome!

For more information please contact the convenor, Alastair Wilson.


In 1949, two significant philosophy books made their appearance. One was Gilbert Ryle’s 'The Concept of Mind'. One was Arthur Prior’s 'Logic and the Basis of Ethics'. Mary Prior remembers the 1951 Australian Philosophy Conference: “We were amazed when Jack Smart, freshly out from Oxford, strode across the room to congratulate Arthur on 'Logic and the Basis of Ethics', which he announced was being much discussed in Oxford.” It seems to have been so well received that when Ryle visited New Zealand in 1954, he brought with him an invitation for Prior to deliver the 1956 John Locke Lectures.

Can we see a link between the reception in Oxford of Prior’s 'Logic and the Basis of Ethics' and work like Ryle’s 'Concept of Mind'? It seems that Prior himself in 1949, and perhaps his readers in Oxford, were understanding ‘logic’ in the sense of the ‘logic of ordinary language’. The purpose of Ryle’s 'Concept of Mind' is to argue against the doctrine of the ‘ghost in the machine’, and it would not be unfair to describe his method as exploring the semantics of adverbial modification. In 'The Craft of Formal Logic', which Prior was writing in 1951, several passages show Prior familiar with Ryle’s 'Concept of Mind'. Prior sees a clear connection between Ryle’s discussion of adverbial modification – adverbs like ‘deliberately’, ‘voluntarily’, ‘accidentally’ – and the operators studied in modal logic. It is Prior’s development of modal and tense logic which formed the topic of his John Locke Lectures. In this sense, looking at Ryle through Prior’s eyes might explain why the divide between ordinary language philosophy and logic was not as great as everyone thought it was.

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