Saturday, August 10, 2019

A philosophical autobiography

A Philosophical Autobiography
By Peter Geach

In this account of my life I leave much unsaid; I am concerned with those facts and events that I see as having had a manifest influence on my career as a philosopher and with the way I came to know, in person or in their works, those philosophers who have most guided my thought.

I was born in Lower Chelsea, London, on March 29, 1916. My father, George Hender Geach, was at that time working in the Indian Educational Service; he became Professor of Philosophy at Lahore, and afterwards Principal of a training college for teachers at Peshawar. On furlough he had met and fallen in love with my mother, Eleonora Frederyka Adolfina Sgonina, the daughter of Polish emigrants: her father, a civil engineer, had rightly judged that he would prosper in England better than in his own country under the Prussian heel. My mother came back to England for my birth after a short time in India; the marriage had not been happy, and·. she never returned to my father. My earliest years were spent in Cardiff in my Polish grandparents' house; the novelist Doreen Wallace, an old friend of my mother's, told me that my grandmother never learned English well, so I must often have heard Polish spoken, though I lost all memory of the language. When I was four years old my father secured a court order, making me the ward of a Miss Tarr during his absence in India, and for me all contact with my mother and her parents ceased; Miss Tarr, a rather formidable elderly lady, had been my paternal grandfather's betrothed and the guardian of his children after his death. I remained in Miss Tarr's care until my father was once again in England, invalided out of the I.E.S.

The first philosophical reading I did was in this period. I could not resist the impulse of curiosity that led me to take down some of my father's books, stored in Miss Tarr's house, from the shelves. I made little of them, but I remember in particular Bradley's Appearance and Reality. The work bewildered me; there were hardly any words I did not know, and the sentences were simply constructed, but I could not tell what it all meant. However, I formed the general impression that the author was a wicked man who worshipped a false God called the Absolute; I was imbued at the time with Miss Tarr's narrow Protestant pieties. My adult views of Bradley are not so very different. Reading a few pages of Appearance and Reality now makes me feel as if I had drunk several pints of beer; and having read (much later) Bradley's essays 'Some Reflections on Punishment' and 'The Limits of Individual and National Self-Sacrifice' I must say that to my mind they fully justify my childish impression of great wickedness; some of Bradley's sentiments are strongly reminiscent of Nazi state-worship.

When I was eight years old, at my father's behest, I was sent away to be a boarder at the Llandaff Cathedral School. Shortly afterwards my father returned from India for good, and my philosophical education began.

My father was a very strange man. A trait of his that I have never encountered again in life, and indeed only once in fiction (in Rose Macaulay's novel Told by an Idiot), was his propensity to change his religious belief. While living with my mother he had been a Buddhist and a vegetarian ('Queer fellow, Geach, used to eat grass' was the way an Indian Army officer who had known him described this). He changed about three times a year, with no apparent agonies of mind attending his conversions - his library bore evidence of his successive beliefs. He always had persuasive arguments in favour of his latest belief, which he would bring out for his son's benefit. Our first relations were stormy: he could not endure the Nonconformist conscience that Miss Tarr had inculcated in me, and his response to my rebukes for drinking, smoking, Sabbath-breaking, etc. was simply to beat me. But when I was a little older, he decided that reason was now the right remedy and he got me to read McTaggart's work Some Dogmas of Religion. This had a speedy effect upon me; by the time I was thirteen I was emancipated from Miss Tarr's creed, and for some time followed my father through his various phases of faith. I was foolish enough to talk about the matter to my schoolfellows, having now left Llandaff Cathedral School for Clifton College; I well remember how a school friend greeted me once upon my return: 'Hullo, Geach! Good hols? Does God exist this term?'

My father had now secured for himself an apprentice to whom he could teach the disciplines of which he was a master. He had had a brilliant career in Moral Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, at a time of unique distinction for Cambridge in philosophy: Russell, Moore, McTaggart, W. E. Johnson, and Neville Keynes were his teachers, Wittgenstein and C. D. Broad were his fellow-students. His teaching career in India had been prematurely cut short by a complication of illnesses that left him with a permanently shattered constitution: he could not secure a teaching position in England, for he applied only for Professorships and never with success, though he was several times on a short list. His only way of satisfying his desire to teach philosophy was to teach his son. He had high vicarious ambitions on my behalf; he had the good luck that I proved as eager to learn as he was to teach. From when my father's teaching of philosophy seriously began, I never felt any doubt that philosophy was what I wanted to do. But he died before I had any permanent teaching position.

He began by teaching me logic. Neville Keynes's Formal Logic was the first textbook I used, and a work for which I retain a great esteem. The skill in syllogistic manipulations that I gained from this work has not been lost, and has occasionally been directly useful: to any who may know Keynes, my proof that if 'p,q,r' are uniformly read as categoricals, there are not two valid syllogistic schemata corresponding to 'p,q, ergo r' and 'not p, not q, ergo r;l is recognizably Keynesian in style and spirit. When I had learned as much from Keynes as my father thought advisable, he said to me, 'Now, Peter, tomorrow we begin Principia Mathematica': and so we did. We worked through about twenty sections of the work in detail, and by then I had acquired a sufficient knowledge of the language of logic to read other works without discomfort.

Two seeds of thought that were then sown in my mind deserve mention. I found the Theory of Descriptions utterly clear and convincing; apart from a brief aberration, this has been my constant view; but I could not get up any enthusiasm for the Theory of Types or the no-class theory of classes, nor could I understand why e.g. 'the class of all non-self-membered classes' should not be regarded as simply a definite description, 'that class which...', and a demonstrably empty one. This made me ready to feed my mind on Quine's logical work when I came across it. The other seed was the puzzle I felt about identity. The Principia account of identity will not work unless it is possible to quantify over properties unrestrictedly, including properties themselves expressed by predicates containing just such quantification: and this brings in a threat of vicious circularity over truth-conditions. Whitehead and Russell here execute a very odd manoeuvre; they introduce identity using only a restricted quantification over properties, but then they argue that this has the desirable consequence of using unrestricted quantification because of the Axiom of Reducibility. This could not but strike an innocent child as fishy. The seed of doubt took decades to grow but eventually flowered in the theorizing about relative identity that outrages so many of my contemporaries.

My father was specially concerned that I should learn this sort of logic before I went to Oxford; he rightly thought that I'd have no chance to learn it there, and 'what they call logic at Oxford, Peter, is just a bad joke'. (It would be tedious to explain the financial considerations that dictated my seeking a scholarship to Oxford, rather than to Cambridge as my father would have preferred.) I think that as regards the 'logicians' who were taken seriously when I was at Oxford - Bosanquet, Joseph, Cook Wilson, etc. - my father was clearly right: by reading Keynes, mild as his style of criticism was, I had learned how to judge the reasonings they went in for. When my tutor told me I ought to read Cook Wilson, Providence directed my eye to a passage in which Cook Wilson wrote contemptuously about Russell's Principles of Mathematics and showed his own haziness about the difference between a member and a sub-class of a class: I shut the book, and for many years found no occasion to open it again.

Much earlier I had upset my form master at school by bringing logical terms of art into my essays, and showing that I cared about cogent argument and consistent thinking. He was a disciple of F.C.S. Schiller, the Oxford Pragmatist, and induced me to read Schiller's Formal Logic: I thought this a terribly silly book, and said so. My schoolmaster's daughter was later a pupil of Elizabeth Anscombe's, and told her that he claimed to have started my interest in logic: I was astounded at this claim, from a man who in fact tried to wean me from logic! But even Schiller can claim some part of my philosophical development. He regards the influence of logic on religion as specially noxious: people who take logic seriously will be attracted to a religion with fixed dogmas, claimed to be the very truth of God, and excluding the dogmas of other religions as false. What I on the contrary got out of my reading of Schiller was a lasting conviction that whether or not any religion was true, modernist varieties of Christianity are wholly incredible; this reinforced the effect of McTaggart's book, which I shall come on to later.

My father's teaching was not confined to logic. He got me to read a lot of philosophy besides: Berkeley's dialogues between Hylas and Philo no us and Mill's Utilitarianism (both as awful examples of logical fallacies!) came in at an early age. At a slightly later date I read Principia Ethica. Those philosophers who know this work, rather than use it as a grimoire to banish the demon Naturalism, will recall the high claims it makes for its own clarity and rigour, and the scornful exposure of other men's confusions. Men of the highest distinction who lived in Moore's Cambridge milieu - McTaggart, Russell, Maynard Keynes - showed a complete acceptance of these claims, at any rate for a time; my father too had come under the spell, and succeeded in passing it on to me. For some years I was a convinced Moorean in ethics; while still at school I tried to rewrite parts of the work as a deductive system (in words rather than symbols, like Euclid), and flabbergasted my schoolmasters in essays by brisk demolitions of what I took to be Christian morality, using Moorean tools. The spell was unbroken until I was obliged to read the Nicomachean Ethics for Lit. Hum. at Oxford; then it was broken completely and for ever. I can no longer even imaginatively enter into the frame of mind in which Moore's concepts seemed to me sharp, his premises self-evident, his proofs irrefragable. In a portrait gallery of my philosophical heroes, Moore's portrait would be turned to face the wall.


As I have said, apart from my childish plunge into Appearance and Reality my first philosophical reading was McTaggart's Some Dogmas of Religion. From then on I had towards him such feelings as Lucretius expresses towards Epicurus: he was my liberator from a miserable superstition, and my protector against the sort of Christianity with which my public school sought to indoctrinate me. Of his own positive contributions to philosophy I learned later, when I was sufficiently senior to be able to spend many hours in the school library. There were many philosophy books there, largely donated by a member of the Muirhead family, but also including the complete works of McTaggart, given by himself (or his widow) to his old school. I could not make much of his work on Hegel, but I read the first volume of The Nature of Existence with inexpressible delight: here was high metaphysics in clear language and a really rigorous style. I was simultaneously reading Spinoza's Ethics, and for a time fancied myself a Spinozist. Naturally I was wholly ignorant of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim theological debates about God and the soul that are indispensable background for one who would understand Spinoza; what I then made of Spinoza through my McTaggartian spectacles is not worth further discussion, but my interest in Spinoza has remained.

When I came on to the second volume, the bold paradoxes initially met with my outraged incredulity. I was expected to believe that time and material objects were self-contradictory chimeras; that sense-perception was almost wholly misperception; that introspection too was largely delusive; but that in all this delusion and confused perception two things were not delusions at all-persons, oneself and others, and the love of persons for one another; these things were not only real but eternal, and this eternal life of love bore to our actual miseries such a relation as is best conveyed in temporal terms by calling it future. My initial incredulity yielded, upon further study of the work, to what seemed the irresistible force of reasoning. I ceased to follow my father in his varieties of religious experience; for five or six years I was a convinced Mactaggartian - I wonder if anybody else ever has been.

Since my belief was based on reason, I did not shrink from arguing about it or from subjecting it to test. The appearance of Broad's Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy meant that I could study the strongest attack that a very ingenious and persistent hostile critic could mount. (Broad's hostile intention from the very first ought not to be a matter of serious doubt; a man of his learning would not otherwise have modelled his title on the one Mill chose for his demolition, in intention total, of Sir William Hamilton.) I was unimpressed; much of Broad's work struck me as elaborate misunderstanding; the few points he really did score against McTaggart were easily met by minor alterations in McTaggart's system. On this matter I have hardly altered my view in forty years, during which I have changed my mind on many things.

Apart from the healthy immersion in Plato and Aristotle that I owe to my tutor, Donald Allan, I owe far more to Balliol for the freedom of endless discussion with my peers than for any formal philosophical teaching. In retrospect I seem to have spent four years almost entirely in Balliol; I never went to philosophy lectures outside the College and knew hardly anybody in other Colleges. My Mactaggartian beliefs were honed to a sharp edge by controversy. Increasingly, as time went on, I found myself arguing with Catholics. I was certainly cleverer than they, but they had the immeasurable advantage that they were right - an advantage that they did not throwaway by resorting to the bad philosophy and apologetics then sometimes taught in Catholic schools. One day my defences quite suddenly collapsed: I knew that if I were to remain an honest man I must seek instruction in the Catholic Religion. I was received into the Catholic Church on May 31, 1938.

Thomas Hobbes: Political Philosophy

In the summer of 1937 Balliol appointed a man to give tuition in political philosophy-Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. As he presented these three thinkers, Hobbes was a crude philistine defender of the doctrine that might is right, Locke was a worthy upholder of sound British common sense, and Rousseau had inspired and inspiring ideas about the General Will. I reacted against this gentleman's ideas very strongly, partly through a clash of temperaments. Locke seemed to me to be an unconvincing rationalizer of his Whig patrons' successful usurpation of power, and Rousseau to have been mad, bad, and dangerous to know. I see no reason now to change my mind.

I soon noticed that my tutor's malign picture of Hobbes was drawn from just a few short passages of Leviathan; allured by Hobbes's magnificent English style, I soon devoured the whole book. I became convinced that Hobbes was a great and good man, who loved justice and mercy and the rule of law, and hated pride, arrogance, cruelty and other such vices of public life. I did not at this time feel able to enter sympathetically into his religion, but I never doubted that he sincerely believed the very unorthodox form of Christianity which, at no little risk, he openly professed. Hobbes should in fact not be seen as an isolated figure; he belongs in the history of the Socinian heresy, imported during his lifetime from Poland (where it was tolerated) to England (where several Socinians were burned); and the Christadelphian body today not only share many of his professed religious tenets, but even support them by the same sort of appeal to Scripture.

The political system in England in my youth seemed to many observers to be on the point of disintegration, though it has proved more durable than we young men ever dreamed. Asking myself what successor to the corrupt Parliament one ought to work for, I decided on Hobbist grounds that the best option would be the restoration of a strong Monarchy. No such thing could be hoped for, I thought, so long as the House of Windsor reigned; I judged them to be quite unfitted, by character, tradition, and training, to assume the role of Sovereign, instead of rubber-stamping Acts of Parliament. Only romantic folly made me ignore the question whether the family who would be de jure claimants if the Hanoverian usurpation were undone were at all likely to be better as Sovereigns. But the negative side of the Jacobitism I professed as an undergraduate has stayed by me. The recent antics of some living members of the House of Windsor give me no reason to repent this. As for our real rulers, I sadly watch how there are steady trends to the bad throughout changes of administration; and I continually marvel at the naivety of people who believe the automatic promises of whichever party may be in opposition to reverse these trends after coming to power. But since I know how prejudice and passion (in my case saeva indignatio) warp a man's judgment, political allusions in my writings are few.


My conversion to the Catholic Religion was not effected by finding a philosophy superior to McTaggart's, but of course I knew that I must now completely rethink my philosophical position. So I began reading Aquinas: since I was a classical scholar, it was no great toil to read his lucid prose in the original; I helped myself out as regards the subject-matter with the faithful Dominican translation. What then counted as Thomist philosophy was in a bad way, at least so it seems to my present mind; providentially I did not approach Aquinas in company of such blind guides. I have kept on reading Aquinas ever since; I hope I have continued to learn from him. Two pieces of my work - 'Form and Existence' in God and the Soul2 and 'Aquinas' in Three Philosophers3 - have been directly concerned with Aquinas: his influence has been constant.

Throughout the year my philosophical position was in flux: fortunately not too much so for me to win a First in my finals. I was then awarded a Gladstone Research Studentship, tenable at St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden; I chose as the topic of my research the philosophy of McTaggart, to whom I felt and still feel gratitude for having set me standards of rigour and clarity and honesty by his example and for giving me a firm grasp of some truths and at worst saving me from fashionable errors far more pernicious than his own. I resolved to write a critically sympathetic account of McTaggart, to demolish Broad's monstrous mausoleum. In my year at St Deiniol's I actually finished the first draft of a commentary on McTaggart: if the MS had survived, I think this mixture of the new wine of my nascent Thomism with the old wine of Mactaggartianism would now be merely nauseous to me. This MS was scrapped during the war, but at intervals I returned to the work: eventually, forty years from its beginning, the task was finished, and the commentary was published under the title (borrowed from a dictum of McTaggart) Truth, Love, and Immortality.

While studying Aquinas at St Deiniol's, I could not help noticing that he is linguistically very self-conscious, in a way that McTaggart is not: again and again there is a careful discussion of logico-grammatical points, like the roles of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and particles; he uses the best contemporary work of logicians (sophistae), but when their work will not serve his ends he devises tools of his own to analyse the language of his theological arguments. The light he sheds for me upon the philosophy of logic is the very least of the debts I owe to Aquinas; but I shall dwell on the matter here, because of its bearing on later developments of my thought.

Brought up by my father on Cambridge logic, I had hitherto taken it for granted that any name is a singular term. My reading of Plato and Aristotle at Oxford did not reveal to me how extraordinary this thesis is, historically speaking; for I read little of Plato outside the Republic or of Aristotle outside the Nicomachean Ethics. But from my reading of Aquinas I came to a view of common nouns which I have ever since held and defended. In many uses a common noun is a name, a shared name: 'elephant' names each elephant impartially. But this is not true for all uses of common nouns: in predicative use, e.g. as complement of a verb like 'be', 'look', 'become', a common noun has not the role of a name; what it here answers to in rebus is a form, which is not ens, an object, but entis, of an object. I came to a clearer view of this matter when I started reading Frege and encountered his doctrine of object, concept, and function, but I did not abandon my original insight; I regarded and still regard as an unfortunate prejudice Frege's insistence that names must be singular. I was delighted, when I came to know the Polish language and the work of Polish logicians, to discover that the distinction between the two ways of using common nouns is often grammatically marked in Polish by a case-inflection, and that some Polish logicians accept proper and common names alike as names without blurring out the distinction between a name and a sentence-forming functor with name as argument (Frege's Begriffsausdruck).

Here I may mention that I think it useful for a philosopher to have mastered to a reasonable degree some language other than English. Though the Latin and Greek exercises I had to do at school and at Balliol no doubt produced pastiches that would have seemed ridiculous to native speakers, they had at least the benefit of forcing me to hack my way through the abstract verbiage to which one so readily resorts in English and find a plainer expression of the thoughts involved. Modern European languages like French and German have not this advantage, but even so they liberate the mind from a mere servile following of English idiom. It has made an enormous difference to my life that in my early twenties the sense of my Polishness, long repressed by my early education, strongly revived; I set out to learn Polish, and felt myself (I am sure not delusively) to be recovering a skill long out of practice rather than acquiring a new one.

The gloomy prospects of the year 1939 were for me considerably brightened by my being now engaged to be married.

Elizabeth Anscombe

As my time at Oxford approached its end, I was in Augustine's words 'in love with love': I desperately needed a girl to love and woo and marry. This is a dangerous state of mind, which often leads to humiliation or heartbreak or worse: by God's mercy I met Elizabeth Anscombe, whom I married in 1941. I find it quite impossible to say how much she and our children have meant to me; I have never got over being suddenly struck with amazement from time to time at my good fortune.

Although we have both followed a philosophical career, and have sometimes formally collaborated and often critically read each other's works, we think about different though overlapping topics, and in a noticeably different style; and either of us, when questioned about the thought of the other, will often not know the right answer. I am surprised that people find this surprising. The bond between us two in the first instance had comparatively little to do with shared philosophical thought: it was of course immensely important that both of us were Catholics and recent converts.

Elizabeth did not take her degree till three years after we met, and we did not get married till then. For those years, and for some time after our marriage, Elizabeth had a lot of philosophical teaching from me; I could see she was good at the subject, but her real development was to come only under the powerful stimulus of Wittgenstein's lectures and her personal conversations with him. Naturally she then moved away from my tutelage; I am afraid I resented that, but I could recognize this feeling as base and irrational, and soon overcame it.

As a mature philosopher, Elizabeth strikes me as a more adventurous thinker than I am: it is she who gets bold and at first sight merely zany ideas, to which I sometimes reacted with initial outrage. (Cfr. her papers 'The Intentionality of Sensation'4 and 'The First Person'.5) Usually I come to think these bold ideas are more defensible than I had originally supposed. My mind works differently; the shocking theses I have defended in the philosophy of logic were reached not in bold leaps but by slow steps, with each step mentally tested against a multitude of examples and objections before the next step was taken. Both of us, I hope, have avoided two vices: frivolous change of mind, and adherence to past sayings in the desire to have been right rather than be right.


I spent the war years in the work of timber production. This open-air work undoubtedly saved my life; symptoms that showed themselves intermittently later turned out to have been tubercular, but the infected region of my lung has long since healed and my health since then has been uniformly good. Since on the Geach side I had an uncle and a great-uncle who died of TB in their twenties, I count myself very lucky.

The circumstances of the war gave me opportunity for many conversations in Polish, and in Italian too, with prisoners of war working in the forests. I acquired a fluent though ungrammatical Italian, and took pleasure in now being able to read Dante in the original. Of the Poles I came to know I must specially mention Casimir Komierowski, Zbigniew Jordan, and Casimir Lewy. Casimir Komierowski, at that time Polish Consul in Southampton, showed much kindness and hospitality to Elizabeth and me, and lent and gave me Polish books. Zbigniew Jordan, whom I met in the Polish Ministry of War in London, published a book in English about Polish logic, to show the world one aspect of the culture that the Nazis were trying to destroy- a culture then being maintained in Poland's underground Universities at the cost of torture and death. Komierowski and Jordan helped me with my efforts to join the Polish Army, as my Balliol contemporary Auberon Herbert had done: efforts that were vain.

Heu, nec defensor valui tuus esse, nec ultor.

Casimir Lewy on the other hand, forwarded my efforts to equip myself with philosophical Polish; he lent me Polish works and Polish translations of English philosophy, and he kindly read my first brash efforts at Polish philosophical writing. This work was not wasted; it has borne fruit in many lectures that I have given in Polish and in seven Polish articles published in Poland.

I was however to be frustrated in my hope that after the War I might go to Poland to serve in the work of reconstruction. Since I must make my livelihood in England and not in Poland, I was determined to do so as a philosopher; but there was no easy way for me into regular academic life. Elizabeth managed to secure the lease of a house in Cambridge, and from this base I could make many academic contacts: I regularly attended meetings of the Moral Sciences Club. (My work with Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright will be discussed later.) My long-term strategy was to get myself known in the philosophical world, both personally and by published writings, and then eventually apply for a teaching post. It was a good strategy; even while in Cambridge I did a little paid lecturing and supervision; but it took much longer to establish myself then I had expected. Some kind friends sometimes tried to find me employment of a non-philosophical sort; I hope I did not offend them, but I felt bound to ensure that I evaded what I saw as traps: such employment would ruin my strategy of doing philosophical work and getting it known, for it would leave me with no energy to do the work. But my resolution entailed a long period of comparative poverty for Elizabeth and me, which was to end only after our third child was born.


Elizabeth Anscombe had close contact with Wittgenstein earlier than I did, though at that time I sometimes saw him, when he came to our house or at the Moral Science Club. Even from these slight contacts it was easy to recognise the unique power of the mind that had produced the Tractatus. I cannot now remember at what time Wittgenstein began to ask me to go for walks with him. Those walks were rewarding but very tiring; on a walk Wittgenstein never relaxed mentally for a moment, and required the same degree of concentration from me; attempts at light conversation were immediately quashed, and careless talk about philosophy was ruthlessly and devastatingly exposed.

Both Elizabeth and I had made serious efforts to understand the thoughts of other very great philosophers before we met Wittgenstein. I think some people were harmed by Wittgenstein because this was not true of them; it was as though they had never had a good view before of any really high mountain, and now stood so close to one mountain that other mountains were invisible.

No doubt some of Wittgenstein's work failed to impress me sufficiently because for long I had not felt the temptations for which he provided a remedy. The idea that the mental is in some sense essentially private, and inaccessible except to one observer, had long since been rooted out of my mind by my long meditations on McTaggart. (Enough to say here that in McTaggart's metaphysics each person not only directly perceives the mental contents of at least some other persons, but 'in absolute reality' perceives them with complete clarity and accuracy; his problem, one which he laboured mightily, was to explain how this is reconcilable with our very imperfect and confused views of other people's thoughts and feelings 'in present experience'.) No doubt there were other things in Wittgenstein's teaching that I similarly took too easily. The great philosophical confusions are ones that not only play a great part in the history of philosophy, but are ever liable to arise from our use of language. A real victory perhaps comes only to one who has deeply felt the temptations. People some- times ask who the opponent is in the passages of Wittgenstein's writing that approach the dialogue style; obviously, himself; he is answering his own objections, fighting his own temptations.

One thing I learned from Wittgenstein, in part from the Tractatus but still more from personal contact, is that philosophical mistakes are often not refutable falsehoods but confusions; similarly the contrary insights cannot be conveyed in proper propositions with a truth-value. I offer as instances of such insights Frege's distinction between concept and object ('No concept is an object' has no translation into a well-constructed symbolism); Frege's view that numbers cannot attach to objects; the Frege point, that truth-value does not depend on there being an assertion. Such insights cannot be demonstrated as theses, but only conveyed dialectically; the dialectic process largely consists in the art, whose practice I have perhaps learned in some measure from Wittgenstein, of reducing to patent nonsense the buried nonsense that is found in attempts to reject these insights. We cannot refute nonsense by a straight-forward logical process; as Frege said, logic cannot deal with nonsense, but only characterise it as being nonsense.

It is not out of place that in writing of Wittgenstein I should write so much about Frege. It is a foolish legend that Wittgenstein came to think he had 'seen through' Frege. His own remark published at the end of Zettel ought to have been a warning against this legend. Shortly before Wittgenstein's death I often talked to him about Frege; he was pleased at my taking Frege seriously, and gave me much help and advice. I am gratified to learn, from a recently published letter of his to von Wright, that he welcomed my appointment to give a course of lectures on Frege in the Moral Science Faculty at Cambridge. The very last time I saw Wittgenstein we were talking about Frege; taking the book in his hands, he said slowly 'How I envy Frege. I wish I could have written like that.' Of each of them I would use the words Aristotle used of Plato: a man whom the base have no right even to praise. Hearing Wittgenstein on Frege was like hearing Aristotle on Plato.

Personally Wittgenstein was a trusty and generous friend. His practical advice was sound and often helpful; he wrote references both for me and for Elizabeth, when we were looking for academic work. (He remarked, which I am sure was true, that with some people his commendation might be the reverse of helpful.) He helped us financially when our second child was born, and devoted a lot of trouble to removing our young daughter's helpless perplexity over elementary arithmetic; both acts were in character.

Frege and Wittgenstein's Tractatus

I cannot remember when I first read the Tractatus. Elizabeth read it before I did, browsing in Blackwells, and bought a copy; I am sure I had read it before our marriage.

In my youth what has since been called the linguistic turn was all the fashion; forty years on, I think it has not lost all of its appeal; the label is meant for attempts to solve or dissolve philosophical problems by shifting from talk about non-linguistic entities to talk about language. The Tractatus made me aware that often this technique will not work, and why it will not; very often the problem supposedly dissolved by this shift only reappears at the level of language - not surprisingly, since language is just one part of the world. I suppose the oldest use of the linguistic turn is the attempt to combat Platonic realism about universals by setting up the distinction between general and singular terms as an Ersatz for the distinction between universals and individuals. But if the nominalist is willing to talk of the word 'pig', he is blind indeed if he fails to see that just the same problem arises about the relation of this word to its individual occurrences as about the relation of the pig to individual pigs. Of course there are sophisticated nominalists, like Nelson Goodman, who avoid this obvious trap; but many nominalists have fallen into it, from Ockham on.

Similarly, Frege is often accused of misconstruing the difference in mode of signification between functional signs like 'log' or 'sin' and numerical signs like '3': as if both sorts of sign signified the same way, but what is signified were now an object and now a 'mysterious' non-object, a function. But the distinction between a function on the one hand, and its argument and values on the other hand, needs to be made just as much on the level of language. Not only are the numbers 22 or 4, 33 or 27, 55 or 3125, values of a certain function for the numbers 2, 3, and 5 respectively as arguments: equally, the numerical signs '22', '33' and '55' are values of a certain function for the numerals '2', '3', and '5' as respective arguments. And here there is no piece of type whose role Frege could misconstrue as that of standing for a 'mysterious entity'. Of course similar examples occur in Frege's own writing.

What is here in question is the Tractatus notion of what comes out, sich zeigt, in language, but cannot informatively be explained in language, because the would-be explanation is either a metaphor or just another case of what we are trying to explain. I learned this lesson early; I tried to put across what I had learned in my very first published article 'Designation and Truth'6. I am still quite pleased with the article; its purport was that we must fail whom we attempt to ascribe to sentences something analogous to designation. If we try to introduce a sign meaning 'what sentence-in language L designates', the meaning of the sign simply collapses into 'sentence - in language L is true' and the sign-designatum relation disappears. To my surprise, comments on the article ascribed to me a positive view on what sentences do designate; it illustrates Quine's remark that the plainest writing is not proof against stalwart reading.

Had I not been reading the Tractatus with some measure of under- standing, I think I could never have profited by reading 'the great works of Frege'. Frege's Grundlagen came to me when my father died, but I came to read it only shortly before John Austin's translation appeared; I had only slight knowledge of German, but I persevered in my reading, writing out the best translation I could manage, by way of exercises, day by day. All the time my enthusiasm for Frege grew. I became eager to read his other works. Some of them I could find for myself in Cambridge University Library, others were lent me by Bertrand Russell and Gilbert Ryle; yet others I was told how to find by Wittgenstein. Before I began teaching at Birmingham I had collaborated with Max Black in producing a volume of translated selections from Frege, and had given a course of lectures on Frege in Cambridge.

Having come to Frege by way of the Tractatus, I could see that his difficulties in expressing himself about function, concept, and object were not from a muddled self-bemusement but from the nature of the case. The same influence led me to think that Frege's assimilation of sentences to names, even to complex names, was a mistake; though I thought many cities of Frege on this point started out from positions more radically mistaken. One of Frege's great feats was to say loud and clear that the same thought may occur now asserted, now unasserted, and has the same truth-value whether asserted or not; I have sometimes called this the Frege point. When critics of Frege's idea that sentences are names are muddled about this point, or attempt to reject it (an attitude which naturally they cannot long sustain), their case against him is not to be heard.

So far as the formal structure of Grundgesetze is concerned, it would be fairly easy to rewrite it so as to recognise the category-difference between names and sentences, as in the earlier Begriffsschrift. In fact, people who discuss Frege's theory of classes quite often do tacitly rewrite fragments of Grundgesetze in just this style. But in the philosophy of logic it is otherwise; Frege's view of sentences has been treated not as an error, but as a first step towards the construction of a semantic theory.

It was through a shared interest in Frege that I came to know Michael Dummett. For a long time we had our family homes in Oxford, and discussed Frege and other logical topics continually; on very many matters we agreed. Dummett's first book on Frege is a masterpiece, but a flawed one; it is too long, there are manifest inconsistencies, and Dummett's careful scholarship and sure interpretation where Frege is concerned are offset by very reckless description of other writers. This last fault is most serious in regard to the Tractatus; sometimes, as when dealing with truth-functions, Dummett's account of this work is a mere travesty. Dummett and I agree that Frege went wrong in assimilating sentences to names; but Dummett's final view is that sentences are names, only not names of objects but of certain non-objects, the truth-values. For anyone with the Tractatus in his bones, that is a non-starter; it makes the wrong assimilation under the guise of rejecting it.

One essential difference between names and sentences is that sentences come in contradictory pairs, mutually replaceable salva congruitate, and names do not; names, said Wittgenstein, are like points, sentences are like arrows (with a reversible sense). One way to bring out this duality of sentences is this: we could construct a dictionary such that, translating by it, we shall get for every sentence S a sentence in an alternative language that is equiform to a contradictory of S in the usual language; under such translation names would be left unchanged. (The formal logic of duality shows the possibility of such a dictionary.) Dummett quite fails to grasp this fundamental thought of the Tractatus; it is to this that I must put down what I can only regard as his obsession with attempts to reject the law of double negation. Two propositions are each other's negations as two relations are each other's converses; to try to distinguish the senses of a proposition and its double negation (an attempt Frege will certainly not favour) is as nonsensical as to try to distinguish a relation from the converse of its converse.

It would be an endless task to spell out how much the Tractatus and Frege together have influenced my thought. My most serious departures from Frege are largely spelled out in my reply to Dummett on identity; apart from two theses, which I take for granted readers will use in order to understand that reply. As regards names, I differ from Frege (and from Dummett) in two ways: I reject complex names, and I accept shared names. The rejection of shared names by Frege and Russell has been enormously influential; somebody as little Fregean or Russellian as Strawson regards the idea of shared names as a 'proposal' by - Peter Geach! From when Plato and Aristotle distinguished between onomata, names, and rhemata, verbs or predicables, words like 'horse' and 'gold' have regularly been counted as capable of use in a naming role; historically, it is the Frege-Russell restriction that is the 'proposal', and its motivation does not seem clear. (Frege did not yet observe this restriction in Begriffsschrift.) As regards the simplicity of names, I came round in the end to the view of the Tractatus: since a syntactically simple name can name, any complexity a name happens to have is irrelevant to its naming role. (A proposition about a pub called 'The Duke of Cambridge' says nothing about Cambridge.) Complex phrases' seeming to play a name-like role is a grammatical illusion; in Reference and Generality, and in a number of articles, I have tried to dispel this illusion. Of course the simplicity of names does not mean that the things named have to be simple; nor does it mean that names have to be singular, i.e. unshared. (Incredible as it seems, the latter confusion is perpetrated by some people who cannot be suspected of trying to throw dust in their readers' eyes.)

It may be well to mention one likely motive for the rejection of shared names: desire for a simpler theory. It is pretty clear that a one-word general term used predicatively is not a name; this is specially clear for predicative complements after verbs other than 'is' or 'is not'. If a man became a thief, or Mary looked an angel, it is nonsense to ask which thief or which angel. If we then have to regard the same vocable as having the role of a name, a logical subject, in other contexts, this may seem an undesirable complication. But systematically multiple use of identical vocables just is a feature of natural languages. Frege, as we all know, ascribed a special use to words coming in indirect-speech constructions; whether he was right or wrong about this, words in direct quotation unquestionably have a special use - so special that the bad vogue has come in of saying that this is not use of the words at all, but mention! Again, in very many natural languages a proper or common noun may be applied, not to the thing primarily so called, but to an image or picture of it. Since such shifts of use have to be recognised, there is not an overwhelming antecedent presumption against the view that a vocable may shift between a naming and a predicative role. But we must insist that in all such cases there is a change of sense. The idea of a 'term' which can, without change of sense, be now subject, now predicate, seems to me a disastrous muddle; and Aristotle's introduction of it is comparable to the Fall of Adam.

Birmingham, 1951-1966

While we lived in Cambridge I was submitting articles to various journals; mostly they were accepted, and my name was getting known. Gilbert Ryle, then Editor of Mind, and Austin Duncan-Jones, then Editor of Analysis, were particularly helpful. At the latter's suggestion I applied for a post at his University, Birmingham, and was appointed. I had already done some teaching, both lecturing and supervising undergraduates, for the Moral Science Faculty at Cambridge; some of my colleagues were clearly at first worried about whether I could settle down to a regular career as a University teacher, but I think their worries were soon dispelled. Upon my appointment the family moved to Oxford, to a house near Somerville College, where Elizabeth was already a Research Fellow. We stayed there till she was appointed Professor of Philosophy in Cambridge in 1970: three daughters, born in 1951 or later, became Somerville undergraduates. I travelled home at weekends.

I was quite quickly promoted at Birmingham, being successively Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Reader in Logic. I got on well with my new colleagues in the Department, apart from one unhappy man whose troubled mind eventually broke down. I am sure the regular practice of teaching, discussion, and examining has been very profitable to me as a philosopher. During this period I was quite productive as an author, and I began my concern with the production of Analysis, of whose Editorial Committee I have been successively Secretary and Chairman.

Unhappily I soon became aware of a pronounced hostility towards the Department on the Arts Faculty Board; at Birmingham this was a powerful body whose recommendations nearly always got ratified. Again and again motions that would benefit the Department were voted down and motions hostile to us were brought forward. Our situation was improved by the fact that so many of us were promoted to Readerships. This promotion did not lie within the Board's purview, but carried with it ex officio membership of the Board; when I left, three members of the Department were Readers. The prompt reaction to my own promotion was a discussion whether this 'undemocratic' ex officio membership should now be abolished; this proposal was narrowly defeated. If it had been carried, Duncan-Jones alone could have been at meetings to watch over our interests; his health was never very strong, and even as things were attendance was a great strain on him, given the attitudes he faced.

I watched the way things went with a growing resentment. The breaking-point came when the dominant clique rapidly pushed through a proposal to establish an Institute of Contemporary Culture; this meant research into Pop Art, and at this distance it is amusing to recall the argument that 'the evanescent nature of the research material' made it imperative to act without delay. I believe a Birmingham magnate had guaranteed the first year's costs; anyhow, the University was going to be saddled with a heavy permanent expense. I brooded on the matter, recalling the many times when the Department had been refused much smaller sums of money with mutterings about 'quinquennial plans' and the like; then I wrote a letter to the Dean saying that I had no wish to stay at a University that preferred Pop Art to Logic as a subject to endow research in.

I had burned my boats; I acted without any definite plan as to where I should next go. I knew that more than one University in the United States would welcome me; but I did not wish to spend the rest of my life, and bring up my children, in that country. I wrote to my friend James Cameron, then Professor of Philosophy at Leeds, asking for his advice; the proposed Chair of Logic at Leeds was still vacant, it appeared, and upon application I was appointed.

This sort of struggle against petty hostility can be bad for heart and soul. It was an added burden that, kind and helpful as my Department colleagues were, there were some things about which I felt I was shouting into the wind as I talked with them. For example, I found that the concept of mercy as a human virtue was quite alien to them; 'either it is wrong to punish or it is wrong to pardon' was their attitude; the idea that letting a man off whom one had a perfect right to punish could show an admirable trait appeared to them unintelligible. I could persuade Bernard Mayo, then Editor of Analysis, to publish an article in which this concept of mercy figured, only by rewriting a paragraph so that this concept was presented as part of an old feudal code!7 This deep lack of sympathy made me often feel isolated.

I found relief in the friendship of a group of Christadelphians. I have mentioned the Christadelphian body before in connexion with Thomas Hobbes. The Socinian doctrines that Hobbes expounds in his writings were and are widely believed in the Midlands; since in his time Socinians were liable to be burned, I think his profession of Socinian doctrines is rationally explicable only by his actually believing them; an atheist's tactics would rather be ironical deference to the local orthodoxy, like Voltaire's or Hume's. In Lichfield, not far from Birmingham, several Socinians were burned; Unitarianism based on Hobbist interpretations of the Scripture were for long prevalent in Birmingham; Unitarianism is now a different sort of thing, but Socinianism lives on under the new label of Christadelphianism, which has its main ecclesia in Birmingham.

The Christadelphian tradition is one not of fanatical enthusiasm but of quiet persuasion; they often cite the text 'Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you' (I Peter iii.15). My dialogue with my friends was, I hope, a matter of 'speaking the truth in love' on both sides; honesty about our differences served to bring out some measure of deep agreement. My publications in the field of philosophy of religion all show the influence of these talks. I dedicated one volume to the memory of L. G. Sargent, with whom friendship endured till his death. In Birmingham I often felt spiritually like a man shut in a hot fetid room; my Christadelphian friendships made it possible sometimes to get 'windows open towards Jerusalem' though I am afraid I did not constantly keep them open.

Leeds, 1966-1981

My time at Leeds was far happier than my time at Birmingham had been. James Cameron and his successor Roy Holland, as heads of the Department, built up a team of talented philosophers. Such talent often goes with an excitable temperament that leads to clashes; I was no exception, and was sometimes involved in such clashes. But the mental stimulation of living in this Department was great. There was a great measure of agreement on certain fundamental matters: on the teaching of logic and the philosophy of logic, on the importance of Frege and Wittgenstein. I valued the chance to share in teaching each year a course on Ancient and Medieval Philosophy for undergraduates. (My colleague Timothy Potts made a valuable collection of medieval philosophical texts in photostat, and of translations of excerpts for the use of students.) In a valedictory speech I quoted to my colleagues the words of an old lyric: 'You may have been a headache, but you never were a bore'; I was overall very happy in my work. As a background to my work, there was my collegiate life as a staff member of a hall of residence, Lyddon Hall; the young men did me the honour of making me their Librarian. The shields of Leeds University and of Lyddon Hall hang over the door of my study: estate perpetuae!

Poland, 1963-1985

As I write, I am in Poland as a Visiting Professor at the University of Warsaw. I wanted to come to Poland in 1945: possibly to teach, in any event to do something for Polish reconstruction. I had to wait till 1963 for my first visit. Before then I had met Ajdukiewicz at a conference in Helsinki; he sent me a general invitation to come to Warsaw, which I provisionally accepted. My chance came in 1963; it had emerged that my teaching commitments at Ann Arbor would be over a little earlier than the date the Arts Faculty Board in Birmingham had set for my return to that University. I applied for a Polish visa, and flew to Warsaw at the end of the Ann Arbor term. Unhappily Ajdukiewicz had suddenly died before my arrival; but his colleagues in Warsaw made me feel much welcomed.

Since then I have kept up my contacts with Poland, and have made many Polish friends. It is an invidious task to decide whom to mention by name: if I tried to mention everybody to whom I owe thanks for great kindness and hospitality, and for intellectual stimulation as well, I should be afraid of committing the offence of the king in fairy-tales who fatally forgets to invite one of the fairies. So I shall here mention only Tadeusz and Janina Kotarbitiscy, and Bogus and Nina Wolniewicz. It was a privilege to know Kotarbitiski; I honoured him very much as a man and as a philosopher, who set standards for successive generations of Polish philosophers. I well remember how he conducted a philosophical discussion like a master of chess; a series of innocent-sounding questions, then a question that already put the speaker in check, then a final question that threatened instant checkmate. There was nothing eristic about this; he wanted truth, not victory. Of Wolniewicz I have already said something in my reply to his paper; I think his service to his country in Wittgenstein scholarship has been inestimably great; it is strange indeed that in a country where logic matters so much Wittgenstein had to wait so long for a worthy exponent.

It satisfies a deep need in me to be in Poland and hear Polish spoken all around me: the language my Sgonina grandparents will have spoken when I was with them in my earliest childhood - my mother was often away, as an undergraduate at Oxford. I come to Poland as often as I can. I feel now that it was indeed necessary for me to relearn Polish and eventually come to Poland; I am proud of my links with a people that has maintained culture and civilization with such courage in the face of adversities that have often appeared overwhelming.

I have written a number of papers in Polish, and I am in the habit of reflecting on whether an argument that I construct could be formulated effectively in Polish. Like any natural language, Polish has idiotisms of idiom, as Prior used to call them; it is awkward for learners that the syntax of a sentence has to be different if the numeral word for 4 is replaced by the numeral word for 5. But then no Pole has ever thought that this matters for logic. English philosophers on the other hand are, in my experience, often misled by English idiotisms of idiom. I have just read an essay in which the author argues that if 'ought' implies 'can', then 'I ought to have mown the lawn' implies 'I can have mown the lawn'! He simply did not notice that it is a matter of a former obligation to mow, not of a present obligation in respect of former mowing. His argument rests on the peculiar grammar of English auxiliaries, and is not to be reproduced in other European languages. English articles, which Poles tend to omit, are often noise and not message; none of the message is lost in the sentence with which a Polish professor of linguistics is said to have begun a course in the United States: 'In English language common noun in singular number invariably has article'. I remember that criticism of a paper of mine once turned on the question whether 'a book' or 'book' in a logical example, should be called the antecedent of a pronoun; but if a corresponding example and the discussion of it had come in a Polish paper of mine, the objection could not even have been stated. Some English theologians worry about whether it should be said of the Son of God that he became a man, or, became man!

There is a sort of linguistic chauvinism on the part of English- speaking philosophers which I find all the more offensive because it is quite unconscious. When John Austin says that the distinctions drawn in language, based on the experience of many generations, are more likely to be soundly based than ones dreamed up by a philosopher in his armchair, he has of course only English in mind; no need for him to say so. But as regards knowledge, one of his favourite topics, English has historically fared badly; the main verbs in 'I ken John Peel' and 'I wot John Peel keeps hounds' are both obsolete, we have to make do with 'know'. Polish has 'znam' for 'I ken' and 'wiem' for 'I wot', and a third verb 'umiem' for 'I know how' (with an infinitive). No doubt Polish sometimes blurs distinctions that are easily made in English; my point is that a good knowledge of more than one language is valuable as a safeguard against some sorts of bad thinking.

I oppose the idea that thoughts are so shaped by a language as to be untranslatable. The Aristotelian tradition was preserved in Arabic, and Hungarian and Chinese logicians can communicate with ones who write English. Nor is it only in such abstract matters that an extreme difference in grammatical structure does not impede communication. Grammatically speaking, the difference between male and female is strongly marked in Polish, and not at all in Hungarian; but Polish and Hungarian mores do not correspondingly differ.

Poland is not lost: Poland lives and will live. Witajcie, Rodacy!

In extreme old age Hobbes diverted himself by writing an auto- biography in Latin elegiacs. I have in my time written autobiographical elegiacs, and earlier I quoted one line. (I never tried to cover my whole life this way, as Hobbes did.) But now with a further piece I conclude:

Sexaginta annos complevi hucusque novemque,
In Domino sperans, dum vocet ipse: Veni.

University of Warsaw, 1985


1 Geach, P. T.: 1972, Logic Matters, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 23-27.

2 Geach, P. T.: 1969, 'Form and Existence', in God and the Soul, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, pp. 42-64.

3 Geach, P. T.: 1963, 'Aquinas', in G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Three Philosophers, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 65-125.

4 Anscombe, G. E. M.: 1981, 'The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Feature', in The Collected Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, Volume Two: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 3-20.

5 Anscombe, G. E. M.: 1981, 'The First Person', in The Collected Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, Volume Two: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 21-36.

6 Geach, P. T.: 1972, 'Designation and Truth', in Logic Matters, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 189-193. (First published in Analysis 8(6), 1947-48,93-96.)

7 See Geach, P. T.: 1972, 'Imperative and Deontic Logic', in Logic Matters, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 271-272.


  1. I think I've read nearly everything of his. Very stimulating philosopher.

    1. Steve can you recommend a few of his works one should start with? TY

    2. The Virtues, as well as Providence and Evil are stimulating. Likewise, his interpretation of Aquinas in Three Philosophers.

      That doesn't mean I endorse all his positions.

      Unfortunately, many of his shorter writings are scattered in obscure periodicals.

  2. The collection God and the Soul is excellent. His paper Good and Evil is brilliant.