Philosophy: The nature of persons
Philosophy: The nature of persons

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Philosophy: The nature of persons

3.2 Strawson: Sections III and IV

Activity 2

Click to open Peter Strawson's article 'Freedom and Resentment [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] '.

Read III, noting the detailed discussion Strawson gives of the place of reactive attitudes in a human life. Then read IV, and do the following exercises:

  1. List the distinctions and sub-distinctions Strawson makes in paragraphs 2 and 3.

  2. Reconstruct the argument that leads to the conclusion at the end of 4.

  3. Put, in your own words, Strawson's two-part reason for denying that accepting the truth of determinism would lead to the decay of the reactive attitudes.


  1. The first group of attitudes are those in which we excuse an action of an agent (that is, a person) without our seeing the agent as one in respect of whom these attitudes are in any way inappropriate. The second group is divided into two sub-groups. The first are those in which we excuse the agent because, although generally fully responsible, they were at the time they acted in such a way that we temporarily do not view them as fully responsible. The second are those in which we excuse the agent because they are not fully responsible because of who or how they are (for example, a child or an addict).

  2. Strawson is considering the second sub-group of the second range of cases. He argues as follows. It is appropriate to have ‘the objective attitude’ to those he is considering. The objective attitude cannot include the full range of reactive feelings and attitudes. The absence of some of these reactive attitudes makes some interactions impossible. In particular, ‘you may fight with him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him.’

  3. The question at issue (which is Strawson's novel way of reconsidering the compatibilism versus incompatibilism debate) is as follows: if we assume that determinism is true, then should this affect our relationship with other people? His reply is summed up in the final eight lines or so of IV:11. The argument for the first part comes in the middle of IV: 10. The argument for the second comes around about the middle of IV: 11.

In the final paragraph, Strawson canvasses a possible objection to his view. He imagines someone arguing that he has been considering ‘what we actually do’, perhaps what it is psychologically possible for us to do. According to the objector, as a philosopher he should be considering what it would be rational for us to do; that is, what we ought to do. Strawson gives two reasons for rejecting this charge. The first is that our commitment (to reactive attitudes) ‘is part of the general framework of human life’. This ‘is not something that can come up for review’ in a way that ‘particular cases’ can come up within the framework. This is reminiscent of a remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn’ (Wittgenstein 1974, 341). In the same way that without immovable hinges, a door will not turn, discussion and argument rely upon certain things: principally, the conditions that allow us to relate to each other as persons. These cannot be questioned, because it is the fact that they are in place that allows us to raise questions at all. The second reason he gives is that even if it were possible to question the framework (which it is not), we would be choosing between different kinds of life we wanted to lead – do we want to relate to each other as persons, or do we want to take the objective stance? The answer to this would not be given by our theoretical commitment to determinism; rather, it would be a matter of the assessment of the gains and losses to our lives.

As we saw, section III ended with Strawson having set up a problem and pointed to where the solution might lie. Section IV contains much of his positive proposal. It is, not surprisingly, longer than the previous sections (longer indeed than I to III combined). Having reached the positive proposal, it would be worth stopping reading and thinking about how plausible it is. What would be its ramifications if it were true? Can we really believe it? How strong are the arguments?

The conclusion Strawson comes to is, initially at least, puzzling. The view appears to imply that the beliefs that govern the way we live our lives are, in some respects, ‘fact proof’. Even if we discover that the way we carry on does not correspond to the way things are, we cannot change (because we cannot change ‘the framework’). Given that the conclusion is so puzzling, it would be worth turning back a few pages and checking the argument. Having done that, it would be worth reading on to see if any of the puzzlement is mitigated in the succeeding pages.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371