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Dorothy Edgington


Dorothy Edgington is a member of emeritus staff in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck, and is a Senior Research Fellow and Fellow of the British Academy, working mainly in philosophical logic. She is currently involved in a project on probabilities, propensities and conditionals at the Institute of Philosophy. She supervises research students at Birkbeck working on conditionals, vagueness and indeterminacy, ontology, self-knowledge and emotions.   


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Dorothy Edgington to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Professor Dorothy Margaret Doig Edgington is one of the world’s leading philosophers working on conditionals, counterfactual as well as probabilistic reasoning, and vagueness. She is widely acclaimed as one of the leading philosophers in the English-speaking world.

She was born Dorothy Milne, in the chilly but beautiful town of Forfar (in Angus, Scotland), which is famous both for being the seat of Scotland’s King Malcolm Canmore and for its witches who danced with the devil on local graves. She was a sole child to Edward Milne, a chartered accountant and Rhoda (née Blair). At the age of five years, they moved to Bolton where she attended school. Then aged twelve, her family moved to Lima (Peru) where, at Colegio San Silvestre, she discovered her love of Spanish, which she still speaks like a native. When her father then got a job in Ethiopia, Edgington was sent to St Andrews in Scotland to board at the independent school, St Leonards, whose ethos was a shock after her freedoms in Peru.

From a young age, she was intellectually precocious, with a passion for geometry. Edgington reveals that her ‘earliest philosophical thought’ occurred when she was only three or four years old. She recalls that

I had been taught, parrot-fashion, to give the right answer to questions like ‘What’s 3 and 5?’ This skill was being shown off by my grandparents (with whom we lived during the war) to visitors, who were suitably impressed. And I was very puzzled about why it was ‘clever’ to say 8 as opposed to 7 – what made the one a good answer and the other bad. That turns out to be a hard question.

But hard questions animate her. This was recognised by her family, none of whom had been to university. Her parents were thrilled, therefore, when, in 1960, she was accepted into the woman’s college St Hilda’s in Oxford to read Engineering. By her own reckoning, it was a poor choice. She switched to Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). Her BA in 1964 was followed three years later by a B.Phil. taken at Nuffield College Oxford. Originally, this degree was supposed to be in Economics and, as she quipped, ‘Wrong subject again!’ However, it did teach her about probability and, after one year, she found her true vocation: Philosophy. There, she worked mainly with Michael Dummett, one of the most important British philosophers of the twentieth century and a leading campaigner for racial tolerance and equality. Within one year of submitting her B. Phil. thesis on probability, she was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck. Where she remained for another 28 years.

Like most academics in a new job, the first years were daunting. She found that Birkbeck students were ‘older, wiser, more knowledgeable, and more confident than I was’. Her first salary exactly matched the cost of renting a flat in Mecklenburgh Square, a few minutes walk from the College. There was no such thing as maternity leave. It was, she later admitted, a ‘make-or-break’ year. And she made it.

There was also the problem that, when she was appointed, the study of Logic was disparaged within philosophy. Her Head of Department, David Hamlyn, dismissed it as mere ‘sums’, telling students that ‘If you can’t do the sums, don’t worry! They’re really not important!’ This gradually changed. The discipline of philosophy found that they needed Logic to understand the complex problems associated with Donald Davidson’s Tarski-style theory of truth for a language. The appointments of Mark Platts and Ian McFetridge meant that she gained colleagues to argue with. This group of philosophers heralded in an extraordinary period in which Birkbeck became the centre of philosophical debate in England.

In 1996, however, it was time to go. She was appointed to a five-year post as Professor of Philosophy at University College, Oxford. The rest of her career consisted of moving between Oxford and Birkbeck. From 2001 and 2003, for example, she could be found at Birkbeck. Then, from 2003 to 2006, back at Oxford as the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy. Her predecessors in this chair were the distinguished philosophers Robin G. Collingwood, Gilbert Ryle, P. F. Strawson, and Christopher Peacocke. Edgington was the first woman. When she turned 65, it was again time to leave (Oxford has a strict rule that Professors must retire aged 65). She returned to Birkbeck as a Senior Research Professor.

What fascinates Edgington? A lot. But let me just mention three. She is interested in what she calls the ‘ordinary ways of describing the world, the kinds of things it contains and the properties they have’. Causality is clearly central since it involves ‘virtually all we learn about the world’. Edgington speculates that

Maybe a world which is not causally structured is, in some thin sense, possible, but I do not think there could be knowledge or experience of a world which is not causally structured; for knowledge of the world requires that it impinges on our senses; it leaves its imprint on us.

And what about vagueness? In her article ‘The Philosophical Problem of Vagueness’, she asks her readers to

Think of the color spectrum, spread out before you. You can identify the different colors with ease. But if you are asked to indicate the point at which one color ends and the next begins, you are at a lost…. One color just shades gradually into the next.

This creates a problem for mathematicians and philosophers of language such as Gottlob Frege, for whom ‘the truth or falsity of a simple sentence is always a precise matter’. This ‘idealization’, Edgington writes, ‘is fine when we are not troubled by borderline cases, but it doesn’t help us to understand how vague language works’. This matters because it can lead to the ‘sorites paradox’. Take the following:

You are casting a play and need a tall man for a part. If x will do for height and y is only a millimetre shorter, then y will do for height. Remove one grain of sand from a heap and you will still have a heap. A man who is not bald and loses just one hair, is still not bald…… [But] apply the above judgments often enough, and you can conclude that a midget is tall, that one grain of sand makes a heap, that a man with no hairs is not bald.

Of course, Edgington maintains, the solution could simply be to ‘stipulate sharp boundaries between our predicates – between red and orange, and so on’. This is not good enough, she insists. After all, ‘a language should not make arbitrary, pointless distinctions. The difference between truth and falsity should be a different that matters’. For this, ‘a more fine-grained model is needed to understand reasoning with vague terms…. We need more more-or-less thinking, and less on-off thinking, when we are reasoning in vague languages…. But… we don’t have a theory of how we do it’.

Her work on conditionals (‘ifs’) is equally fascinating. ‘Why’, she asked in her Presidential address to the Aristotelian Society, ‘do philosophers get worked up about it. Why don’t we just leave the matter to be settled by questionnaires, or the empirical work of linguists and cognitive psychologists?’ Her answer is clear: conditionals involve normative questions. Conditionals are ‘an immensely valuable form of thought, without which our thinking would be immeasurably diminished. And we want the theory that best explains why conditionals mean so much to us.’

Edgington is also a philosopher’s philosopher. She has been President of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society. In 2005, she was honoured by being admitted as a Fellow of the British Academy. Colleagues speak of the ‘ingenuity and breadth’ of her work and her deft way of talking about paradoxes – such as the paradox of knowability. They have extolled her style of work, describing it as ‘clear, straightforward, deep’ and contending that it ‘shapes the way many philosophers pursue their own research’. I am told that she combines a ‘sure grasp of some very abstract issues with a down-to-earth sensitivity to the phenomena, and a gift for apt examples to make a point.’ One philosopher told me that when there was a vacancy in the Philosophy Department at Birkbeck, he was surprised to see that one of the world’s leading philosophical logicians had applied. Why would he consider leaving his cushy job in a leading U.S. university for one at Birkbeck? He asked, and the response was a terse ‘Dorothy Edgington’. Alan Hájek (now Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University) contends that attending her two-week summer school on Conditionals at the Central European University in Budapest was ‘one of the all-time highlights of my philosophical career, and Dorothy’s lectures were highlights of that summer school’. Scott Sturgeon was equally impressed. Now, Sturgeon is a philosopher at the University of Birmingham, but his first tenured lectureship was at Birkbeck. He tells me that, shortly after arriving, he knocked on Edgington’s door:  

‘Come in!’, she yelled.  I popped around the door and said ‘Hi.  I just wanted to say hello after my arrival in the dept.’ Dorothy put down her book — David Lewis’ classic Counterfactuals — walked to her chalk board, wrote a formula from the book on the board, went back to her reclining chair, started rolling a cigarette, and said ‘Now why do you think Lewis says *that*?’….I knew straightaway we were gonna get on!

Edgington has been invited all around the world to given talks, including major visiting positions in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Italy. Her PhD students speak of her with awe. For them, she is not only an intellectual giant but also a kind person who pays attention to their struggles. In the words of Nicholas Jones (now Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at St. John’s College, Oxford), being supervised by Edgington was ‘a great intellectual pleasure. She was a patient, dedicated, rigorous, and inspiring teacher’. Crucially, he continues, she provided her students with ‘a model… of how philosophy should be done’. The esteem that she is held at Birkbeck is shown in the lecture series named after her. The Edgington Lectures have been given by extraordinary philosophers, including John McDowell (‘The Epistemology of Perception’), Rae Langton (‘Race, Gender, and Hate Speech’), Kit Fine (‘Compliance a Command: A Truthteller’s Approach to Imperative and Deontic Logic’), and Katherine Hawley (‘What Trustworthy People Do’).

What about the person? In the mid-1960s, while studying at Oxford, she met particle physicist John Edgington, who had offered to drive her to the wedding of a mutual friend. She seemed undaunted by the fact that, if she looked down at the floor of his car, she could see the road. Within a year, they were married – and remain so, 57 years later. They had a son, Alec, and daughter, Fiona. They retain their home (amongst others) in Mecklenburgh Square and, today, you can still see her cycling around the area on an old bike with its basket. She is passionate about puzzles – the more difficult, the better.

And, finally, she is loved for her sensitivity to argument. Hájek describes Edgington as ‘a philosophical ally of mine in making conditional probabilities central to the understanding of conditionals’. However, he notes,

while she thinks that conditionals do not have truth values, I think they do. So according to her, this conditional has no truth value: ‘If Dorothy is lavished with praise in the oration, that will be entirely fitting’. I think it is true - clearly so. May she be lavished with praise!

We are thrilled that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.