Max Black

Max Black (February 24, 1909 Baku, Russian Empire [present-day Azerbaijan] – August 27, 1988, Ithaca, New York, United States) was a distinguished Anglo-American philosopher who was a leading influence in analytic philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century. He made contributions to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics, the science, and the philosophy of art. He also published studies of the work of philosophers such as Frege. His translation (with Peter Geach) of Frege's published philosophical writing is a classic text.



Black was born in Azerbaijan but grew up in London, England, where his family had moved in 1912, when Black was three years old. He studied mathematics at Queens' College, Cambridge where he developed an interest in the philosophy of mathematics. Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, G. E. Moore, and Frank P. Ramsey were all at Cambridge at that time, and their influence on Black may have been considerable.

He graduated in 1930 and was awarded a fellowship to study at Göttingen for a year, where he wrote his first book, The Nature of Mathematics (London, 1933), an exposition of Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica and of then-current developments in the philosophy of mathematics.

From 1931-36, he was mathematics master at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. His first university-level academic position was as a lecturer and tutor in mathematics at the Institute of Education, University of London, from 1936 until he left for America.

He received a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1939, with a dissertation entitled Theories of Logical Positivism. He immigrated to the United States in 1940 and became a naturalized citizen in 1948.

Black's first position in America was in the Philosophy Department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1940 to 1946. He joined the faculty at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, in 1946, and became the Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy in 1954. In 1965, he became the first director of Cornell's Society for the Humanities, and held that position until 1971. In 1971 he became a member of the Cornell program on Science, Technology and Society, and academic head of its Unit on Humanities, Science and Technology.

Black was president of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association in 1958, and he gave lectures on contemporary American philosophy in Japan in 1957 and in India in 1962.

Black's Philosophical Work

In addition to his interest in mathematics and analytic philosophy, evident from his early years in Cambridge, Black had a wide range of scientific interests. He also had a high regard for common sense, much like C.D. Broad, Frank Ramsey, and G.E. Moore. The most profound influence on him, however, was the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Black's full bibliography contains more than 200 items. His first book, which remains useful and important, is an examination of different accounts of mathematics: formalist, logicist, and intuitionist. This led him to study of Wittgenstein. Black's interest in logical positivism led him to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and this culminated later in Black's writing A companion to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a most useful work that gives expository information on the principal topics and Wittgenstein's sources as well as exegesis of Wittgenstein's text.

Black's work also takes up things that are prominent in Wittgenstein's later work. Black claimed that "philosophical clarification of meaning practical as slum clearance and as empirical as medicine." (Garver). Black concluded that it is a mistake to think that there exist "such things as meanings to be categorized," (Garver) a view also reached by Wittgenstein, who went on to focus on rules. Black then went on to investigate what a rule is and how it is related to a statement or a practice.

Although he was not a system builder, Black made notable contributions in a range of fields and concerns: meaning, rules, vagueness, choice, metaphor, formal education, cosmology, sociology, and the metaphysics of identity. In his "The Identity of Indiscernables," he presented an objection to Leibniz' Law by means of a hypothetical in which he conceives two distinct spheres having exactly the same properties.

In his examination of metaphor, Black continued the investigation of interactive analysis that had been given by I.A. Richards, according to which every metaphor has two parts: an underlying idea or "tenor," and a "vehicle" or "idea under whose sign the first idea is apprehended." (Reese, 476) Black used the terms "focus" and "frame" in place of "vehicle" and "tenor." According to Black, these two influence and interact with each other.

Black also wrote reviews of the work of many of his contemporaries, including Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Rudolf Carnap, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Alfred Tarski, and others.

Black's main concerns throughout his work were conceptual clarity and sound argument. His writings usually do not rely on special terminology, and do not contain jargon or terminology inherited from the philosophical past.

His brother was the architect Sir Misha Black.


  • Black, Max. Caveats and Critiques: Philosophical Essays in Language, Logic, and Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975. ISBN 0801409586
  • Black, Max. A Companian to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
  • Black, Max. Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1952.
  • Black, Max, ed. The Importance of Language. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962.
  • Black, Max. The Labyrinth of Language. New York: Praeger, 1968.
  • Black, Max. Language and Philosophy; Studies in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1949.
  • Black, Max. Margins of Precision; Essays in Logic and Language. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970. ISBN 0801406021
  • Black, Max. “Metaphor.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, 1954, pp. 273-294.
  • Black, Max. Models and Metaphors; Studies in Language and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962.
  • Black, Max, ed. The Morality of Scholarship. Northrop Frye, Stuart Hampshire, and Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.
  • Black, Max. The Nature of Mathematics; A critical Survey. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
  • Black, Max. Perplexities: Rational Choice, The Prisoner's Dilemma, Metaphor, Poetic Ambiguity, and Other Puzzles. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. ISBN 0801422302
  • Black, Max, ed. Philosophical Analysis: A Collection of Essays. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. ISBN 083692214X
  • Black, Max, ed. Philosophy in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.
  • Black, Max. The Prevalence of Humbug, And Other Essays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. ISBN 0801415144
  • Black, Max. Problems of Analysis: Philosophical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. ISBN 0837157404
  • Black, Max, ed. The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976. ISBN 0809307596
  • Black, Max. "Vagueness: An exercise in logical analysis." Philosophy of Science 4, 1937: 427–455. Reprinted in R. Keefe, P. Smith, eds.: Vagueness: A Reader, MIT Press 1997. ISBN 978-0262611459
  • Garver, Newton. "Black, Max," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, Paul Edwards, ed. New York & London; Macmillan, 1967.
  • Geach, Peter, and Max Black, eds. Translations From the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1980. ISBN 0847662861
  • Gombrich, E.H., Julian Hochberg, and Max Black. Art, Perception and Reality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972. ISBN 0801813549
  • Marcus, Ruth Barcan. "Black, Max," in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Hondereich, ed. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198661320
  • Reese, William L. Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: New and Enlarged Edition. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996. ISBN 0391038656

External links

All links retrieved February 8, 2013.

General Philosophy Sources


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