A Terribly Serious Adventure

From The New York Times:

When setting out to write “A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960,” Nikhil Krishnan certainly had his work cut out for him. How to generate excitement for a “much-maligned” philosophical tradition that hinges on finicky distinctions in language? Whose main figures were mostly well-to-do white men, routinely caricatured — and not always unfairly — for being suspicious of foreign ideas and imperiously, insufferably smug?

Krishnan, a philosopher at Cambridge, confesses up front that he, too, felt frustrated and resentful when he first encountered “linguistic” or “analytic” philosophy as a student at Oxford. He had wanted to study philosophy because he associated it with mysterious qualities like “depth” and “vision.” He consequently assumed that philosophical writing had to be densely “allusive”; after all, it was getting at something “ineffable.” But his undergraduate tutor, responding to Krishnan’s muddled excuse for some muddled writing, would have none of it. “On the contrary, these sorts of things are entirely and eminently effable,” the tutor said. “And I should be very grateful if you’d try to eff a few of them for your essay next week.”

A Terribly Serious Adventure” is lively storytelling as sly “redescription”: an attempt to recast the history of philosophy at Oxford in the mid-20th century by conveying not only what made it influential in its time but also what might make it vital in ours. The philosophers in this book were preoccupied with questions of language — though Krishnan says that to call what they practiced the “linguistic turn” is to obscure continuities with what came before and what came after. Still, Gilbert Ryle, one of the book’s central figures, believed that the philosophy he was doing marked some sort of break from a tradition that was full of woolly speculation about reality and truth. He joked that being appointed the chair in metaphysics — as Ryle was in 1945 — was like being named a chair in tropical diseases: “The holder was committed to eliminating his subject.”

As one of the mainstays in this book, Ryle keeps showing up as others come and go. Born in 1900, he became a fixture at Oxford, asking successive generations a version of the question that was posed to him as a student: “Now, Ryle, what exactly do you mean by …?” This insistence on clarification was foundational to his approach. He liked to use verbal puzzles constructed around ordinary examples: someone buying gloves, a circus seal performing tricks, a confectioner baking a cake. He argued against the “fatalist doctrine” by giving the example of a mountaineer in the path of an avalanche. The fatalist’s doomsaying misuses the language of inevitability. The unlucky mountaineer is doomed in one (immediate) sense but not in another: “The avalanche is practically unavoidable, but it is not logically inevitable.”

Language is full of expressions that Ryle called “systematically misleading.” Philosophers, he warned, could be seduced by imprecision. In the 1920s, having recognized Martin Heidegger as a “thinker of real importance,” Ryle nevertheless worried there was something in Heidegger’s writing style that suggested his school of phenomenology was “heading for bankruptcy and disaster and will end in either self-ruinous Subjectivism or in a windy mysticism” — in other words, metaphysics. Heidegger, of course, would join the Nazi Party in 1933.

Krishnan’s book is teeming with Oxford characters: A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, Peter Strawson and Isaiah Berlin, among others. There are cameos by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Theodor Adorno, who worked with Ryle on a dissertation about the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Krishnan also dedicates part of the book to Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch — four women who met at Oxford and became important figures in moral philosophy. The linguistic analysis that reigned supreme at Oxford was limited and limiting, they argued, though they allowed that a careful parsing of language still had its place. “Bad writing,” Murdoch said, “is almost always full of the fumes of personality.”

Krishnan himself is so skillful at explicating the arguments of others that at various points it seems as if he must be stating his own position. But no — he mostly hangs back, elucidating a variety of ideas with the respect he thinks they deserve. His own example lays bare the distinction between the critical essay and the hatchet job. The Oxford-trained philosopher-turned-anthropologist Ernest Gellner heaped scorn on his mentors in a 1959 slash-and-burn polemic and derided their work as “rubbish.” Gellner’s salvo wasn’t an attempt at debate; “what it sought was the humiliation and destruction of the enemy,” Krishnan writes. “It was entertaining, especially if one had nothing at stake.”

This, as it happens, was a common charge against Ryle and his colleagues: that their approach was “superciliously apolitical,” as one reviewer of Gellner’s book put it, fixated on picayune verbal puzzles, with nothing at stake. But Krishnan urges us to see things another way. Superficially “flippant examples” about a foreign visitor to a university or a game of cricket could build up “to a more subversive point,” he writes. Verbal puzzles can get us to think more deeply and precisely about how language can warp or clarify our presuppositions; envisioning a game of cricket is less likely than a political example to get our hackles up.

“Conversation, rather than mere speech, was the thing,” Krishnan writes. And one-on-one tutorials — as opposed to enormous lectures — were essential. Students weren’t supposed to learn what to think, “but how.” He writes movingly of Austin’s widow, Jean, who continued to teach at Oxford after Austin died in 1960. “Finding her students altogether too quick to dismiss the philosophers they read as stupid, she enjoins humility and generosity: Read them charitably, don’t overestimate your own ability to refute what you’re only beginning to understand.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times