A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900–60 by Nikhil Krishnan - review by Jonathan Rée

Jonathan Rée

Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein?

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900–60

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Profile 416pp £20
 

Oxford philosophy was quite the thing in the 1950s. The Third Programme (the cultural arm of BBC radio) gave ample airtime to its leading personality, Gilbert Ryle, while the snappily dressed A J Ayer (temporarily stranded in faraway London) made a splash on television. In those days, philosophers enjoyed a certain mystique – their position as emblems of intellect had not yet been usurped by brain surgeons and rocket scientists – and the Oxonians won extra kudos because they were supposed to have conducted a ‘revolution’ against the entire philosophical tradition. The philosophers of the past had imagined – so Ryle claimed – that they could discover deep truths about the world through pure cogitation. The Oxford philosophers, in contrast, confined themselves to analysing the language that frames our experience, while warning of the terrible confusions that could engulf anyone who departed from its rules. They expected to achieve remarkable results, though of a negative kind: they would invite pretentious philosophical windbags to explain what they meant by their words, then sit back and watch them squirm, bluster and deflate.

The mood of the time is summed up in a tale of two begowned dons ambling down Turl Street and exclaiming, ‘never has there been such a blooming of philosophy in the whole history of the world!’ But the exhilaration did not last. The year 1959 saw the publication of a popular paperback called Words and Things, in which the social theorist Ernest Gellner performed a ferocious takedown of Oxfordian ‘linguistic philosophy’, accusing it of parochialism, prejudice and incuriosity. Bertrand Russell poured petrol on the flames with a letter to The Times backing Gellner against Ryle. Shortly afterwards, philosophy at Oxford declined into a dull academic discipline just like any other.

What had it all been about? One way of answering the question would be to consider the underlying social realities: that Oxford employed as many philosophy teachers as all the other British universities put together, and that for the first time it had to accommodate students who had

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