April 25, 2012

Oxford Philosophy: When Argy Bargy and Talky talky ruled the world

This dialogue and there are five further sections between Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire is an exploration of what Oxford philosophy meant in the middle years of the twentieth century when J.L. Austin dominated it. Its an important document philosophically of course- and I'll let you actually listen to what Berlin and Hampshire say- far more lucidly than I could ever- to discover that. However its also important as a cultural document: as whatsoever we think of Oxford philosophy and the contributions of Berlin, Hampshire, Ayer, Austin and others to it, we have to see it as a cultural moment as well as a philosophical moment. This was philosophy as reared probably for the last ever time on its own within a great university. Hampshire comments that there was no contact with the outside world- noone in Oxford during the 1930s cared about the outside world's opinion of their thinking, the outside world being both America and Cambridge at this point. Berlin tells of an Oxford dominated by schools of argy bargy (the analytical Pritchard) and talky talky (Collingwood and the Hegelians).

What's so interesting about this moment is that it was so insular. One might suggest for example that even in Oxford this was an insular group- they never had anything to do with the Inklings just down the road from Berlin's rooms in All Souls let alone with Cambridge or Princeton and Harvard. That culture whether in the Inklings or here with the analytical philosophers is obviously very powerful. They could focus on a set of texts that noone else understood- whether that is C.I. Lewis on perception or A.J. Ayer on Language, truth and logic. They were able to forge interesting questions in a very intense and concentrated fashion and in both the cases of the Inklings and the Oxford tradition, those questions produced great works- of literature and of philosophy. Concentration and insularity are undervalued today but are crucial for these very reasons: there was a point to having a life concentrated like that of a medieval monastery. What it produced was a common culture, a common reference point out of which the participants could emerge- and of course bitter rivalries- one thinks of Lewis and Tolkein, Ayer and Austin.

At the centre of the Analytical philosophers is Berlin. I remember reading in Berlin's writings a self depracatory statement that he believed his importance in life was his ability to knit together others. Berlin had a great mind and there is a reason that people still read what he had to say in later life- but its an important observation of his other skill, as a facilitator. Important I think as well because the group created a context for its members to operate within- thinking to Berlin's own Personal Impressions, one gets the sense of a thinker who knows who his audience are and knows how to appeal to them. This both gives him the confidence to move forward with his intellectual project- by the 40s definitely not within analytical philosophy- and also the security of having that project critiqued and accepted. It exposed the work to some blindnesses- Quentin Skinner later picked up on several of Berlin's methodological blindnesses- but it also enabled the work to happen. We underrate this often: recently thinking about Berlin I put him into a category of emigree intellectual, and obviously he along with Karl Popper and others was such an emigree (of a slightly earlier generation than Popper), but one's eventual intellectual group which one considers one's home is still vital to one's development. I don't think we can take the emigree out of Berlin, but neither can we dispense with the room in All Souls for our understanding of any of those that met there.

In truth, it was not just what the division between argy bargy and talky talky meant when it was taught which gave Berlin and Austin and Ayer their background, it was the fact that they all knew within a narrow Oxford context, what those two titles meant.