Reminiscences: Discovering Philosophy

(I actually intended to move on to discuss football, but have just discovered, quite by accident, that I had written the piece below four years ago – Why? – and had no memory of why I did so. Well, it might as well emerge from the Cave now as later.)

My undergraduate experience

I was extremely fortunate to study philosophy when and where I did. I had applied to a number of universities to read English and Philosophy, and was asked for an A grade in English; competition to go to university in those days was stiff, and the Advanced Level exams at the end of Grammar School (secondary education for ‘academic’ pupils) had very high standards. (Only 4-5% of school leavers went on to University, but it was free and we were also given a living allowance.) In the end, I got an A in French, B in English, and E in History (which I hated, but was made to study).  I was turned down by all five of my choices. However, the university of Newcastle-upon-Tyne still offered what were then known as General Degrees. Having confirmed that I could transfer to Honours at the end of my first year if I were good enough, I accepted the offer, and arrived there in the Autumn of 1964. (Exciting times: the election of a Labour Government after 13 years of Conservative rule, and the death and funeral of Winston Churchill.)

In my first General Year I took classes in English, Philosophy, and Psychology. My memory of my first Philosophy lecture is still vivid. A man who looked like the Professor in ‘Back to the Future’ came in, puffing away at a cigarette, and, without preparation or notes, proceeded to try to persuade us that our confidence that there was a world of objects external to the senses was, perhaps, misplaced. I was utterly and completely captivated. It was not just the novelty, or the intellectual excitement, but the fact that here was a subject that one could engage in immediately, without the lengthy preparation of learning the acknowledged facts. (How different from dreary History, as it was then taught, with its totally unmemorable litany of dates, battles, treaties, and Acts of Parliament.) It was love at first sight and, like most young lovers, I wanted to commit to my new love immediately. However, with what I then thought was amazing self-control, I waited for the second lecture to finish before approaching the department and saying I would like to study Philosophy as a single subject if I could transfer at the end of my first year. And so a journey of over fifty years began.

At that time the Philosophy Department at Newcastle consisted of five teachers: four full-time and one half-time – all very different from each other and yet, each in their own way, the ideal person to introduce people to the subject. The Professor and Head was Karl Britton, who had studied under Wittgenstein. Slim, neat, dapper, with well groomed silver hair, he always wore a three-piece suit and tie. We were all in awe of him, though he was a very kind man. He would ask questions with obvious answers, such as ‘how does an Intuitionist know these moral truths?’ and then look at us in bewilderment as we all thought the obvious answer could not be the correct one! He did not write a lot, but he published a book on the meaning of life while we were there. I remember writing an essay for him on that topic, in which I argued that life would only have meaning if there were objective values. He looked at me rather sadly, and said: ‘this is a fine essay, but you don’t mention death.’ To which, with all the invulnerability of youth, I replied that I had not thought it relevant.

Colin Strang taught us Ancient Philosophy – mainly Plato, because he said he did not think he knew enough about Aristotle to teach it well! So two whole years of Plato’s Dialogues. Wonderful. Tall, stringy, with a small military style moustache, he was also dapper, and chain-smoked small cigars. He would often stretch with his hands above his head, causing his trousers to slip down a little revealing a glimpse of coloured patterned shorts – something none of us then had ever seen. He would always address the members of the audience as ‘chaps’ even when a majority were women. Rumour had it that he was a communist and, when he inherited his father’s title, would become the first communist peer in the House of Lords. (I see from his obituary in the Guardian that he took up his seat but was not active. [ ] Whether he really had communist sympathies I do not know.) Apart from an abiding love of Plato, Colin taught me to read texts closely and to argue with care. Many years after I had graduated he contacted me at Keele and said he did not think he would be publishing any more on Plato and would I like his books. He duly arrived with a large trunk full of texts and hard to find commentaries – a characteristically kind gesture.

Then there were the Midgleys: Geoff, the spitting image of the Prof. in Back to the Future, and his wife Mary, who was then half time. Geoff was as untidy and unkempt as Karl and Colin were neat and tidy. He had a fine-tuned sense of the ridiculous, and made the driest philosophical topic engaging. His laugh was contagious although, because of his bronchitis from smoking, it nearly always ended up as a racking cough. He once took forty minutes answering a question and then, realizing what he had done, said: ‘You always get more than you bargained for’ and started laughing so hard and bouncing up and down in his huge shabby armchair that we feared the subsequent violent fit of coughing would finish him off. Geoff had the untidiest desk I have ever seen (though I am running him a close second!) It was piled high with not only books and papers but also parts of a flute (he played) and what looked like bits of a car engine. One day, in searching through this pile for a book he pulled out a letter, read it, and exclaimed: ‘it’s a request for a reference I haven’t answered … well, no use now, it’s two years old.’ At which point, he thrust the letter back into the tottering pile! Geoff’s main interest was logic and early twentieth century philosophy. His final year exam on the Tractatus consisted of ten quotations from that work, with the single instruction, Comment, after each one. I once spent a whole term with him studying the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap. We thought him the smartest of a very intelligent department, but he was completely uninterested in publishing. He could not see the point. (He had, I believe, two publications, each in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, which requires publication of invited talks.) Rather, what he wanted was to do philosophy and, above all, to introduce students to it.

Mary Midgley mainly lectured on ethics and would, in moments of intensity, close her eyes and run her hands through her hair. I remember two special incidents. The first was when, in the course of explaining why she preferred Kant’s moral theory to utilitarianism, she gave the example of an old people’s home where they had taken away people’s glasses, hearing aids, etc. and filled them full of tranquilizers, making life easier for all. Rightly shocked by this, she explained Kant’s stress on the importance of rational autonomy before apostrophizing, ‘You see, Professor Britton, life is just more complicated than you realize.’ (Karl gave the lectures on Bentham and Mill.) The other was a conversation with Colin who claimed to be both a hard determinist and a utilitarian. ‘But, Colin, it is important to people’s dignity that they be held responsible for their actions’ to which he replied, ‘I’m very happy to blame people, Mary, if it will make them happier.’ She and Geoff were cheerful and bohemian, living in a large and untidy house. Incredibly kind and caring they always had at least one angst-ridden student lodging with them, so that they could look after them. I was totally unaware at the time that Mary’s contemporaries at Somerville were Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch. When I went to stay with her later while giving a talk to the Philosophy Group in Newcastle (the department having been axed by a technocrat Vice-Chancellor) I asked her about them. She was a great admirer of Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and wished she had continued with it, instead of writing ‘those novels’, of which she had a low opinion.

Finally, there was Don Locke, the youngest and an exemplar of the new breed of philosopher. Smartly but casually dressed, with a crew cut, Don published books and articles at a rate that would now be considered normal, but which seemed frenetic back then. His lectures were models of how to organize material and convey it in an accessible way. He was careful and punctilious almost to a fault. He once began a lecture thus: ‘There are thirteen arguments in the literature against phenomenalism, and all of them are unsound.’ And off he went, through all thirteen.

Looking back, I do not think we then appreciated how lucky we were. The staff (faculty)-student ratio was absurd. We were the largest year they ever had, their annus mirabilis, with eight people reading philosophy as a single subject (major) and eight reading it as a double major. Karl and Geoff had persuaded the university that we needed a lecture room in the department, though they had no intention of using it as such. Rather, it was a common room for both students and teachers, unsurprisingly labelled The Cave. We virtually lived in there, drinking endless coffee and discussing philosophy. We would be joined by at least one of the staff on most days, who would give their time unstintingly to our enthusiastic questioning. I felt perfectly free to knock on any door and ask a philosophical question; nor were the answers brief. I would be welcomed in and given as much time as I liked. That generosity spilled over into social life; we were often invited to parties at the houses of staff. Finally, there was the tutorial system. Two people to a tutor, taking it in turns to read an essay. Since I was often paired with students who did not show up, I received, in effect, individual supervision. Since my stay there lasted four years, this was more like a graduate than an undergraduate education; indeed, in some ways we had more access to faculty than students in most graduate programs.

This was a group of people who were widely read, thoughtful, engaged; members of an old-fashioned intelligentsia. Suffering none of the pressures of the modern publish or perish regime, they saw their mission as opening young minds and, above all, showing how enjoyable philosophy was. Those who know me will easily guess on which person in that department I have modelled myself right down, to my chagrin, to the untidiness. When I went to Geoff’s memorial service I gave a lift to the former departmental secretary on the way back to the reception. I apologized for the hiking equipment and other detritus littering the interior. She took one look and said: ‘Geoff would have been proud of this car!’

I have only one regret, namely that I did not go there a year later for, in 1968, the department appointed a very bright chap called Mike Brearley. He did not stay long because he decided he had more to offer to cricket than to philosophy. In that he was probably right, since he went on to become the best captain England’s cricket team have ever had. I would love to have met him.

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