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Academic Philosophy and Radical Philosophy

reason for the present neglect of metaphysics, ethics and
politics is the relatively exaggerated veneration accorded to
logic and theory of meaning. Like Jonathan Ree, I have ungrudging admiration for modern achievements in this field’ but
i~ is a.disaster ~hat so many regard it as the primary fi~ld
wIth whlch the phIlosopher should concern himself. It is not
an adequate c~nsolation to know that bad theo~ies of meaning
and muddled pIeces of conceptual analysis may be refuted and
repl..,ced by better ones. The only effective way of ridding
ourselves of our present inhibitions about taking other
?ranches and mo?es of philosophy seriously is to give up the
Idea that a satIsfactory theory of meaning must be established
before anything else is attempted, and that very formal conceptual frameworks must be laid bare and vindicated before
specific problems are dealt with. This is not to say we should
abandon values like clarity and rigour of argument; though our
concern for them might well become less neurotic and exclusive.

The truth is that we must address ourselves both to the less
and t9 the more gene:al questions, if our philosophy is to avoid
the desert ~f formallsm without drowning in a sea of pap. The
greatest phIlosophers of the past succeeded in fabricating the
bones and the meat of their theories concomitantly.

I8DjamiD Dibbs


Two things ahout the R.P.G. leaflet perturhed me. One was
the implied suggestion (apparently not intended by the authors)
that “linguistic and analytic” methods should be discarded and
inspir~tion sought in Continental philosophy.

Linguistic and
analytlc methods are not Anglo-Saxon aherrations but methods
as an?ient and honourable as philosophy itself. ‘People should
certaInly be. encouraged to studY Continental philosophy; but
phenomenologlsts and Ilarxists have their own orthodoxies and
scholasticisms. The French phenomenological journals, for
example, are no less ossified and out of touch with real
issues than Mind.

We shall not find what we want ready-made
in any philosophical shop, here or across the Channel. ‘We had
better look at the goods in a variety of shops and he careful
about what we buy, or preferably make our own.

Most of what I am going to say will be cast in autobiographical terms. This seems the natural way to indicate my
personal, perhaps idiosyncratic reaction to the Radical
Philosophy movement.

When I began studying philosophy at university in the
late 1950’s I was, like many others, disappointed with the
curriculum. Important questions seemed to be ignored or
ridiculed, and the history of philosophy was reduced to
intellectual shadow-boxing without any pretence of close study
of texts. Hy initial attitude was like that of Collingwood to
the “realists” of fifty years ago. He says in hi s Autobiography
(p.5l) :

They were proud to have excogi tated a philosophy so pure
from the sordid taint of utility that they could lay their
hands on their hearts and say it was no use at all; a
philosophy so scientific that no one whose life was not
a life of pure research could a ppreci a te it, and so
abstruse that only a whole-time student, and a very
clever man at that, could understand it.

The other thing that bothered me was the passion and moral
outrage that spiced the leaflet. Something like this may be
required if a new intellectual movement is to gain momentum.

As Ryl~ said in “Taking Sides in Philosophy”, when zeal,
combatlveness and team-spirit are “canalized into the channels
of a non-spurious philosophical dispute, the hostilities and
militancies may aerate the waters and even drive useful
turbines” (Collected Papers vo1.2, p.168). But it would be
sad if cantankerous, embittered tones (such as one cannot
help noticing in Col Iingwood’ s Autobiography) were to be
characteristic of our philosophy. Further, many teachers
and students grumble ahout the narrowness and a~ademicism of
modern philosophy while acknoldedging such virtues as it has.

These peo~le ~atural1y resent being told that everything the~’

hav~ s~udled IS worthless, and that they must begin
all over
again If they are not to be convicted of charlatanism and
hypocrisy. If this were true, which it isn’t, there must be
more diplomatic ways of putting it across.

Later, however, I came to respect as well as to eriticize
the work of some leading modern philosophers, particularly
Wittgenstein, Ryle and Austin. The latter two influenced,
without determining, the way I now work at and try to write
philosophy. But they had nothing to teach me about morals and
politics, and not much about metaphysics. Gradually I became
disinclined to bother with the modern Anglo-American literature.

The so-called “revolution in philosophy” seemed to be petering
out in a clutter of textbooks. I gave up going to conferences.

I did not read much philosophy apart from Plato and some
medievals. Luckily this specialization corresponded with my
teaching duties.

Last November I was forced out of that unhealthy intellectual
anchoritism by reading the leaflet sent out by the Radical ‘

Philosophy Group. 1
This studiedly intemperate document stimulated and perturbed me, though I had heard of the group’s existence and was sympathetic to what I had heard of its aims. After
swapping letters and telephone conversations with Tony Skillen,
Jerry Cohen and Jonathan Ree, I arranged a meeting at Sussex to
discuss the issues. Fortunately, Jonathan was able to come
from Oxford and give his paper “Professional Philosophers”
(reprinted above) to a big heterogeneous audience. We had
further discussions in the course of the weekend, and there
have been more since. My thoughts here can be read as a
response to Jonathan (with whom on the whole I agree) and the
F.P.G. leaflet (about which my feelings are mixed).

Jonathan Ree’s paper is an attack on academic institutions
as well as orthodoxies. The main cause of the defects of contemporary British philosophy is, he suggests, “the regime of
examinational tyranny”. At least as important, though, is the
institution of weekly one-hour tutorials with one or two undergraduates. This absurdly expensive institution is the basi c
medium of philosophical teaching at Oxford, Sussex (which in
this respect has modelled itself on Oxford), and elsewhere.

If an essay has to be read out and a topic “covered” in one
bour, it is not surprising that people sUbjected to this
process become nothing more than skilful debaters of clearly
formulated theses. Even more deplorable is the effect on the
tutors, who are obliged to devote the greater part of their
working lives to this pettifoggery. Small wonder we write few
books. As Collingwood says (p.28), “A man whose mind is always
being stirred up by philosophical teaching can hardly be
expected to achieve the calm, the inner silence, which is one
condition of philosophical thinking.” Of course the general
public and nearly all students regard professional philosophers
as paid servants whose sole function is to give instruction.

There may be a real conflict of interest here, but I think that
other, more economical modes of instruction would benefit
everyone concerned.

Replacing these pedagogic institutions by others would not
however be sufficient to rejuvenate British philosophy. One


.But th~re is surely something new and exciting about the
RadIcal Phllosophv movement. For the first time, the cri tics
of orthodox philosophy are not isolated individuals hut an
organized group. The group is, as .Jerry Cohen said to me only
“a loose coalition of different tendencies and views which sha~e
a sense of alienation from the predominant modes of philosophical
theory and practice in this countrv”.

But there is the chance
that a few philosophers, their isolation removed and their
confidence strengthened, may now be encouraged” to do something
really constructive. It is time for another revolution in
British philosophy, and I think the Radical Philosophy movement
will act as a powerful catalyst.


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