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Professional Philosophers


Janathan Ree

People who don’t know anything about philosophy courses
are likely to be astonished and dismayed by their effects. The
main thing they will notice is that the philosophy student
acquires a very mannered way of speaking and a knack of shrugging off serious ideas with half frivolous complaints about the
words in which they are expressed.

But what exactly is the intellectual tradition which has
these sad results? The conunon answer, ‘linguistic philosophy’

is useless. For one thing, modern philosophy is not always
more concerned with language than other philosophical traditions;
and for another, it would not be a bad thing if it was.

The main phenomenon of modern British philosophy is the
Oxford definition of philosophy, which says that philosophy is
‘conceptual analysis’. This became influential after the war,
though its roots go back to the thirties. It is associated
above all with four Oxford professors of philosophy – Gilbert
Ryle, J.L. Austin, R.M. Hare and P:F. Strawson – of whom the
last two still hold their chairs. The idea is, in Ryle’ s
metaphor, that the philosopher is a ‘logical geographer’,
(Ryle, 1949). The thoughts of scientists and ordinary people
are ‘first order’ thoughts about the world, while philosophy
is a ‘second order’ study, having the ‘logic’ of such thinking
as its subject matter. A.R. White (the professor of philosophy
at Hull) develops the idea by saying that ‘very much as physical
positions are spatially related, so positions in thought – that
is, concepts – are ‘logically’ related’ (White, 1967, pp. 7-8).

Philosophy then ‘maps’ these logical relations. White says
‘Practitioners of the various arts and sciences, as well as all
of us in our everyday thinking, employ these ideas, or ways of
thought; philosophers examine them.’ (p.6)
Other people study
things; philosophers study the concepts by means of which people
conceptualise things. That is the Oxford definition of philosophy.

It is not surprising if non-philosophers come to see
philosophers as a self-perpetuating clique, like freemasons.

It sometimes looks very much as though the professors are
guardians of meaningless rituals, who force the eager young
flatterers who surround them to prove their devotion by undergoing ordeals – degrees, fellowship exams, and so on; and if
the candidate survives these he wins a ‘license to practise his
trade and mystery’ and naturally acquires a personal interest in
maintaining the prestige and exclusiveness of the clique.

Even the professional philosophers seem to regard philosophy
as a rather pointless subject. The prospectus for Oxford
University Department of Education advertises the philosophy
component of its Certificate of Education course like this:

Questions posed by educational thinkers, from plato
to the present day. No knowledge of texts is required.

Philosophical analysis and education with special
reference to the concept of education, the problem of
aims, the social philosophy of education, the curriculum,
and the concept of teaching.

Having defined his subject in this way, the philosopher has
made a profession of amateurishness. He has thought of himself
as an intellectual lone ranger, who travels light, righting
wrongs in various intellectual areas (e.g. politics and psychology)
and never waiting around after his task is done. Or perhaps a
more appropriate simile is Einstein’s ‘philosophical police’

(Einstein, 1945).

Problems of current interest may be included from
time to time.

Candidates are not expected to show familiari ty wi th
philosophical techniques, but should show awareness of
the main lines of argument and some capacity for clear

A philosophy exam at Oxford last year included, rather
surprisingly, a question about structuralism.

It was “Is it
important to be able to answer the question
‘What is
Clearly, no knowledge of texts was required!

Surely, the philosophers ought to be able to tell the trainee
teachers something more interesting than this? The reason why
they don’t is that they believe that philosophy consists of
mysterious ‘philosophical techniques’ which are so exalted that
they could not expect their students even to ‘show familiarity
with’ them.

One reason for the wide appeal of the Oxford definition of
philosophy was that it seemed to offer a reason for the existence
of philosophy departments. Given the technocratic carve-up of
human knowledge by university administrators, in which the more
profitable parts of the sprawling philosophy industry had long
ago been hived off to other departments, the philosophers had
become university teachers in search of a subject. And they
wanted their subject to allow for cumulative~ piecemeal, detailed,
objectively assessable research and to be clearly defined, so as
not to overlap with studies pursued in other uniVersity departments.

Nevertheless, they do think that they can teach some
techniques of ‘clear thinking’.

It is in this spirit that
philosophy students are taught things like how to distinguish
causal or empirical from logical, descriptive from evaluative,
factual from emotive, analytic from synthetic and description
from explanation; and how to use phrases like ‘it follows that’,
‘one wants to say’, ‘it seems odd to say’, ‘in a sense’, ‘thesis’,
‘proposition’, ‘incoherence’, ‘cash-value’, ‘meaningless’, ‘the
question doesn’t arise’, and so on; and how to show that a thesis
is ‘either trivial or false’. Of course such skills have their
uses. But the effect of courses which simply aim,at equipping a
student with them is likely to be that he will acquire a glib
and superficial facility in argument. The student will leave
his philosophy course fully armed against all the ideas he is
ever likely to meet with. As Mark Pattison said, he “loses
reverence without acquiring inSight”.

The argument of this paper owes a lot to several members of
the Radical Philosophy Group, especially Tony Skillen.


These results of the university teacher’s feeling of
insecurity about his subject had parrallels in other humanities
departments. In English departments the idea of teaching an
aspect of cuI tural his tory was criticised from the point of view
of the idea of teaching abstract, second order, a-historical
technique of ‘criticism’.

And in history departments,especially
in association with Namier, a new emphasis was put on piecemeal
research. Namier dreamed of teams of historians working through
old documents just as the Oxford philosopher Austin dreamed of
teams of philosophers working through dictionaries.

The effect of the Oxford definition of philosophy wccs th;, t
philosophers started to write about curious second order subjects
like ‘The Language of Morals’, ‘The Concept of Mind’, ‘The
There was even
Language of Politics’ and ‘The Concept of Law’.

an advertisement the other day for a philosophical articie on
‘The Concept of Physical Education’. New subjects were invented
like ‘the philosophy of ::cci3.l ::cicnce’, ‘philosophl cal psychology’, and ‘meta-ethics’. The one area where this did not occur
was the theory of logic and meaning. This was a subject philosophers had always had to themselves. It is not surprising that
many of the best modern professional philosophers are working in
this area. Indeed, some- are barely distinguishable from members
of linguistic departments. But the ‘second order’ subjects which
professional philosophers have invented in other areas have been
disastrous. They have been deliberately cut off from historical,
sociological, psychological, anthropological and scientific ideas,
because such ideas are thought to belong to first order subjects
and therefore to have nothing to do with philosophy. But the
reasons philosophers gave for their intellectual isolationism
were very flimsy. A.R. White says his book on the mind is not a
work of psychology because:

Philosophy gives one no special competence to
und8rstand behaviour ••. Its task in this field is
not to explain behaviour, but to explain the kinds
of explanations we normally offer (130).

It is
important to distinguish clearly between an
examination of the meaning- of ‘ thOught ( and an
examination of the fea tur8S of thought.

In the
form el.’ , I·le are anal ysing a concept, in the la tter ,
a phenomenon.

The i’ormer is philosophy, the latter,
psychology (87). Freud’s discoveries and theories are
the concern of psychologists. (38)

this fear of ”’etaphysics as ‘the malady of contemporary philosophising’ (Einstein 1945). Part of the malady caused by
scientism was that it came to be assumed that all worthwhile
philosophical ideas should he expressible in short formulas.

; Hare’ –:ly~, in a perceptive and startlingly frank article:

Br’tish philosophers, by and large, will not be
bothcTPn with i1 philosophical thesis which is not
stated br~efly ana i” c)par Lerms ….. (Ha;e, 1960)

Hare 511ggests a quick way of dealing with



We hdve the greatest aversion to cutting ourselves
off from our base in ordinary speech; we have seen
what munstrous philosophical edifices have been
erected by slipping, surreptitiously, from the
ordinary uses of words to extraordinartl ‘.1ses which
are never explained; we spend most of our time
explaining our own uses of words to our ‘)upi1s; and
when we find ourselves in the position of pupil,
nothing pleases us so much as to sit back and have
a German metaphysician explain to us, i f he can, how
he is going to get his metanhysica1 system started.

And as he is usually unable to do this, the discussion
never gets on to what he thinks of as the meat of his

The trouble, as Hare observes, is that the German philospher
doesn’t understand what the English one is after.

What the Bri tish philosopher wanted was to cake just
one sentence that the German had uttered – say the
first sentence – or perhaps, for a start, just one
word in this sentence …..

These reasons evidently depend on the Oxford Jefini tion of
philosophy as a “second order study”. Bt:t the first order-second
order distinction si:nply won’t survive scrutiny. You cannot sort
out problems into two piles, questions aboll! cOTlCept5 and
question:> about things. A discussion of tht concept of moti·vativn, for example, cannot help being a study of motivation,
subject to criticism from the point of VIew of iacts about
motives. If there seems to be an element of truth in the Oxford
defini tion of philosophy, this is because philosophers typically
see things in a very abstract way; but this does not mean that
they are concerned wit;l concepts rather than actual objects.

And then, philosophers aren’t the only people vho approach
ttdngs if! an abstract way; so the Oxford definition _of phi losophy
c:anno-c really eXC-.1se or justify intellectual isolatioT,i:o;m.

This attitude dates back to the origins of analytical philosophy.

In 1900, Russe11 published a brilliant but unfair book on Leibniz
which began by reducing Leibniz’s philosophy to five propositions
and declaring them incompatible!

The trouble with this insistence on formulating ideas
hriefly and succinctly is that some philosophical ideas are too
complex, too unified, too subtle or perhaps too nebulous for
such expression.

Such philo_sophies have been treated with an
unyielding refusal to take them seriously, thinly disguised as
puzzled reasonableness. Perhaps Hegel has suffered worst of all.

In 1876, in the Preface to Ethical Studies, Rradlev said that
Oxford moral philosophy was out of date because it’had refused
to learn from Hegel. But nearly a hundred years later, analytical
philosophers still tend to accept Russell’s smug assurance that
‘almost all Hegel’s doctrines are false’ and that Hegelianism
was only instructive as a warning that ‘the worse your logic,
the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise’.

(Russell 1946, pp. 701 and 705).

To the extent that anything does fit the Oxford definition
of philosophy, it is the historical study of ideas. Weber’s
description of the links between the concept of salvation by
faith and concepts which constitute the ~pirit of capitalism
is clearly a conceptual study. And, coming closer to philosophy,
so is the work of classicists like Snell, Dodds and Adkins on
changing concepts of the self, rationality, merit and responsibility in Ancient Greece. But modern professional philosophers
have refused to regard such historical studies as part of
philosophy. They have deliberately eradicated any sense of
history from their subject.

IT_ particular, they hav0 lef:.:s 3d to recognise that the
concepts of morals and psychology are evolving historical
products. In his very influential concept of Mind, for instance,
Ryle dealt with an aberration in psychology which he called
‘the dogma of the ghost in the machine’. But Ryle did not
explain the important connections between the dogma and
religious ideas about the soul surviving bodily death, or the
Protestant emphasis on the inner life. Nor did he regard the
dogma as something which has been, and still is, emhodied in
ordinary concepts of mind.

He regarded our conceptual scheme
as something existing outside history, and so he represented the
dogma as a misinterpretation of our conceptual scheme, rather than
as a part of its historical development.

Such intellectual isolationism had no convincing theoretical

Was it any more than a rationalisation of the
comparatively recent institutional isolation of philosophers in
higher education?

Modern British academic philosophers see themselves as
working within a wider movement – analytical philosophy.

Analytical philosophy began about seventy years ago, and its
ideal of philosophy was Russell’s work in the theory of logic,
known as ‘Russell’s theory of descriptions’ (1905).

Analytical phi losophers have been unjust to Ni ttgenstein
too. In spite of the efforts of some commentators, lIittgenstein
cannot be fitted into the analytical tradition. For one thing
he was passionately opposed to scientism – this was the main
motivation of the Tractatus (1921). For another, the ideas
developed in his later works, especially On Certainty, concerning
the essentially historical and social nature of consciousness
and meaning are not only very similar to Hegelianism, but also
hard to formulate in the scientific idiom favoured bv analytical
phi losophers.


But Hegel and Wittgenstein are not the only ones to suffer,
Every great dead philosopher has been either domesticated or

The whole history of philosophy has been rewritten
to make it look as though analytical philosophy is its final
culmination. Hundreds of books and articles reproduce a
historiographical mythology which provides us with off the peg
refuta tions of si 11y dead foreign phi losophers. For instance,
tnere are the ~~tionalists, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, who
are represented as having been even in their own time relics of
a silly belief in the power of pure thought as opposed to
scientific inquiry. They are supposed to have thought that they
could discover particular facts by closing their eyes and
thinking; they are represented as intellectual frauds who tried
to practice a s:Jrt of scientific clairvoyance. But (according
to the myth) the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley and Hume)
were not to be deceived by such imposters.

As Russell says
Empiricism has made such a view impossible; we do not
think that even the utmost c1ari ty of our thoughts
would enable us to demonstrate the existence of Cape
(Russe11, 1948, p.172)

The distinctive feature of analytical philosophy is

Like thinkers in other fields, analytical philosophers were overawed by the rise of science, which they
mistakenly conceived as a unified movement, utterly different
from anything that went before and completely superseding
earlier attempts at intellectual inquiry.

Analytical philosophers have always had a great fear of being caught conducting
inquiries which belong to a bygone age of superstition and
metaphysics, rather than to a brave new world of science.

Albert Einstein himself criticised modern philosophy for

He claimed that in all Russell’s works ‘the spectre
of the metaphysical fear has done some damage’ and he described

Modern professional philosophers are part of the analytical
tradition; but they also helong to an older and less ::elf·
conscious tradition – the tradition of academic philosophy,
which in its present form, dates from about 1870. Its features
were brilliantly drawn by Mark Pattison in the first volume of

He said that ‘the present stagnation of philosophical
thought among us’ (in Oxford in 1876) was caused by ‘the regime
of examinational tyranny under which we are living’.


Of course, the exam system goes back further than 1870.

It was in 1822 that written papers were introduced for the
Oxford B.A
Kl’t the syst€’m did not bccome tlJ.e tyranny

Pattison describes until the 1850’s, when university degrees
became the essential qualification for the new meri tocracy.

Then, in Pattison’s words, Oxford became a ‘cramming shop’ and
a ‘desert of arid shop dons’.


This reminds one of Hare’s remark that British philosophers
‘will not be bothered with a philosophical thesis which is not
stated briefly and in clear terms’. Hare also says:

So on the whole we do not wri te long or difficul t books
•..• • We write books and articles only to fix a thesis
so that people will know exactly what they are discussing
..•.• The best thing to do is to be a brief and clear as
possible •..•• We do not think ita duty to wri te books;
still less do we think it a duty to read more than a few
books which others write …. . We find out which ‘essential
books’ are by each reading a very few and telling the
others about them.

Pattison was astonished by what candidates wrote in their
final examination papers:

I have never, in the capaci ty of examiner, anal ysed
the papers which are handed in in the examinationrooms as the results of these two years preparation,
without astonishment at the combination of schOlarship,
varied knowledge, command of topic, and scientific
vocabulary, which the candidates can bring to bear
upon the questions!

I have
a thrill of awe at
standing in the presence of such matured intellectual
development detected in young men scarcely out of their

The thought has inevitably beltn forced upon me:

if these minds are already arrived at this stage at
twenty-one, where will they be at forty ••••• they can
have nothing more to learn!

The resul t is tha t, if one wants a book to be read by
one’s colleagues, it will have to be short, clear and
to the point. They will especially like it if, besides
reading it themselves, they can give it to their undergraduate students to read, so the more practical and
down-‘to-ellrth it is the better. The best way to ‘get
one’s ideas discussed in Oxford (and this is the limi t
of the ambi tion of most of us) is to write a book whi ch
every student in the university will have to read; this.

means that every person teaching philosophy in the place
will have to discuss it several times a week with his
pupils ••• If one can writ€ that sort of book it will
be discussed, not only by the students, but by one’s
colleagues, who are the ablest collection of philosophers in the country; and that is fame. (114)

A nearer acquaintance, however, wi th the whole reBu1 t
of the system dispels the illusion. If from the papers
we turn to the minds from which all this clever wri ting
has emana ted, we shall find no trace of philosophical
culture in them.

The question, or thesis, is on a
philosophical subject, but the process by which the
question has been answered has not been a philosophical
action of the mind, but a purely literary or compositions1
process. (92-3).

One special pressure on Oxford as an institution is its role
in preparing an educated ruling class.

Hare recognises its

The tyranny of the examination system, could not fail to affect
the content of the teaching:

Most of my pupils are going to be, not professional
philosophers, but businessmen, poli ticians, schoolmasters, lawyers, journalists, civil servants, and
indeed almost anything but professional philosophers;
and a substantial number of these may be expected to
reach the highest ranks of their professions. So the
Oxford tutor, if he can teach his pupilll to think more
clearly and to the point, can have much more influence
on the life of the country in this way than he is
likely to achieve by writing books, unless the books
are outstandingly successful (108)

What the aspirant for honours requires is a repetiteur,
who knows ‘ the schools’, and who will look oVltr hili
essays for him, teaching him how to collect telling
language, and arrange it in a form adequate to the
expected question ••• Training, be it observed, not
intellectual discipline, not training in investigation,
, in research, in scientific procedure, but in the art of
producing a clever answer to a question on a subject of
which you have no real knowledge. (89)
The memory is charged with generalised formulas, with
expressions and solutions which are derived ready made
from the tutor ..•. The utmost that the student can
acquire from the system is that he .has learned to wri te
in the newest style of thought, and to manipulate the
~hrases of the latest popular treatise (93)

The exam system and the form which it imposes on teaching
mean that philosophy must not only be cut off from other subjects,
but must itself be carved up first into separate areas (such as
morals and psychology), and then subdivided into separate topics
for weekly essays and possible exam answers. Under the regime
of examina tianal tyranny, the standard exam questions became
the main problems of philosophy.

After nearly a century, academic philosophers have become
quite reconciled to having the content of their thinking determined by the forms which their institutions impose on it. Its
values – orderliness, brevity, objectivity, the exaltation of
intellectual technique – have become the values of academic
philosophy. Professor Hare says:

It is interesting to compare Hare’s interest in teaching
our top professionals to think clearly and to the point, with
what COllingwood says about the influence of an earlier
generation of Oxford philosophers – of which the chief representatives were Green and Bradley. The seriousness and comprehensiveness of these philosophers excited Collingwood’ s admiration.

But he said,
The real strength of the movement was outside Oxford.

The ‘Greats’ school was not meant as a training for
professional scholars and philosophers; it was meant
as a training for public life in the Church, at the Bar,
in the Civil Service, and in Parliament. The school of
Green sent out into public life a stream of ex-pupils
who carried wi th them the conviction that philosophy,
and in particular the philosophy they learnt at Oxford,
was an important thing, and that their vocation was
to put it into practice •••• (17)

But such a movement was bound to be stifled.


all our philosophy, the virtues which we seek are
c1ari ty, relevance, brevi ty ….

Philosophical arguments, conducted in the way that I
have described, have the same sort of objectivity that
chess games have. If you are beaten at chess you are
beaten, and it is not to be concealed by any show of
words; and in a phi10~ophica1 discussion of this sort,
provided that an unambiguously stated thesis is put
forward, oHjective refutation is possible. Indeed,
the whole object of our philosophical training i. to
teach us to put our theses in a form in which they can
be subjected to this test.

br; the old academic tradi tion, labouring to eradicate

what it had always regarded as a growth foreign to its
own nature. The old stock was shooting up from below
the graft, the scion was dying back, and the tree
reverting to its old state (17)

In higher education in Britain today these forces are
stronger than ever. Philosophy is an academic profession rather
than an intellectual tradition. And the isolated opponents of
academic philosophy, though numerous, are dwarfed by the
institutions they face. Unless we organise ourselves, philosophy
will remain a mere formality.

This is exactly what Pattison foresaw a hundred years ago.

Such being the general condi tions under which teaching
here is carried on, it is easy to see what must become
of philosophy. For speculative effort, there is no
place in such a system. For an original thinker to stand
forward to expound a philosophy, to demand of his
followers habi ts of medi ta ti ve thought, to rouse the
spirit of inquiry, to offer a connected scheme of life
and mind, or a synthesis of the sciences, would be
impossible. He would lecture to the walls.

Henry Sidgwick made the same pOint in his article on Philosophy
at Cambridge in the same volume of Mind.

In the Cambridge of 1876 it wuld 1» dJ.ffJ.oult for
Aristotle himself to obtaJ.n a 5erJ.ou. audJ.ance of
undergraduates, unless hJ.s teaohing . . . under.tood
to ‘pay’ in some Tripo..


1. F.H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, (1876)
2. R.G. COllingwood, Autobiograph.z.(1939)
3. A1bert Einstein, ‘Russell’s Theory of Knowledge’, in
Bertrand Russell ed. P.A. Schilpp (1945).

4. R.M. Hare, ‘A School for Philosophers’, Ratio (1960)
5. Alasdair Maclntyre, Marcuse (1970)
-6. Mark Pattison, ‘Philosophy at Oxford, Mind, Vol. I (1876)
7. Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of LeIbriTz (1900)
History of Western Philosophy (1946)
Human Knowledge (1948)
8. G, Ryl e, The Concept of Mind (1949)
9. Henry Sidgwick, ‘Philosophy at Cambridge’, Mind, Vol. 1,
10. A.R. White, The Philosophy of Mind, (1967)

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