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Reports from Cambridge, Oxford, London Conference, LSE, Dundee

Opening Moves
This term has seen, hopefully, the beginnings of a new
era in Cambridge philosophy. The event which sparked off this
new beginning was the sit-in of February 3rd to 5th, when
university premises were occupied in protest against the
university’s handling of the proposals for exam reform put
forward by the Economics faculty. This mass action by the
students, and its continuation in the form of other political
activities throughout the term, was crucial to specific developments in the faculty of Philosophy. It introduced a new critical
awareness into students’ minds, and, above all, led individual
students to the realisation that their own dissatisfactions were
shared by many others. ‘Solidarity’ may be a rather over-used
term, but it is certain that without the solidarity generated
by mass action in the past weeks, the determination and confidence
required to initiate change in the philosophy faculty would not
have been possible.

Following the sit-in, groups of students and research
students who had taken part called an open meeting of the philOsophy faculty in order to discuss course content and exam structure. About SO people turned up (nearly half the faculty), many
of whom joined groups formed to work on proposals for exam reform
and alternative seminars. At a second open meeting, these
proposals were debated by over forty people, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the suggested changes in exam structure.

These were:


Changes in assessment: A student can elect for any part of
the Tripos either to sit a series of exams or to submit a portfolio containing a selection of his year’s work. There will be
no restriction on the form or content of the portfolio. The
suggested lengths would be: Part lA, 10,000 – 15,000 words; lB,
12,500 – 20,000 words; Part 11, 15,000 – 25,000 words.


Classing:Classing would be abolished in all parts of the
Tripos and be replaced by a pass-fail system. The Part 11
examiners will produce a written report on the examination or
portfolio, to be made available at the request of the student.

A date for the first alternative seminar was also agreed at this
meeting, and for this seminar, Ian McFetridge and John Paley
produced “Theseson Philosophy” which initiated intense and lively

It was during this period that the first issue of Radical
Philosophy appeared. Besides the articles it contained, the very
fact of its existence made it a timely arrival. It was decided
to make contact with the Radical Philosophy Group, and to organise
a one-day philosophy festival at the end of term as a way of
consolidating our gains at both pOlitical and theoretical levels:

theoretically, by encouraging more people to think about, and
discuss, areas untouched by analytic philosophy, and politically,
by a show of strength, a demonstration of dissatisfaction with
the academic subject and of determination to go beyond it.

Before discussing the successes and failures of the term,
and the lessons to be learned from our experiences, it is
interesting to note the reactions of the Faculty Board both to
the demands for reform and to radical philosophy in general.

The Williams Gambit (Accepted)
The exam reform proposals went through the staff-student
committee (a token body of ill-defined status) to the Faculty
Board, which then reported back to the committee. Apparently,
the Chairman would like to be able to do away with assessment
altogether; but, given the practical difficulties, the extra
work, the responsibility of the Board not only to define the
subject through examination sanctions but also to provide
objective standards of assessment, and, finally, the exhaustion
of faculty members after a recent round of reforms (including
an extra paper and the re-naming of Prelims. as ‘Part lA’, it
was felt that the proposals were unacceptable. This reply is to
be put to a further open meeting of students at the beginning
of the Summer term.

Meanwhile, Professor Williams devoted his final lecture of
the term to a discussion of Radical Philosophy. Over 100 people ~

turned up (approximately 80 more than had attended his previous
lecture), and it was hoped that a forum would be provided in
which the themes of the sterility of analytic philosophy and the
possibility of a radical new start could be taken up. This was
evidently too naive a hope: nothing of the kind emerged – and
for two reasons. The first was that Professor Williams introduced
the discussion with some preliminary remarks that so confused the
issues as to make it extremely difficult for the left to state
their position adequately, within the terms of reference laid

The second was the failure of the left to see that this
is what had happened, so that they only managed to get bogged
down in a discussion the limits of which had already been set.

As this kind of limitation is quite liable to be repeated at
other universities, it is worth looking more closely at Professor
Williams’ strategy, how it camouflaged and distorted the tenets
of radical philosophy.

Professor Williams began by saying that as far as he could
see there were two possible motives behind the radical assault.

One was dissatisfaction with the present state of academic
philosophy, and the other scepticism about academic thought
in general. Having divorced himself from Oxford generally and
Hare in particular, he dropped the first possibility and concentrated on the second, making an attempt to define a class of
people not interested in academic thought at at all, but in
favour of “Life as against Theory”. By use of this strange and
unjustified model, he managed to transform the radical demand for
academic studies which will enable us to understand our social
situation, and to see our thought in terms of it, into the
bourgeois liberal and romantic plea for less academics and more
self-understanding. While he was all for self-understanding,
and for philosophy leading to self-understanding, he could not
see how thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who, he
claimed, placed themselves so positively on one side of the
dichotomy between “Life and Theory”, could be institutionalised;
and he found it ironic that those who were so much in favour of
“Life” wanted to study that most academic and theoretical of ‘

philosophers, Hegel. And so it went on. It may be useful to
know that this strategy has been adopted; for it may be again.

The first thing to say is that the term was a success:

demands for exam reform had wide backing, response to the
alternative seminars was encouraging, and the philosophy
festival attracted well over 100 people for a whole day of
philosophy. The rejuvenation of philosophy in Cambridge
depended on two things: first, mass action in the university,
creating a context in which could grow both the realisation
of the need for change and a determination to bring it about;
second, the presence of a few people who could immediately
articulate, or try to articulate, theoretical discontent and
begin to make suggestions about alternatives to the non-philosophy
practised in Cambridge. The second need was met, to some extent,
by a group of research students who had been meeting for about
three years in an attempt gradually to find an intellectual
route out of analytic philosophy into a more fertile area beyond
it. The appearance of Radical Philosophy, at just the right
time, also helped to disseminate ideas similar to those that
this group had been formulating.

Considerable problems remain, however. One is that almost
all the work so far has been produced by the one group of
research students. There would be grave dangers in allowing
this to continue: we do not want simply to reduplicate existing
teaching structures, a minority talking while the rest just
listen and make notes. One possible way of avoiding this
situation is to take, as the focal point of seminars, not
individual papers but a common text. In this way, we could all
learn together, and perhaps, undermine the Faculty conviction
that a precondition of assimilating certain ideas and authors
into the course is having someone who knows enough about them to
be able to give lectures.

Even so, it is difficult to see how activities such as
these can take place on anything but a small scale within the
current tripos-determined arrangements. Which leads to the
other major problem: the Faculty Board. Mass action of the
sit-in variety is a useful weapon for raising consciousness
and ensuring change, but it has to be used as an exception
rather than the rule. In our present situation, a series of
sit-ins would simply end with no students participating in
them. Do we, therefore, adopt a reformist perspective, always
remembering what we ultimately want, but fighting, in the
meantime for piecemeal changes? Questions such as these will
hopefully find a response within the pages of Radical Philosophy.


Our aim in the Oxford Radical Philosophy Group is to create
a focus for an academic liberation movement for philosophers
at Oxford. For a start, we want to draw attenion to the
facts that, even if Oxford was a wonderful place for philosophy
twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t now, and that the Oxford
faculty, though the largest in Britain (it has about seventy
members) has narrower interests and competence than many very
small departments elsewhere. The complacency of many members
of the faculty can be very provocative; but we try to put our
message across without self-rightous rancour.

250 people from all over Britain attended a fairly successful conference. The first session, with all present, centred on
a talk by Peter Binns from Warwick University. Drawing on Gramsci,
he stressed the primacy of radical political activity in defining
a philosophy as radical (See T.H.E.S. 5.5.72). Predictably with
so little prior contact the discussion was hesitant. Most of
those who spoke agreed that practice was central, but questioned
Binns’ apparent relegation of ideas to a passive and secondary
role, making practical involvement appear an arbitrary “existential
commitment”. Peter Binns rejected this interpretation but there
wasn’t time to sort the issues out.

But we have problems. While we want to base ourselves on
broad student support, the students themselves – at least
those who still think that ‘philosophy’ is the name of a
worthwhile subject – tend not to be very radical. Many of
them are dominated not only by the ruling ideas about
philosophy (they have hypercritical philosophy tutors in
their heads), but also by the social and political context
in which philosophical ideas are peddled in Oxfoyd. So many
s:ude~ts, even those who count themselves among our supporters,
fInd It hard to understand what the group is really trying to
do. For example, they tend to think that we just want more
political philosophy of a Marxish kind. So it is no surprise
that most of our forty or so members are graduate students,
and that most of these did their first degrees outside Oxford.

Raymond Williams spoke on “Base and Superstructure”
examining the “crippling” consequencies on Marxist cultural and
literary criticism of a rigidly understood base/superstructure,
reality/reflection picture of society. Williams spoke of the
attempts of Lukacs, Goldmann and Althuseer to break in
~ifferent ways, from this picture, but argued that ~o adequate
cultural theory had been developed. He emphasised the need to
see some cultural production as among the “basic productive
forces” of social life and for a perspective which could distinguish such production from that which was but understood in
terms of “ideological reflection”. The brief discussion focused
on the importance or otherwise of trying to develop Harxist
theory in this area or of regarding it as needing to be broken
from. Needless to say this issue was not resolved.

This is sad; but still we have had considerable successes.

We have expanded our twofold programme. The small discussion
groups (which now cover Phenomenology, Social Sciences,
Language, Psychology, Wittgenstein, and Practical Ethics)
apart from their obvious educational value, have also helped
some of the many people studying philosophy a~ Oxford who
would otherwise have no way of meeting people with common
interests. And at our open meetings – one of which attracted
over two hundred people – we had some excellent talks by
radical philosophers from outside Oxfurd.

Alan Morrison, a philosophy lecturer involved in the antiinternment movement, then spoke on Ireland. He emphasised the
role of the Orange Order in solidifying an ideological Protestant
bloc, and the consequent difficulty of developing a class movement against British Imperialism and Irish Capitalism.

stressed, however, that if sectarianism was a menace to the left
it also impeded the process of capitalist rationalization, a

process which could demand the unification of Ireland and the
suppression of both the I.R.A. and the Protestant “Vanguardists”.

Meanwhile, several of our members have submitted proposals
for changing that pillar of the establishment of academic
philosophy, the Oxford B.Phil in Philosophy. The proposals
are (a) that there should be courses or at least informal
discussion groups where people working on similar topics
would have the opportunity of meeting regularly, and (b) that
candidates should have the option of being assessed on the
basjs of extended essays rather than of three hour papers.

These proposals are currently receiving serious discussion.

Most of the week-end was occupied in 2-hour “workshops”,
25 seminar groups in all meeting on Saturday afternoon and on
Sunday morning and afternoon. These groups, running in different
ways (some with an initial paper, some without) discussed a very
wide range of issues, focussing both on criticism of existing
“courses” and on developing alternative perspectives. Many
people found the experience of discussion outside the academic
straight jacket very liberating. (This sense of liberation was
helped by a very good party on Saturday night).

But in spite of these successes, the Oxford R.P.G. is coming
to be regarded by the establishment as a harmless, or even as
a rather welcome, new element in Oxford academic life, rather
than as a challenge to it. This coming summer term we will
hold an open meeting ~o see if we can collect real support
for a move to make the group more effective as a base for
philosophers’ liberation.

A final session discussed general questions of organization.

Some anxiety was expressed about the relatively small number of
people who seemed to be “running things”, but most seemed to
think this inevitable at the initial stage, and that the need now
was to develop democratic ways of working. In particular rotation
of editorship of the Radical Philosophy Journal, circulation of
duplicated material, and the formation of active local groups,
were stressed. It was argued that a relatively well produced
magazine was a valuable medium of “confrontation” but that it
would become a mere spectacle if there wasn’t consistent work
independently of this.

Marx footnote on Bentham:

“But this prejudice was first established as a dogma
by the archphilistine, Jeremy Bentham, that insipid,
pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary
bourgeois intelligence of the nineteenth century.

Bentham is among philosophers what Martin Tupper is
among poets.

“Bentham is a purely English phenomenon. Not even
excepting our philosopher, Christian Wolf, in no time
and in no country has the most homespun commonplace
ever strutted about in so ~elf-satisfied a way. The
principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He
simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvetius and
other Frenchmen had said with esprit in the eighteenth
century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must
study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be
deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this
to man, he that would criticize all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility,
must first deal with human nature in general, and then
with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.

Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naivete
he takes the modest shopkeeper, especially the English ‘

shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to
this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely
useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past,
present and future. The Christian religion, e.g., is
‘useful’, because it forbids in the name of religion
the same faults that the penal code condemns in the
name of law. Artistic criticism is ‘harmful’, because
it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin
Tupper, etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow,
with his motto, ‘nulla dies sine linea’, piled up
mountains of books. Had I the courage of my friend,
Heinrich Heine, I should call Mr. Jeremy Bentham a
genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.”

Where is Hare?

” … military training should (and in all civilized
armies does) include instruction in the laws and usages

It looks as if the failure adequately to do
thIS, and not any particular massacres and atrocities
ought to be the main target of critics of the United ‘

~tates Army in the present war (though it must be said
In fairness that wars against guerillas present peculiarly
difficult problems).”
(Hare, Philosophy


& Public


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