Balliol College, Oxford

A love letter to hard-won wisdom

They paid the bills through the tutorials that trained the next generation


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the start of my second year studying PP (I had by then blessedly dropped the E) at Oxford, I remember a bright-eyed fresher approaching my philosophy tutor (a man by the name of Bob Hargrave) in the bar. Having successfully identified A Philosopher, the new student eagerly asked: “What is the most profound existential question you can ask yourself?” 

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900-60, Nikhil Krishnan (Profile Books, £20)

Taking a drag on his cigarette before flicking the ash into the already-full tray, Bob looked across the table and replied: “Well, I’m 58 and my health is on the wane, and so I have to ask myself: have I already had my last sexual experience?” The poor, shocked fresher soon fled. This was not what he had expected from A Philosopher. As he would learn over the coming years, perhaps he should have.

A formative intellectual influence, who became a friend until he drank and smoked himself into an early grave, Bob had torched his own academic career some years previously. A gruff charismatic Yorkshireman, he cracked under the pressure of early promise as a Seriously Sharp Young Thing, never completing his PhD (or DPhil as Oxonians still insist on calling it). 

As trends changed and other Sharp Young Things built their careers more successfully, Oxford philosophy left him behind. By the time I knew him, he was just about holding together a subsistence living doing tutorial teaching for Balliol College, supplemented with seasonal bricklaying in the summer. 

At that level, Bob shared nothing in common with the genteel, middle-class, academically prodigious and hugely successful characters that populate Nikhil Krishnan’s book. Nonetheless, he was their heir. The thing I learnt from Bob — analytic philosophy — did not, after all, come from nowhere. 

Like everything else, it has a history. Krishnan (who was studying around the corner at Exeter College around the time I was at Balliol) went through the same formative intellectual process that I did. 

That is, he was trapped in a room for an hour or more, with an older person (usually a man) who knew vastly more than you did, and was also vastly cleverer, and was going to spend rather a lot of time getting you to see how stupid you were.

Bob Hargrave

That may be putting it a bit bluntly, but it is often how it felt. Just ask those (often, but by no means exclusively, women) who were reduced to barely suppressed sobs by the end of a particularly rough “tute”. Yet the process was not intended to be sadistic, or cruel; it was intended to forge. In one of my very first logic tutorials, a brilliant young Indian student demanded to know of Bob: “What about T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland? It’s incomprehensible, but it’s beautiful!”

The instantaneous reply came: “If it’s incomprehensible, how do you know it’s beautiful?” This was the point: to get clear, to not waffle, to say what you mean, to get it right. I today try to teach my own students the same skills (though always, I hope, without the sobs).

Oxford philosophy is by no means the only locale for the “analytic” approach that Krishnan, in a phrase borrowed from Bernard Williams, describes as “the clinically literal-minded”. Cambridge has long been just as firm a bastion, and there are impregnable American outposts, too (Princeton, Harvard). 

The slice of the story Krishnan tells (rivetingly, and in what prose!) centres on the developments at Oxford from 1900-1960, which he presents as a sort of “second wave” of the analytic movement: after the technical exertions of Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein; before the technically ambitious and thoroughly professionalised form that dominates the academy today. 

It was instead a phase that privileged “ordinary language” and tried to take seriously the possibility that one could dissolve many of the apparent problems of philosophy by paying careful attention to words: what precisely they mean, and how they are used.

Due to the fateful instantiation of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree in the 1920s, Oxford Philosophy exploded because what it offered was jobs. Cambridge kept its faculty small even after “Moral Sciences” became “Philosophy”; Oxford did not. Along the way many brilliant minds were retained: Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, Iris Murdoch, Isaiah Berlin, J.L Austin, R.M. Hare, Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Strawson, Phillipa Foot, Bernard Williams. 

Much of what passes for philosophy is little better than well-remunerated sudoku

They paid the bills through the tutorials that trained the next generation. In their own time they made giant leaps in the understanding of philosophical problems across the gamut of the field: from what it means to be morally good, to whether language can ever describe an independent reality, to what it is to have (and know that one has) a mind.

This may cause consternation. Analytic philosophy is often held by detractors to be little more than intellectual masturbation: a sort of hyper-pedantry that destroys the worth of asking the questions it claims to answer, obliterating by design any mystery, depth, insight. The charge is not always mistaken. Much of what passes for philosophy in the academy today is little better than a form of high-status, well-remunerated sudoku — but Krishnan shows that it doesn’t have to be that way. (To use the local idiom: that is a contingent rather than a necessary feature.) 

The greatest exponents of analytic philosophy — some of whom are the subject of this book — meditated profoundly on this, our human condition. They just did it without the bullshit. In doing so, Krishnan suggests, they can trace their genealogy all the way back to Socrates, when he first sat down in an Athenian marketplace and began corrupting the youth with his endless questions.

What Krishnan has really given us, therefore, isn’t a history (or at least, isn’t only a history). It is a love letter, written by someone who knows what it means to fall in love with philosophy. This often first means falling in love with a teacher. It is the kind of love that the Greeks called “philia”, and about which Socrates knew a thing or two. It turns out the clue was in the name, all along.

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