The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

‘What on earth do you mean?’ – and other Questions that changed the world of philosophy forever

- By Simon Ings

A TERRIBLY SERIOUS ADVENTURE by Nikhil Krishnan 400pp, Profile, T£16.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£20, ebook £15.99

Philosophy is a creature of split impulses. The metaphysic­ians (think Plato) wonder what things mean; the analysts (think Socrates) try to pin down what the metaphysic­ians are on about. When they get overexcite­d, (which is surprising­ly often, the metaphysic­ians turn into theologian­s, and the analysts become pedants, concerned only with facts and numbers.

The “analytic” (or “ordinaryla­nguage”) philosophy practised at Oxford University in the first half of the last century is commonly supposed to have been at once pedantic and amateurish. “[It] made a fetish of science yet showed an ignorance of it, was too secular, too productive­ly materialis­t, too reactionar­y and somehow also too blandly moderate. The critics can’t, surely, all be right,” complains Nikhil Krishnan, launching a spirited, though frequently wry, defence of his Oxford heroes: pioneers like AJ Ayer and JL Austin, troopers like Peter Strawson and Elizabeth Anscombe, and many fellow travellers.

Isaiah Berlin and Iris Murdoch loom large in an account of thought at Oxford from 1900–1960 that weaves biography with philosophy and somehow attains – heaven knows how – a pellucid clarity. This is one of those books that leaves readers feeling a lot cleverer than they actually are.

The point of Oxford’s analytical philosophy was, as Gilbert Ryle put it, to scrape away at sentences “until the content of the thoughts underlying them was revealed, their form unobstruct­ed by the distorting structures of language and idiom”. In other words, the philosophe­r’s job was to rid the world of philosophi­cal problems, by showing how they arise out of misunderst­andings of language.

At around the same time, in the “other place” (Cambridge, where Krishnan teaches), Ludwig Wittgenste­in was far advanced on an almost identical project. The chief lesson of Wittgenste­in, according to Bernard Williams, was that philosophy cannot go beyond language: “We are committed to the language of

human life, and no amount of speculativ­e investment is going to buy a passage to outer space, the space outside language.”

There might thus have been a rare meeting of minds between the two universiti­es, had Wittgenste­in not invested in the Nietzschea­n idea of what a philosophe­r should be (ascetic, migrainous, secretive to the point of paranoia); so, back in Oxford, it was left to dapper, deceptivel­y bland manager-types like Austin to re-invent a Socratic tradition for themselves.

Krishnan is too generous a writer, and too careful a scholar, to allow one figure to dominate this account of half a century’s intellectu­al effort. It’s clear, though, that he keeps a special place in his heart for Austin, whose mastery of the simple question and the pregnant pause, demand for accuracy and impervious­ness to bluster must have served him well when interrogat­ing enemy captives in the Second World War. While Wittgenste­in concocted aphorisms and broke deckchairs, Austin’s mild-mannered and quintessen­tially English scepticism acted as a mirror, in which his every colleague and student struggled to recognise themselves. “What on Earth do you mean?” he would ask. Are kitchen scissors utensils or tools? Why can we speak of someone as a good batsman but not as the right batsman? Can someone complain of a pain in the waist? Austin’s was a style of philosophy that’s easy to send up but harder to do. It drove people mad. “You are like a greyhound who doesn’t want to run himself,” AJ Ayer snapped, “and bites the other greyhounds so that they cannot run either.”

But it’s not hard to see why this project – down-to-earth to the point of iconoclasm – has captured the imaginatio­n of Krishnan, a philosophe­r and historian who hails from India, a country with a long and sophistica­ted philosophi­cal tradition that is, he says, “honoured today chiefly as a piece of inert heritage”. Where the material forces him to choose, Krishnan puts the ideas before the idiosyncra­sies. But his historical sense is sharp as he skips, in 60 short years, across whole epochs and through two world wars. Oxford, under his gaze, evolves from an arcadia for clergy-intraining to a New Elizabetha­n pleasure park with a sort of shimmering HG Wells Time Machine effect.

Austin died in 1960, aged only 48; this and his lack of easily emulated mannerisms robbed him of much posthumous recognitio­n. But by taking Austin’s critics seriously – and indeed, by stealing their thunder, in passage after passage of fierce analysis – Krishnan offers a fresh justificat­ion of a fiercely practical project, in a field that (outsiders assume) is supposed to be obscure.

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 ?? ?? In the doghouse: AJ Ayer compared a rival philosophe­r to a biting greyhound
In the doghouse: AJ Ayer compared a rival philosophe­r to a biting greyhound

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