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