Jeeves, Smarties and arch aliens

From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein
July 17, 1998

Mary Warnock reviews an idiosyncratic work on Wittgenstein, Wodehouse and 'the alien' Derrida.

It was tempting to start with the two Ws who form the subject matter of the last two essays in Anthony Quinton's new collection, and who, a bit misleadingly, provide its title. But I resisted temptation and virtuously started at the beginning and read through systematically. This is not always the best way to read an assemblage of articles and lectures, spanning more than a decade (early 1980s to early 1990s, though with some undated items not previously published), since there is bound to be a certain amount of repetition. Yet it is a good way to get at the style and the idiosyncratic voice of the author. The book is divided into four sections. Only the last two essays are concerned with individuals rather than with issues.

The collection starts with an essay of vast generality on the connections between three religions, those of China, India and the West and the science developed in their orbit. It is an interesting thought but there is an air, inevitably, of literally encyclopaedic research which makes it quite heavy going. The best essay in this first section is entitled "Character and will in modern ethics", a lecture delivered in 1983. Here an old-fashioned idea of will and character is explored - the idea that the main purpose of education is to develop character and the related encouragement of strength of will to resist temptation and to pursue goals courageously. Quinton argues that the reintroduction of such terms, with such meanings, is not only useful but essential and that it fills a conspicuous gap in the current ethical vocabulary, and hence in the concept of ethics itself. I found his argument entirely convincing. Moreover he himself emerges in this essay as someone of practical good sense: energetic, active and determined, possessed, that is, of both character and will. He also appears as someone of wholly characteristic wit. Noting, for example, Hume's observation that the moral virtues are those that are "agreeable or useful", he adds "the properties, we might feel, more of an ideal weekend guest than of a collaborator in some risky and ambitious undertaking"; and, speaking of the decline of religion, as constituting one factor in the emergence of what he refers to as the "characterless self", he modifies the word "decline", adding "or at least its transformation into radical agitation in the interest of various species of underdog". This is the authentic Quinton voice.

The sections of the book are not divided according to any particularly perspicuous criterion. But this does not matter; it perhaps adds to the interest not quite to know what sort of thing you are going to get next. The second section contains a number of essays that apply a generally philosophical and analytic method to educational issues. But it also contains a fierce attack on the irrationality of Continental, and especially French philosophy, pleasingly entitled "Alien intelligences". Jacques Derrida features here as the arch-alien. The essay as a whole is very much to my taste, but it will doubtless enrage true believers and disciples, of whom there are many, especially in Cambridge.

Next, there follows some worthwhile consideration of certain broadly historical, sociological and political topics, imperialism, madness, homosexuality and property are all treated sensibly, openly and dispassionately. The last, never previously published, is an exercise in political philosophy at its best, thoroughly set in the history of ideas, and combining analysis with common sense. I would like to see this essay expanded, to be longer-winded on controversial issues such as intellectual property rights, rights over discarded body-parts such as the placenta or the spleen, and the ethical status of patenting bits of DNA. But it forms an excellent foundation to the investigation of such modern perplexities.

And so we come to the eponymous heroes, P. G. Wodehouse and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the essays forming parts of a section broadly devoted to the life of the imagination and culture. Soon after our wedding, my husband Geoffrey and I privately divided our philosophical colleagues into those who knew what Smarties were and those who did not. The true intellectuals, Berlin, Hampshire, Hart, were much admired but slightly alarming figures: the notion of a Smartie was foreign to them. The others were less cerebral, though no less clever.

Conversation with them could be more unguarded. Anthony Quinton was pre-eminent in the second category. There was, and is, a down-to-earth quality in his conversation, and his wit consists partly in the integration of lowly examples or analogies into abstract or theoretical discussion. He is an endlessly amusing conversationalist, often apparently effortlessly so. It is perhaps because what makes him funny is so closely akin to what makes Wodehouse funny that he seems to me to have missed the essence of Wodehouse in his essay. He fails to notice, or to notice enough, what lurks so much in his own head and lies so close to the tip of his own tongue. The comic elements in the structure of the Wodehouse stories may be as he says they are. The sociological and historical background may be as he suggests and his summing up may be fair, that there is a distinctive and consistent moral outlook behind Wodehouse's writing, and that, while much humour depends on making men look like fools, "a special excellence of Wodehouse is that ... he makes fools and knaves look like men". This certainly fits with the genial sympathy he extends, and causes his readers to extend, even to the apparently most foolish and most cruelly dogged by disaster. Yet such analyses, however just, seem to leave on one side the linguistic brilliance, the exuberance of simile and the conjunction of the high-flown with the earth-bound which form the essence of Wodehouse and which constitute his capacity to reduce even blase adolescents to helpless laughter. Consider the following, from The Clicking of Cuthbert: "There is about great friendships between man and man (said the Oldest Member) a certain inevitability that can only be compared to the age-long association between ham and eggs. No one can say when it was that these two wholesome and palatable foodstuffs first came together, nor what was the mutual magnetism that brought their deathless partnership about. One simply feels that it is one of the things that must be so. Similarly with man. Who can trace to its first beginnings the love of Damon for Pythias, or David for Jonathan?... who can explain what it was about Crosse that first attracted Blackwell? We simply say 'these men are friends'."

Quinton, of course, allows that Wodehouse writes well (though very properly rejecting some extravagant claims made for him as a literary figure). But there are a thousand different way of writing well, and I doubt whether this essay would give some who had not read Wodehouse any idea of what to expect. Quinton is, I suspect, just too familiar with this kind of funniness to call attention to it, or give it a central place in his discussion.

Wittgenstein was not a philosopher to know what a Smartie was. Even his well-known preference for westerns in the cinema seems like a deliberately adopted pose, a chosen aberration from his otherwise relentless high-mindedness. In 1982, when the last essay in the present book appeared, it was certainly time to demystify Wittgenstein and to try to assign him an ordinary place in the history of philosophy. Yet this essay, like the one before, seems somehow to slide past the centre, concentrating too much on the periphery. Quinton starts with the assertion that most English-speaking philosophers would agree in designating Wittgenstein the most influential and the greatest philosopher of the century, and he sets out to dispute both of these claims. He devotes 12 pages to the argument that Wittgenstein did not greatly influence the Vienna Circle, the originators of logical positivism in the first half of the century. There are certainly vast differences between the science-oriented doctrines of the logical positivists and the theory of meaning (the picture theory) central to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is known that the members of the Vienna Circle read the Tractatus and discussed it at their meetings, at some of which Wittgenstein was present. But this is not to say that they were deeply influenced by it. Quinton argues convincingly that the similarities between the early work of Wittgenstein and logical positivism are superficial. Even when both said that metaphysics was nonsense, they meant different things.

But for English-speaking philosophers of my generation, and of Quinton's, a possibly more interesting question is that of the relationship between Wittgenstein's later, roughly linguistic philosophy and philosophy as practised in Oxford in the mid-1940s and 1950s, a style of philosophy that temporarily dominated the English-speaking world. Quinton devotes a mere five pages to answering this question. He sees the strong influence of Wittgenstein on Gilbert Ryle's book, The Concept of Mind, published in 1949, and this is, I suppose, undeniable, though I now suspect that both Ryle and Wittgenstein were partly influenced by Husserl, whom Ryle had certainly, and Wittgenstein probably, read. At any rate, Ryle and Wittgenstein were both determined to destroy the Cartesian separation of the inner from the outer, the mind from the expression of the mind in doing and talking. And this constituted a genuine revolution in philosophy.

We, as undergraduates after the war, felt the brooding, quasi-messianic presence of Wittgenstein, who was uneasily back in Cambridge at the time. We had little access to what he was actually doing philosophically, except through the typed pages of The Green Book and The Brown Book (though these were not handed round among undergraduates as far as I know, only among some of the tutors). Though Ryle went occasionally to Cambridge, to hear Wittgenstein speak, they were not longer in close touch. The Wittgenstein style and his personal domination of his disciples depressed and appalled Ryle, as he later wrote.

The main link between Oxford and Cambridge philosophy at this time was in the person of Elizabeth Anscombe, who, though based in Oxford, went to Cambridge once a week to Wittgenstein's classes, and who was beginning to work on the translation of Philosophical Investigations. The intriguing question is whether J. L. Austin, who, as Quinton puts it, was "the most exquisite practitioner" of Oxford philosophy and its undoubted intellectual leader, was really totally independent of Wittgenstein, as Quinton holds. I believe that he was, though, as it turned out when Philosophical Investigations was published in 1968 (Austin and Wittgenstein both by now having died), they held many things in common. For example, both believed that one must get away from the idea that there is such a thing as the meaning of a word: one must look rather at how a word is used and what it is, or could be used for. But of course there were enormous differences, not least stylistic, in every sense of the word. I would have liked more about this. After all, the personal animosity of Elizabeth Anscombe towards Oxford philosophy in general, and towards Austin in particular, needs to be explained. Did she think he was stealing Wittgenstein's ideas, or, unforgivably, thinking some of the same thoughts for himself? As an undergraduate, I recorded in my diary one day that as I left a class of Austin's with her, she said "And to think that that **** is a bastard of Wittgenstein". What precisely did she mean? I should love to know, and Quinton throws no light.

Baroness Warnock is a life fellow, Girton College, Cambridge.

From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein

Author - Anthony Quinton
ISBN - 1 85754 33
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 360

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