Style by numbers

Philosophy - The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy - The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
October 13, 1995

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of dons led by Gilbert Ryle established Oxford University as the world headquarters for a new kind of work in philosophy. It drew its inspiration from Wittgenstein, whose death in 1951 enabled them to use his name without fear of authoritative correction. As Wittgensteinians, they were committed to a paradoxical gospel - a kind of revolutionary defeatism, aimed not at vindicating philosophy as a superior form of knowledge, but at undermining the supposition that it had anything positive or particular to say. Their "linguistic" philosophy, as they liked to call it, was a kind of intellectual pest control: it would exterminate the gnawing anxieties associated with old-fashioned "metaphysics," showing that they originated not in profound, intractable or unstable features of reality, but merely in misunderstandings of how we represent the world to ourselves in language.

Sociologically speaking, Oxford philosophy is commonly seen as an aspect of the professionalisation of the universities. Philosophy was to be deglamourised - withdrawn from general cultural circulation and restricted to those who made a career of it. But the outcome was not quite what a sociologist would expect: the Oxford philosophers could not bring themselves to believe in the kind of intellectual progress that the rhetoric of modern academic research requires. They did not, on the whole, pretend to be cultivating a specific field of knowledge, in which teams of professional inquirers could progress steadily from one discovery to the next. It was as if they were making a profession out of amateurism. Like Socrates, they would teach by discipleship, not doctrine - cultivating strict linguistic propriety in themselves, and hoping to pass on their good habits by example.

Recruits to the celebrated Oxford BPhil in philosophy were personally vetted by Ryle. One new student, arriving in 1952, remembers being immediately asked if he would be prepared to teach abroad. "I felt like a trainee missionary," he recalls. But during the 1950s and 1960s, the gospel was spread throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, and the United States as well, by made-in-Oxford missionaries.

It could not last: a professional academic discipline needs a canon of texts, authors, and issues that can be codified and put into syllabuses, textbooks and encyclopedias. Oxford philosophy, which was never as unified as Ryle supposed, had already started to systematise itself from within when the writing appeared on the wall with the publication of the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, in 1966. It was ambitious, generous, eclectic, freshly researched, and supremely professional: in short, it was American. For many years, it was eyed with suspicion in England: if the spirit of philosophy could be captured in this kind of multi-authored compilation, then the game was up for the indefinable Oxfordian knack.

It was not till the 1980s that philosophers in England began to embrace the scientistic spirit of academic system, mostly by importing it from the United States. Routledge is now gestating an unappetising multi-volume Encyclopedia, hoping to oust Edwards's classic. Meantime Oxford and Cambridge have simultaneously brought forth elephantine one-volume reference books, both aimed at exactly the same imagined market. The Cambridge Dictionary, which bears a mysterious Klee portrait on its jacket, is presented as "the most comprehensive and authoritative one-volume dictionary of philosophy available in English". The Oxford Companion, by contrast, has a mysterious Picasso portrait on the jacket, and is promoted as "the most authoritative and engaging I liveliest and most comprehensive single-volume I philosophical reference book in English". The Cambridge Dictionary has nearly 2000 entries "written by an international team," whereas the Oxford Companion has nearly 2000 entries, written by an "illustrious international team". In short, the books are barely distinguishable. It cannot be a coincidence that neither of them has an entry for Synchronicity.

Philosophy: A Guide through the Subject, another multi-author compilation, is not in the same race as the two reference books. Its jacket is adorned with a mysterious Klee portrait, but it has only 13 contributors, and, far from being an "international team", they are just a band of co-parishioners from London University. They have contributed essays of varied quality and levels on the various issues studied by undergraduates at London - the "core subjects" (Epistemology, Philosophical Logic, Science, Metaphysics, Mind, Plato and Aristotle, Rationalists, Empiricists) plus two "additional subjects" (Ethics and Aesthetics).

The Guide originated as an attempt to collate course materials for what the editor calls "London's philosophy degree". (How many universities in London, Dr Grayling?) Some of the chapters are therefore little more than annotated lists of revision topics, and one contributor even refers to his as a "syllabus". In any case, the authors seem to prefer prose that comes in paragraphs, subparagraphs, and sub-sub-paragraphs, all numbered, subnumbered, and sub-subnumbered - more like an insurance policy than a philosophical essay. Still, for those whose attention might wander, a residue of ingratiating mateyness has been retained. ("I sometimes try to persuade beginning students that they need to be sensitive to scope distinctions in order to make the most of their love lives," says a laddish professor from King's. "Suppose you say 'Would you like to go to the cinema tonight?' and she says 'No'. I believe her reply manifests a scope ambiguity. On one reading it is equivalent to 'It is not the case that I want to go to the cinema'; on the other it is equivalent to 'I want not to go to the cinema'I".) Apart from such heart-warming interludes, the Guide is consistently taxing, if not illuminating, and will be indispensable to students anxious to please the philosophy examiners at London University. For the rest of us, it is at least a sharp demonstration of how "London" has taken over from Oxford as the centre of gravity, if not grace, in English philosophy. The London school has turned its back on Oxford's unsystematic "linguistic philosophy", and reverted to the hard-edged quasi-scientific "analytic philosophy", derived from Frege and Russell, against which the Oxfordians were reacting. There is not the slightest trace here of Wittgensteinian pastoralism: the prickly genius is hardly mentioned at all, and the 85 pages on "Philosophy of Mind" do not refer to him once.

The subject portrayed in this one-sided Guide has grown comfy but narrow - serene in its theoretical self-sufficiency, and sublimely impervious to any issues that do not fit its customary theoretical routines. Despite the leavening contributions on Aesthetics and Ethics (the best chapter by far), the questions taken up are mostly ones that have arisen recently within a small keen group of mutually-referring researchers. They are clever at what they do, no doubt, if not wise to want to do it, as they egg each other on with politic reminders of the "urgent need for new insights that will allow theoretical progress to be made".

The editor of the Guide invites us to agree that London University offers "one of the best single-subject degrees in philosophy offered by any university in the world". If implicit unanimity as to what constitutes "theoretical progress" is a virtue, then it must have one of the most impressive philosophy departments there has ever been. One may wonder, however, whether the uniformity of outlook does not result from dogmatism, fortified by a powerful lack of historical self-awareness, rather than the natural convergence of enlightened expertise.

For, although the Guide avoids mentioning it, the analytical philosophers' orthodoxy has frequently been questioned, and not always unintelligently. Apart from the Oxfordian amateurs, there is the tradition launched by the austere Husserl under the title of "phenomenology", later elaborated by the brilliant and excruciating Heidegger, and now practised, famously, by Derrida. For such thinkers, philosophy is nothing less than a striving to get clear about everything, including one's own historical situation as a seeker after truth. Nothing is to be taken for granted: even the familiar ideals of common sense, objectivity and intellectual progress are pulled up to have their roots examined. As a result, philosophy becomes more like art than science: without preconceived criteria of progress, it gives itself over to infinite intellectual unease, ceaselessly sceptical about all interpretations, including its own.

The London analytic philosophers give no quarter to phenomenology. Like the Oxford philosophers, they consider it sufficient to refer to it as "continental" and dismiss it with a complaint about its "style". Although style is a surprising obsession for such would-be scientific thinkers, it is essential to their sense of intellectual identity. They equate their own sober ways of working - in the words of the Guide - with "the rigorous style of philosophising", as distinguished "from other styles of philosophising, for example from so-called 'continental philosophy.'" Clarity and rigour are relative values, however, and phenomenologists can worship them too; but attempts at a precise and sensitive portrayal of an ambiguity or interpretive contradiction cannot be judged by the same standards as formulations of a problem in logic or law. They are elusive virtues too, not necessarily exemplified by those who imagine themselves most firmly in possession of them. But the London analyticals do not care: they will have returned to the numbered paragraphs of their "rigorous style" long since, without staying for an answer. Husserl and Derrida are not mentioned in this guide, and Heidegger fares no better: according to the index, he appears twice, but on one occasion it is an inaccurate glance at his attitude to aesthetics, and on the other, he is confused with the city of Heidelberg.

The two big reference books cannot, of course, afford to be so sectarian as the philosophy syllabus at London University. But while they pride themselves on their catholicity, covering traditions outside analytic philosophy, both of them do so with a rather desperate air, like middle-class parents trying to be civil when their daughter brings home a grungy New Age boyfriend.

The atmosphere is particularly strained in the Oxford Companion. Since it belongs to the same series as Percy Scholes's evergreen Oxford Companion to Music, and Margaret Drabble's bestselling Oxford Companion to English Literature, it has felt obliged to affect a certain frivolity, with ingratiating paragraphs on topics like Jaundice, Arthritis in the Thigh, or Slime. There are also 80 mugshots, though somewhat grey. But the Companion to Philosophy was edited from London University, with a decidedly analytic perspective, and the editor's agenda keeps showing through. The 151 entries on living philosophers cover most members of the English "Maphia", and there are only 12 Continentals among them, by my count: - no match for the 17 present or former teachers at London University.

Even the handpicked Continentals are given a rather chilly reception by the Oxford Companion. "Assessment of Derrida's contribution to philosophy remains controversial," we are told: an uncontroversial point in itself, but distinctly prejudicial in the context of the neighbouring entries on Danto, Davidson, Dennett, Dretske, Dummett and Dworkin, where no such doubts are suggested. Heidegger, too, is treated with restraint; but while it is not false to say that "the ultimate worth of Heidegger's thought is still sub judice" - the same could be said of Plato and Aristotle, I suppose, or even the staff at London University - the fact that Heidegger is the only thinker to be framed in such forensic terms gives the presentation a definite derogatory spin.

On all these points, and most others too, the Cambridge Dictionary is preferable to the Oxford Companion. It was edited from pluralistic North America, and, by permitting no entries on living thinkers, it has at least avoided making itself ridiculous. The writing is more relaxed, more efficient, and more direct, and though the emphasis is on analytic philosophy, alternative traditions are presented with a verve and sympathy absent from the stiff Companion.

But often the two volumes resemble each other so closely you could hardly fit a cigarette paper between them - on occasion, indeed, the same author has contributed strikingly similar treatments of the same subject to both books. As one would expect in works affiliated with analytic philosophy, they take care to point out the relevance of language to philosophy, and the Companion contains an acutely style-conscious entry on philosophical practice, the ethics of, where virtue is said to turn on "clarity and simplicity of style" as opposed to "turgid and obscure style" and "pretentious style," and the conclusion is reached, very properly, that "philosophy has a serious responsibility for language".

It may well be true: what higher obligation could philosophers have than to maintain a healthy tradition of supple philosophical prose? But it is not obvious that their "stewardship of language" (another phrase from the Oxford Companion) can be adequately discharged as long as they remain obsessed by a "clear style" which owes more to the conventions of legal drafting than to the great traditions of Bacon, Locke, Mill or James, to say nothing of the poor Continentals. Sadly, neither of these reference books makes anything of Coleridge, and the great philosophical outsider Hazlitt is not mentioned at all, even though Edwards's unsurpassed Encyclopedia commemorated him with an excellent entry 30 years ago.

Notoriously, the Oxford English Dictionary is out of its depth with philosophical English, but the two new reference works, for all their "responsibility for language", have passed up the opportunity of supplying the deficiency, or indeed of offer anything else by way of new knowledge. Both provide dictionary-like definitions of hundreds of terms, from abandonment and abduction to Zeitgeist and Zweckrationalitat; but, deafened by the analytical obviousness of their "clear style", they have no ears for the stratified historicity of the words they rely on in their daily deliberations, and no interest in the generations of wordsmiths who forged them. Both books, for example, will tell you that "artificial language" means a code invented for special purposes, as opposed to a "natural" language like French or English, but neither of them bothers to investigate how the usage originated (nor does OED), or notices that, ironically enough, philosophers used to refer to natural languages as "artificial" on the ground that they were founded on arbitrary conventions. In the same way, "Idea" is snappily defined as "entities that exist only as contents of some mind" (Companion) or "in the 17th century, whatever is immediately before the mind when one thinks" (Dictionary): thanks to such bold imprecisions for the sake of "clear style", the immense interlinguistic web associated with "idea" gets airbrushed away, along with the prodigious semantic promiscuity of its sometime partner, "in the mind". The "responsibility for language" of the analytic philosophers does not, apparently, involve a sense of history. It is not only the Continent that is cut off from them, but also the foggy English dew.

Jonathan Ree teaches philosophy at Middlesex University, London.

Philosophy: A Guide through the Subject

Editor - A. C. Grayling
ISBN - 0 19 875156 7 and 875157 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
Pages - 677

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