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Oddballs of English philosophy

Jonathan Rée’s beguiling history includes vignettes of the eccentric Bertrand Russell and of Thomas Davidson, the Aristotelian turnip-hoer from Aberdeen

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English Jonathan Rée

Allen Lane, pp.754, £30

Charles Kay Ogden once proposed that conversations would be conducted more efficiently if participants wore masks. Apart from confirming the hypothesis that Britons don’t care much for philosophising but rarely miss an excuse to dress up, this made me think if only Theresa May had visited Brussels as Darth Vader to meet Jean-Claude Juncker in his Princess Leia mask, Brexit would have been sorted out years ago.

Ogden, who not only translated Wittgenstein but wrote a book offputtingly called The Meaning of Meaning, also had the idea that English could be boiled down to 850 words — which, as you know, is 830 more than you’ll need to take part in a football phone-in. The language, called Basic, could be learned in days and, he hoped, would pave the way to peace by reversing the curse of Babel.

Jonathan Rée’s beguiling history of philosophy in English, from Hamlet reproving Horatio for his imaginative limitations in 1603 to the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations 450 years later, seethes with such potty vignettes. There’s Bertrand Russell searching under his desk in Cambridge to prove there is no rhinoceros in the room. There’s the sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, pseudonymous American author Ragnar Redbeard, whose 1890 book Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest, both misconstrued Nietzsche’s will to power and applied Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. The book also impressed Jack London, worried Tolstoy and paved the way for Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko. More importantly, it depicted the author as a moustachioed übermensch in tights on the cover surrounded by his decapitated victims. Which is the publishing wheeze Alain de Botton’s people should consider for his next book.

For those of us still traumatised after spending university years banjaxed by such questions as ‘Could God make a bowl of porridge too big to eat?’, Rée’s book may well be the most fun we’ve ever had with anglophone philosophy. The French Maoist Alain Badiou once told me that English philosophy has its ‘côté somnifère’, by which he meant it was yawnsomely dull.


Rée’s book serves as a 750-page retort to that, an intellectual adventure story in which the usual suspects — Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill — all figure, but get sidelined by his heroes — the oddballs, underdogs and outcasts, many of them women, some of them scary decapitators, who were obliged to operate outside the patriarchal, class-bound academy.

He starts by showing that continentals were messing with British minds long before Michel Barnier got involved. To read Shakespeare, Rée contends, is to plunge into European philosophy. The Tempest betrays Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s ‘Of the Cannibals’; Mistress Quickly’s report of the death of Falstaff echoes Plato’s account of the death of Socrates; Cassius in Julius Caesar explains his transition from Epicureanism to Stoicism, claiming that latter will help him rise above ‘accidental evils’.

It’s odd that it’s fallen to Rée to tell this story since he is a card-carrying continental philosophy specialist, a Kierke-gaard-for-pleasure-reading kind of weirdo. Unexpectedly, he has a soft spot for Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Coventry’s feminist alternative to Lady Godiva. To read  his account of her engagement with J.S. Mill and Ludwig Feuerbach helps us appreciate her self-abnegating philosophy of empathy and kindness that we find at the end Middlemarch where Eliot elegises her heroine Dorothea Brooke’:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Among the hidden lives Rée reveals is that of Thomas Davidson, the adorable sounding Aberdeenshire turnip-hoer turned Aristotelian thinker, whose summer schools in Massachusetts and among working-class New York Jews encouraged many to emulate his journey from social outcast to philosophical cosmopolitan.

Rée champions William Hazlitt, properly insisting on the critic’s philosophical importance. ‘The self which we project before us is like a shadow in the water, a bubble of the brain,’ he wrote. ‘In becoming the blind and servile drudges of self-interest, we bow before an idol of our own making, and are spellbound by a name.’ It’s a remark that demolishes Locke’s barmy but influential theory that personal identity is sustained only by the power of memory. It also counters English-speaking philosophers of self-improvement, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Smiles, in suggesting that the self is nonsense and therefore ethics or economics premised on individual preference satisfaction incoherent. Take that, Friedman and Thatcher.

As for outsiders, he depicts William James worrying about his Yankee accent before delivering the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1901 and puncturing the pretensions of science. ‘Scientists who try to dismiss religion as “nothing but” an organic disposition of the evolved human brain forget that the same could be said of the natural sciences,’ glosses Rée. Take that, Dawkins and Hitchens.

Despite the disarming glee of this intellectual romp, Rée doesn’t quite banish the thought that, for the English, philosophy is what history was to Henry Ford, bunk — a notion clinched by T.S. Eliot’s portrait of Bertrand Russell as Mr Apollinax, wittering incomprehensibly and laughing like an irresponsible foetus at his own wit.


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