John Maier

Friendships and rivalries in the golden age of Oxford philosophy

Nikhil Krishnan provides many amusing vignettes of Isaiah Berlin, A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle and others in the heyday of linguistic philosophy

Gilbert Ryle reputedly said that Rex Whistler’s portrait of him made him look like ‘a drowned German general’. [Bridgeman Images]

Though it is startling to think of it now, analytic philosophy was once considered a promising subject for satire on mainstream television. When Beyond the Fringe was broadcast in 1964, the viewing public could apparently be relied upon to recognise the archetype of the post-Wittgensteinian linguistic philosopher being impersonated by Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. The discursive style on display was anguished, effete and reflexively pedantic; the setting, a kind of implied common room (the only atmosphere this particular creature was able to breathe); the repartee hopelessly clogged with qualifications and smug little obiter dicta and minutely alert to exquisite verbal distinctions of doubtful relevance to the point in hand.

Of course, however unintentionally, the lampoon paid a small compliment: the public edifice of academic philosophy was sturdy enough to support mockery. How things change! I can think of one or two philosophers working today whom it would be well worthwhile to make fun of on prime time television, but I fear it wouldn’t be good for ratings.

Gossip about reviled colleagues and exalted forebears is the basic currency of academic life

Nikhil Krishnan’s terrific new book, A Terribly Serious Adventure, tells the story of the heyday of linguistic philosophy. The ‘golden age’ of Oxford philosophy in the mid-20th century saw certain figures – Isaiah Berlin, Gilbert Ryle, Bernard Williams, A.J. Ayer – achieve an odd notoriety, and strengthened a chauvinist belief at Oxford that nowhere else was of much importance. ‘We were excessively self-centred,’ wrote Berlin in recollection: ‘We felt no need to publish our ideas’, for ‘the only persons whom we wished to convince were our own admired colleagues’. But, he then adds, the self-reproach dissipating somewhat: ‘I suspect that those who have never been under the spell of this kind of illusion, even for a short while, have not known true intellectual happiness.’

The self-involved atmosphere at Oxford owed some of its intensity to the occurrence of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy.

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