A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford 1900–1960, by Nikhil Krishnan (Random House, 400 pp., $28.99)

The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb (Oxford University Press, 375 pp., $27.95)

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, by David Edmonds (Princeton University Press, 408 pp., $32)

In 1963, the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Isaiah Berlin had lunch with the composer Igor Stravinsky. Ryle, the least famous of the bunch, was the most scathing in his survey of the philosophical landscape. He dubbed the celebrated American pragmatists William James and John Dewey the “Great American Bores.” He condemned the work of French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, with its speculation about an emerging world consciousness, as “old teleological pancake.” Then he summed it up in a sweeping crossfire that could serve as the most Oxonian of putdowns: “Every generation or so philosophical progress is set back by the appearance of a ‘genius.’”

What did Ryle have against such geniuses? And is progress in philosophy even possible? 

Largely thanks to Ryle and his colleagues, by the 1950s Oxford had ascended to a commanding position in philosophy, at least in the English-speaking world. On the European continent, things were different: German and French philosophers had run headlong down another path. The two broad traditions that emerged from the split after World War I are known as analytic and continental philosophy. The gap between the two styles is vast. Most continental philosophy requires translation from the original gibberish. It’s arcane and cryptic, obsessed with power—raw or disguised—and sadly, is the origin point of postmodernism, most justifications for Communism, critical race theory, DEI, and therefore, all the woke slogans you’ve ever encountered on social media.

The analytic tradition is mainly Anglo-American. To this day, virtually all philosophy departments in America pursue research in this vein, but it began at Oxford in the 1920s. It started with a youthful rebellion against abstractions emitted by the descendants of Hegel and Kant. All the argle-bargle metaphysics had to go; sobriety and clarity would replace intoxicating confusion. Authority was also out; the new style rejected appeals to the great thinkers. Commentaries on commentaries on the thoughts of long-dead humans could prove helpful, but they were not the point. The point, instead, was to attack the mysteries and riddles of existence head-on. The new philosophy would build on the formal power of mathematical logic and the undeniable success of science to develop a new method for reaching the truth about great questions: What is the deepest reality? Is there any knowledge that is beyond all doubt? What is the nature of consciousness? Is there a single true morality?

In grappling with these mysteries, Oxford philosophers developed and refined old and new techniques. Reasoning, deduction, explanation, more care and precision in language, crisper concepts, deeper distinctions, elaborate models, thought experiments, devastating counterexamples, intuitive principles that press to surprising conclusions—on all of these things, Oxford led the way, and the rest of the Anglosphere followed. Its legacy is less a set of ideas or even a series of sacred tenets and Delphic sayings than it is a devotion to rigor, clarity, truth, and a very practical British revulsion to nonsense.

Three recent books depict the evolution of the Oxford style through the lives and careers of some of its most adept practitioners. The stories they tell overlap to some degree, but, taken as a whole, they cover a century of philosophy. Chronologically, the first in this thrown-together series is Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford 1900-1960, an engrossing history of ideas that also brings to life the characters behind them. Picking up where Krishnan tails off, Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics offers a group biography that vividly portrays the friendship that sustained these women through decades of discouragement from their mostly male counterparts and sets the context for the rebellion they initiated against moral relativism and other subjectivist views of ethics. That was a campaign they did not finish, at least not convincingly, which brings us to the last book: David Edmonds’s Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Edmonds has written a sharp and sympathetic biography of Derek Parfit, who may well have been the last wizard-like genius to come forth from the old Oxford tradition. His death in 2017 marks the end of an era. 

Creative genius is evenly distributed in neither time nor place. A survey of the past shows that genius is not randomly scattered about, like the seeds of a dandelion, but concentrates: ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Silicon Valley, among other examples. Why these fertile eras and places appear, peak, and then decline is understudied as a historical phenomenon. Oxford philosophy in the twentieth century, though not as astonishing as Florence or as productive as Silicon Valley, is nevertheless an example of the clustering of philosophical genius.

The characters in these three books did not meet by chance. Oxford’s allure pulled them in. It also transformed them; there was, as it were, something in the water. I can trace at least four factors.

To begin with, practically all the philosophers in these histories had to pass through the eye of an academic needle. Many had achieved top marks in the study of “Greats,” a uniquely Oxford undergraduate course of study that entailed mastering a challenging body of knowledge—ancient history, literature, and philosophy—all in the original languages. Mastery here required not only the ability to read in ancient Greek and Latin but also sufficient skill to compose poems and essays in them. Whether this actually contributed to achievement in philosophy may have been less important than the fact that it weeded out the lazy, the sloppy, and the unexceptional.

Next, by tradition, Oxford has always cared little for lectures and instead has relied on the use of one-on-one or one-on-two tutoring as its primary mode of instruction. That may be a lucky accident of history, but nevertheless, research in the psychology of education has found that one-on-one tutoring far surpasses any other form of instruction in improving student performance. The Oxford Greats’ once-a-week tutorials, where no word in any paper was left unchallenged, sharpened one’s talent and hardened one’s skin to criticism.  

All three books delightfully bring to life the genteel atmosphere of the classic tutorial—the sweaters worn under coarse wool jackets, the spectacles, the fumbling preliminaries in elaborate British courtesy, a tray and two cups of tea, our tutor stirring tea in his cup while contemplating an undergraduate’s desperate attempt at respectability, a forgotten cigarette burning away in an ashtray, the pregnant pause, and then the interrogation. “I have five objections to your thesis. To begin with, what should we say if someone tells us they don’t have free will?” Everyone pretended to find the donnish conceits ridiculous, yet all religiously adhered to them, even if apologetically. It may have been an aristocratic tradition adapting to an egalitarian age, but it made for great philosophy.

Third—and strangely left unexplored by the authors—nearly all the philosophers in these books did not have Ph.D.s in philosophy. Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, A. J. Ayer, R. M. Hare, Bernard Williams, and Derek Parfit—not a single doctoral degree in philosophy among them. A first in their undergraduate exams—meaning a grade of “A+”—was enough to send them on their way. Yes, each won prizes and fellowships, but none wrote anything like a dissertation under the supervision of an advisor. One might conclude, as the analytic tradition fades into its senility, that requiring a graduate degree in philosophy made academic philosophers worse at philosophy.

Perhaps most importantly, Oxford was rich in social and intellectual influences outside the tutorials. Again, all three books bring this vividly to life. A new club seems to have formed every decade to discuss philosophy. The old discussion groups stuck around, too. The Jowett Society, the Wee Teas, the Metaphysicals, J. L. Austin’s Saturday Morning Meetings, the Tuesday Group—out of these clubs, friendships formed in breakaway circles. Those circles became crucibles for refining thought, shaping and sharing a vision about what counted as good work and what big debates were worth addressing. More than mentorship, collaborative and somewhat rivalrous friendships set the pace, escalated the level of play, and expanded the edge of the possible. Only your friends can rev you up to desecrate the monuments of the last generation.

By contrast, as is the case in most graduate programs today (including Oxford), the mentor-protégé system stifles creativity. The love and loyalty a student expresses for a dissertation advisor are often stronger than his commitment to innovation and discovery. Add to that the power of the mentor to advance a student’s career, and one is left with a parrot house full of incremental bird calls. Early in her career, Anscombe displayed an almost slavish devotion to Ludwig Wittgenstein, even to the point of imitating his speech patterns, mannerisms, and Austrian accent. That period also coincides with her least interesting work. Her best work came out of her conversations with friends.

For 20 years, every weekday after lunch, Anscombe and Foot would repair to the Senior Common Room at Somerville College to discuss philosophy with anyone who cared to join. (The “Senior Common Room” is Oxford-speak for the faculty lounge.) Anscombe usually picked the topic, but it was an informal conversation among friends that could last hours until tea arrived. Out of these discussions came a revival of virtue ethics and the invention of the famous trolley-problem thought experiment.

The fourth and final factor was that this collegial competition led a few of these misfits into levels of obsession and single-mindedness that I’ve seen paralleled only in competitive sports.

As Krishnan and Lipscomb show, Austin would take an extreme, almost monomaniacal pleasure in the nuances of language and barely detectable shades of meaning. Anscombe once complained, “That man would find a difference between ‘enough’ and ‘sufficient.’” Some people found him pedantic, even condescending. But no one ever said he was careless. Berlin kept a sign on the mantlepiece in his office, taken from a car dealer, that read “AUSTIN.” It was a reminder to write and think at the Olympian standards that his friend had set.

Parfit was another maniac who came to possess a religious fervor for philosophy. As Edmonds affectionately details, Parfit would read while brushing his teeth, and he’d read—naked—while riding on his recumbent exercise bike. He’d take meetings at 3 a.m. Some philosophical discussions could last six hours. It was not unusual for Parfit to return 50 pages of comments on a draft paper written by anyone, whether a tenured professor or a visiting student. Parfit once followed Bernard Williams to his car and stood in the rain, pounding the hood of the car trying to convince Williams that morality had an objective foundation. Williams ignored Parfit and drove off, leaving him in a storm.

What set Oxford apart was that Ryle, Austin, Anscombe, Parfit, and others believed that ordinary philosophers, working together, could make extraordinary advances. To believe progress in philosophy is possible is to characterize it as a non-natural science much like mathematics, only less developed, with worse tools, and addressing some of life’s greatest mysteries.

So, from the 1920s to the present, what progress was made in solving these mysteries?

As great as these three books are at explaining knotty philosophical debates, you should go to the sources and judge for yourself. Krishnan counts the papers and books written by these figures as “some of the great works of twentieth-century literature,” with moments that have moved him as deeply as music and poetry. I agree. For my money, one can make an excellent beginning with Austin’s “A Plea for Excuses,” Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of the Good, and Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. Each is a startling achievement. You will see how varied the sensibilities and conclusions are, but underneath it all you will also detect the hum of a common vision and commitment to finding the truth.

Philosophy keeps alive our sense of wonder. It is a craft more for the sake of the questions than the answers. Some things we will never know but will always feel compelled to discuss. Philosophers keep the conversation going.

Sadly, however, analytic philosophy is exhausted nowadays, a stagnant backwater. American philosophers picked up where Oxford left off and have carried the torch further, but with advances measured in inches, not miles. Its practitioners bear a stronger resemblance to low-level bureaucrats in a professional union than to dashing figures chasing the profound. In the wider public debate, and in terms of cultural influence, analytic philosophers have lost out to the heirs of continental philosophy. The very idea of truth is up for grabs, not only in seminar rooms but also in the White House and on the front pages of every newspaper.

There has to be another way. The need to make progress in philosophy weighed on Parfit like an anvil. We could do worse than read these three books to remind ourselves that progress is indeed possible.

Photo by Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images


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