Philosophy

I suspect I inherited my dilettante interest in philosophy from my mother. I don’t think she made a firm distinction between theology and philosophy, but she often used the latter term when talking about her mystical understanding of religion.

I was already very interested in ideas at Hillbrow, and have a ‘memory of a memory’ of talking to Tommy Walker about quite profound matters.

I’m sure this continued at Shrewsbury, though I can’t at this moment put a finger on particular discussions or reading. Reference to my diaries (Box 20 at MO) would certainly reveal meetings with a philosophical content which I attended.

When I was at Manchester I attended a Sunday evening discussion group at the house of my Cousin Susan and her late husband, the Rev Basil Hetherington, who was Chaplain at the University of Manchester.  There I met a young student couple who invited me for supper, and the then proceeded to spend the whole evening discussing Nietzsche, and particularly whether he was responsible for Hitler. My discomfort at being completely out of my depth, with nothing to add to the conversation, was, I’m sure, one of the main spurs to my giving up my engineering apprenticeship at Gorton Tank, and returning to full-time education.

While we were living at Lancaster, and I was working in Morcambe, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which set me thinking hard about whether there would be anything wrong with using drugs to make us happy. That old line ‘connect me to a brewery and leave me there to die’ really begged the question about the meaning of life. I think my then I must already have wondered whether all that mattered was the pleasure principle as expressed in Bentham, John Stewart Mill and Sigmund Freud. I was aware of the latter from having dipped into a book I bought at Shrewsbury (and which I still possess) called Dreams and Nightmares by J.A. Hadfield.

One of those curious coincidences which happen from time to time in life led me to find myself sitting next to someone I had met at the Manchester discussion group as I travelled to Watford for the first time. He encouraged me to attend discussions at the Methodist Church in Oxhey, quite near our house, and so I went along. I can’t now remember why, but I felt very out of place, and I didn’t continue to attend after that. As a family we started going to St Matthews, which was just round the corner, but I suspect my enthusiasm for religion was already on the wane.

The rationalist atmosphere I encountered at college in Watford led fairly inevitably to my abandoning my religious faith. It only needed ‘Mr Fisher’ to ask me why I believed in ‘all that stuff’ for me to stop doing so. But this, of course, made philosophy doubly important. For the main part of my life from then on, I believed that philosophy could supply me with the answers to how I should live and in what I should believe.

At Birmingham College of Commerce one of the Part I subjects of my degree course in Sociology was Philosophy. This was taught by a Scotsman, Dr Gordon Hutton, whom I remember marching backwards and forwards at the front of the lecture hall scratching his head, and muttering with a disarming laugh: ‘I don’t rightly know what he meant.’ Probably at his suggestion I became the Chair of the newly founded Philosophy Society (in fact I was probably instrumental in setting it up), which drew its membership from both my college (now City of Birmingham University) and the adjoining Aston College of Advanced Technology (now Aston University). The only meeting I can remember was that addressed by Anthony Flew. I doubt if even my diary gives an account of what he said.

While at Birmingham I attended a series of lectures at Birmingham University about the law and responsibility for ones actions. I have a feeling that I also heard Gilbert Ryle, of Concept of the Mind fame, at Birmingham. In my last year I swung from the left to the right politically under the influence of two semi-philosophical books, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot and Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold. I suspect I was also reading an abridged version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and shortly after I left Birmingham I read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (the copy I still have is marked Christmas 1968). The last battled in my mind with Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which I also read about this time, and to which Burke was at least in part responding. I admired both books.

My struggle to make sense of my chosen subject, sociology, and its relation to psychology, inevitably involved thought about the philosophy of science. I read a book on this subject (which I can’t find on Amazon – I think the author was something like Tomlin or Tompkin), and then two further books which had a lasting influence on my life, Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism and Karl Mannheim’s Ideology of and Utopia. [Expand]

Soon after I became a civil servant I discovered that it would improve my career prospects if I were to get a higher level academic qualification. With assistance from my employer (i.e. H.M. Government) I was accepted to do a joint degree in Philosophy and History at the University of London. I suppose my purported aim was to gain a higher class, and thereby to qualify to entry to a post-graduate course. (As it turned out, this was not necessary; a couple of my colleagues at Birmingham College of Commerce who only got thirds, went directly on to do post-graduate degrees.) But I’m sure the real reason was simply that I wanted to expand my education.

My enrollment was as an external student, and depended largely on self-study. Recognising my own lack of self-discipline, I decided I needed some stimulus, and tumbled upon a series of winter weekend courses in philosophy at the University of Oxford Delegacy for Extra-Mural Studies. As it turned out, I didn’t pursue the degree in philosophy, but my monthly residential weekends at Rewley House, Wellington Square, Oxford, played a significant part in my life. Under the excellent tutorship of Dr Anthony Chadwick I spent the next five or so years (that is from 1969 to 1974) surveying the history of philosophy from the Greeks through to logical positivism.

At the Oxford weekends I met Graham Lucas and Vera Secky. Graham, an Australian, became a close friend for many years, and about two years ago we resumed our friendship.

Vera Secky, a Czech emigre, did a degree in philosophy at Reading University at quite a late stage in her life, and she also became a close friend until I left Britain in 1975. She lived relatively near me when I was in Bracknell, and so we established a routine whereby I would go to her on Sunday evenings to discuss philosophy. But we were poles apart. She was drawn to the metaphysical, I was determined to remained firmly rooted in the material world, and to follow a pragmatic line.

Through Vera I met David (now Fr Nicholas) Gendle, who also became a good friend. We used to drive around the Oxford area (he lived in Oxford) visiting interesting churches. It was at his suggestion that I applied, unsuccessfully, to a couple of colleges in Oxford to study philosophy. I then tried, equally unsuccessfully, to study history at Oriel.

Graham and I established another Philosophy Society in the Reading area, which held a number of meetings before he moved away. One of them was a residential weekend at Braziers Park, near Watlington, Oxfordshire. (Marianne Faithful had spent some of her early life at a commune formed by her father in this house.)

I have read some philosophy over the years, but have rarely forced myself to be really rigorous. Usually I’ve read commentaries on originals rather than the originals themselves, and it’s some time since I did even this. The books mentioned above were exceptions to this rule. Laziness may be one explanation for this, but I suspect a certain scepticism about philosophical language also played its part. I wasn’t convinced that philosophy, or at least the obscure kind, could really deliver.

Also in the early seventies I joined the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. My memory, not confirmed by my diaries, is that I spent a great deal of time attending meetings at this organisation, whose roots were the South Place Unitarian Chapel in Finsbury (there is a plaque in the pace where this used to be). It had become almost completely secular, though retaining the right to conduct marriages. I gave a talk about Camus at one of the meetings, and subsequently reviewed a book about Sartre and Camus at the suggestion of Peter Cadogan, the General Secretary and quite a friend.

Conway Hall, Red Lion Square

The now demolished South Place Unitarian Chapel, Finsbury Park

Existentialism has been attractive to me as an idea, though I found existential writers largely incomprehensible, from my early twenties. The big breakthrough came when I read Irvin Yalom’s book, Existential Psychotherapy in preparation for my MA course at Antioch University (Regents’ College, London). I had always found Freud’s conception of the mind unsatisfactory. Now here was a way of looking at the mental life of people which entirely made sense to me.

It wasn’t sexual desire which was the prime motive power for our mental life, but the awareness of our alone-ness and vulnerability. This led me on to an interest in group psychology, which to my astonishment led me back to sociology in a much more positive light. But an account of the development of my thinking in this respects belongs on the power page. In its turn, my thinking on power led me to a profound scepticism about history - that is not what actually happened in the past, but what powerful people want us to believe happened.

 

 

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