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A Terribly Serious adventure: Philosophy and war at Oxford

“One may as well begin with Socrates.” So opens Nikhil Krishnan’s “A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960.” Observe how that sentence conveys a certain offhand jauntiness, yet subtly reveals a distinctly learned author: Krishnan, who teaches philosophy at Cambridge, implies he could have chosen any number of other philosophers instead of Socrates. At the same time, his decision to create this particular sentence indicates a writer confident enough, and well read enough, to echo one the most famous first lines in 20th-century British fiction: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister,” the opening of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.”

That novel is even more famous for its epigraph: “Only connect.” And this is just what Krishnan does as he traces the affiliations, rivalries and intellectual spats among the eminences of mid-20th-century philosophy at Oxford: Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, R.M. Hare, Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Strawson. All these thinkers focused their considerable intellectual powers on doing something similar to what I’ve done above: analyzing the words people use to probe the character and limits of how we perceive and understand the world. Such “linguistic philosophy” aimed, in Krishnan’s formulation, “to scrape away at sentences until the content of the thoughts underlying them was revealed, their form unobstructed by the distorting structures of language and idiom.”

For many of these Oxfordians, Ludwig Wittgenstein was either a guru or a bête noire. Iris Murdoch, a student of philosophy before she became a philosophical novelist, once visited the Austrian émigré in Cambridge and, as Krishnan writes, never fully recovered from the experience:

“Everything about him was unnerving: the ‘trampish’ appearance, the empty, bookless room with no furniture but a camp-bed and two deck chairs, the confrontational, conventionless way in which he approached people and required them to relate to him. ‘What’s the good of having one philosophical discussion,’ he told her once. ‘It’s like having one piano lesson.’”

In later years, Murdoch always remembered Wittgenstein “with awe and alarm.”

The author of the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” and the “Philosophical Investigations” — the latter translated by Anscombe — is nonetheless an outlier to this British portrait gallery. Krishnan, born in Bangalore, India, recognizes that he might be thought an outlier too, but he deeply admires these men and women as intellectual heroes and exemplars. Reading their books, he tells us, can be as exciting as reading a great novel or poem. In particular, Krishnan emphasizes the virtues they embodied in themselves and their work. “Some of these virtues were, by any reckoning, moral ones: humility, self-awareness, collegiality, restraint. Others are better thought aesthetic: elegance, concision, directness.”

One quality — wit — is clearly missing from this list.

Consider Gilbert Ryle. As the Waynflete professor of metaphysics, he was asked if he ever read novels, to which he replied, “All six of them, once a year.” Jane Austen’s, of course. Another time, an American visitor wondered if it was true that Ryle, as editor of the journal Mind, would “accept or reject an article on the basis of reading just the first paragraph.” “That used to be true at one time,” Ryle supposedly answered. “I had a lot more time in those days.”

As one proceeds through this exhilarating book, J.L. Austin gradually emerges as the central figure. “He listened, he understood, and when he started to speak, with the piercing clarity he brought to all things, philosophical or not, it ‘made one’s thoughts race.’”

In public discussion, though, Austin could be ferocious, even with a close friend like the historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, we learn, would come “to dread the moment when Austin would turn to him with a deadly glare and ask, ever so politely, ‘Would you mind saying that again?’”

As Austin regularly emphasized, “The point of looking at words is to let them help us to see the world.” Consequently, Oxford discussion groups and tutorials tried to avoid those “cheap rhetorical ploys” that aim “at victory and humiliation rather than truth.” Instead their unofficial motto stressed intellectual fraternity: “Let no one join this conversation who is unwilling to be vulnerable.” Still their meetings continually resounded with “short, punchy interrogations” that aimed “to clarify positions, pose objections and expose inconsistencies.”

In general, Austin “wanted to be, all he wanted other people to be, was rational.” His highest praise was to call someone “sensible.” Yet he was more than just that. During World War II, he joined an elite branch of the British secret service and soon mastered the logistics of the German army better than its generals. As one colleague later said, Austin was “more than anybody … responsible for the lifesaving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence.” Col. Austin returned to Oxford laden with honors from Britain, France and the United States.

And was soon again proposing conundrums like this one:

“Jones is preparing for a long march through the desert. One of his enemies poisons his water flask. Another, knowing nothing of the poisoning, drains its contents. Jones dies of thirst on the walk. Who killed Jones?”

In 1956, killing was on the mind of Elizabeth Anscombe, and particularly Harry Truman’s still-controversial decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Oxford announced plans to award Truman an honorary degree, Anscombe objected. She wasn’t protesting against nuclear weapons per se (as was Bertrand Russell) but simply standing up for what she regarded as an inviolable principle: “Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder.” End of argument. Anscombe’s was a lonely voice, however, except for the support of her philosopher friend, Philippa Foot, whose imposing manner Krishnan brilliantly captures: “She looked like the sort of young woman who knew how to get a boisterous dog to sit.”

Anscombe’s sometime adversary, R.M. Hare, also served in the war but would never talk about the horrors he survived as a prisoner of the Japanese. Once back at Oxford, Hare probed the slightest distinctions in linguistic meaning. “‘Open the door,’ I say, thereby bringing it about that you, obediently, open the door. What I’ve done by saying those words is to bring it about that the door is opened.” But “what I’ve done in saying them is to give you an order,” which you may or may not obey, and in the latter case, the door remains shut.

Despite the sheer entertainment available in “A Terribly Serious Adventure,” readers will want to slow down for its denser pages outlining erudite theories or explaining category mistakes and other specialized terms. For instance, the exquisitely elegant Peter Strawson, who always spoke “in complete paragraphs, every comma, every semicolon perfectly articulated,” might point out that an argument contained an unspoken “presupposition failure.” In short, saying “‘he is rich, but kind’ presupposes, without quite stating, that rich people aren’t usually kind.”

All these philosophers, as well as a half-dozen others I haven’t been able to mention, come across as both daunting and charismatic. For example, A.J. Ayer wrote his most famous book, “Language, Truth, and Logic,” at 24. In it, he maintained that we have no direct perception of material objects but rather construct the world we experience through “sense data.” Ayer’s most cogent support for this position, adds Krishnan, came from optical illusions: “When one sees, say, a mirage in the desert, it is of course false to say that one sees an oasis. After all, there is no oasis there to see. But one evidently sees something. What could that something be if not sense data?”

Over the years, the worldly Ayer, who oozed charm and loved many women, went on to achieve celebrity through frequent appearances on radio and television. In 1987, two years before his death, the elderly philosopher attended a chic party where the young supermodel Naomi Campbell was fending off unwanted attentions from boxer Mike Tyson. Ayer intervened. “Tyson informed Ayer, in rather strong words, that he was the world heavyweight champion. Ayer replied: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic.’” He then added, “We are both preeminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” And, apparently, they did. Those were the days.

A Terribly Serious Adventure

Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960

By Nikhil Krishnan

Random House. 400 pp. $28.99

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