In the late afternoon of Wednesday, 28 June, a television channel rang me. Would I say a few words on their news programme about Freddie Ayer? It was the first I heard of his death. Then the Independent, for which I had written an obituary a year before, asked me if I would write 600 words for their front page. Then another television channel rang. Freddie’s death was about to become, I could see, a media event.
The time I knew Freddie best and saw him most was in the Fifties when we were colleagues at University College London. We met in the department continuously and a lot socially. When he went back to Oxford in 1959, I naturally saw less of him. In recent years, partly because I spend over half the year in America, but largely for no reason at all, we drifted apart. With a memory that operates like mine, for which the past is either oblivion or seemingly yesterday, neglectfulness comes only too easily.
The very last time we met was a year ago, in July. Freddie had been extremely ill, and he had survived ‘heart-death’. He was proud of the experience and described it with a degree of visual detail unusual for him. He couldn’t move, he told me, without getting out of breath, but he was his old self: by which I mean that he had reverted to that youthful self which he preserved intact into middle age – something caught so well in Tony Quinton’s sweet and genial tribute (Spectator, 8 July). ‘My doctor has given me five years: probably enough.’ Without being exactly self-reflective, Freddie had a capacity for standing back from his life and surveying it with a remarkable candour. He said to me at his 40th birthday party, ‘In my twenties I worked, in my thirties I played, and now I’m 40 it’s time for work again,’ and he slid back onto the dance floor. In his forties Freddie was as good as his word, and his idea of play included, it must be remembered, the war.
The reception of Freddie’s death – both the scale it was on and the form it took – astounded me. I still cannot decide what it showed.
One claim that was made was that with Freddie’s death popularised philosophy, too, was dead. After Russell, he was the last person who could, at any rate within the English-speaking world, make philosophy accessible to a general audience: from now onwards, it has condemned itself to be a hermetic subject. Today England seems to me so fundamentally backward-looking in its attitudes that it cannot celebrate any event unless it can first conceive of it as bringing something to an end. In this case, the claim has some truth. But not quite for the reason suggested. Freddie was a great populariser, and, more to the point, he made philosophy popular. But it is not to detract from either his merits or his achievements to point out that he was pushing at an open door. If philosophy has changed since the days when Ayer’s popularity was at its height, so has its public, and, I believe, quite independently.
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