Onora O’Neill

Onora O’Neill is the President of the British Academy.

Living within the truth

Onora O’Neill, 13 June 1991

In the twenty stagnant years between the Prague Spring and the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 there were two conduits for intellectual contact between intellectuals in Eastern and Western Europe. The official British channel, sustained both by the British Academy and by the British Council, carried a two-way flow of carefully scrutinised visits by academics and writers. For those visiting Eastwards the pace was genteel: lecturing that would have been done in a concentrated burst in the West, conferences that would have taken a weekend between working weeks, were prolonged. Conversations crawled. The visits were never without interest – they were glimpses into secluded worlds – but the interest wasn’t mainly intellectual. Visitors told themselves that the tedium would be worth it if they made contact with some people who were able to talk more freely, or if those people got a chance to visit Westwards. Since Westwards visits were a valuable perk, they were controlled by Directors of Institutes and Academies, and used to reward reliable stalwarts rather than to encourage free spirits. ‘Foreign collaboration’ was part of an institute’s plan and system of control, with the result that return vists, even when run on Western lines, were guaranteed their share of tedium. In the last eighteen months some of those frustrated free spirits have been making up for lost time, and also reproaching Westerners for maintaining and using official channels in the past, and so conniving with a system that rewarded intellectual stagnation with travel opportunities.’

The New Restoration

Onora O’Neill, 22 November 1990

Should philosophers be politically committed, engagés in the manner of Socrates or of Sartre? Or should they adopt an aloof and distanced posture, like Plato after his early political disappointments, who views concern with this-worldly affairs as (at best) a conscientious return from the heights to ‘the cave’? Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls are surely the two most distinguished political philosophers of our day, and their work exhibits many parallels: but on this deeply political matter they are worlds apart.

Diary: In Berlin

Onora O’Neill, 12 July 1990

‘Empires may rise and fall; Liberty and Slavery succeed alternately; Ignorance and Knowledge give place to each other; but the Cherry-tree will still remain in the Woods of Greece, Spain and Italy, and will never be affected by the Revolutions of Human Society.’ Hume may have been a bit too confident: in Eastern Europe the Revolutions of Human Society have been threatening even the cherry trees for years. Now we can see with relief that in spite of all the horror stories about polluted wastelands – hugely documented – the cherry trees have made it. The hidden DDR is a beautiful as well as a damaged country.’

Friends of Difference

Onora O’Neill, 14 September 1989

Feminists used to know what they wanted. They wanted women to share the rights, the opportunities and as much of a place in the sun as men enjoy. Variations on this agenda were agreed in pioneering days, and shared until very recently by liberals, Marxists and the ordinary feminist in the street.

Private Lives and Public Affairs

Onora O’Neill, 18 October 1984

Liberal thinkers are keen on self-criticism, a necessary discipline for those who don’t accept intellectual authority. But it can have embarrassing moments, when too much is stripped away and exposed. Most of the essays in Public and Private in Social Life explore aspects of ‘the familiar liberal conception of public and private’; three are ‘external’ critiques of liberal thought, and three describe related distinctions drawn in distant cultures. Nearly all the essays are thoughtful and tough-minded; and many have interesting things to say: but in spite of the underlying commitment to liberalism there is no point at which criticism and self-exposure are compensated for. We are left to wonder whether there is any coherent way in which liberal thought can distinguish the public from the private.

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