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.

The Androgynous Claim

Onora O’Neill, 15 September 1983

If feminism is an ideology, it is so only in the blandest sense of that term. Most feminists argue their case as one component of a larger picture of human lives and social possibilities. John Charvet’s contribution to the ‘Modern Ideologies’ series acknowledges this point without comment in its very organisation. The book is divided into sections on Individualist Feminism, Socialist Feminism and Radical Feminism, each tracing feminist themes within a more comprehensive theory. This framework distinguishes the book from its stablemates (‘Socialism’,‘Conservatism’, ‘Liberalism’ and, prospectively, other ‘isms’ of our time) and is also its greatest strength. Charvet takes it that the differences between forms of feminism derive from more general ethical and political theories. While all feminists believe in the equality of women with men (apart from a handful who claim women’s superiority), this shared belief receives wholly different interpretations in the context of more basic conceptions of liberty and equality. To articulate and assess feminist theories it therefore becomes necessary to probe the structure of the host ideologies in which feminist thought has flourished. Accordingly, Charvet presents and assesses the conceptions of human freedom and equality underlying liberal individualism, traditional socialism and the New Left in order to elucidate the three types of feminism.

Women and Failure

Onora O’Neill, 15 April 1982

St Bridget of Sweden had eight children and 700 mystical visions. She wrote prolifically, travelled repeatedly, a strenuous pilgrim across 14th-century Europe, founded a religious order in Sweden and nursed the poor in Rome for many years. The format of an illustrated dictionary of biography excuses the authors of Women in History from explaining how she organised her many lives into one. Her achievements, public and familial, are crisply presented with hundreds of other notable lives as a ‘record of 35 centuries of feminine [sic] achievement’: an agreeable and browsable work of reference, an unpretentious corrective to some no doubt persisting gender stereotypes. If there are occasional exaggerations – Von Lawick-Goodall the ‘founding mother of ecology’? – there is also no attempt to veil unheroic moments. Not all achieving women are as omnicompetent as St Bridget.

Foetus Rights

Onora O’Neill, 5 November 1981

Twenty years ago abortion was illegal in most countries and nearly always hazardous: today it is legal in most developed countries and a routine medical procedure. It is hard to think of another goal of the reforming movements of the last two decades which has been so widely achieved.

School for Love

Onora O’Neill, 21 May 1981

Nobody could be more aware than Professor Passmore of the hazards of writing on the philosophy of teaching. He notes disarmingly that ‘the chance of writing even a reasonably good book on any branch of the philosophy of education is statistically very low indeed. It is terribly difficult to write in a manner which is neither philosophy for philosophy’s sake with an occasional example from teaching, nor just a series of commonplace banalities.’ His fear is that this book will fail in the latter way. Fortunately that fear is misplaced: the book fails on neither of these two counts. This is certainly not philosophy with pedagogic illustrations; and banality is kept at bay by the sheer diversity of topics and concerns which Passmore takes up, and by the unexpectedness and crispness of many asides and aperçus. He is learned and interesting, not only about philosophical and theoretical writings on education, but on the history of psychology and of pedagogy; he is familiar with contemporary classroom practices and pedagogic controversy; he is, of course, at home with the history of philosophy; he is humane and judicious, and cares that teaching be well done. The difficulties of the book reflect the problems of the subject; and these are problems which are not readily avoided.

Letter
Jon Elster’s analysis of Eastern European change uses the categories of rational choice, and thereby obscures the culturally specific forms these changes are taking. For example, changes in the DDR, the only Protestant Communist society, are baffling unless seen in the context of a tradition which stressed not only socialist unity and central planning, but work, self-improvement and virtuous...

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