Stuart Hampshire

Stuart Hampshire is Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and the author of Spinoza and of Thought in Action.

Master’s Voice

Stuart Hampshire, 19 June 1986

This is a most unusual book. It is the autobiography of a philosopher who has been as widely and deeply respected as any English-speaking philosopher now alive. Professor Quine is enjoying a vigorous and productive retirement after many years’ teaching at Harvard. His tone here is jaunty, and he expresses steady enjoyment of almost everything that has happened to him along the way. In the age of P.G. Wodehouse there used to be an adjuration, typically shouted from a touchline of schoolboys: ‘Buck up there, Smith.’ Professor Quine has been enormously, almost monstrously bucked up, according to his own account. He strides through this century of war and massacre with scarcely a sideways glance at its more discouraging features. The book is unusual because this record of unqualified success, of unflagging good cheer, does not have the effect on the reader that might have been expected: irritation. On the contrary, there is a charm that is increasingly felt as one reads on to the present day.

Small Creatures

Stuart Hampshire, 5 September 1985

In the academic study of philosophy in English-speaking countries Spinoza is not usually considered an indispensable source for the central tradition, on a level with Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant; and probably he never will be. Even advanced students of philosophy often proceed on their way through the 17th century towards Leibniz and Locke without reading the Ethics, Spinoza’s posthumously published definitive work. There are two principal reasons for this comparative neglect. First, a rebarbative style in unbeautiful Latin, full of scholastic terminology, redolent of the Middle Ages, as if he was living in an intellectual ghetto at a time when he and all Europe could read the new, transparent prose of Pascal and Descartes. There is a knotted gracelessness, an obstinate refusal to please, on the surface of his writing. Secondly, he made no useful contributions either to logic or to the philosophy of language, and these have become the dominant interests within English-speaking philosophy. A third reason is that he was a strangely confident metaphysician who had a complete system of the world and of our place within it, a system that he flatly declared to be demonstrably true. Untouched by a decent scepticism or by the conventions of authorial modesty, he can at times seem slightly crazy in his ambitions, as if he has been invented by Swift.


Stuart Hampshire, 16 February 1984

This is a very long biography, and before it appeared Alan Turing was not very well-known; his genius was of a kind that is not likely to be spread abroad. An immense amount of work has gone into this book, which expresses profound, and sometimes almost obsessional, admiration. It is not hagiography, but rather a study of a hero, an intellectual hero. I found it continuously readable and interesting, and it will, I think, be found moving and unforgettable by those who are ready to enter into the cryptographical and mathematical technicalities. The author quite often steps forward and gives the reader a piece of his mind on public issues, and his manner of presentation and style are as unlike those of an assured professional biographer as they could possibly be. But the style matches the subject. Alan Turing evidently was proud to be an odd-man-out: he insisted on informality in all circumstances, and even among his mathematical colleagues he seems to have cultivated an air of amateurishness. Mr Hodges gives a most convincing picture of this side of his character.

Wild Words

Stuart Hampshire, 18 August 1983

Coolidge is a hero in Paul Johnson’s eyes, and Franklin Roosevelt a villain. The former is quoted with approval: business ‘has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.’ About Roosevelt Mr Johnson writes: ‘In terms of political show-business he had few equals and he had an enviable knack of turning problems into solutions.’ About William Temple he writes: ‘a jovial, Oliver Hardy figure, with an appetite not merely for carbohydrates, but for social martyrdom’. About the Bloomsbury group: ‘the influence of Bloomsbury had reached upwards and downwards by the 1930s to embrace almost the entire political nation. Among the Left intelligentsia, the patriotism which Strachey had so successfully sought to destroy had been replaced by a primary loyalty to Stalin.’ There is an exasperated tension in Mr Johnson’s beliefs and the excitement keeps the narrative going, however unbalanced the judgments become. In fact, Keynes and Leonard Woolf, the only politically active members of Bloomsbury, were always very strongly anti-Communist, particularly Woolf, and that sinister upwards and downwards movement is a mere fever of fantasy, as those of us old enough to read the papers in the Thirties well know.

Radical Egoism

Stuart Hampshire, 19 August 1982

These are the years of early fame after Sons and Lovers, and of the publication of The Rainbow and its banning, and of Lawrence’s violent and despairing reactions to the war. He was already a fully recognised writer, a probable genius, and his more intimate correspondents include Cynthia Asquith, Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Edward Marsh, Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Philip Heseltine, Mark Gertler. The letters to Russell tell a particularly vivid story. Lawrence harassed Russell relentlessly and at great length, repetitiously and in a wilfully unpleasant tone. He kept on banging away at Russell’s vaunted rationality, his putative concern with peace, his humanitarian sentiments. ‘What you want is to jab and strike, like the soldier with the bayonet, only you are sublimated into words… It is not the hatred of falsehood which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood.’ Russell endured more, and for a longer time, than his autobiography suggested. His forbearance was astonishing, and it must be interpreted as coming from the respect that Russell believed to be owed to genius. He must have found it tiresome to be told in letter after letter that his pacifism was a cloak for his natural aggressiveness, and that his concern for humanity disguised a cold detachment: particularly tiresome, because the accusations probably had some measure of truth, a nagging plausibility, at least. It is not surprising that he sought a respite and that the friendship finally foundered.

Someone else’s shoes

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 23 November 1989

As Brian Barry suggests, the question of justice arises when custom loses its grip; when the prevailing social myth and what Stuart Hampshire calls its ‘fallacy of false fixity’...

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Local Justice

T.M. Scanlon, 5 September 1985

Has contemporary moral and political philosophy placed too much emphasis on a mistaken search for ‘rational foundations’ for our moral beliefs? A number of recent writers have...

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