Diary

Richard Wollheim

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.

Up to probably the end of the Fifties there existed in Great Britain a sizeable number of people, secular or non-denominational in their interests, in large part outside the conventional educational system, modest in all except their cultural ambitions, readers of, say, the New Statesman and George Eliot, who craved philosophy. Furthermore the media were willing to recognise their existence. In 1951 Stuart Hampshire produced a small book on Spinoza. Spinoza was, through his associations with 19th-century dissent, the philosopher designed to appeal to this audience, but it is still remarkable that (as I recall things) 40,000 copies of the paperback should have sold in three months. The Third Programme could not broadcast enough philosophy for its liking. In the eyes of Niouta Kallin, the great arbiter of the Programme, the only defect in a philosophical talk would be that it was pas tout à fait troisème programme, by which she meant that its intellectual content was diluted. T.S. Gregory, another producer, an ex-priest, requisitioned great swathes of studio time, then of broadcasting time, for unscripted, unrehearsed discussions of the going philosophical issues, in the belief that the public not only wanted to hear philosophy, they wanted to hear philosophers: they wanted, in other words, to listen in on ideas and arguments in the making. One afternoon, Freddie’s departmental seminar was convened in Broadcasting House, and we spent an hour and a half discussing live the issue of other minds and their reality. I was reminded of this occasion by a letter in the Independent (8 July) from the Conservative member for Canterbury who, appointing himself the champion of traditional values, castigated as ‘absurd’ Ayer’s interest in what has, after all, been one of the central problems of European philosophy for the last few hundred years.

Whether the public of those days really wanted as much philosophy as it got, and, for that matter, whether today’s public wouldn’t like a great deal more than it is offered, are matters on which we cannot arrive at a precise opinion. But there are two points worth noting. The first is that the popularity of philosophy in this country was at its peak at the very period when, if we are to believe the pontiffs of the last ten days, philosophy itself was at its most ‘superficial’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘sterile’, ‘threadbare’, ‘disenchanted’, ‘paltry’. How could this be? And the second point is that – periods of real revolutionary fervour apart, when bounds are broken and ideas find their level – philosophy cannot be more popular than it is allowed to be. If today the media are not interested in philosophy, or confine this interest to the deaths of eminent philosophers, how can the public show what it feels or what it wants? Perhaps there is a way, but what is it?

When Freddie addressed himself to a larger audience, it was not only to popularise philosophy. Sometimes he did so in order to show how a mind of a secular cast, but tempered by philosophy, saw the great contemporary issues of personal behaviour or social organisation. In this way Freddie rather self-consciously continued a tradition: Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, are its great names. Those of genuine religious belief, but, far more frequently, fellow-travellers with the pious, have objected to this tradition. I can’t quite see why. The great faiths have their bishops and their imams, their rabbis and their priests, and it seems to me only appropriate that those without faith should want to hear from, and to listen very carefully to, intellectuals who share their disbelief and have won recognition in some cultural field. These lay figures are not authorities, but they rightly command attention.

In my article in the Independent (29 June) I situated Freddie in this tradition, pointed out the lesser place it occupied in British life since the late Seventies, and regretted this. Seemingly my letter irritated the Minister for Higher Education, who took time off to reply (Independent, Letters, 30 June). He made two points. First, Ayer spoke for a hegemony whose days, I ought to recognise, were now over. Secondly, the kind of critical or negative thinking in which this hegemony specialised was nothing to regret. Letters followed, and then the Minister came back (Independent, 3 July), signalling a volte-face. The hegemony that was said three days ago to have been ‘dethroned’ was now identified with Dworkin rather than Ayer and declared the ‘established orthodoxy of academe’, and polemic had value reassigned to it.

There are two rather sombre reflections that this exchange invites. The first is that those in power cannot long retain a sense of the seriousness of argument. Ministers, after all, live in an environment where, as John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a hundred years ago, the votes are in before the debate begins. How can this kind of situation, in which our liberties are supposed to be safeguarded, keep alive what argument means for those who live by it? Secondly, in high places, it is not only the seriousness, it is the point, the purpose, of argument that gets lost. For a Minister it is second nature to think that argument is good in so far as it is directed against the other side. Intellectuals cannot think like this, for they have to recognise that crucial to holding a belief is seeing how it stands up to the arguments pitted against it.

I often recall a moment at Columbia University when Professor M, an East European philosopher, who had got into considerable trouble in his own country, was, during one of his visits to America, giving a lecture, and, after it, a student asked him a question: ‘Professor M, I have now heard you lecture several times, and always you have something sharp to say against socialism, though you call yourself a socialist. Haven’t you ever thought of speaking out against capitalism?’ Professor M considered the question and the student. ‘I have thought of it very often. And I think that, if I had followed what I take to be your advice to me, I should have had a much quieter life.’ I think of Professor M whenever I read columnists who have grown fat ranting against the Soviet Union, or Cuba, or for that matter against South Africa, or Israel, or Iran. Criticism begins at home. I find it no accident that Professor M was a student of Freddie’s.

What, then, of the criticism that Freddie narrowed the range of philosophy? The question is not simple.

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I was friendly with an eccentric old lady who one day gave me a book of her poems. She had not written them all, she explained. Some had a P at the end, and they had been written by her friend, a little fairy called Pipplepopple. I must not laugh, she added quickly, or Pipplepopple would be offended. The question is: was the view of the world I hold, which my smile betrayed, narrower than that of this elderly Irish peeress? Was her philosophy broader than mine? Are those who disbelieve in fairies dry, cold, paltry, disenchanted corrupters of the young?

Few would say yes, because in practice it is generally recognised, despite the humbug of these last few days, that the narrowness or breadth of an intellectual system cannot be gauged without reference to what we independently believe to exist. The complication is that once we start to philosophise, these independent beliefs can no longer be taken for granted. We must either give reasons for them, or give reasons why we don’t have to do this.

For Freddie, his philosophy restored the world to its true dimensions. It got rid of the false clutter, and it refreshed the original colours. In the Thirties many of the abler philosophers of the previous generation, such as H.H. Price or William Kneale, in no way iconoclasts, felt grateful to Freddie.

No one who has responded to the cadence of Freddie’s prose could doubt the expressiveness of his philosophy, or the vision of the world out of which he wrote. It was a world in which all men, freed of prejudice, could talk as equals: intellectual curiosity need recognise no bounds; and, as men talked on, the preposterous would show itself for what it was. To the world properly perceived, our emotions would slowly adapt themselves, and sexual jealousy and the fear of death would be attenuated. It has been said that such a vision cannot survive the experience of art. This is preposterous. It is an oily vulgarism to think that on any matter art speaks with a single voice.

A mistake is to confuse the possible narrowness of a philosophical system with the certain narrowness of our philosophical education. For over a hundred years now, for ultimately social reasons, philosophy in Oxford and then elsewhere has tended to limit itself to what can be effectively taught through the tutorial system and effectively examined at the end of three years. George Walden, the ex-Minister of Higher Education, has asked why we don’t teach Nietzsche and Heidegger – both, incidentally, sceptics far beyond Ayer (Daily Telegraph, 29 June). Why not indeed? Though I can think of greater thinkers whose absence is more to be regretted: Leibniz, Marx, F.H. Bradley, Freud. For the record, it should be pointed out that Freddie left behind in London University a uniquely broad syllabus.

In the Sunday Telegraph (2 July) Professor Roger Scruton published an article headed ‘The man who hated wisdom’. Scruton is a professional philosopher. He knows the history of philosophy well. He is fully aware of the complex issues that surround the assessment of a philosophy like Ayer’s. Yet for the duration of his obituary, he ignored these considerations in the interests of belittling a serious philosopher and of establishing his own profundity. Three times now, Scruton has sanctimoniously assaulted a major thinker of our age – Michel Foucault, Isaiah Berlin, A.J. Ayer – in words that anyone of sensibility, friend, acquaintance, enemy, would have dropped down dead rather than see appear above his name.