The Luminous Minds of Oxford: Unveiling the Terribly Serious Adventure of Twentieth-Century Philosophy

Step into the captivating world of mid-twentieth-century Oxford philosophers as they navigate war, fascism, and the limits of language, offering profound insights and an inspiring example for our post-truth era in "A Terribly Serious Adventure."

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If one of the central concerns of John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) was to articulate the kind of social conditions in which diverse persons can cultivate their individuality, it seems plausible that Mill’s conception of liberalism is not incommensurable with his more socialist convictions. ( / Getty Images)

Following experts adapted from the author’s recent book, published by Random House Publishing Group

Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity. —Nietzsche

There is no philosophical idea, however deep or subtle, that cannot and should not be expressed in everyone’s language.—Bergson

One may as well begin with Socrates. And with Socrates, it always begins with a boy and a question. This boy is sixteen. He likes to wrestle, and he likes geometry; he will die one of the greatest mathematicians of the age. He is called Theaetetus, and he gives his name to a dialogue by Plato about an episode, very possibly historical, when he, an adolescent mathematical prodigy, meets a Socrates who is shortly to be charged with heinous crimes—impiety, corrupting youth—and sentenced to death.

Theaetetus is not beautiful, but he is bright, even-tempered and intellectually eager, which makes him just Socrates’s type (Socrates was a soul man). In his usual way, he asks the boy, “What is knowledge?

Theaetetus would like to play, but he doesn’t know how. “I assure you, Socrates, that I have often tried to think this out, when I have heard reports of the questions you ask. But I can never persuade myself that anything I say will really do…And yet, again, you know, I can’t even stop worrying about it.”[1] Sometimes, he admits, “when I’m looking at them”—Socrates’s questions—“I begin to feel quite giddy.”

“I dare say you do, my dear boy,” says Socrates. “For this is an experience which is characteristic of a philosopher, this wondering: this is where philosophy begins and nowhere else.” Where philosophy begins: in wonder, giddiness and sleepless nights.

Reading a book without a preface, the logician Michael Dummett (b.1925) once wrote, “is like arriving at someone’s house for dinner, and being conducted straight into the dining-room.” No one is required to read it, but a reader “who wants to be personally introduced has…the right to be.”[4] Even an impersonal history needs a personal note to set off the rest; even Oxford’s short, packed terms have room for a “noughth” week, when introductions are made, and the quaint ways of a strange town explained to the newcomer.

This book is a history of philosophy at Oxford in the mid–twentieth century. Who would want to write the story of such a thing, and why? The question might be asked with either curiosity or disdain: disdain from those who come to the subject armed with strong prejudices, curiosity from those persuaded the history needs to be written but surprised to see it written by someone with so exotic a name.

I arrived in Oxford in 2007, on a scholarship that paid for me to do a second undergraduate degree. Having completed one already, in economics, a moderately useful subject for which I had little affection, I  was resolved not to waste a chance to study something I might, recklessly, enjoy. But at that stage, “philosophy” was a subject about which my ideas were vague and largely romantic. I had grown up in India, a country with a long and sophisticated philosophical tradition honored today chiefly as a piece of inert heritage. One was glad to know it was there; few people were particularly inclined to study it. Still less was there any inclination to treat it as a going concern. Few universities offered it as an option, and those that did taught it as history, as if it were part of the essence of the subject that a philosopher must be not only wise but dead.

What I associated with the word “philosophy” was a particular quality, call it depth. Philosophy was (as the etymology of the Sanskrit word for it suggests) vision, the philosopher a sort of seer (or, see-er). Abstraction was the mark of philosophy, and outlandishness the sign of a philosophical claim worth taking seriously, the more radical its rejection of common sense the better. I was drawn, before I had read very much of it, to a view of philosophy as mystery, as poetry, as paradox. The idea that philosophy was about solving problems—as in, say, trigonometry—would have struck me then as both vulgar and silly.

My undergraduate tutor at Oxford did not share my view. He picked on what I had thought an innocuous line in an essay. “Now what exactly do you mean by…?” I cannot remember the sentence that provoked the question. It was probably the sort of thing I used to think made for a good, a philosophical, sentence: figurative, allusive, oblique, long, and entirely indeterminate in meaning. I offered up my paraphrase, equally figurative, allusive, etc. “But what does that mean, literally?”

“Well,” I said, being young, a little cocky and very ignorant. “Aren’t these sorts of things essentially…ineffable?” He paused, as one might at a swear word from an altar boy. Then, shortly, “On the contrary, these sorts of things are entirely and eminently effable. And I should be very grateful if you’d try to eff a few of them for your essay next week.”

How I resented it at the time. The demand for the explicit statement of theses, for arguments laid out in steps, for claims backed up with evidence, all felt like they belonged to the world of economists, accountants and engineers that I had hoped to leave behind. Why must essays have these unimaginative structures, giving away the game at the start? And why the infernal symbolism, all Greek letters and arrows pointing both ways?

Because I was earnest and anxious to please, I did as I was told. It helped a little that I had a native impulse to pedantry that could be put to useful work. My essays became tamer and shed their attempts at poetry. There was a great deal more “I shall argue that” and rather less mystery. That much was part of a quite familiar undergraduate experience, of learning the rules of a game, the conventions of a genre, the norms of a discipline. But there was something else about these norms that I resented: their insistence on making flights of philosophical fancy accountable to something variously called (impressively) “intuition,” (earthily) “common sense” and (prosaically) “the ordinary.” The idea that philosophy might have to doff its cap to such things was, to me, not so much objectionable as contradictory. It was as if the queen had to seek permission to rule from a mere pawn, or—to change the metaphor—as if the astronomer had to run his calculations by the local palm-reader.

Week after week, I had it put to me that the views I was defending—with increasing confidence and adeptness—didn’t ring true. That the man or woman on the street would find them absurd. That they were pushing against the boundaries of what our words usually meant. My essays came back with dozens of little scribbles in the margins—“ ‘the’ or ‘a’?,” “necessary or sufficient?,” “does this really follow?,” “loose,” “obscure” and (most damningly of all) “unclear.” These criticisms were delivered with the wit and gentle English cruelty that made them hard to ignore. My reports ended with sentences like, “Mr. K. is yet to learn the difference between truth and beauty, open-mindedness and vacillation, the provocative and the absurd.” Here, I found myself not an outsider to philosophical conventions so much as on one side of an old disagreement about philosophy itself.

I found the point well stated in an essay by the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch, in whose divided self I found my own ambivalences reflected. “There is a two-way movement in philosophy,” she wrote, “a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.” I did not then know who McTaggart and Moore were; I thought perhaps they might be dummy names, variations on the generic “Jones” and “Smith” familiar from the reading list.

I suppose that what I was rejecting was the idea that Murdoch had put so well: that philosophy is flight of fancy as well as curt reminder. I desired the fantasy and resented the grunt work, and most of all, the idea of having to be accountable to so lowly a thing as common sense. Today, many years of education later, I teach students in whom I recognize some of my own impulses. And now, it is me with the gentle put-downs, the red pen running wild in the margin of essays that tell me how ineffable it all is.

I had thought, in my initial resentment, that my tutors were telling me, absurdly, that nothing was ineffable, that everything could be put into sentences that might be written by a well-trained bureaucrat. That claim would have been a mistake, but that wasn’t their point. Some things may well be impossible to put into words. But most of us are bad at telling those things apart from the ones we simply haven’t yet found the right words for—because we lack the wisdom, the clarity of vision, or perhaps the purity of heart. That was the moral lesson of my cruel tutelage, and it was several more years before I understood that a moral lesson is what it had been.

Plato, of course, had anticipated it all a couple of thousand years ago. It now seems to me grimly ironic that the scene had to be reenacted before its lessons could be absorbed. So many of Plato’s dialogues are versions of the same parable of the older man and the younger. Old Socrates claims to know nothing at all and speaks only in questions; the young man blithely professes knowledge of all the answers. It takes him a while to learn he should not be so blithe.

The young man is exposed for not knowing what he claims to know. But something else is also exposed, something about the distinctive style of the philosopher. What must have struck the cocky youths in their first encounters with Socrates is the unsettling effect of being taken at their word; not at being taken seriously—rich and glib, they were used to that—but at being taken literally.

The second surprise was that of being called to account. Philosophical questions—Are we free? Can we know?—seem accountable to nothing. What conceivable experiment could prove, or disprove, an answer? How would we even know if we got it wrong? Moreover, little seems to hang on getting the right answer. Indeed, the very idea of a right answer seems to bring in standards improper to a question of that kind. The natural temptation is to take the question not as a request for a straight answer, but as an invitation to be interesting. Before one has been exposed to Socrates’s questions, it is natural to think that the only demands philosophical chat makes are expressive ones. The most common folk model of the philosopher’s style is not that of the weatherman telling you to leave your umbrella at home, but that of the oracle, whose power relies on its every utterance being able to mean itself, its opposite and everything in between. The folk idea of philosophy, sometimes to the credit of the subject and sometimes to its discredit, finds its essence in complexity and ambiguity, not in simplicity and clarity.

The peculiarity of Socrates, and what people must have thought his vulgarity, lay in his insistence that we say no more and no less than we mean. Also in his insistence that we stand by what we have said, until we can no longer mean it. A Socratic education in philosophy is, above all, an education in responsibility. I had thought at first that the technicality of the philosophy I was being taught, its desperate fealty to common sense and its clinical literal-mindedness, were signs of its betrayal of the Socratic legacy to which it laid claim. I was wrong…

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Copyright © 2023 by Nikhil Krishnan

Nikhil Krishnan

Nikhil Krishnan was born in Bangalore, India. He attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and went on to complete a doctorate in philosophy. He now teaches at the University of Cambridge, where he is a fellow of Robinson College. His essays have appeared in several publications, including The New Yorker, The New Statesman, and n+1.

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