The grand delusions of a British philosopher

Philosopher: a kind of life by Ted Honderich (Routledge, £20)
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The Independent Culture

During the 1970s, British philosophy ran out of puff. By abiding too narrowly by its analytic guns, it lost market share to a new breed of American philosopher, men such as John Rawls and John Searle. More ostentatiously, it was swamped by the French. Their logic may not have been unimpeachable, but such figures as Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and even Jacques Derrida offered more exhilarating fare than the spartan English diet.

During the 1970s, British philosophy ran out of puff. By abiding too narrowly by its analytic guns, it lost market share to a new breed of American philosopher, men such as John Rawls and John Searle. More ostentatiously, it was swamped by the French. Their logic may not have been unimpeachable, but such figures as Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and even Jacques Derrida offered more exhilarating fare than the spartan English diet.

The new names in domestic philosophy, moreover, were simply not of the same order as their predecessors. Russell, AJ Ayer, Austin, Isaiah Berlin et al have proved a hard act to follow. That virtually the only British philosopher of today who is well known outside academic circles should be Roger Scruton speaks volumes.

In all of this, the career and output of Ted Honderich is instructive. Until his recent retirement, Honderich was Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London (UCL) - a prestigious chair formerly occupied by Ayer and the engagingly mercurial Richard Wollheim.

Canadian by birth and of Mennonite Irish-German ancestry, Honderich may fairly claim to have achieved some good. As a lecturer at the University of Sussex, he kept alive the hope that rationality and politics may sometimes combine. As an editorial consultant for Penguin as well as Routledge, he oversaw publication of distinguished works. As the author of Punishment: the supposed justifications, he made us think more coherently about what it is a judge does when passing sentence.

As a senior lecturer at UCL, he successfully campaigned against the permanent establishment of a chair of Freudian philosophy. As a socialist polemicist, he made his characterisation of Scruton as "the unthinking man's thinking man" stick. But in his magnum opus, A Theory of Determinism: the mind, neuroscience and life-hopes (1988), he took 650-odd gruelling pages to state the apparently obvious: namely, that any event is the product of anterior events and circumstances. Thus Honderich convincingly demonstrated not just analytic philosophy's loss of sex appeal, but also its loss of perspective.

But Cousin Ted is never one to give up. Now comes the autobiography - 426 densely packed pages of apologetics, as though the author, concerned that no one else might see fit to write his biography, had decided to do the job himself.

The result is a vainglorious self-obituary. Honderich amalgamates four strands: a narrative of how this reporter for The Toronto Star became an English academic; an exegesis of his evolving determinist philosophy; a blow-by-blow account of departmental politics; and a fretful account of his parabola as a serial monogamist.

What escapes Honderich's notice in this wide-ranging assault on life, however, is any sense of a likely readership. To whom does he address himself? His fellow paladins of thought? Tomorrow's acolyte? UCL employees? The utopian followers of an outmoded egalitarian politics? Or the advocates of a free love between men and women that none the less retains marriage as an ideal state?

To take the last first, Honderich fails to bring his successive women to life. They surface rather as a perennial angst. Ditto other, rival philosophers. To describe Ernest Gellner as "the merely sociological adversary of analytic philosophy" is a crime against largesse, the more so as Gellner delivered an argued rebuttal of Freud the like of which Honderich is incapable. And so on through each of Honderich's categories.

In the end, the author's unlikely friendship with that inveterate Tory Peregrine Worsthorne comes as scant surprise. If Thatcher is Honderich's preferred bête noire, then the two have much in common, not least a dogged, intolerant hubris. In a coda, Honderich offers some interesting thoughts about the difficulties of encapsulating a life. But too much of what comes before is self-congratulatory. At one point he compares himself favourably with Rousseau. As confessions go, this is sub-standard.

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