Once a year, tall, oddly-dressed British philosophers meet to trade ideas and insults at "The Joint Session". The best guide to this event is Ted Honderich, a professor who can tell if a colleague is "mad as a frigging hatter"
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AT A philosophers' sherry party in one of the buildings of Liverpool University - in the heady half-minute or so between the start of the party and the sherry's exhaustion - Ted Honderich, the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, encountered another philosopher. Using a friendly, you-old-bugger sort of tone, Hon- derich said, "I gather you think all conditionals are logically, necessarily, true!" Ha! The other philosopher paused. "No," he said, "no I don't."

Philosophers take questions seriously and they take answers seriously. It is their job to do so. This puts rather a brake on banter. In philosophy, there seems to be a real fear that rash or ill-considered answers might be forever held against one, to the grave: and there seems to be no easy way to make a subsequent retraction ("Only kidding there about Wittgenstein..."). At the "Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association" in Liverpool this summer - which is a kind of peripatetic AGM of British philosophy, and where the sherry party was held - philosophers were remarkable for their tallness, their seasonal wardrobes, and their general unexcitedness about sleeping over the road from Penny Lane. But equally noticeable was the philosophers' reluctance to go on the record. You could almost call them cagey. "No, not cagey," said one philosopher, who had just peered into my notebook, and had edited, on paper, a verbatim quote, "not cagey - it's just I do not wish to say something that is false."

MY GUIDE among the philosophers was Prof-essor Honderich, whose Oxford Companion to Philosophy is about to be published. You suspect that he must spend quite a lot of his professional life in one-sided banter. Because, apart from being quite as brilliant and learned and so on as his title suggests, he is a very social, funny man, with a taste for gossip and wine - and for waving at girls through the windows of fast-moving trains. ("I'm waving at a girl who's waving at me," he said. "That's my version.") We took the train from London to Liverpool, and - perhaps because it was a hot day - he met me at the barrier at Euston in an amazing pale blue suit and a very unbuttoned blue shirt, worn with pale blue shoes. He could have pimped on Kojak or Starsky and Hutch. He later told me he had a terrible hangover. As we settled into our seats, he said: "Where's the frigging coffee?" as if there was some conspiracy to withhold it.

I had been told that there is a minor crisis of confidence in British philosophy. More students than ever want to study the subject, and more general readers are assuming an interest in Big Questions - thanks, perhaps, to the bestselling philosophical teen novel Sophie's World, or to Stephen Hawking, or some vaguer millennial angst - but this has not prevented British philosophy from dipping into a mild depression. "All the action," one philosopher told me mournfully, "is in the States. The centre of gravity has shifted." There was a time, in the Forties and Fifties and Sixties, when smart American graduate students all wanted to study in Oxford. Now British graduate students fight to get into Princeton and Berkeley, to study with the big names: Donald Davidson, David Lewis. These are the players, and they work in a culture that pays philosophy professors significantly greater respect - and money - than they receive in Britain: $150,000 a year, perhaps, rather than pounds 30,000 or pounds 40,000. Partly because of that difference in status, and partly because British universities in the Seventies and Eighties were overcommitted to the philosophy of language at a time when the fashion was shifting towards philosophy of mind, this country has become, I was told, "just a backwater, providing a commentary on American philosophers." (One non-Oxford philosopher explained that his Oxford colleagues have refused to acknowledge this. "They're so inward-looking. It's like the joke about the Catholics in heaven. St Peter's showing a new person round, and he says, `There's the Muslims' house, there's the Ang-licans' house,' and so on - `And there's the Catholics' house - but you've got to be quiet when you go past, because they think they're the only people here.' ")

It is against this background of popular enthusiasm and slight academic uncertainty that Honderich's 1,000-page Companion is published. He edited the book, and contributed one subversive entry: "Unlikely philosophical propositions" (for example, he writes, he has no time for the proposition that " `In the possible world where I'm wearing brown shoes and a hat...' can mean something other than and grander than `In this world, if I were wearing brown shoes and a hat...' "). Honderich hopes that the Companion will have "15 or 20 years as your intelligent punter's guide to the subject. And I think there's a chance of that." Among the 2,000 entries (written by 249 contributors) are those for "Slippery slope", "Snow is white" and "Vague objects"; also for "Time travel", "Nonsense on stilts" and "Meaning of life" (for which the entry reads: "see life, meaning of"). Also: "Brain in a vat", "Flesh" and "The Barber paradox" ("The barber in a certain village is a man who shaves all and only those men in the village who do not shave themselves. Is he a man who shaves himself? If he is, then he isn't, and if he isn't, then he is"). Interestingly, however, there is no entry in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy for "Philosopher".

Honderich tried to help. On the train to Liverpool, he was soon telling a story about the dress sense of another philosopher, whom he had once interviewed for a job. This other philosopher was wearing an "upper garment that somehow failed to have a collar or a button or any opening. It was impossible to see how he'd got into it. We had these prolonged interviews all day. He seemed to me to be mad, but the cleverest applicant, and madness is after all no disability with respect to a philosopher - philosophy's filled up with crazy views. So I and most of the other young turks in the department insisted he be elected. We put up such a stiff fight on his behalf that it was agreed he would be interviewed again, the following Saturday. And he'd obviously come from some distant provincial place, with his one ingenious garment, so he was wearing it again, but some terrible misfortune had overcome him, and I think it must have been shaving. He'd cut himself badly while shaving in this garment and it was bloody, spattered." Honderich is laughing loudly. "So we carried out this interview with this blood-spattered man. I somehow felt that the visual presentation made the upshot what it was - which was he never got to University College."

He later added: "Philosophy tolerates, and always has tolerated, strange ideas. For example, I have a colleague whose principle contribution to thought - which may yet get published as a book - is that we are all one person. He thinks we're all one person. And he's quite well equipped to deal with the usual retorts about sex, incest, self-abuse, all those things."

Honderich, now 62, was born in Canada, and still has a Canadian accent. He was drawn to London partly by the Welfare State - "the moral glory of the twentieth century" - and partly by the presence at UCL of AJ Ayer - "the blessed Freddie" - whose Language, Truth and Logic (1936) had fired him as an undergraduate in Toronto: "It all seemed to be obviously true, and what's more, inflammatory." (This combination remains particularly seductive to Honderich.) Honderich has taught at Yale and the City University of New York; in 1988, he had his existing UCL chair upgraded to Ayer's old "Grote" chair. He admits to some spiritual air-punching at the time. He and Ayer's widow are joint executors of Ayer's literary estate.

Honderich's main philosophical interest is the philosophy of mind, a subject "that has been computerised over the past 20 or 30 years... the mind regarded as what is in the middle of input and output. I regard that as essentially batty." Honderich's greatest desire is to put the record straight in "a book on the nature of the mind that lasted for 50 or 100 years - 50, say - after I snuff it." His other philosophical specialities are determinism, and political philosophy; and in these three areas he has written the texts that have made his reputation. But besides his many academic publications, Honderich has also written for a more general readership; he directs non-philosophers towards the recent paperbacks: How Free Are You? (1993) and Conservatism (1990). Readers of the latter, or of a recent pamphlet called Hierarchic Democracy and the Necessity of Mass Civil Disobedience, will gather that Honderich is no friend of the Right, and those readers who are sympathetic to his politics will find something particularly satisfying about having long-held Left positions given such handsome, sturdy foundations. He is witty, and passionate, and cruelly inclined to give his ideological opponents all the intellectual space they might want, feigning surprise that they then seem to have nothing sensible to say (like the schoolmaster who quiets a class, then invites a riotous pupil to share his so-urgent opinions with the rest: "I'm sure we'd all be interested to hear..."). There's something of the expert political speech writer in this manner, and during the last general election campaign, Honderich was invited to fax the odd paragraph over to Labour HQ, and would later spot a phrase or two in Neil Kinnock's speeches.

He remains a Labour Party member, in Hampstead, where he lives. Honderich has two adult children, and three ex-wives. He teaches, he bicycles, he sees his many friends, including Michael Foot, and he aims to drink no more than five-eighths of a bottle of wine a day - any more, and he suffers for it terribly: gloom descends the following day. He occasionally contributes to Newsnight, or to something on Radio 3. He says there are those in his profession who regard him as "a suspect cosmopolitan figure... `There's Honderich showing off, refuting Jeremy Paxman.' " This is true: he does have critics. While Honderich has called Roger Scruton the "unthinking man's thinking man", Scruton has called Honderich "the thinking man's unthinking man". And another philosopher told me he considered Honderich to be "Sometimes crass, bullying - urbane is not a word you would ever use." Honderich, he alleged, depends too much on "the sheer force of his personality". Some feel that his career successes have outstripped his philosophical achievement. "His reputation is not high," I was told, "his works are not cited. He would never be made a Fellow of the British Academy."

Honderich says he took on the editorship of the Oxford Companion "for three reasons. First I thought it would increase my fame, second I thought I'd get a lot of money, and third I thought I could do it on the side. It is that third reason that really sticks in my mind. I cannot understand how people can make such amazing blunders. I spent two years, from dawn to dusk, from five in the morning to seven at night." I asked Honderich if it was possible to distinguish between personal, worldly, ambition, and a purer ambition to have one's philosophy out there, seen and heard. He said he was "pretty sure that having the worldly ambition furthers the higher ambition. That is, I'm strongly inclined to think that those persons who've worked out good philosophies might not have done so if they didn't have the spur of worldly ambition. That sounds like an amazingly Tory thing to say, and my inclinations are not exactly Tory, but the worldly ambition is certainly a spur to the realisation of intellectual ambition."

WE ARRIVED in Liverpool. Walking across the station concourse, Ted Honderich's easy pace suddenly quickened. He told me to hurry, and there seemed to be real panic in his voice. As we neared the taxi rank, it became clear that he was running away from a fellow delegate. Security cameras would have captured a rare sight: one philosopher pursuing another philos-opher on Liverpool Lime Street. Honderich later explained that this was a kind of Race of Embarrassment, connected to the pursuer's earlier, unsuccessful, attempt to secure a job, and Honderich's failure, at the time, even to notice the attempt was taking place. The "Joint Session", as it is known for short, is an academic thing - papers are given, and replied to, in different areas of the subject - and it is a clearly a social thing - there's sherry, and salmon, and a rarefied form of flirtation - but it is also a career event. Although it attracts established philosophers, the conference is especially appealing to the eager, the young, and the jobless, who have a rare chance to make some kind of mark. Honderich, now quite a swell in the profession, said he had not been for "a hundred years".

Up near Penny Lane, we were given a Joint Session pen, and a Joint Session pad and blue zip-up folder. We were shown to elegant, spartan, Hall of Residence bedrooms, and we were encouraged to pass the time before the Joint Session's Inaugural Address in a high-ceilinged place where publishers of philosophical books had set up stalls. Honderich said that his all- time favourite philosophical book title was If p then q. He questioned a woman from Oxford University Press about the potential sales of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. There seemed to be some competition around for the Companion, both published and forthcoming: encyclopedias and dictionaries. It is as if philosophy has been taken over by a spirit of categorisation and summing-up. This has something to do with commerce: academic publishers today tend to favour dictionaries and textbooks over scholarly monographs, especially in the boom subject of philosophy. But a Wittgensteinian in Liverpool (a breed Honderich describes as "not actually on board the bus") had another suggestion: he thought this tendency might be linked to philosophy becoming unsurveyable; as bridges are built to other disciplines, as philosophers migrate into philosophy and the law, philosophy and economics, philosophy and environmental thinking, there might be an understandable, last-ditch urge to pin the subject down.

Another delegate had a more gloomy thought. All this summing-up, he said, could perhaps be connected to the British sense of American philosophical supremacy. Perhaps commentary was the only thing left for British philosophers to do. "That is, if you want a crude generalisation", he added, with some distaste - philosophers aim to boycott the trade in crude generalisations.

The British philosophers who gradually gathered in the room were mostly male, and - like Honderich - very tall. One giant thinker wore braces inside his shirt, against the skin. There were other odd, shiny garments around, perhaps home-made. There was also a large contingent of rather chic young men in dark clothes, whom you might have taken to play a modest role in the film industry. Honderich pointed out this person and that: "He's mad as

a frigging hatter", he said, or: "He's a long-runner", or: "She wants a job. She's not going to get what she wants. Sitting there waiting for her prey." Talking to his colleagues, he tended to start conversations with "How goes American philosophy?" or "How goes Oxford philosophy?" - perhaps with slight sadism, knowing that the question required an answer of agonising complexity and subtlety, for which there was clearly insufficient time.

Honderich wondered whether, during the weekend sessions, "the gloves would come off". Philosophy is a traditionally combative discipline. It is in the strange nature of the subject that, although philosophers have specialities and chosen fields of interest, most of them can understand what most of their colleagues are talking about. More important, they feel qualified, or even obliged, to dispute what they hear. So the expert speaker - never able to bring the proof along, suspended irrefutably in formaldehyde - is vulnerable to attack, but not only from other experts, but from a smart-alec 25-year-old with ambition and an amusing waistcoat, whose business is argument. You can base a reputation on public performance. The specialist historian probably needs to fear about three or four other people in the world. The specialist philosopher fears everyone.

The room carried the scent of forced interdependency - fellow hostages chained to the same basement radiator. Philosophers may be unusually vulnerable to attack, but they also rather need each other. Professor Mark Sainsbury of King's College London described to me a sabbatical on the Greek island of Samos: peace, sunshine, a daily swim. "I was extremely disciplined," he said. "I started at eight every morning and I didn't stop until five in the afternoon. And I wrote a lot of stuff. I really thought I was making progress. And when I got back to London and started talking about it, I realised it was all terrible. It all had to be scrapped. For my next sabbatical stretch I want to stay in London and I want to talk to people on a daily basis, to check that I'm not going mad."

One young philosopher told me: "People say, `Oh, he's going out with a non-philosopher.' Like, he's going out with a gentile. You don't get that in other disciplines."

The Inaugural Address was given by Stephen Clark of the University of Liverpool. He started by identifying a problem that must dog all academic conferences. What he was about to say had already been published, together with all the other conference papers."The problem," said Professor Clark, who had a droopy moustache and a rather sad, defeated air about him, "is that some people have read the papers and some people have not. Hands up who's read the paper." Pause. "That was a serious question." Then: "So what's the point of my standing here reading it to you?"

He did read it (it was called Substance: or Chesterton's Abyss of Light, and included the line: "I know that my spouse exists, I really do know that"). When he had finished, someone asked him: "When you say there can't be nothing, do you mean that nothing can't be, or there must be something?" Honderich was more hostile, and suggested that half of Clark's argument was "pretty mystifying and it would be a good idea if you explained it to us a little more". Stephen Clark said, "I don't know if I can," but tried. The meeting soon came to an end.

AT DINNER, later, it was generally agreed that Clark had not done well, and had got off extremely lightly, but it was also explained that such generosity was rather a tradition for the inaugural address, which must be given by the most senior philosopher at whichever institution the Joint Session is held, whether one would like that or not. It was also claimed by some delegates that the tradition of gladiatorial exchange - there's a story about Wittgenstein wielding a poker - is in decline. Today, there is still excited talk of "shooting down", "going for the jugular" and "biting his ankles", but it is more strictly metaphorical than it once was.

At Liverpool, the young turks would get their chance to shine in public disagreement, later in the weekend - the questions and answers that followed Moral Sentiments, and the Difference They Make, for example, were more high-powered than those after the inaugual address, inspired by papers of a higher quality, I was assured. ("It's necessary to disagree," said Honderich in whispered commentary, "because to fail to disagree is to convict oneself of want of ingenuity and invention and all of these things. But to fall into hostility is to endanger your life's chances considerably.")

But after the inaugural address on the opening night, the disenchantment with Clark was expressed more privately. The philosophers had sherry, then sat down to a jolly, long dinner, and said, for example: "He managed to be preposterous and banal at the same time". Another: "I blame Christianity." A final body blow: "It was essentially literary."

After dinner, a jazz quintet played in a darkened room. The philosophers were unwilling to be interviewed, almost as if too preoccupied with the role of being philosophers at play. The grand old man of British philosophy, Peter Geach, whose surname is what you might say, in alarm, on first seeing him, swung away before my question was finished. The smart young men drank smart short drinks. In the telephone booths near the reception desk, garish yellow cards, like those for minicabs or prostitutes, had been illicitly stuck up. They gave notice of a learned philosophical journal called Utilitas.

Professor Honderich made for bed. He slept badly, disturbed by late-night philosophers making use of a lavatory close to his room. !