Obituary: Professor John Watkins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JOHN WATKINS was Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics from 1966 until his retirement in 1989.

He wrote classic and much- anthologised papers about the influence of metaphysics on science, about methodological individualism, and about historical explanation. In 1965 Watkins published Hobbes's System of Ideas, in which he demonstrated that Thomas Hobbes's political theory follows from his philosophical ideas. His most important work was Science and Scepticism, published in 1984. In it he tried "to succeed where Descartes failed", and show how science could survive in the face of scepticism.

The scepticism in question was chiefly David Hume's scepticism about the idea of inductive or experimental proof in science. Karl Popper had endorsed that scepticism. Most philosophers thought this gave Popper no right to speak of the "growth of scientific knowledge". Watkins disagreed, arguing that a thoroughly rational view of science and its growth was possible despite scepticism about induction. The book was a great success, and was widely translated.

Watkins had first embarked on a service career. In 1941, aged 17, he passed out in the First Division from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and went straight into the wartime Navy. He served in destroyers, escorting Russian convoys and the battleship carrying Churchill back from Marrakesh.

In 1944 he was decorated with the DSC for torpedoing a German destroyer off the French coast, part of an action which defeated the only remaining surface force that might have interfered with the Normandy landings. Characteristically, Watkins played down his role. The enemy ship would anyway have sunk and had been reduced to a stationary sitting-duck by gunfire. Even so, his torpedoes nearly missed. He, rather than the gunnery officer, was decorated only because British destroyers rarely fired their torpedoes and rarely hit anything with them when they did.

Lt Watkins was in Sydney preparing to sail with the invasion fleet to Japan when he got news of Hiroshima. The war was over. To hope for another war to maintain his interest in a naval career was intolerable. So he resigned from the Navy, and decided on a career in politics. Reading Friedrich von Hayek's Road to Serfdom (1944) on his destroyer had convinced him of the dangers of socialism. Hayek taught at the London School of Economics, so Watkins decided to go there.

As he later saw, the LSE was not the best springboard for a career in Conservative politics - when he joined its Conservative Society the membership swelled by about 10 per cent. However, he wrote a prize- winning essay criticising the left-wing guru Harold Laski, who became his "improbable father-figure". That, and a First in Political Science, won him a Henry Ford Fellowship to Yale, where he graduated MA in 1950. Then he returned to the LSE as Assistant Lecturer in Political Science.

He had attended Karl Popper's lectures at the LSE in logic and scientific method and had fallen under his spell. In 1958 he shifted from the Government Department to Popper's, being appointed Reader in Philosophy. Imre Lakatos joined them in 1960. The next decade saw the "LSE position" in the philosophy of science achieve an international prominence it had never before possessed. Perhaps the high point was a conference organised in London in 1965, attended by a "Who's Who" of prominent scholars from all over the world. Watkins and Lakatos edited the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Watkins was President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science from 1972 until 1975. Popper retired in 1970 and Lakatos died, aged only 52, in 1974.

If Thomas Henry Huxley was Darwin's bulldog, then Watkins was Popper's. It was all the more surprising, then, that they eventually fell out. Imre Lakatos had criticised Popper's philosophy of science. Huxley's evolution controversies were once described as "a storm in a Victorian tea-cup". In Science and Scepticism Watkins described the Popper-Lakatos controversies as "a storm in an ink-pot". But he did say that Lakatos had been right, and Popper wrong, on a simple point of logic. After this, their relations never really recovered.

After his retirement in 1989, Watkins continued to write and to travel widely to conferences and lecturing assignments. He returned to a problem that had long occupied him and had just completed a book on human freedom, yet to appear. He played a leading role in establishing the Lakatos Award in the Philosophy of Science as the pre-eminent scholarly distinction in the field. That contribution was recognised only a few weeks before he died.

John Watkins was a stylist, in life and in letters. His writings were punctuated with pithy epigrams and jokes that deflated puffed-up egos and set his readers chuckling. He was ever the genial English host in a department noted rather for East European intensity.

Above all, he was a loyal and constant friend. He said that his war service was a case of "My country right or wrong". After that it became "My university right or wrong" and "My department right or wrong" and "My colleagues right or wrong". Old-fashioned virtues, perhaps, but of inestimable worth to those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of them.

John William Nevill Watkins, economist: born Woking, Surrey 31 July 1924; DSC 1944; Assistant Lecturer in Political Science, London School of Economics 1950-53, Lecturer 1953-58, Reader in Philosophy 1958-66, Professor of Philosophy 1966-89 (Emeritus); married 1952 Micky Roe (one son, three daughters); died Salcombe, Devon 26 July 1999.