Obituary: Renford Bambrough

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RENFORD BAMBROUGH was a philosopher through and through, a philosopher by vocation.

He argued passionately for the scope for reason in all areas of thought. He had no truck with fashionable positions such as reductionism, emotivism, relativism or subjectivism. He argued, conclusively in my view, for the objectivity of moral judgements as of philosophy itself. For him truth was not, as it was for David Hume, the equivalent of the fox for a fox- hunt (something that gives an extra spice to the ride) but the in-principle attainable end and justification of the activity of philosophy.

Bambrough was strongly influenced by the work of Moore, Wittgenstein and Wisdom in Cambridge, where he had won scholarships and prizes at St John's College. His earlier grounding, apart from lively debates with his future wife, Moira, and others at a sixth-form Sunday debating group in Sunderland, and with fellow miners during his conscription as a Bevin Boy at Wearmouth Colliery in 1944, was in Plato and Aristotle.

He came to believe that Wittgenstein's work disproved his (Wittgenstein's) dismissal of theories in philosophy; he felt that after Wittgenstein it was possible to answer certain fundamental philosophical questions. Hence Bambrough's influential and controversial paper "Universals and Family Resemblances" (1961).

He also wrote extensively on moral philosophy, on the meaning and logic of religious beliefs, and on the nature of philosophy and of philosophical problems. He maintained the classical position of the English-speaking world of philosophy, that there is a logical difference between first- order statements of different categories (matter, mind, ethics, time etc) and the meta- questions about the meaning and status of propositions from these first- order categories that constitute philosophy proper.

But he also argued for a closer connection between some types of first- order questions, such as ethical, political and aesthetic questions, with philosophy itself than was usual in the Sixties and Seventies, a connection based, in his view, on the fact that in both areas reason proceeds in a case-by-case, informal manner, using the language of ordinary speech.

Bambrough was a wonderful teacher, rigorous, fair and committed to a dialogic style. He could also be unconventional, as with one student, who later became a professional philosopher, whom he encouraged, during a prolonged crisis, to leave aside academic philosophy and read the great Russian novelists. He also contributed generously to the administration both of his college, serving as Dean from 1964 to 1979 and President, 1979-83, and of the Cambridge University departments in which he taught, and in the wider world.

He had a wide and deep influence through his writing, teaching, public and radio talks, as well as in his ordinary human contacts. His quiet and thoughtful advice helped many people in their lives, including myself. He had his professional disappointments too.

As a person he was shy yet intellectually courageous. He had a deep seriousness about life, but also a warmth of humour and a deep attachment to friends and family. He was a considerable poker player; later in life he took up golf; he was widely read in all areas of literature. He could be persuaded to take family holidays, but sometimes gave the impression that a flat tyre on the open road was a not unwelcome opportunity for reading a few pages of Wittgenstein while waiting for his wife to deal with the practicalities.

Bambrough was born into a mining background, his father being an electrician at Silksworth Colliery, in the week in 1926 that the General Strike began. His serious attitude to the big questions of life was nurtured in the toughness of a loving, proud north-eastern family and community, as well as in his responsibility for looking after his twin brother, Richard, who was born with learning difficulties.

His own life tragedy began in his mid-sixties, with the onset of an insidious degenerative neurological condition, Lewy Body disease, which quite quickly left him unable to express thoughts and increasingly shaky. This would be torture for anyone, but especially so for someone whose mind had been so wonderfully clear and incisive. He was cared for with devotion by his family and nurses.

Michael Brearley

John Renford Bambrough, philosopher: born Silksworth, Co Durham 29 April 1926; Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1950-99, Dean 1964-79, President 1979-83; University Lecturer in Classics, Cambridge University 1957-66, University Lecturer in Moral Sciences 1966-91; Editor, Philo-sophy 1973-94; married 1952 Moira Mahoney (one son, three daughters); died Cambridge 17 January 1999.