Obituary: Professor Peter Winch

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In his obituary of Peter Winch [3 June], Anthony Palmer stated that Winch was Professor of Philosophy at King's College London from 1976, writes Paul Thornley. In fact Peter Winch held the (only) chair there throughout my undergraduate study in the Philosophy Department from 1972 to 1975 as well (and had interviewed me for entry in the autumn of 1971).

Palmer expresses very well Winch's insistence that a philosophical study of language must involve an examination of human society (I think he would have preferred "human life"); but he would also insist that an objective study of language (or life or even logic) could not require terms and concepts quite alien to the context being examined - that such an investigation is not tainted by trying to understand the lives of others "from the inside". It is a delusion of language that we can make sense of language "externally", and has nothing to do with the scientist's concern that the observation of a process may interfere with what is being measured.

Over many years of contact, I only remember one occasion when Peter Winch expressed any diffidence about his early work The Idea of a Social Science and that was at a seminar outside London. I believe that he saw the seeds of his later work within the book, however clumsily expressed, and simply wanted to protect an opportunity for fruitful discussion from the stereotypical comments of those who knew nothing else of his writings or teaching.

Within the department he set a very fine example of intellectual honesty, and of taking the subject seriously. When on this home territory, he trusted himself and his students to follow wherever the argument went and was not in the least defensive of set positions. He always aimed to do philosophy when giving lectures, not to present finished and polished efforts (and here he gave thanks to the inspiring example of Rush Rhees, who held a visiting post at the college for some of this period).

Professor Winch offered support, encouragement and a framework of questioning for his students, whose interests were as diverse as the history of art and mathematics. If he had something of a reputation for prickliness in the circles of academic philosophy, we knew that it stemmed entirely from his fierce concern that the subject mattered and should be taken seriously.

Demonstrations of erudition and verbal subtlety were not allowed to be passed off as depth of thinking. The gesture with clenched fingers and grinding of teeth with which he would respond to some clumsy (or dextrous) skating across the surface of an important topic was known to us, affectionately, as a "winch".