Kant for every day

Politicians and others who speak of moral values should learn a bit of elementary philosophy and start talking sense. By David Walker
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The Independent Online
"I doubt whether most people in today's Cabinet could name a single living British philosopher," says Ray Monk, the acclaimed biographer of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Can that be right, when political leaders, left and right, are encouraging a great moral debate and the political air is thick with talk of fundamental values and ethics? Here are the Prime Minister saying tax cuts are a moral issue, the Education Secretary telling parents the cane is an instrument of moral improvement and the leader of the Opposition saying he is a socialist, but only in the ethical sense.

The Open University's Janet Radcliffe Richards, author of The Sceptical Feminist, laments that such philosophising is all too often done in ignorance of philosophy. "These debates just make you want to tear your hair - people have very little idea what philosophy is."

Still, the Cabinet ought to be able to recollect some names. There is their own nominee to the chair of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the philosopher Anthony O'Hear of Bradford University, and the fox-hunting aesthetician and connoisseur of Conservatism, Roger Scruton. They might also stump up the illustrious name of Isaiah Berlin and perhaps remember their former leader's stern critic, Lady Warnock. But neither of those are in the first flush of youth; besides, Isaiah Berlin is hardly a conventional philosopher.

A generation ago it would surely have been different. Cabinet members would have rattled off the names of Austin, Strawson, Ryle, Ayer - and might have added for good measure the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch. But that was then. Now even the younger colleagues of those Fifties greats, such as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams, have retired. (Williams was replaced in the Whyte chair at Oxford this term by James Griffin, who himself is well advanced in academic years.)

But does that make the story of British philosophy the same as that of the British Empire: once it was great and ruled the world; now it is a pale shadow?

The outline runs something like this. There was a golden age when British philosophy had a reputation; it was synonymous with English analytic philosophy and the group of Oxonians exemplified by JL (how to do things with words) Austin. There were times when their work was made to seem quintessentially English. A paper by Gilbert Ryle in 1960 captured the mood: it contrasted the befuddlement of the Germans with the clarity of Anglo-Saxon efforts to strip language down to its underpants.

Not for English philosophers to pursue truth like Descartes or, like Plato, to recommend how to live a good life, or even to talk about God. They were like explorers in the jungle, hacking away at the undergrowth so that everyone could at least talk intelligibly about such things, even if the Oxonians considered talk about God to be infra dig.

But in the Sixties (the story goes on) young bloods became discontented with the legacy. They lusted after those promiscuous ladies, History and Meaning, and established Radical Philosophy groups to read Marx and Sartre and, later, Derrida. Philosophy fragmented. Oxford's sun set and Princeton's rose. Ted Honderich at University College, London - this is a philosophers' joke - says the Hegelian world spirit took wing to relocate on the east coast of the US.

Philosophy started to cohabit, then breed, with neuropsychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence. The best, or at any rate the most exciting, philosophy started to be done by mathematicians such as Roger Penrose, with his argument that human thought processes can never be matched by machines, however many gigabytes they deploy; and the biologist Richard Dawkins with his exploration of how far our minds and make-up are determined by our genes.

Once you could keep up with British philosophy by reading The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Nowadays, to that genteel journal you would have to add a huge number of periodicals encompassing the work of feminists, methodologists and many, many other sub-divided specialists. Old favourites revived. Professor Honderich reports packed crowds for the Royal Institute of Philosophy's current lecture series on the philosophy of mind. The ancient Greeks are enjoying yet another lease of life. Political philosophy, extensively Americanised, is enjoying a revival.

According to Jonathan Ree of the University of Middlesex - which as Middlesex Polytechnic had built up an extensive philosophy department : "People are relearning the skill of reading Plato and Aristotle, but also Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Husserl."

Does all this amount to what Ray Monk - noting increasing numbers of applicants to read philosophy at his university, Southampton - calls "the rebirth of philosophy"? There has certainly been a boom in practical philosophy - medical and professional ethics, even (whisper it) the values that lie behind the work of journalists.

Among its fruits is the Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire (formerly Preston Polytechnic). It is involved in a Manchester project to establish a "gene shop" to offer information to people about the genetic causes of disease and is actively involved in discussion of, for example, whether insurance companies should refuse policies to people they know to possess genetic markers indicating predisposition to certain illnesses.

The centre's Udo Schuklenk - fresh from a radio interview on the issue of the widow and her dead husband's sperm - says that philosophers have a public function. "People are using terminology like ethics and morality, but philosophers are needed to supply precision, construct frameworks for discussion."

British philosophers, diverse as they are, distant as they are from the analytic philosophers of the heyday, do seem to agree on a proposition that would have commanded the assent of Austin and Ryle. It is about the need - especially in political utterances - for clarity in language use and elegance in argument. Even children, says Janet Radcliffe Richards, can be taught conceptual clarification. Ted Honderich says a bit of elementary logic and consistency would do. "All this stuff about the family, but no one ever brings together that state of affairs with public morality ... privatisation, rip-offs, litter in the streets, because public services have been run down."

Against such a background it is easy to agree with Ray Monk's conclusion that philosophy can hardly be said to be in decline. But he issues a warning. "Moral philosophy does attract undergraduate students, either that or great questions about the meaning of life. But within a couple of weeks they are into the hard grind of Locke's theory of primary and secondary qualities."

However, he adds: "Philosophy is growing all the time, despite all the pressures, despite not being easy, nor being a stepping stone to a lucrative career"n