Obituary: Professor Martin Hollis
Wednesday 11 March 1998
By his death he had published 10 books, four edited collections and some 90 papers. In the Sixties rationality was threatened by relativism in the social sciences. By the Nineties the threat had assumed the more seductive hues of post-modernism. Against this background Hollis defended reason by deepening our understanding of it.
The key to Hollis's rationalism was "the epistemological unity of mankind", the view that "some beliefs are universal . . . There are, because there have to be, percepts and concepts shared by all who can understand each other." Hollis acknowledged P.F. Strawson's influence in his early formulations of the rationality assumption.
His own contribution became distinctive as he engaged with social sciences, wrestling with each of them until it submitted to the canons of reason. Surprisingly, such presumption did not outrage practising social scientists, since Hollis, unlike the caricatured armchair philosopher, successfully acquired their vocabulary and techniques. He published jointly with economists, political scientists, social workers and international relations theorists.
In game theory and social choice theory Hollis hit a seam of gold in the form of powerful techniques for handling orders of preference. By manipulating those techniques he transmuted the instrumental rationality familiar to economists into expressive rationality: an enriched notion of reason, embracing moral as well as intellectual virtues, but still compatible with economic theory. It would reconcile the drive of the citizen towards community, with that of homo economicus towards profit maximisation - work for the alchemist rather than the miner, perhaps.
Hollis translated Rousseau's revolutionary vision of "a remarkable change in man" into a more down-to-earth picture of ordinary people who manage, even in an imperfect world, to harmonise individual aspirations and social roles, autonomy and duty, trust and reason.
Hollis's work was genuinely original but oblique to current philosophical fashions and slow to receive the recognition it deserved. Though lacking in personal ambition, Hollis finally acquired numerous honours, as editor of the German- English philosophical journal Ratio (1980-87), as visiting professor in Germany and the United States, and as lecturer in China and India. His most prized laurel was his Fellowship of the British Academy, where he became Council member and chair of the Philosophy Section.
Martin Hollis was born into a mandarin family of public servants and Anglican bishops. His father was a senior diplomat, and an uncle was Roger Hollis of MI5 fame. He was a scholar at Winchester, national serviceman in the Royal Artillery, and Classics scholar at New College, Oxford, where he read PPE.
After graduating he passed out top of the Foreign Office open competition, and won a Harkness Fellowship to study at Berkeley and Harvard. These years, 1961-63, marked a turning-point in Hollis's life. During them he met his future wife, Patricia Wells. The sociology he first encountered in California would influence him for the rest of his life, as would the work of W.V.O. Quine and John Rawls at Harvard.
Returning to England, Hollis spent 1963-66 at the FCO acquiring his formidable administrative skills, but bored by the lack of intellectual challenge. Sent to Heidelberg to learn German, he returned to find himself posted to Moscow. This was the last straw for a rational man, who was already moonlighting in Oxford, giving philosophy tutorials at New College and Balliol. He left the FCO. He and his wife both received appointments at the University of East Anglia, he in philosophy, she in history.
From 1967 until his death he would remain in Norwich, promoted Senior Lecturer in 1972, and Professor in 1982. The Sixties were halcyon days for the new universities, affectionately satirised by Hollis's UEA friend Malcolm Bradbury in his novel The History Man (1975). Recruited before the first students had graduated, when teaching was in temporary huts and administration in an elegant Jacobean mansion, the Hollises had the zeal of new converts, true believers in a system they were helping to create.
Martin Hollis embraced Norwich life, serving as JP for 10 years and supporting Patricia's career in local politics. At UEA he performed every administrative duty, as head of philosophy, Dean of his School and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the university. His speed and efficiency left his less talented colleagues breathless, particularly as his output of distinguished research work never slackened.
But by the time he became PVC in 1992 the young university had become middle-aged. With economic cuts the demand was to process more students for less money. Despite its innovations UEA had maintained a successful system of final examinations (albeit tempered by continuous assessment) and an academic year of three terms. Hollis was given the unenviable task of "delivering" a new regime of "modular" units examined twice yearly at the end of the two semesters that replaced the old terms. The change was time-consuming and disruptive. Hollis did his duty in what he called the administrative "bunker" with customary expertise, but little enthusiasm. His loyalty was unwavering, his sense of irony sharpened by the tasks now expected of him. Things had come full circle from his days at the FCO.
This story of intellectual achievement and corporate service leaves much of the man in shadow. Those who knew Hollis for a quarter of a century found him as inscrutable as they did when they first encountered him. He loved chess, which he played at a high level and which he often used to illustrate philosophical moves. He played reckless bridge and invented countless board games of his own. Puzzles intrigued him. A collection of the brain-teasers he set for the New Scientist was published as Tantalizers in 1970.
He was both intensely sociable and intensely private. He wrote as he talked, allusively, self-deprecatingly, teasingly. His clarity was deceptive. From his compressed epigrams his readers and listeners made their own plodding reconstructions. His favourite forum was the informal but regular meeting of people with shared enthusiasms. He was a founder of the East Anglia Philosophy Triangle which met in Cambridge, Colchester and Norwich. The gatherings of the Peripatetics, a discussion group of local friends, were more intimate.
In August 1996 Hollis was still in brilliant form, teaching at the Philosophy Summer School near Guanzhou, China, luring yet another audience into the intricacies of game theory. Early in 1997 the symptoms of a malignant brain tumour appeared, and before Easter he took sick leave. Most cruel for the master wordsmith, the capacity for language was the first to be affected. Though fading fast, he remained involved in meetings and discussions with close friends and colleagues.
In one poignant paper Martin Hollis had quoted Rilke: "The wish to have a death of one's own is growing ever rarer. Only a while yet and it will be just as rare to have a death of one's own." He bore his last terrible days with uncomplaining fortitude. He died in his home in the care of his wife and sons he loved. Perhaps that is something like a death of one's own.
James Martin Hollis, philosopher; born London 14 March 1938; Lecturer, University of East Anglia 1967-72, Senior Lecturer 1972-81, Professor of Philosophy 1981-98, Dean of School of Economic and Social Studies 1983- 86, Pro-Vice- Chancellor 1992-95; Editor, Ratio 1980-87; FBA 1990; married 1965 Patricia Wells (created 1990 Baroness Hollis of Heigham; two sons); died Norwich 27 February 1998.
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