OBITUARY: Sir Geoffrey Warnock

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Geoffrey Warnock was widely though by no means exclusively known as an acute and subtle philosopher who engaged in a type of analysis that acquired considerable currency during the middle years of the present century.

The approach involved was markedly critical and anti- speculative in temper and was largely inspired - at any rate in the period immediately following the Second World War - by a conviction that the study and detailed investigation of language and its working represented an essential key both to the solution of philosophical problems and to a perspicuous understanding of the sources from which they sprang.

From the beginning of his philosophical career he was deeply impressed by the apparent merits of this approach, especially as exemplified in the influential and finely sensitive work of the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. But it would be wrong to think that in his own contributions to the subject he was content to confine himself to exploring its possibilities in any narrowly conceived fashion, his interest in fact broadening out in a number of different directions.

Geoffrey Warnock was born in Leeds, the son of a doctor from Northern Ireland. He was educated at Winchester and awarded a classical scholarship to Oxford in 1941, taking this up four years later after war service in the Irish Guards. At New College, where his tutors included Isaiah Berlin and H.L.A. Hart, he read for a degree in PPE and obtained a first in 1948. The following year he married Mary Wilson, now Baroness Warnock and herself a profesional philosopher, while during the same time being elected to a research fellowship at Magdalen College.

After an interval as fellow of Brasenose he returned to Magdalen, succeeding Austin as a tutorial fellow in philosophy and continuing to teach there until 1971. This period proved to be a most varied and fruitful one. In addition to visiting American universities and participating in discussions and broadcasts, he also became general editor of the comprehensive series of anthologies entitled "Oxford Readings in Philosophy". It was a time, too, when he published a range of books and articles spreading over a number of distinct spheres and concerns.

They showed him to be a philosopher of great distinction. What he produced was invariably marked by a striking combination of detailed analysis and lucidity of style and expression; he was, indeed, an author of considerable wit and elegance who wrote poetry as well as philosophy - a book of his poems appeared in 1955 and showed impressive accomplishment.

His intellectual and literary gifts were in evidence early on in his study, Berkeley (1953); this, though deliberately selective in scope, was a model of perceptive and critical exposition. It was followed in 1958 by the mainly exegetical English Philosophy since 1900 and then by two books that were indicative of a growing dissatisfaction with current treatments of ethics.

The first, Contemporary Moral Philosophy (1967), consisted of an extremely penetrating critique of what he conceived to be major deficiences in recent enquiries, while in its successor, The Object of Morality (1971), he set out lines along which a more positive approach might proceed, fundamental considerations regarding the subject-matter and purposes of morality replacing what he believed to have been an undue and excessively abstract preoccupation with the meaning of very general moral terms and concepts. The result was a comprehensive account, both balanced and humane, which could be said to reflect the objectivity of outlook and fairness and soundness of judgement characteristic of its author.

Warnock retained throughout his life his early admiration for Austin. In 1962 he prepared for publication the notes for the latter's lectures entitled Sense and Sensibilia; this posthumous reconstruction was a masterpiece of accuracy and skilful exegesis. And it was fitting that his last book, which appeared in 1989, should have been J.L. Austin, a detailed study of Austin's philosophy; fully appreciative of Austin's significance and originality, it was at the same time not lacking in forceful criticism and incisive commentary.