Professor R.A. Sharpe

Scholar of musical aesthetics
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Robert Augustus Sharpe, philosopher: born Penzance, Cornwall 19 July 1935; Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, St David's College, Lampeter (later University of Wales, Lampeter) 1964-65, Lecturer 1965-72, Senior Lecturer 1972-85, Professor 1985-97 (Emeritus); married 1959 Pam Peacock (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1989), 1991 Lynne Evans; died Carmarthen 1 March 2006.

The philosopher R. A. Sharpe was most widely known through his work in aesthetics. His Contemporary Aesthetics: a philosophical analysis appeared in 1983, and The Philosophy of Music in 2004. In his Music and Humanism (2000), described by one reviewer as "a richly observed and highly insightful piece of writing that should be read by anybody seriously interested in the current state of musical aesthetics", Sharpe examines the humanist conception of music as a language, stressing the fundamental connections between music and human life, and argues against the persistent tendency to underestimate the cognitive element in our response to music.

His deep commitment to the idea that our tastes in the arts can be more or less well informed was closely linked with his anger at images that have come to dominate public thinking about education: for example, the image of pupils and students as "customers". In a letter to The Independent (15 August 2001), he wrote, with characteristic passion:

The dreadful thing about all this is that nobody will be surprised that such stupid and ill- considered twaddle comes from the Chairman of the Learning and Skills Council in an address to the Royal Society of Arts. The rock-bottom morale in education in this country is not only a product of the way that endless and pointless paper chases have interfered with teaching and learning; it is also a result of the way education seems to be run by people who have no understanding of the way education enriches lives or the way it can be a voyage of discovery, and who lack the wit to see the obvious objections to their view that education is just another form of business.

Alongside numerous other publications in aesthetics, ethics, the philosophy of science, psychoanalysis, and the philosophy of mind, in the last 10 years of his life Sharpe was increasingly concerned with what he regarded as the deeply corrupting effect that religious belief may have on morality. In his book The Moral Case against Religious Belief (1997) he argues that some important virtues cease to be virtues at all when set in a religious context, and that, consequently, a religious life is, in many respects, not a good life to lead.

In another book on the same theme, on which he was working when he died, he writes that his tone in the earlier work had been more generous to believers than some might think appropriate "partly because I owed much to a Christian upbringing and because much of it I still value". He adds that the sequel will be "much harsher" because "the intervening decade has brought home to us the terrible results of religious conviction".

Born in 1935 in Penzance, Sharpe had a passionate interest in music from an early age and his career might have gone in that direction, but he studied English and Philosophy at Bristol University, where he was taught by Professor Stephan Körner, whose influence ensured that he stayed in philosophy. Sharpe studied for a PhD at Birkbeck College, London, and in 1964 was appointed an Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy at St David's College, Lampeter, where he remained until his retirement as Professor Emeritus in 1997.

Sharpe played an enormously important role in the development of the Philosophy Department at Lampeter during his 33 years there. He was, above all, a wonderful teacher, whose transparent enthusiasm for the subject, utterly unassuming manner and endless patience inspired generations of students. The quality of his teaching was intimately connected with the compassion, passionate commitment, wide learning and humour that were embodied in all of his life and work.

A deep hostility to pomposity, unnecessary obscurity, and the technical expertise utterly disconnected from central human concerns that marks much contemporary philosophy was combined with an enormous generosity of spirit and a wonderful sense of the ridiculous in a way that inspired deep affection.

Bob Sharpe ran music appreciation groups, which introduced many philosophy students and others to the wonderful music that was so central to his own life, and did his best to foster a greater appreciation of composers, such as Berlioz, whom he felt to be undervalued. A keen pianist all his life, he hugely enjoyed the extra time he was able to devote to playing once he retired from full-time teaching, continuing to widen his repertoire and refine his technique.

Other joys of retirement included long forest walks with the dozen or so dogs with which he and his second wife, Lynne, lived. Nature, and in particular animals, became increasingly important to him: an ability to find enormous joy in rolling in the grass with a litter of puppies and be startled by the intelligence of a hen or the rich emotional life of a dog went with a growing horror at the cruelty and callousness that mark so much of our treatment of other species.

David Cockburn