Sir Stuart Hampshire

Oxford philosopher of unusually wide intellectual reach and firm political conviction
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Stuart Hampshire was one of the last survivors of the generation of Oxford philosophers who cut their intellectual and political teeth in the 1930s

Stuart Newton Hampshire, philosopher: born Healing, Lincolnshire 1 October 1914; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1936-40, Domestic Bursar and Research Fellow 1955-60; Lecturer in Philosophy, Oxford University 1936-40; Personal Assistant to Minister of State, Foreign Office 1945; Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London 1947-50; Fellow, New College, Oxford 1950-55; FBA 1960; Grote Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Logic, London University 1960-63; Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University 1963-70; Warden, Wadham College, Oxford 1970-84; Kt 1979; Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University 1985-91; married 1961 Renée Ayer (née Lees, died 1980; one daughter, one stepson), 1985 Nancy Cartwright (two daughters); died Oxford 13 June 2004.

Stuart Hampshire was one of the last survivors of the generation of Oxford philosophers who cut their intellectual and political teeth in the 1930s, served in the Second World War, and for 15 years after the war dominated philosophical life in Britain and - to a considerable extent - in the United States as well.

But, although he was, in that sense, an "Oxford philosopher", Hampshire was anything but the desiccated analytical philosopher of the popular legend; he was politically passionate, his thinking was as much informed by Proust and Freud as it was by the empiricist heroes of the early 20th century, and into his late eighties he wrote imaginatively and surprisingly about issues in ethics and politics as well as metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.

His family was comfortably middle-class, and he was educated at a conventional public school, but in one of his last books, Innocence and Experience (1989), Hampshire gives a short sketch of the impact of the 1930s on his subsequent political allegiances that explains why he was always on the political left. During school holidays from Repton, his family would take him to lunch at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool; but outside the hotel in Lime Street would be old women offering sprigs of lucky white heather and begging. On their way back to North Wales, they would pass the deserted Birkenhead shipyards and the clusters of unemployed men whiling away time on street- corners. The contrast between luxury and misery was intolerable.

In 1933, Hampshire went up to Balliol to read Greats; even in Oxford, there were children with bare feet in the middle of winter, and everyone was aware that food was being destroyed for lack of a market while poor people were going hungry because they could not afford to buy the food they needed.

Hitler had just come to power in Germany, and it was obvious to Hampshire's generation that they were living in a pre-war period. Like many of his contemporaries, Hampshire became a lifelong anti-Conservative. One did not need to be a Marxist - and Hampshire never was one - to see that the Conservative politicians of the day would put up with any amount of aggression and brutality from Fascist governments so long as it seemed that Fascism was a bulwark against socialism and Communism and against the erosion of the privileges of the propertied.

After taking a First in Greats in 1936, Hampshire was elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls. His time there was calculated to reinforce his dislike of Conservatives and conservatism, since All Souls was divided between the leading lights of appeasement on the one side and young fellows such as Isaiah Berlin, J.L. Austin and the then left-wing A.L. Rowse who loathed them.

Intellectually, Hampshire was one of a small group of iconoclastic young philosophers who gathered in All Souls to discuss philosophy as they thought it should be discussed: Austin, A.J. Ayer, Berlin, Hampshire, Donald MacNabb, Donald MacKinnon and A.D. Woozley. Berlin described their discussions as the intellectual high point of his life. Their meetings continued from 1937 to 1939, but came to an end with the outbreak of war.

During the war Hampshire served as an army intelligence officer, spending four years studying the operations of Himmler's Central Command, the organisation in charge of the Gestapo and the SS, and after the war interrogating senior officials, including Heydrich's successor as head of the Central Command, Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Kaltenbrunner was one of the leading figures in implementing the Final Solution, and was notorious for his interest in the different methods by which the inmates of extermination camps were to be killed. He was tried at Nuremberg and hanged in October 1946.

This prolonged encounter, combined with what had become clear about the horrors of the Soviet Union, served to persuade Hampshire that the human capacity for unmitigated evil and nastiness was quite as natural, and quite as deeply entrenched within most of us as the capacity for generosity and kindness. Like many of his contemporaries, he was appalled at the ease with which governments could recruit torturers and murderers from among perfectly ordinary people.

His dislike of what political extremism did to the characters of true believers was also increased by the revelation in 1947 that several of his friends and colleagues had been spying for the Soviet Union. Hampshire was himself the victim of some scurrilous gossip two decades later, but his outrage at the behaviour of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt was absolutely unfeigned.

Interestingly, the effect was not only to create in Hampshire the distrust of governments armed with plans for totally remodelling their own, and often other people's, societies that so many writers felt at the time. It also led a long time afterwards to some unusually interesting insights into just how the morality of government must be different from the morality of private life, and a much deeper account than other philosophers had come up with of the tensions between public and private ethics.

Although Hampshire had never shared the hankering after revolution that drives so many Marxists, he came out of the war expecting momentous changes of some kind. Partly for that reason, he did not at once return to academic life, but served for a while in the Foreign Office. By 1947, it was obvious that the British had marched as far towards the New Jerusalem as they were inclined to go for the moment. Hampshire returned to the academy, not to Oxford but to University College London. The head of the department was A.J. Ayer; he and Hampshire were linked by a tie that in a less liberal environment might have made the appointment impossible. Indeed, it seems that in Oxford it did.

Ayer had married Renée Lees in the mid-1930s, but the marriage failed, and she and Hampshire had embarked on a relationship that lasted the rest of her life. They married in 1961 when she sacrificed her principled objections to marriage so that she and Hampshire could emigrate to Princeton; their marriage ended with her death in 1980.

A.J. Ayer's besetting sin was vanity, not jealousy. He created around him at University College London a philosophy department that could give any other in Britain more than a run for its money, and Hampshire was one of its stars from 1947 to 1950. In that year, he became a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at New College; in 1955, he moved to All Souls as a research fellow; and in 1960, the same year that he was elected to the British Academy, the game of musical chairs continued as Ayer moved to Oxford, and Hampshire replaced him as the Grote Professor at University College, London. There, he presided over weekly seminars that offered glimpses of an intellectual heaven where the depth of the issues discussed was matched only by the elegance of the arguments with which they were addressed.

By this time, Hampshire had written two very important books. Spinoza appeared in 1951. Spinoza did, or came close to doing, something that Hampshire admired enormously. The central metaphysical issue on which human thought seems to founder is how mind and matter, thought and the operations of mere material stuff, coexist and interact in one Nature. Today, philosophers write incessantly about the problem of consciousness, about how some parts of Nature are self-aware, act on their surroundings as well as being acted on by them. Hampshire always thought that Spinoza saw further into the answer than anyone else.

On Hampshire's view, everything hangs on the difference between the spectator's view of the world and the actor's view. The sciences are and must be committed to explaining the world from the spectator's viewpoint; but the price of their doing so is that they leave out the spectator herself or himself. In 1959, Thought and Action extended this account, arguing as Hampshire had always done that the world as it appears in thought appears as it does because of our action upon it; philosophers have always been puzzled to explain the subjective content of experience, what one might call the blueness of the amethyst as we see it. It is not only the subjective element in experience that puzzles philosophers; we are also concerned with the elusive difference between being passive objects acted upon by outside forces and active subjects who act on the world. Hampshire's originality was that he started from the side of action.

In 1963, Hampshire left London and took up a chair of philosophy at Princeton University. At this time, Princeton was the best philosophy department in the world, and Hampshire found the environment intellectually all he could wish. Aesthetically, it left much to be desired; when an English visitor commented on the neo-Gothic splendours of 1879 Hall, Hampshire observed mildly that the architecture of Princeton was perfectly hideous. This was slightly kinder than Bertrand Russell's earlier dismissal of the place as "Oxford - built by monkeys".

Hampshire's most important contribution to Princeton was, perhaps, a political one. He was there during the worst years of the Vietnam War. Princeton came close to bloodshed when students confronted the local police over the operations of the Institute for Defense Analysis and tried to keep military recruiters from the campus. Twenty-five years later, colleagues recalled Hampshire addressing an enormous crowd of faculty and students in the university's enormous gym, not only bringing cool reason to bear, but inspiring the reconstruction of the university's system of governance in a more open and more democratic direction.

In 1970, Hampshire returned to Oxford as Warden of Wadham College. Although Maurice Bowra was pleased by Hampshire's election, the college soon became a very different place from the college that Bowra had run. The new warden and the younger fellows were enthusiastic supporters of the move to co-education that Wadham led in 1974. The minutiae of college administration did not much excite him, but he was neither exasperated by them nor inattentive to details. At a time when Oxford students were belatedly emulating the Paris class of '68, he had a notably sure touch in defusing discontent.

But, he was a citizen of a wider intellectual world. In particular, he was a literary critic of genius. He had an almost uncanny ability to pick up the style of whomever he wrote about, never verging on parody, always serving the purpose of providing an empathetic understanding of what motivated - especially - Henry James, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster. It was a skill as hard to describe as it is to emulate. It gave him a particular charm as a teacher and conversationalist; he was the least aggressive of philosophers, though he could unnerve his juniors by looking slightly pained as they blundered their way forward.

After he retired from Wadham in 1984, Hampshire became Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University; in 1985, he married Nancy Cartwright, a Stanford colleague and herself a distinguished philosopher of science. They had two daughters, and Hampshire took very happily to family life - talking philosophy with a three-month-old child hung about his neck in a corduroy sling. He kept up his literary and philosophical interests to the last - indeed, his fertility of imagination seemed entirely undiminished. To the end, he remained impressed by the inexhaustibility of the insights of Spinoza. Happily, there will soon be a reissue of Spinoza, but it will reappear as Spinoza and Spinozism, containing besides the original book a short monograph that Hampshire finished a few months ago.

The other topic that preoccupied him for many years was the ineradicability of conflict. This was not, on his view, something to be regretted, nor something that philosophers could do anything about. It was a deep fact about human existence; different virtues come into conflict; different temperaments have different needs; different cultures provide some opportunities for human flourishing and suppress others. Justice is not about governments handing out benefits of one sort or another and pretending that a consensus exists where there is none. It is rather about the careful maintenance of institutions which allow differences to be ventilated and resolved, so that the losers can know they got a fair crack of the whip and the winners can understand the cost to the losers.

In his thought and his life alike, one of Stuart Hampshire's greatest strengths was his acceptance that life is a work in progress, pursued more or less fruitfully, but with no guarantees from God or Nature. His was a very distinctive voice, and its silencing is a great loss.

Alan Ryan