Obituary: Richard Robinson

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The Independent Online
Richard Robinson's life may have seemed that of a remote and ineffectual don, but his work was actually relevant and highly effective.

His career certainly looked conventional enough. He came from a middle- class family, and went to public school (Repton) and Oxford (Oriel College), where he took a double First in Classical Greats. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Marburg, taught philosophy at Cornell University for nearly 20 years and then back at Oriel College for more than 20 years, and lived quietly in retirement for nearly 30 years. He was happily married for more than 60 years.

Robinson was a successful teacher and administrator, at both Cornell and Oxford, and several generations of philosophy students on both sides of the Atlantic owed much to his clarity and commitment. He was also a successful author, writing and editing articles for philosophical journals, writing and translating and editing books on Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, and also producing his own books - The Province of Logic (1931) and Definition (1950) - which were respected by his peers.

However, Robinson had an influence far beyond the groves of academe through An Atheist's Values, which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1964 and reprinted in paperback by Blackwell in 1975. This is a work of philosophy indeed, but it was written in a popular style as a course of lectures and contains no technical language or abstract speculation.

It is an elegant and eloquent exposition of the aesthetic and ethical values held by a person of intelligence and integrity who stands at the end of 2,500 years of discussion of the subject and who rejects all the supernatural and superhuman means of support so often suggested for such principles. After putting the old question of what is good, it considers various goods (life, beauty, truth, reason, love, conscientiousness), politely but firmly rejects the alleged goods of religion, and ends with a discussion of political goods (state, equality, freedom, tolerance, peace and justice, democracy).

An Atheist's Values is one of the best short accounts of liberalism (a term Robinson accepted) and humanism (a term he ignored) produced during the present century, all the more powerful for its lucidity and moderation, its wit and wisdom. It may now seem old-fashioned, but during those confused alarms of struggle and fight between the ignorant armies of left and right, thousands of readers must have taken inspiration from Richard Robinson's rational defence of rationalism.

It is a pity that it is now out of print, when there is still so much nonsense and so little sense in the world.

Richard Robinson, philosopher: born Watton, Norfolk 12 April 1902; married 1933 Elizabeth Pestereff; died Oxford 6 May 1996.