Obituary: Professor Peter Winch

Anthony Palmer
Monday 02 June 1997 23:02

Peter Winch's academic career really began when, in 1951, he became a lecturer in philosophy at University College, Swansea. Here he met Rush Rhees, the friend and literary executor of Wittgenstein.

Through Rhees Winch came to appreciate the importance of Wittgenstein's work, which showed itself in everything he wrote. He himself, after Rhees's death, became one of Wittgenstein's literary executors. At Swansea Winch developed not only a close friendship with Rhees but also with the philosopher Roy Holland. During that period University College, Swansea, carved out for itself a reputation for a quite distinctive concern with the philosophy of Wittgenstein which, to a certain extent, it still enjoys today.

Winch had read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, graduating in 1949. He then took the only recently introduced Oxford BPhil degree, which was rapidly becoming the major training ground for British university philosophy teachers. He might therefore have been expected to go on to teach and develop the kind of philosophy which became known as "ordinary language philosophy" or "linguistic analysis" associated with the names of Ryle and Austin which was to dominate English philosophy for more than a quarter of a century after the Second World War. This, however, was not to be.

In 1958 Winch published a monograph, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, in Holland's "Studies in Philosophical Psychology" series; a book that was to form the basis of the position he has since occupied in contemporary philosophy. Its central thesis was what Winch took to be the truism that "the concepts we have settle for us the form of experience we have of the world". He saw that it followed from this that many of the more important theoretical issues that arise in the social sciences belong to philosophy, not science, and require conceptual analysis rather than empirical research for their solution.

Published at a time when the various social sciences, in particular sociology, were rapidly staking out their territory as ripe for empirical investigation, the book caused an uproar. A quarter of a century after its publication Winch found it difficult to escape its effect. He would find himself giving papers on topics far removed from that of the nature of social science only to be confronted by questioners pressing him on the topic of the book. On one occasion when asked by the chairman of a philosophy society to which he was about to give a paper how he would like to be introduced, he replied "You can say what you like, only don't mention The Idea of a Social Science."

Although it was within the social sciences that his first book caused the greatest stir, it was the message that it was meant to convey to philosophers which was carefully and meticulously elaborated in the numerous influential papers he produced throughout the rest of his career. Many of them are collected in two volumes of essays: Ethics and Action, published in 1975, and Trying to Make Sense, published in 1987. What these two collections reveal is the other side of the coin from the thesis which so irritated the social scientists.

Winch had learned from Rhees that language is not a tool for speaking, but is "something which is spoken". Consequently he maintained not only that "any worthwhile study of society must be philosophical in character", which is what alarmed the social scientists, but also that "any worthwhile philosophy must be concerned with the nature of human society", which should have alarmed the professional philosophers more, perhaps, than it actually did.

Conceptual investigations, in his hands, were brought back from the abstracted "purity" of "logical" relations to the rough ground of things that people say and do in the ordinary situations in which they say and do them. The philosopher's craving for generality was met by him with an attention to particulars, which is how he subtitled the Festschrift for Rush Rhees he edited. It was this which gave his work the characteristic seriousness which distinguished it from so much of the philosophy published in the second half of the 20th century.

In philosophical discussion he was formidable. Those who indulged in it with him were drawn into reflections which required them to take pains with their arguments and to take time. He didn't suffer fools. Anyone inclined to begin with "I haven't thought this through yet but . . ." would be met with "Why don't you go away and think it through then", said less politely than that and through what always appeared to be gritted teeth.

Although it is largely on The Idea of a Social Science and the two volumes of collected essays that his reputation will rest, the range of Winch's interests and publications was very wide indeed. He produced a superb translation of Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, and his book The Just Balance (1989) introduced English readers to the philosophical importance of Simone Weil.

Peter Winch left Swansea in 1964 to take up the post of Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. While there he edited the influential journal Analysis. In 1976 he was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at King's College London. Eight years later he crossed the Atlantic to become Professor of Philosophy in the University of Illinois at Urbana. He died in Illinois shortly after chairing a meeting of the American Philosophy Association.

Peter Guy Winch, philosopher: born 14 January 1926; Lecturer then Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University College, Swansea 1951-64; Reader in Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London 1964-76; Professor of Philosophy, King's College London 1976-84; Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana 1984-97; married (two sons); died Urbana, Illinois 27 April 1997.

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