Richard Wollheim RIP

I saw over at the normblog that Richard Wollheim had died (here’s the link to Arthur Danto’s obituary in the Guardian), news which brings to mind G. A. Cohen’s moving words of tribute at the end of his essay on “The Future of a Disillusion”, which appeared in the New Left Review and then as the final chapter of his Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality [pp.264-5].

It can be hard to maintain dedication to socialism in a climate where it is regarded as irrelevant. When you are out of joint with the times, you look for sources of confidence, to strengthen your resolve. In closing, I shall mention two of mine. When I did graduate work in Oxford, it was the prevailing notion that there were in philosophy plainly right and plainly wrong answers, that a hard-headed clear-mindedness would without too much greater ado generate the right ones, and that the latter were likely to be not surprising but already familiar. In 1963 I left Oxford to lecture in the Department where Richard Wollheim had just become Professor. On Wednesday afternoons he presided over a staff discussion group in which the prevailing notion was different from at Oxford, and one that I experienced as liberating. It was that on any large philosophical question there were bound to be different views (that was the operative word), that it could be hard to tell which one was right, and that there was no reason to suppose that the right one was comfortable or long since known. I remember how Richard would restore a sense of perspective, when one of us had rehearsed some accepted wisdom, by uttering a corrective sentence which began, ‘well, there is, of course, the other view, that…’ And I also remember the thrill I felt, listening to his beautiful inaugural lecture, when he said of his predecessors A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire that they did not encourage ‘the desire to agree’. In times like these, Richard’s generous liberalism is a good thing to have experienced, and to remember.

The other source of strength was found in the letter Friedrich Engels wrote to his comrade Friedrich Sorge the day after Karl Marx died. Given the Virtual Stoa’s interest in dead socialists, I might dig that one up on another occasion (the letter, not the dead socialist).

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