The Poverty of PPE, Episode Five

19. The conception of PPE’s content, if not its form, advanced in the preceding paragraphs has something in common with the traditional conception of the Greats course, which was to provide the student with a picture of a total social system, and to provide him with the tools to cope with all its facets. It offered a study of an entire culture and society, and provided its students with an understanding of the complexity of inter-relationships subsisting among its elements. Aside from the glorification which accompanied the study, this ideal is worth striving for in PPE, even though the possibility of its attainment is more distant. But that it is more difficult of attainment is not only a consequence of the complexity of the modern world, the sheer size of its cultures and societies, the enormous input of labour devoted to its understanding. It is also a consequence of tendencies in modern philosophy and social science which lead to a fragmentation of learning, and a shying away from any integration of work in separate fields, especially the integration of facts and values. The Marxists have always resisted these tendencies, and there are some signs of a change in attitude on the part of official philosophy and social science. For example, there is the renaissance of political economy – a renaissance which modifications in the economics course at Oxford could do much more to hasten (more of this in connection with the Economic Organisation paper later).

20. A multi-dimensional approach to social understanding will have as one of its dimensions the historical. At present, the PPE course is wholly a-historical. The paper is British Political and Constitutional History since 1865 because it presupposes from the outset (i.e. in the way it is taught and examined) the possibility of divorcing political and constitutional from economic and social studies, encouraging an anecdotal approach to history which does little more than furnish after-dinner stories for future Conservative politicians. It has been fairly said of A. J. P. Taylor’s English History 1914-1945 that “gossip decks herself out in all the trappings of history; so successfully that she finds herself solemnly inscribed on University reading lists” and that it succumbs “to the priorities of tele journalism”. [NOTE: Gareth Stedman-Jones, “History in One-Dimension”, New Left Review 36, p.49 and p.58.] No integration between the history paper and the others is achieved.

21. Similarly, the General Philosophy from Descartes paper is historical only in the sense that the texts studied were written over a long period of time. But, in general, the texts are studied wholly analytically and not at all historically. True, one learns how Berkeley is related to Locke, and Hume to both of them in turn, but one learns this analytically – one never learns to look at the British Empiricists as an historical phenomenon, nor even as an integrated philosophical phenomenon. The latter occurs because philosophy at Oxford is taught within the empiricist tradition. Though many of the questions set in examinations permit of (e.g.) an existentialist answer (this is also true of the Logic Optional Paper), one would not do very well if one did answer the questions in this fashion. Though any philosophy course if it is not to degenerate into a potted history of philosophy must be selective, the failure of PPE to consider any of the alternatives, leaves the student with no conception of the very real tradition in which he is working. Here we have a clear case of inadequate coverage leading to inadequate understanding. To give a concrete example, nothing would be lost and a lot gained by drawing the attention of students to Marxist and existentialist epistemologies and critiques of empiricism. [NOTE: See, for example, M. Cornforth, Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (Lawrence and Wishart); Fraser Cowley, A Critique of British Empiricism (Macmillan, 1968).]

22. Despite this concern with history, it is to be hoped that the present admirable practice of studying original texts in preference to histories of thought will not be weakened. And even more that there will never be any equivalents of those French anthologies which have ‘The world’s 704 greatest thinkers in 704 pages’.

23. These general points can now be related to critiques of each of the six papers which all PPE students must take in their Final examinations. Altogether, eight three-hour papers are taken, two of which are chosen from the candidate from a lengthy list of optional papers. The critique of the six papers will in turn substantiate some of the points made above. It must be stressed that the structuring of this critique around the six papers, that each is criticised in turn and that alternatives are suggested in no way implies that the retention of these papers or any papers at all is proposed. I am totally opposed to the present system whereby the student’s three years at University are subordinated to the need to pass in eight three-hour examinations at the end of his course. Some of the possible alternatives have already been mentioned and the difficulties they raise indicated. Other suggestions and problems will be raised in the Conclusion to this essay.

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