GENERAL PHILOSOPHY: FROM DESCARTES TO THE PRESENT TIME
24. It has been maintained by Greats men that philosophy cannot be properly understood without a knowledge of classical philosophy: hence to begin a course with Descartes is not only to use an arbitrary starting point but fundamentally misconceived. [NOTE: E. W. F. Tomlin, “Scrutiny of Modern Greats”, Scrutiny, 1936.] This belief was reflected in a refusal in the early years of PPE to accept PPE men for post-graduate work in philosophy. Even today the majority of philosophy tutors in PPE are Greats trained. This is, no doubt, one important source of the failure to integrate the philosophy and social science syllabi, and consequently to realise the aims of the founders of PPE.
25. For our purposes, the main point to be made is that the content of this paper is unnecessarily restricted, and the approach to the subject-matter indefensible. At one time, I thought that in a paper of this sort the problem was to tread the narrow path between providing only a potted history of philosophy without developing powers of philosophical reasoning and providing no historical setting to the study of philosophy at all. This dichotomy now seems to me to be false, and that I should make such a mistake stems directly from the way the subject matter of philosophy is approached at Oxford and which I imbibed as an undergraduate. It now seems to be that to develop powers of philosophical reasoning is to a large extent a question of locating philosophy historically, and in particular, of studying the historical development of concepts. Much recent French philosophy – e.g. that of Canguilhem and Bachelard – is concerned precisely with the problem of conceptual change. [NOTE: Perry Anderson, “Components of the National Culture“, New Left Review 50, p.25.] This stands in stark contrast to linguistic philosophy’s denial of the possibilities or importance of conceptual change because of the inability of its techniques to cope with the problems such a recognition raises. [NOTE: The concern with conceptual change is also evident in the work of some American philosophers: e.g., Putnam, and Oxford’s favourite bête noire, Quine.] Having denied concepts a history, Oxford philosophy proceeds to tackle philosophical questions without reference to past historical discussions of the same topic. Linguistic philosophy in its more self confident days ignored both past philosophical discussion and the setting in which philosophical problems had arisen – D. F. Pears’ article “Universals” and A. Quinton’ article “Theories of Punishment” are cases in point.
26. Founding the paper on a study of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume has no particular justification. In the examination papers about 50% of the questions are directly on these authors. The 19th and early 20th centuries are considered barren philosophically, and the 30% of general questions on established (or Establishment) topics which do not explicitly refer to the four authors mentioned above require the candidate to have read the major articles in the post-war issues of the philosophical journals (Mind, Philosophy, Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Analysis) if they are to be answered to the satisfaction of the examiners. The remaining 20% of questions are a heterogeneous rag-bag culled from the philosophy of science and social science. These are included annually for conscience sake, but no candidate has any incentive to prepare for them, (a) because since there are so few questions, the part of the field they will be taken from is quite unpredictable and (b) because he has no guarantee that the examiner will understand his answers to the questions on these neglected topics, and that therefore he will be awarded a straight beta mark which seems to be the usual policy in such cases.
27. Spinoza and Leibniz used to be studied but have been dropped. Descartes is left on his own; the foundation of the paper is really empiricism, and into that doctrine the student is initiated: the General Philosophy paper is not at all General. It is in fact very particular. Why not let this be recognised explicitly – and have the paper entitled “Empiricist epistemology – its development and its critics”? This would involve a study of some Marxist and existentialist works and would also bring the paper closer to discussion in the social sciences and to the question of values. For there is a close connection between epistemology, social scientific method and ideology. Stuart Hampshire has written: “There were many of us who before the war felt strongly committed to apparently disconnected problems of the most academic kind in the theory of knowledge, and who were at the same time equally committed to political causes. Superficially, there seemed no connection between the epistemology and what kind of socialism might be practicable. I am inclined to think now, thirty years later, that I can discern some of the connecting lines of relevance…” [NOTE: S. Hampshire, “Commitment and Imagination” in The Morality of Scholarship, p.54.]
28. An alternative is to widen the range of set texts: Kant, Hegel, the early Marx, Russell, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty are possibles. Locke and Berkeley could be dropped without great loss. But the previous suggestion seems much better than making the paper more eclectic. Ideally, there would be no paper at all – but the constraints on achieving this have already been indicated.