The Poverty of PPE, Episode Six

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Six”

  1. It’s interesting that, when I came here, the first year paper had been reduced to simply Descartes, but now the new General Philosophy syllabus is more general and contemporary, albeit with reference to Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume – maybe it’s now more like it was in Pateman’s day. This, though, is the first year foundational stuff, with the option to study more widely in the second year, whereas it sounds to me as if he’s talking about FHS.

  2. Yes — this is about Finals, not Prelims.

    For a long time the first years studied Hume in General Philosophy at Prelims; I think I did Prelims in the first year that Descartes was the set text (1993). And then they changed it again a few years ago, as you know, to de-emphasise the idea of a set text altogether

    I don’t know when the General Philosophy compulsory Finals paper was abolished (alternatively: transformed itself into the current History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant paper). I probably should.

  3. When I came, it was first year Descartes, with the second year a chocie of Descartes to Kant or 20Cth met&ep. Now the first years do a more general met&ep course, mostly modern with some historical authors, and second years can do either Plato, Aristotle or Descartes-Kant (i.e. they have to do some history, but it needn’t be met&ep*)

    What was the first year like in 1968? Any idea?

    *I do worry that anyone taking Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, along with (perhaps) Aesthetics and Theory of Politics, could do have their degree in philosophy but not cover much breadth at all…

  4. “And then they changed it again a few years ago, as you know, to de-emphasise the idea of a set text altogether”

    and also to de-emphasise the idea of knowing anything about epistemology and metaphysics at all, let alone seeing how a philosophical thinker takes a set of problems and deals with them carefully and considerately. Instead it is far better to do ‘bite-size’ philosophy and regurgitate crap in exams, never achieving anything like a foundation for your future philosophical thinking, although you do of course have the option of repeating all the same stuff, at a slightly harder level, under the guise of “Knowledge and Reality”.

  5. When Michael Dummett(admittedly an exceptional case) studied PPE at Christ Church in the late forties,His politics tutor was Robert Blake, his economics tutor was Roy Harrod( I think, he was economics fellow at Christ Church at the time),and his philosophy tutors were J.O Urmson, Michael Foster,and, oddly enough ,Antony Flew. (even though his real tutor was G.E.M Anscombe).
    He tooka paper on “epistemology”, designed by J.L Austin,which employed set texts which included Platos Meno, Aquinas’ de Veritate,Descartes’ Meditations, the standard Locke/Berkely/ Hume stuff, Kant etc. ,amnd which ended with Freges Basic Laws of Arithmetic.
    When Charles Taylor(another exceptional case)studied PPE at Balliol in the Mid fifties( he apparently originally came to Oxford hoping to work on theology with Austin Farrer-at least that what his close friend Hauerwas once told me,) he found the “sub-sub Hume” taught there boring, and eventually found relief studying Merleau Ponty , Heidegger, Marx, Hegel. He ended up, like Dummett, winning an All Souls fellowship.

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