The Poverty of PPE, Episode Eight


31. This paper is certainly an abortion, as Gareth Stedman Jones has said. The paper in fact has very little to do with moral and political philosophy, and only provides the student with a second dose of indoctrination in linguistic philosophy on top of the draught he has been given in the misnamed ‘General’ Philosophy paper.

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode Seven


29. We should not pretend, however, that altering the content of a paper whilst retaining the present examination system can fulfil the conditions necessary for an integrated course. Whilst there are eight papers the course will be fragmented. In the same way, to break down the examination system will also, necessarily, be to break down the tutorial system. The tutorial is only another form of examination. It cannot be an integrative factor in our studies – only a class or seminar can bring to bear on the same problem minds with different trainings. In a sense then, the only way to be realistic is to demand the impossible: that is, that which is impossible given the present system of University and social power and authority. As we criticise each paper and offer suggestions for change, however radical, we shall time and time again be confronted with the inability to solve the problem of content without simultaneously solving the problem of form. In short, the deficiencies of the way we are taught and what we are taught reinforce each other mutually. To treat this problem fully, we should have to consider the length of the course, why only a few of the available teaching and work methods are employed, etc. [NOTE: I owe these insights largely to C. H. Allen.]

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode Six


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.

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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).

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode Four

14. Against this we must assert the primary importance of the discussion of values. And, intellectually, we must seek to understand why in recent years there has come about this systematic devaluation of values: how has it come about the ideal has been collapsed into that which is? What are the origins of the consensus – which is not only a party political phenomenon but has its counterpart in political theory, as we shall see later. [NOTE: Para. 38.]

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode Three

7. A University education is intended in part to have an effect on our personal lives – the intention may be that it should have a good effect, but the effect does not necessarily coincide with the intention. We also have our intentions in opting for a University education – most obviously we may hope for higher career earnings. A specific course may be intended for its effects on our personal lives, and we may study a particular course because we hope for personal benefits. But the course also has a social intention – paradigmatically to meet the labour needs of the economy: and we may have a social intention too in choosing a particular course – we may study theology in order that we become equipped to save men’s souls, and it is part of the intention of theology so to equip us. Why anyone should have such intentions is another matter.

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode Two


1. To become a University student is to enter into a set of personal relationships limited in space and time, which are partly dependent on, and partly independent of one’s will. These relations are also social relations, that is, relations conditioned by pre-existing organisational forms. Thus, relationships are not only relationships of person to person, but also relationships of student to student, tutor, dean, master, lecturer, examiner, Proctor, college servant, townsman. To become a University student also entails the alteration of certain pre-existing patterns of relationships, e.g., with parents and friends.

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The Poverty of PPE, Episode One


Even in writing these notes towards a critique of PPE, it is doubtful that I have freed myself entirely from those aspects of PPE of which I am most critical: the subjection of oneself to a particular course for three years has too profound effects on the workings of one’s mind and one’s personality for an escape to be made immediately even from those aspects one consciously repudiates. Thus, most strikingly, in criticising PPE for lacking that sociological approach which alone could hold the course together, I am myself the victim of this deficiency, and my own critique, in so far as I have not yet had the opportunity to correct the felt inadequacies, suffers accordingly. Though PPE students have the opportunity to take two optional papers in sociology, this sociology is treated as something alongside the other two social scientific disciplines and not as a synthetic discipline which offers a framework within which the thought and action of man, the structure and workings of society, can be located. This deficiency is only a reflection of the lack of an indigenous classical sociology in Britain, and the corresponding lack of a national Marxism. [NOTE: See Perry Anderson, “Components of the National CultureNew Left Review 50.]

Apart from lectures and examinations, PPE is studied on a college basis, and consequently permits many idiosyncratic variations in its content. No doubt individual cases can be found which confound some of my listed sins of commission and omission, but I do not think any general points will be invalidated in such a fashion.

In the structure of these notes and even in their prose style, the effects of PPE will no doubt be clear to the observant reader. Not even one’s personality is unaffected by this particular university education: a way of looking at life, even one’s own life, with detachment, with impartiality, is encouraged; ratiocination holds sway where emotion would be more appropriate.

For these and other reasons, this critique should only be regarded as a tentative outline: the “PPE” way of putting this might be to say that it is both tentative and an outline. If it has merit at all, then that is partly attributable to those with whom I have discussed these questions at various times over the last three years: Chris Allen, Roy Bhaskhar, John Birtwhistle, Phillip Hodson, Selwyn Hughes, Ahfar Hussain, John Jervis, Sarah Kay, Jack Lively, Trevor Munroe, and Gareth Stedman-Jones should be especially mentioned, though none of them is responsible for what I have written. I should be more than grateful to receive the opinions of others on the essay published here.


Nuffield College,
October, 1968.

[Continue to Episode Two.]

The Poverty of PPE: Editor’s Introduction

“The Oxford School of Politics, Philosophy and Economics is based on two unalterable principles: first, everything written about politics and philosophy by Karl Marx (1818-83) is out of date and dangerously biased, while everything written by John Stuart Mill (1806-73) is modern, vigorous and untainted by bias; secondly, everything written about economics by Karl Marx (1818-83) is out of date and dangerously biased, while everything written by Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) is modern, vigorous and untainted by bias.”

— Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968), p.32.

Forty years on, we’re going to being hearing a lot this year about nineteen sixty-eight, the year of the Tet Offensive (January), the My Lai massacre (March) the Prague Spring, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech (April), the évenements in Paris (May), the assassinations of Martin Luther King (April) and Robert F. Kennedy (June), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (August), and so on; a year of great ferment and mobilisation and optimism on the Left, but also of some of the Right’s greatest electoral triumphs: Richard Nixon elected to the Presidency of the United States in November, and Charles de Gaulle’s landslide in the legislative elections in France in June.

And as one might perhaps expect, 1968 in Oxford had its idiosyncrasies. In part, of course, conflict was heavily localised, as student mobilisations over the 1960s were, often enough, directed against the archaic restrictions that still governed undergraduate life. The prohibitions on students drinking in the city’s pubs had fallen away after the War, in the face of the absurdity of trying to enforce the rule on men who had served for years in the Armed Forces and thereby delayed starting their degree course until their early twenties; but many other restrictions still persisted into the 1960s: evening curfews, pre-censorship of student publications, restrictions on visitors, especially of the opposite sex, and so on. (All the undergraduate colleges were, of course, still either men’s or women’s colleges right through the 1960s.)

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The Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, by Trevor Pateman

A few weeks ago, I went to London to attend the conference organised by the London Socialist Historians Group at Senate House to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the publication of C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins. Slightly to my shame, I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read TBJ – the only James I really know is the astonishingly good book about cricket, Beyond a Boundary – but the conference looked fun, so I trotted along and had an excellent time.

The LSHG is a funny outfit, bridging the world of politics and scholarship. Co-ordinated by legendary man of letters Keith Flett, it’s populated by people who are more familiar with far-left meetings than academic discussions — so when the paper-giver finishes giving a paper, you’re as likely to get a motion proposed from the floor as any kind of question.

But I mention all this, because at the drinks party at Bookmarks afterwards to launch my friend Dave Renton’s new book, C L R James: Cricket’s Philosopher King, I was chatting with an amiable bearded leftie who used to be at New College, and who asked me if I knew a pamphlet written in Oxford many years ago called “The Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics”. As it happened, I hadn’t, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the title to fish a copy out of the Bodleian Library’s stack a few days later, and I very much enjoyed what I read — a no-holds-barred attack on the degree course which I took once upon a time, and in which I spend a medium-sized amount of my life teaching — and I thought it might be an interesting exercise to throw the pamphlet into circulation once again, via republication at the Virtual Stoa as one of our (very) occasional serials here.

The pamphlet’s author, Trevor Pateman, has not only very kindly approved republication at the Stoa, but has also made available to me his own copy of the pamphlet, complete with corrections of various typos, so I think we can safely say that this will be the cleanest text that has even been available. And after serialisation, I’ll distribute a pdf of the complete pamphlet through this site, and a version of the text will also go up at, which hosts copies of many of Trevor’s essays over the course of his subsequent academic career, much of it at the University of Sussex.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll stick up a post in the morning to introduce the pamphlet to its new audience in blogland; and then the text will appear in thirteen instalments, two or three bite-sized chunks per day, starting at lunchtime on Monday and ending on Friday afternoon — as it happens, of course, the final week of Hilary Term here in Oxford, as the PPE machine continues inexorably to grind away…