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Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Earlier today, I transferred to the edited and corrected version of Chapter Three of the first volume of my Autobiography. The chapter consists of selections from the 200 pages of letters I wrote home in 1954-55 during the thirteen months I wandered about Western Europe on a fellowship from Harvard. When I wrote Volume One, in late 2003, I had no expectation that anyone would ever read it [although, like all authors, I hoped], and in making my selections from the letters, I looked more for good stories and local color than for anything having to do with the philosophers I met along the way. As a consequence, I omitted several stories, from my three months in Oxford, that it occurs to me might amuse the philosophical readers of this blog, so herewith some of the things I left out of Chapter Three.

When I arrived at Oxford in September, 1954, I knew that I did not want to spend the entire year there, but I thought it might be fun to live for a term [eight weeks] in an Oxford College. That, however, proved to be impossible. To live in a college, one had to commit to an entire year. A friend from Harvard, Ronnie Dworkin [now Professor Ronald Dworkin, the leading legal philosopher in the Anglophone world,], was reading law at Magdalene College on a Rhodes, and he said it might be possible to be an "external" student of a college for just a term. hr offered to take me round to see the President, as the master of Magdalene College was called, to see whether it might be arranged. off we went to have tea in the President's lodgings, which my memory tells me was actually inside the college Quad, though that may be wrong. We sipped tea and made small talk for a bit, and then Ronnie and I stepped out into the sunlight. I asked him rather anxiously, "When do you think I will hear whether I got in?" Ronnie, who has a manner that the querulous might describe as supercilious, looked down his nose at me and said bemusedly, "But you have been admitted. Couldn't you tell?" I think I knew right then that Oxford and I were not made for one another. [Ronnie and Oxford suited one another perfectly, and for a while he was Professor of Jurisprudence there.]

The one thing I wanted to do at Oxford was to look up T. D. Weldon, who had authored a slender book on Kant's First Critique that I had found very helpful. Weldon was in fact a Fellow of Magdalene, so I figured I would not be bothering him too much. I found him seated on a chair looking rather like the Caterpillar in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. With a naive eager enthusiasm that, I now realize, was anathema to true Oxonians, I blurted out that I wanted to re-read the FIRST CRITIQUE with Kemp-Smith in one hand and Paton in the other. At that time, the two best-known commentaries on the FIRST CRITIQUE were by Norman Kemp-Smith and H. J. Paton. Kemp-Smith's was by far the better of the two -- Paton had the habit of tediously summarizing Kant as though that constituted an explanation -- but they disagreed on some central points, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it all. Weldon replied languidly, as though from a great height, that that was totally old hat. What I really wanted to do, he said, was to read Rousseau's Emile. It seems that the famously punctual Kant had been so taken by the book when it arrived that he had actually missed his famous daily walk with his servant, Lampe. I dutifully went right out and got a copy, but when I began to read it, I found myself mired in endless animadversions at swaddling and praises of breast feeding. Things were not going well for me at Oxford.

Although I was not a resident of Magdalene, I did rate a tutor. The College assigned me to a young [mid-thirties] chap named Peter Strawson. I went round to see him once, but by then I was totally turned off to the idea of actually studying anything, so I never went back. A pity. Strawson [who of course became one of the most famous English philosophers of the twentieth century] actually published an important book on the FIRST CRITIQUE, called THE BOUNDS OF SENSE, four years after I published KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY. His interpretation of Kant is the polar opposite of mine, and had I stuck it out, we might have had some interesting conversations.

Mostly, while in Oxford, I played bridge, went off to do some folk dancing in the kilt I had bought at the Edinburgh Festival, and even read some edition or other of Paul Samuelson's famous textbook, ECONOMICS, though I am happy to say it did not stick.


Aliyah said...

Yea! More! More! Surely, Bob, you can easily add another volume to your autobiography? Dworkin, Weldon (I did find his Kant commentary beautifully clear), Strawson - omitted from the earlier version? What other gems might yet see the light of day?

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...

Good stuff! I hope you post more.

Two things:

1) It's Magdalen College, with no "e" at the end.

2) The entrance to the College President's lodgings is indeed inside the college quad. I've had coffee with the (current) President there a couple of times.

JP said...

I second the request for more.

Marinus said...

As I said when you finished off the autobiography, the selections from the letters were among my very favourite passages out of the work, and that says quite a bit.

wallyverr said...

Magdalen seems to have a long-term affinity for Kant. Ralph Walker, yet another Kant expert, has been there for many years.

It is fair to say that individual reactions to Oxford (and Cambridge) vary widely. George Stigler, possessor of the best literary style of any economist since Keynes, commented in his autobiography that

"it is a pronounced advantage for a university to be located in a great city. Such a city is populated with a wide variety of able people: lawyers, merchants, artists, musicians, among the many occupations, and a rich variety of nationalities and languages. An isolated college tends to become homogeneous -- in types of people, types of cultural tastes, in types of activity -- in part because university faculties tend to recruit people like themselves. This homogeneity is much weakened when the university is set in the rich sea of talents and temperaments of the city, and the excesses of scholasticism are contained."

Though in Oxford's defense, recruiting Gerald Cohen to the Chichele professorship of social and political theory was hardly an act of blinkered parochialism, and Oxford at the time also had a very able Marxist in the economics sub-faculty (Andrew Glyn).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Would you believe that I originally had no "e" on the end of Magdalen and carefully went through the text adding it! I am the world's worst copy-editor.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Perhaps I will some day create a new chapter from the more than a hundred pages of letters that I omitted. Like the moment, riding my motorcycle home from a folk dancing evening when I slid and fell with my kilt up around my ears. Or Christmas Eve Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Or the philosophical parable I wrote about Plato.