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Driving to California

Bob Sharpe reviews an unconventional book of essays by Colin Radford.

Professor Colin Radford’s forte has always been to show the virtues of a philosophical position which appeals to the man on the Bristol omnibus, by reminding us of something obvious which philosophers overlook. He is the common man’s philosopher. In one essay in this book, he asks if it is irrational to be moved by the fate of Tolstoy’s character Anna Karenina. He thinks that it is indeed irrational, and that we instinctively know this. That this is so is suggested by the involvement of the readers of tabloid newspapers with the characters in TV soap operas; the tabloids deliberately blur the line between documentary and fiction. It is as though our concern for the characters’ fate can only be justified if they are real people.

Likewise Radford’s defence of boxing depends heavily on the ‘commonsense’ view that it is a free choice by the participants. Only wimps like myself think that the brain damage it causes is enough of a reason to ban the sport. However he might have considered more carefully the extent to which a career in boxing really is a free choice. Boxers tend to be poor and often immigrants and the promoters who make money out of them are an unsavoury lot. We ought to be revolted by the sight of bepaunched, bow-tied, cigar-smoking middle-aged men watching a couple of working class lads beating each other into a bloody pulp at the National Sporting Club. It is far too reminiscent of a gladiatorial ‘entertainment’.

The argument goes the other way, however, in ‘Fakes’. The uneducated response to a specialist being taken in by a faked work of art is two-fold; firstly what does it matter who painted it or wrote it if it strikes us as good and secondly an unrestrained glee at the discomforture of art critics who are, as we all know, a bunch of pretentious wankers. Radford argues that it does matter if a work is a fake; he shows us how a painting is not just a matter of surface appearance. Other papers reprinted in this collection are ‘Knowledge; by examples’ which was the first of his papers to provoke wide discussion.

Radford has put together his best papers in the middle section of the book. They were strikingly original when they first appeared and they retain their freshness. I rather wish he had included his 1989 paper on ‘Music and the Emotions’, which has also been much discussed.

The first part of the book is a philosophical autobiography which describes, in a fetching way, the formation of a philosopher. He thinks, rightly, that most people are philosophers manqué and it was, I suppose, a matter of chance that led a working class boy from north Bristol to become a professional philosopher. I imagine that I am the only reviewer who observed at first hand some of the incidents he describes. On one or two points which will be of no interest to the general reader my memory diverges from his. (The temptation to indulge myself and Colin Radford on these matters has to be resisted.) Unlike present politicians, I do not think of the post-war period as halcyon days for education. After life in our rural grammar school only the army or prison could seem worse. The kids seem in retrospect to have been an awfully nice lot; many of the teachers were, as Radford says, excellent as teachers if not as human beings; power corrupts as surely in the hands of schoolteachers as in the hands of politicians.

Other philosophers have remarked to me on the attractiveness of this autobiography. The main criticism is that there are too many infelicities of style, printing errors and grammatical slips. It is evidently written at speed and all the better for that. But a good adage is “write in haste but read proofs at leisure”. The final section is a collection of plays and stories illustrating philosophical points. I don’t think Radford missed his vocation in becoming a philosopher rather than a writer.

But overall, this book is enormous fun; it is thought-provoking, lively and, unlike the work of most academics, exudes a distinctive personality. It should make philosophy attractive to its intended audience, sixth-formers or adults who are wondering what philosophy is about and whether it is worth pursuing. The only drawback is that the average article in Mind will seem unconscionably dull after this.

© Prof. R.A. Sharpe 1997

Driving to California: An Unconventional Introduction to Philosophy by Colin Radford. £11.95 (paperback), Edinburgh University Press 1996 0-7486-0819-2

Bob Sharpe is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter

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