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From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein by Anthony Quinton
Antony Flew marks a set of essays by Anthony Quinton.
This work is a collection of nineteen essays. Only four of these have been published previously either in collections of essays by various authors or in regular journals. Nine others were originally delivered on various ceremonial occasions and, if published at all, presumably appeared only in ephemeral pamphlet form. The remaining six have surely never been printed at all. The essays included deal with a wide variety of topics, topics of which the only common characteristic seems to be that they are ones on which there is room for a philosophical view. Since Quinton is the philosopher contributing these philosophical views they are always worth hearing. A reviewer can comment on only a few of the nineteen.
The thesis of the first is that “the unique Western achievement of theoretical science, and – to the extent that it depends on that science - industrial technology” arose in Europe and not in India or China because the religion of Europe was Christianity and not either Hinduism or Confucianism. Anyone wishing to pursue this suggestion further should chase up Michael Foster’s seminal article on ‘The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science’. This was in Mind for 1934. It has rarely been noticed and, apparently, never reprinted.
Quinton is at his witty and perceptive best in ‘Alien Intelligences: Reflections on the Remoteness of the European Mind’. This paper provides a sympathetic historical account of the growth of a great gulf between philosophy in the Englishspeaking world and philosophy on the continent of Europe. For “there is a kind of argumentative frivolity about continental European philosophers. Their writings are liberally equipped with terms indicating logical relationships such as ‘because’, ‘therefore’, ‘it follows that’ and so forth, but these are, on the whole, ornamental. Arguments are deployed with a view to sustaining strange propositions, but there is no practice of considering possible objections. The counter example is a species for which there is no place in their menagerie.”
Quinton himself is an excellent proponent of what some want to characterise as law court philosophy. Here in his essay ‘Homosexuality’ he speaks for the defence, systematically examining the most frequently expressed objections, as well as bringing into clear focus others which may be implicit or inchoate. Each is calmly and coolly demolished. His concluding words are: “To the extent that it is aesthetically repellent it is no more so than heterosexuality. The special frisson that attends its contemplation in the minds of many people is simply superstitious.”
In the conclusion of his essay on ‘The British Empire and the Theory of Imperialism’ Quinton asserts – what is surely true – that India “was safer, healthier, more prosperous and more peaceable when the British left than it would have been had they left after the mutiny.” He goes on to remark that at independence India became, and still remains, the world’s largest democracy. Next he contrasts the post-independence performance of India with the present lamentable condition of former British colonies in Africa.
It is perhaps suggestive to mention a further contrast, the contrast between their present condition and that of the former British colonies in the Caribbean. These were all under British rule for much longer and all – unlike those in Africa – remain democratic. (A friend of mine who is of Sri Lankan origin, and achieved a cricket blue at Cambridge, loves to point to a further difference – that those in the Caribbean became cricket enthusiasts while those in Africa did not. He tells the story of a Prime Minister of Barbados who accepted defeat in a General Election by saying: “The religion of my people is cricket, and in cricket the umpire’s decision is final!”)
The present book derives its title from the two concluding essays, ‘Wodehouse and the Tradition of Comedy’ and ‘Wittgenstein’. The first is a serious, scholarly and at the same time entertaining essay in literary criticism. For instance, “a girl says to Wooster: ‘You’re a pig Bertie’ and receives the reply ‘A pig maybe – but a shrewd, level headed pig.’ At one level this is enjoyable because of the absurdity of ascribing level-headedness, which implies that his condition has been achieved despite the temptations of flightiness, to a creature as sedate, predictable and unenterprising as a pig. But there is a further aspect. The comparison invites us to feel more fellowship with a pig than is customary. Something that is ordinarily seen as compensating for its unpleasant appearance and manner of life by supplying us with ham, sausages and the better sort of suitcase is suddenly represented as having its own point of view.”
The final essay is a careful and wellinformed attempt to estimate the actual influence of Wittgenstein. Quinton records that “Wittgenstein kept fiercely to himself and to the very small number of admirers prepared to pay the high cost of securing his tolerance of their company.” His comment is that it is nevertheless “remarkable that he should have succeeded in dislodging Moore and Russell as he did … soon after his return to philosophy and to Cambridge in 1929.”
According to Quinton “The received view about Wittgenstein’s influence is that it lay behind the two most important philosophical movements in the Englishspeaking world in the fifty years since the early 1930s. His ideas were the ultimate substance of, first, logical positivism and then, after his return to the subject, of the linguistic philosophy so triumphant in the early post-war years and still far from extinct.”
Quinton studies the influence or lack of influence of Wittgenstein on all the members of the Vienna Circle, and concludes that “the shared ideas could have been acquired from other sources and, it seems reasonable to suppose, largely were. The importance of the Tractatus was not as a source of new ideas for the members of the Vienna Circle but as an encouragingly independent endorsement of the ideas which it already had.”
As for influencing the development of linguistic philosophy, Quinton allows that Wittgenstein “did influence Oxford philosophy although very much less than is usually supposed. The most obvious receptacle and further disseminator of Wittgenstein’s later ideas is Ryle’s much more intelligible Concept of Mind.” As far as it goes this is, I believe, perfectly correct. But there are two things which I have to add.
The first is that whereas The Concept of Mind was published in 1949, the first essay in linguistic philosophy was Gilbert Ryle’s ‘Systematically Misleading Expressions’. That was published in 1931, and it was, appropriately reprinted in 1951 as the initial essay in the First Series of Essays in Logic and Language. Since Ryle’s first substantial publication, in 1929, had been a not altogether unsympathetic Critical Notice of Heidegger’s Being and Time, and since Ryle and Wittgenstein had made a walking tour together during the summer of 1930, we may reasonably infer that the impact on Ryle of the first of the later ideas of Wittgenstein was overwhelming.
The second thing which I have to add refers to Quinton’s claim that, although “philosophy, Wittgenstein declared, ‘leaves everything as it is’” nevertheless “He did not really mean that, but Ryle did.” The truth is that Ryle was fully aware of, for instance, the mortalist implications of The Concept of Mind, but he himself preferred neither to point out nor to pursue those implications. Yet he was certainly neither surprised nor inclined to disagree when, as one of his graduate students, I mentioned them to him. Somewhat later I confessed to him that, if I was ever invited to give Gifford Lectures, these would result in a book entitled The Logic of Mortality. He never tried to dissuade me nor suggested that my project was misconceived.
© Anthony Flew 1998
Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.
From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein by Anthony Quinton (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998) Hb. 220pp. ISBN 1-85754-221-7. Price: £25.00