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The Roots of Reason

Jeffrey Scheuer on the philosophical legacy of J. Renford Bambrough.

I never met John Renford Bambrough (1926-1999), the Cambridge philosopher who shaped and inspired my own thinking perhaps more than any other twentieth century figure. Looking back, I’m saddened and slightly surprised that I didn’t take the opportunity to seek him out or attend his lectures during the year I spent as a graduate student in England in the 1970s. When I finally visited St John’s College, Cambridge, in the fall of 2002, and met with some of Bambrough’s former colleagues, it was with a sense of regret at having arrived too late.

I studied at an American college where philosophy quickly became the framework of my intellectual universe. During the graduate year in London, studying Political Thought at the London School of Economics, I often traveled to Oxford to visit friends and attend lectures by noted Oxford philosophers. But I never bothered to take the train to Cambridge and look up Bambrough. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate his importance to me at the time; and in my early twenties, time seemed unlimited. Or perhaps I was discouraged after attending a lecture by another of my heroes, the Oxford legal theorist H.L.A. Hart. In an epiphanic moment, I found myself face-to-face with Hart as he was leaving the lecture hall. I summoned up the nerve to ask, “Sir, will you be giving any more lectures this term?” He looked at me in horror and snorted: “I certainly hope not!”

I only learned of Bambrough’s death three years after the fact, in early 2002, when idle curiosity prompted me to search for him on the internet. After a few hours Googling and some library research, I managed to amass a number of citations and a fairly complete bibliography of his published work.

It isn’t a vast corpus. Bambrough wasn’t among the better-known philosophers of the twentieth century: he left no bold, original work – at least not in book form. But while never a household name even among intellectuals, he was known within British philosophy circles, among other things, as the editor for many years of the important journal Philosophy.

His relatively modest oeuvre consists of two slim books, Reason, Truth and God (1969) and Moral Skepticism and Moral Knowledge (1979) and some three dozen essays, as well as assorted introductions, forewords, reviews, editor’s notes and the like. Yet most of the essays are small gems: interesting and accessible, focused on basic issues but not abstruse: the philosophical equivalent of Rembrandt miniatures. They reflect a dual passion for systematic thinking and common sense as philosophy’s composite bedrock, along with a disdain for the fads of modern academia. Bambrough insistently viewed philosophy not as an exalted or abstruse profession, but as a service to the mind, intended to make things both deeper and clearer to ordinary people – or at least to ordinary scholars and students. His writings brilliantly demonstrate how philosophy can do precisely that.

Philosophy Of Distinction (And Connection)

Except for his rise from a modest background, John Renford Bambrough’s biography is not extraordinary. Indeed he appears overall to have led the rather typically donnish life of a British scholar. (It wasn’t an entirely quiet life, however: he enjoyed intellectual debates, both at Cambridge and on the BBC.) He was born into a Yorkshire mining family, where his father was an electrician at the Silksworth Colliery. The young Bambrough excelled at the Bede School in Sunderland, and after national service as a miner in 1944-45 he won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, of which college he would be a fellow for nearly fifty years.

Bambrough began as a lecturer in Classics; being well-schooled in ancient philosophy through his study of Greek, he eventually migrated into Philosophy. By age 26 he was appointed a Tutor at St John’s. He married in the same year (1952), and he and his wife Moira eventually raised four children – three daughters and a son. In 1966 he would move from a lectureship in the Classics Faculty to one in the Moral Sciences. He later served as President of St John’s, but failed twice to attain the coveted position of Master. From 1972 to 1994 Bambrough edited Philosophy; and in 1989-90 he served as president of the Aristotelian Society, one of Britain’s most prestigious philosophical organizations.

In later years Bambrough contracted Lewy Body disease, a memory-impairing neurological illness with some similarities to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, forcing his early retirement. Some colleagues spoke of depression as well. Yet they fondly recalled his popularity among students; according to one, he was “one of the great teachers of St John’s in the second half of the twentieth century, widely revered and appreciated by generations.”

I first came across Bambrough’s name when I was an undergraduate in an ancient philosophy seminar. The readings were inspiring: the PreSocratics, Plato, Aristotle and critiques of them. Most of the latter were drawn from twentieth century British philosophy, which comprises one of the richest pools of scholarly writing in the English language. Even within that exalted group, Bambrough’s graceful and eloquent prose stood out.

My initial encounter may have been his article entitled ‘Plato’s Political Analogies’; or perhaps it was ‘Universals and Family Resemblances’, Bambrough’s most noted essay (it appears in at least eight anthologies). On first reading ‘Universals’ I recall thinking that the essay wasn’t just profoundly reasonable, like most great philosophy, but seemed virtually to resolve an ancient philosophical question (addressed by Medieval thinkers and, implicitly, by Plato), about the status of universals. Such a resolution seldom happens in philosophical literature. My favorite Bambrough work, however, is a less well-known essay entitled ‘Aristotle on Justice: A Paradigm of Philosophy’, which appeared in the collection New Essays on Plato and Aristotle, edited by Bambrough himself in 1965. Like ‘Universals and Family Resemblances’, it draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of knowledge as well as on Aristotle, yet is fundamentally original. It is a work I return to every few years to maintain my intellectual bearings, so keenly does it describe one of philosophy’s most basic tasks. “Good philosophy,” Bambrough writes at the beginning, “consists in exhibiting connections and distinctions which have hitherto lain hidden; in drawing distinctions without obscuring connections, and marking connections without obscuring distinctions… It is because all or most ways of marking distinctions or connections between concepts have clear advantages and clear disadvantages that philosophy is so difficult and so controversial” (New Essays on Plato and Aristotle, p.164). This quote summarizes the essay, and also represents what I believe is Bambrough’s most important insight: virtually all human language and thought consists of mental connections and distinctions; and it’s philosophy’s job to keep the wires from crossing, without (as it were) disconnecting them.

Philosophy is thinking about thinking. It involves propositions about the world and the mind within it. Put another way, it is about the relations between things, and how we individuate those things and identify those relations. Virtually all such propositions need to be qualified and fine-tuned in order to achieve precise meanings and deep understanding; we do this by using rational argument to make claims and counterclaims. Furthermore, philosophy, and indeed analytic thinking generally, whatever the subject, must reveal the connections that distinctions obscure, and vice versa. “The aim of philosophy,” Bambrough argues, “is to reveal connections and distinctions between concepts… ordinary language sometimes reveals and sometimes obscures such distinctions and connections … Each of several different uses [of language] may be valuable for the light it sheds and dangerous because of the shadow it casts.” Philosophy, Bambrough suggests, is largely an economy whose currency is meaning, and is full of apparent dilemmas. Philosophy is the domain in which we manage those dilemmas – such as the one he cites in ‘Aristotle’ of whether to use one word or several words for ‘justice’. If the Inuit have multiple words for kinds of snow, their philosophers would need to talk about the connections among them that having more than one word obscures. The point is to see behind the semantic shadows our concepts cast.

It seems unlikely that Bambrough ever read the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Yet Gramsci made a strikingly similar observation in the 1930s, in the section on journalism in his Prison Notebooks, a landmark of radical literature: “Finding the real identity beneath the apparent contradiction and differentiation, and finding the substantial diversity beneath the apparent identity, is the most delicate, misunderstood and yet essential endowment of the critic of ideas and the historian …”

This crucial ‘paradigm of philosophy’, as Bambrough calls it, is more a technique than an argument; or more precisely, it is an argument for a basic technique of philosophy – a technique that could also be applied to, or even serve to define, analytic thinking generally.

One interesting implication of this analytic paradigm is that in a sense, we are all philosophers: whenever we use language we make assertions that must be qualified by further assertions – further connecting and distinguishing in order to refine our meanings, at least up to some point of diminishing returns. We can use language effectively and communicate on a higher level than primitive grunts because we can identify things in the world and relate them to other things, cataloguing both their common and their differentiating features. The baseball in my yard can usefully be called a ‘ball’, as can the golfball in my neighbor’s yard. Both share qualities that make them balls (being more or less spherical, designed for sport, etc), as well as having differentiating qualities (eg their size, material, mass, exact shape). In reciting those qualities we are necessarily making distinctions and connections at the same time.

Of the two great traditions of modern philosophy, empiricism and rationalism, Bambrough is more of a rationalist – that is, a believer in the primacy of reason over experience as the ultimate source of knowledge. But he is not so dogmatic as to commit the cardinal philosophical error of ignoring the truths of rival perspectives. His thought tends to accord with Kantian habits of mind, which are contrarian but not radical, focusing on complex relationships (in Bambrough’s case, simultaneous conjunctions and distinctions), and which relish ambiguity and complexity, seeking the intellectual balances and economies which maximize insight and minimize obscurity. Bambrough’s thought also hearkens back to earlier rationalists in reflecting the belief that classical epistemology and metaphysics still have interesting things to say to scholars and students, in an age when the modern analytic and postmodern traditions disdained such forms of reasoning. Thus Bambrough appeals to systematic thinking and first principles rather than linguistic reductionism or philosophical nihilism. His disdain for the more obscure concerns of some of his peers in twentieth century philosophy is evident.

Philosophical Connections

As I returned to Bambrough’s writings in 2002/3 after learning of his death, two things seemed curiously missing from his oeuvre – not flaws, so much as intriguing conundrums. The first was the absence of any clue in his writings as to his political beliefs. In general, Bambrough avoids political questions, and on the rare occasions when he writes about them leaves no trace of his own views. This is somewhat unusual among philosophers who write about moral and political theory; one often finds subtle hints (and sometimes unsubtle ones) of a writer’s value system in the grain of their work. It struck me as odd that a thinker of Bambrough’s reach and imagination would decline to make any political arguments at all. The concepts of freedom, democracy, equality and justice rarely if ever appear in his corpus, and never in a normative or prescriptive (‘You should do this’) sense. I was therefore a bit surprised to learn from his Cambridge colleagues that he was a ‘classical’ liberal, ie, a conservative: as one of his friends put it, he was someone who “believed in personal responsibility.” (He belonged, at different times, to each of the three major British political parties.) As a liberal of the American variety, I was intrigued that I could share so much in common philosophically with someone with whom I differed significantly on political matters.

I had sensed in Bambrough a conservative temperament, reflected in his embrace of a sophisticated rationalism; but also a mind too nimble for orthodox political conservatism and its links, especially in Britain, to hierarchy, class loyalties and market orthodoxy. I didn’t witness his live debates with students and colleagues, or on the BBC, so it’s hard to know exactly where our assumptions or values diverged. But it’s striking how he kept such arguments, which he seemed to relish making in public forums, out of his philosophical writings.

The second conundrum concerned the genealogy of Bambrough’s ideas. Four philosophers figure repeatedly: Plato and Aristotle, Wittgenstein and (occasionally) John Wisdom, a mentor of Bambrough’s and a leading interpreter of Wittgenstein. As rich as these sources of inspiration are, much of modern philosophy (ie from Descartes on, in both the rationalist and empiricist traditions) is absent from Bambrough’s writing. His indifference to the empiricists might be interpreted as philosophical disdain, despite the broad influence of the likes of Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer during Bambrough’s lifetime. On the other hand the rationalist tradition, which is prefigured in Plato and emerges in modern Europe with Descartes, is directly in Bambrough’s intellectual ancestry. In particular, it seems odd that Bambrough never mentions Kant, with whom he seems to have had so much in common. Indeed, many of Bambrough’s metaphysical and epistemological themes seem like Kantian ones shorn of their radical abstraction and inaccessible language. Areas of commonality include a respect for critical analysis; the segregation of religious questions from philosophical ones (in effect rescuing faith from philosophical challenge by arguing for their distinctive functions); and the emphasis on reasoning as the basis not only of knowledge generally but also of morality. Another common denominator between Bambrough and Kant, to my mind at least (and despite Kant’s highly complex and often obscure reasoning) is the fundamental appeal of their core philosophic insights to common sense.

Given his background in classics, Bambrough may well have felt some insecurity due to not having read Kant extensively. That itself would hardly be unusual: many philosophers, schooled in other specialties, have gaps in their knowledge of the discipline; Wittgenstein boasted of having read hardly any philosophy at all, and actively discouraged doing so. Still, Bambrough’s affinities with Kant seem to beg for recognition.

The Roots Of Bambrough

J.R. Bambrough’s books and essays attend to timeless philosophical issues. Inevitably, there are occasional difficulties, complexities and puzzles in his work; but there is never obscurity. A short essay from 1970 entitled ‘Foundations’ is somewhat dense and enigmatic, but hardly impenetrable. The essay contains this signature, if slightly cryptic, observation: “The function of reasoning is to effect economies of surprise.” This can be understood in different ways, but I take him to be suggesting that reasoning expands the domain of common understanding, thus limiting the need to contest what exists. By revealing hidden relations (distinctions or connections), analytic reasoning prevents or at least minimizes surprise about what is, thereby clearing the way for full and honest debates about values. Bambrough never confuses reason with values; reason is instrumental – a means and not an end (although paradoxically it is also something that he and most philosophers value). In the essay ‘Plato’s Political Analogies’, for example, he writes, “There is no body of knowledge such that from it can be derived infallible or even fallible decisions about ultimate political objectives … Ethical and political disagreement is different in logical kind from medical disagreement or disagreement between navigators. Ethical and political disagreement … in its most characteristic forms is interminable, because it is not about means, but about ends” (J.R. Bambrough, ed, Plato, Popper and Politics, Ch12).

Good philosophy is marked by an abiding concern for reasonable and systematic thinking. It is in the nature of the enterprise to systematize and unify, or at least to show the limits of unity or systematic thought. And Bambrough reveres the reasonable – but more than that, there is in both the style and substance of his thought a spirit that reflects a distinctly humane approach to philosophy. By ‘humane’, I do not mean a soft or less-than-rigorous attachment to particular values outside of philosophy. Rather, I mean that Bambrough conceives philosophy itself in staunchly practical terms, as a tool to help people think, not simply as a haven for clever abstraction. It is never his intention to make ideas more accessible by diluting them; yet as philosophers go, he is exceptionally accessible, always resisting the temptations of complexity and the snares of obscurity. He refuses to use jargon or to erect (or borrow) intellectual edifices that would intimidate lay readers. He eschews the obscure issues toward which lesser thinkers often gravitate, marring so much of twentieth century scholarship (and not just in philosophy). More than most, his thought is grounded in ordinary experience and common sense, which is to say, shared or shareable ideas. In a later essay entitled ‘Invincible Knowledge’, Bambrough deplores the gap between professional philosophers and other scholars, writing that, “the very roots of [philosophy’s] or any other specialist activity are to be found deep down in the soil of common understanding.” A rumored book-length work that was left uncompleted at his death (which may never have evolved beyond the germinal essay) was said to be provisionally entitled The Roots of Reason.

Reason does not threaten faith or imagination here. It does not pose the irrational as the sole alternative to the rational; rather, there are different levels and kinds of reasoning and reasonableness. Bambrough also implicitly agrees with Hume’s dictum that reason does not dictate goals but “is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.” His aim is to make that slave a robust and efficient servant of the mind; and a uniter of minds. Philosophy justifies itself, on this view, by serving wider communities of understanding. Bambrough also shares with such leading lights as Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell the view that philosophy and literature are related ways of knowing and processing experience, and have much to say to one another (see his ‘Literature and Philosophy’ in Bambrough, ed., Wisdom: Twelve Essays, 1974.)

In one of his last essays, entitled ‘Power, Authority, and Wisdom’, published in 1988 in the relatively obscure Southwest Philosophy Review, Bambrough launches a final, full-blooded assault on academicism. Going further than before, he openly attacks the idea of philosophy as a professional priesthood, or even as an area of expertise: philosophy, he insists, “is not a profession or an expertise, and it should see this acknowledgement as a boast rather than a confession. When philosophers see themselves as practitioners of an esoteric discipline, and hence omit to think and write as and for human beings with human preoccupations, they leave vacant niches which are promptly filled by mountebanks.” (Southwest Philosophy Review 4:1, Jan 1988). In concluding he observes that “the professionalization of physics and mathematics is necessary and inescapable, and much the same is true of the fragmentation of the sciences that the process has involved. But every step along the road [to philosophy professionalization] is to be regretted, and to be avoided if it can be.” Of course, philosophy cannot be reduced to a mere handmaiden of clear thinking – ‘philosophy as therapy’ was the phrase that one of Bambrough’s (non-philosopher) colleagues used to describe this approach. But I doubt that Bambrough himself would ever have strictly confined philosophy to the role of facilitating clear thinking, as Wittgenstein did – and ‘therapy’ is anyway surely not a term he would have chosen. (It would seem harder to argue that broad and deep knowledge of the history of philosophy and its many themes and questions does not in some way constitute an ‘area of expertise’.)

As his careful attention to Plato and Aristotle shows, Bambrough understood that philosophy has more than a single discrete function (although, as he might have observed, there are important connections as well as distinctions between its functions). Philosophy is indeed about clarifying and deepening our ideas and making better arguments; but it is also a cornucopia of problems, arguments and ideas, and two-and-a-half millennia of designing and critiquing models of mind, experience and society.

While not a system-builder or explicit believer in any particular philosophical design – Kantian or otherwise – Bambrough was not hostile to systemic philosophical thinking in that architectural sense; even those who reject system-building generally concede that architects such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Marx produced great intellectual edifices that benefit the student by being studied before the critical demolition begins.

Philosophy in the twentieth century saw radical departures from the classical systems of the past, into new and more technique-oriented veins of thought: pragmatism, logical positivism, phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, linguistic analysis. Within that contested and irregular landscape there is a great deal of excellent philosophy. While some of these are rich veins of thought, they are likely to endure mainly as artifacts of the intellectual history of the twentieth century. But J.R. Bambrough’s legacy of humane rationalism is more than just a salutary antidote to the excesses of the fads and movements that have arisen in the wake of the great systems of the nineteenth and earlier centuries. With uncommon brilliance and eloquence, Bambrough returns again and again to the defining questions that have endured since Plato, about the nature of knowledge, reality and value. If reading him makes us feel a bit smarter than we really are, then perhaps that, too, is a hallmark of philosophy at its best.

© Jeffrey Scheuer 2009

Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of two books about media and politics, The Sound Bite Society (1999) andThe Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (2007). Please visit


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