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An edited version of an address delivered at Antony Flew’s funeral
by John Rogers
It is a great privilege to be asked by Annis to pay tribute to Tony here today. My words will largely be recollection and reflection on him as others and myself knew him, and a personal appreciation of him as a philosopher, teacher, and one of the leading intellectuals of the last sixty years. These different aspects of Tony are almost impossible to compartmentalise. To read a page of one of Tony’s books is to hear his voice; his deepest convictions pervaded all his teaching, and indeed all his interactions with others. He was a man who lived his beliefs, which were primarily those of a liberal individualism in the tradition of Locke, Hume, Mill and Russell.
I’ll begin with some words about Tony as a teacher. When his death was announced, a deluge of stories from former pupils fed into the Keele alumni web site and other stories fed into the national press, testifying to both his somewhat controversial status and the very wide respect and admiration that there was for him. One former student writes: “Though he enjoyed a good scrap – ‘philosophy with the gloves off’ he once called it – he was at heart a gentle, I think perhaps even a shy man. Like many philosophers, he had a touchingly innocent faith in the power of abstract argument, and was genuinely baffled that people did not modify their positions when logic should have compelled them to do so. His own commitment to the Socratic rule ‘follow the argument wherever it leads’, was unwavering, and it is above all for his intellectual integrity that he will, rightly, be remembered.”
Christopher Harrison, later to become a member of the Keele History Department, said: “At that time all Keele students did a wide-ranging general course in the first year, of which a common lecture course was the major component. Here Tony Flew was in his element. He was a maverick. He burst onto the stage of the lecture hall to our astonishment, flapping his gown like a demented bat. He began his discourse as he entered in a high-pitched voice which one could not escape; no one slept in his lectures. For me Flew was my greatest challenge since he seemed to end every lecture, in the first-year and subsequently, with the explicit or implicit conclusion: ‘And therefore there is no God’.”
Malcolm Clarke, President of the Keele Students Union in 1970, the year of trouble, recalled that after a Senate meeting in which Malcolm had been presenting the case for student power, to which Tony was not sold, “he came bounding across to say ‘Mollcombe, (for some reason he always mispronounced my first name) I gave your paper to Senate Beta+ which was a considerably higher mark than I gave the Vice-Chancellor’s!’ Despite the intense atmosphere and his own opposition to what I was saying, he cared about his student, and was pleased that I had done well.” Clarke continues: “as well as being a vociferous atheist, Tony was perceived as being well to the right politically, whereas Annis was then an active Labour supporter. I remember her once likening their relationship to two trees growing against each other – they pushed against each other but both knew that if the other wasn’t there they would simply fall to the ground.”
I will refrain from further quoting the words of others and turn to memories of my own. As with most aspiring philosophers, my first encounter with Tony was through his writings. In the later fifties his name was soon introduced to any student of philosophy in this country as the editor of several books that exemplified that new movement in philosophy that was often called ‘Linguistic Philosophy’ or ‘Ordinary Language Philosophy’ but which is perhaps better called ‘Analytic Philosophy’. This was most closely associated with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein and a group of philosophers at Oxford of whom Gilbert Ryle and John Austin were the best known. Oxford was the undoubted centre of this school and Tony Flew was widely regarded, by myself included, as the attack-dog of this movement. This was signalled by his Introductions to Logic and Language (1951 and ‘53) and Essays in Conceptual Analysis (1956). But the publication that brought him to the attention of a wider audience was his paper ‘Theology and Falsification’ in his collection with Alasdair Macintyre New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1956). By the late 1950s Tony was in his mid thirties and a professor at Keele. I was then an undergraduate reading philosophy at Nottingham. When I saw that he was an invited speaker at a Students Union debate on the existence of God nothing would have prevented me attending. Tony already had the reputation of being a firebrand atheist so I was expecting fireworks. I later learned that Tony had two very different styles of disputation: the full-blooded attack mode and a much more reflective one. For entertainment value I was hoping for the former, but at Nottingham that day it was the reflective Flew that appeared. His argument was simple and pretty short: In all claims for existence there is a presumption of the burden of proof lying on the claimant. We have no duty to accept such claims, whether to ghosts, elves, leprechauns, or deities, without proof, and the evidence for such entities is always wanting. The argument was given clearly and without rhetoric. So much for the fireworks!
Some three years later I was called for interview for a post as lecturer at Keele. I was delighted when I was appointed to Flew’s department. From October 1962, and for the next ten years, I was in almost daily contact with him, and he was a superb head of department as well as supervising my PhD. Keele was then really a college, with less than 1000 students. The degree structure favoured philosophy as students could try it out in their Foundation Year and many who were exposed to Tony in that year chose to take it as an honours course. Tony gave at least one lecture a week to the 300 or so Foundation Year students, as did Donald McKay (neuroscience) and Sammy Finer (politics). It was said that Flew proved there was no God, McKay proved there was a God, and Sammy Finer, a brilliant egotist, proved that he was that God!
Keele was an ideal environment for Tony. Virtually all students and staff lived on the campus and everybody knew virtually everybody else. He and Annis entertained widely both junior staff and students. Keele was indeed a community of scholars and the Flews were leading members of that community in every sense. Tony had an excellent sense of humour. I remember him once returning from an extended trip abroad which had taken in Thailand. He was wearing an unusual (and somewhat garish) tie on which were two Lowry stick-like figures. I asked Tony about the tie’s significance; “Ah”, he said, with a triumphant twinkle, “This is my Thai tie with two Thais on it!” It was a joke he was happy to repeat for the rest of the week.
Moving towards a conclusion I wish to say something about Tony as a public intellectual. Tony thought that too many of his fellow professional philosophers failed to engage, as their discipline required of them, with matters of public policy. It is a charge that never could be levelled at him. At the beginning of his wonderful little book Thinking About Thinking there are three brief quotations that summarise his position: “We must follow the argument wherever it leads” (Socrates); “A moment’s thought would have shown him. But a moment is a long time, and thought is a painful process” (A.E. Housman); “Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.” (Bertrand Russell). The book provides a paradigm of why philosophy is important. With wonderful examples drawn from the words of famous people Tony illustrates a series of logical howlers which he encourages us to avoid. At least two of Tony’s names for types of fallacies have entered the literature: ‘The No True Scotsman Argument’ and ‘The Death by a Thousand Qualifications’.
That little book should be read by everybody but it will annoy many readers because a large proportion of the examples are taken from muddles in what might well be seen as left-wing thinking. No doubt Tony wanted to bring to the left’s attention some of their fallacious claims, but one wonders if he too often annoyed his intellectual opponents in ways which encouraged them to ignore him rather than generating the reaction for which he was really hoping, namely for them to attempt to confront his arguments. In many ways Tony was the finest exponent of a libertarian conservatism of his generation, but few of his opponents were prepared to take him on. Rather, they chose to ignore him. But many of his arguments will endure and due recognition will come. He will be remembered for a lot more than changing his mind on the God question. And it is important to remember that his reason for that last change is based firmly in matters of statistical evidence, not some kind of subjective religious experience or hidden wish-fulfilment. Whether the evidence to which he points has the implications that he came to accept is another, and highly disputable, matter.
© Prof. G.A.J. Rogers 2010
John Rogers is Professor of Philosophy at Keele University, and is Editor of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.