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P.K.F. Robinson (1908-2012)

Michael O’Connor reports on the Diagonalist English philosopher sadly crushed to death by his ‘Philosophical House’.

The distinguished English philosopher P.K.F. Robinson died on April 1st at the age of 103, when his ‘Diagonalist’ philosophical house collapsed, crushing him to death. Robinson burst onto the philosophical scene at the age of twenty-one with his book A Concept in My Mind (1929). A year earlier he had been cycling into the quad of his Oxford college at speed. A malfunction of the bicycle’s chain propelled him forwards like a rocket, and he hit the college wall face first and fell into a coma. This had profound consequences for philosophy. As Robinson tells us in his Autobiography (1986): “On the seventh day of the coma I awoke with a new philosophical insight grounded in rational intuition and known with the epistemic certainty of the self-evident: I was a concept in my own mind. I knew this indubitably, and it formed the metaphysical foundation of the system of thought I expounded in A Concept in My Mind.” (p.837)

Robinson was a concept in his own mind! This fundamental insight laid the foundations for a new era in British and then Western philosophy. It blew existing conceptual frameworks apart, exposing the history of Western philosophy as a series of errors based on a conceptual mistake. At this time Robinson was regarded by many as the greatest thinker of his generation, and it seemed that at last philosophy had made real progress.

Six years later, during a darts match with the Logical Positivist A.J. Ayer, a remark of Ayer’s caused Robinson to lie down for three weeks. “I remained in the mode of horizontality, abjuring consciousness, thought and language, and especially apostrophes,” he later wrote. When he woke, he immediately started writing three articles in analytical philosophy: ‘The meaning of And’, ‘The logic of But’, and ‘The definition of If’. He never spoke of his ‘concept in my mind’ theory again. Seminal books on ‘But’, ‘If’ and ‘And’ followed during the 1930s, alongside his positivistic The Obliquity of Metaphysics.

A noise made by Wittgenstein in 1949 over cheese led Robinson to spend the rest of the year horizontal in bed, reflecting. On January 1st 1950, he leapt from his bed, and by the end of the year he had published his book No More Ifs, Ands, or Buts: The Impossibility of Defining These Terms or Any Others I Have Heard Of. During this time, Balliol College residents often had their sleep disturbed in the middle of the night by the sound of Robinson screaming “The word ‘And’ is just too hard to understand. I can’t bear it! Leave me alone!”

In 1953, while cycling backwards to Balliol in a fume at J.L. Austin (whose work influenced his newly-published book How To Do Nasty Things To People With Words), a collision with an Oxford omnibus led to the loss of Robinson’s left leg. This inspired him to spend ten weeks in a vertical position, occasionally hopping. Little was heard from him until 1960, which saw the publication of groundbreaking articles in the new field of Applied Philosophy: ‘Ethics For Unipeds’, ‘The Phenomenology of Quadrupeds’, and the controversial and much misunderstood ‘The Metaphysical Sexuality of the Centipede’.

By 1969, new thinking about the meaning of ‘But’ led him to publish his nine-volume magnum opus, Notes towards a Prolegomena for an Introduction to a Preliminary Enquiry into the Grounds of the Possibility of Defining ‘But’. This work was the inspiration for the Bulgarian ‘Preliminarist’ movement of the 1970s, whose mass suicide in 1987 unnerved many.

In the late 1970s Robinson immersed himself in continental philosophy, especially Heidegger. Robinson’s startling work in existentialist ontology, Man Is Always Facing Forward (1984), argued that:

Dasein [Man] is always facing forwards. He exists in the ontological modes of Being Awake (Being as Openness) or Being Asleep (Being as non-Being, as Closedness). Man the Awake is sometimes Being-on-his-feet in the existential mode of standing up, sometimes Being-in-a-chair (sitting down, either as Being Awake or Being Asleep), and sometimes existing in the mode of horizontality (lying down, either as Being Asleep or Having-a-rest). In the ekstasis of wine or spirit inebriation there is a turn (‘Kehre’) from ontological verticality to horizontality, from standing up to Being-on-the-ground, and Man’s fallenness (‘Pisht’) is revealed. But if there is no Earth, Man falls through nothingness and is groundless, neither standing, sitting, nor lying down. Nonetheless, he is still facing forward, but without esse, percipi, Being-in-the-world, transcendental rationality, or a cup of tea.” (p.2562.)

Reading Heidegger led Robinson to study Dilthey’s theory that historical events are unrepeatable. Robinson attempted to integrate this view with existentialist principles in his book Vuja De: The Feeling That This Has Never Happened Before (1988).

In his later years, in an effort to overcome the vertical/horizontal dichotomy, Robinson spent months living diagonally, leaning against buildings on street corners so as to experience ‘Being’ more authentically. His arrest for vagrancy led him to originate the philosophical school of ‘Architectural Dasein’. He built a ‘Diagonalist’ house near Lewes with walls at 45 degree angles, and published The Metaphysics of Obliquity. In his garden he created a Platonic Cave with a fire inside, and watched the play of appearances and shadows on the wall. He would often suddenly turn and hop out of the cave in a frantic search for Platonic Forms, occasionally shouting “Gotcha!”

Since his death, colleagues have been celebrating P.K.F Robinson’s life and his contribution to philosophy. Professor Peregrine Proclivity of Maudlin College, Oxford, said, “An avid but incompetent geometer as a youth, he was as delightful on one leg as on two. His academic career spanned the twentieth century and embodied most of its philosophical currents. At his peak he was the fastest philosopher in Oxford, except when Bernard Williams was visiting.”

© Michael O’Connor 2012

Michael O’Connor is an Academic Skills Advisor at the University of Toronto and a former Open University tutor in Philosophy.

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