March 10, 2023

Not for the first time, an academic philosopher has been causing mirth on Twitter. No, not Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University — this time it’s the turn of Professor Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago, earnestly talking about her affair with a graduate student, the subsequent dissolution of her marriage to a fellow philosopher, and the fact that she now lives amicably with both of them.

In a New Yorker profile published this week, Callard is presented as “often baffled by the human conventions that the rest of us have accepted”. She relates how she and the graduate student first discovered their mutual love when she gave him a cookie in class, and she saw “just this incredibly weird expression on his face. I couldn’t understand that expression. I’d never seen it before.” She asked him why he was making that face. The student declared love as an explanation. Callard considered for a minute, and then told him: “I think I’m in love with you, too.” Next, she went home to tell her parents and husband.

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New Yorker subscribers who haven’t encountered philosophers before may wonder whether they have inadvertently opened a satirical short story by mistake — or perhaps at least a story about love among the robots. Callard now feels herself confronted with a forceful moral dilemma: harm her children by seeking divorce, or become a bad person “corrupted by staying in a marriage” while loving someone else. She opts for the former. A mere three weeks after that first fateful cookie, she and her husband are divorced by mutual agreement, and Callard is preparing a talk about her experience for her students entitled “On the Kind of Love Into Which One Falls”. Her husband gives her feedback on her presentation; on the day of the talk, he and her new lover sit “next to each other in the front row”. Callard is delighted to be able to share her newfound wisdom with her students. “I felt like I had all this knowledge. And it was wonderful. It was an opportunity to say something truthful about love.”

The New Yorker article makes all three dramatis personae sound very strange — like puzzled aliens, deliberately exposing themselves to earthling human experiences in order to take the information back home to their planet. They also seem prone to frequent shattering revelations. At one point, the graduate student says of the first time Callard’s sons visited his apartment: “I remember watching them play on the furniture and suddenly realising: this is the point of furniture.”

I recognise this type very well, though. For a long time, courtesy of my former profession, puzzled aliens were my people. For those not versed in the oddities of modern philosophers, a new book, written by fellow initiate and Cambridge philosopher Nikhil Krishnan, serendipitously offers some marvellously entertaining context about the spiritual and intellectual forebears of Callard and co. — and indeed my own.

In Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure, we meet the eccentric luminaries of the 20th-century Anglo-American philosophical tradition in Britain: G.E. Moore, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Anscombe, R.M. Hare, Peter Strawson, Bernard Williams, and lots of others too. We learn how, over the course of a century, and though differing profoundly in their ideas otherwise, these thinkers collectively forged a new philosophical methodology. This was “analysis” or “analytical philosophy”, described by Bertrand Russell as “watching an object approaching through a thick fog: at first it is only a vague darkness, but as it approaches articulations appear and one discovers that it is a man or a woman, or a horse or a cow or what not”. The general aim was to clarify and strip down the things we ordinarily say about the world, the more precisely to discern the truth commitments beneath. Essentially, you had to become a puzzled alien on purpose — though some intellects are more suited to this task than others.

After the First World War, a new kind of energy and ambition had begun to infuse students of philosophy in Oxford and Cambridge. Metaphysical idealism, as practiced for years by the likes of F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green, was on its way out — it being hard to maintain that the world is composed only of mind-dependent ideas when you’d personally come up smack bang against tanks and trenches.

Enthused by recent visits to logical positivists in Vienna, younger Oxford men such as Ryle and Ayer started to wonder whether it was possible to dissolve old metaphysical puzzles about reality into nothingness, simply by attending closely to the language in which they were described. Vigorous, ingenious, and with minds like steel traps, a new generation of philosophical upstarts met in tea rooms, pubs, and common rooms to thrash it all out. The aged and reclusive Bradley was reduced to shuffling irrelevantly around Merton College garden, murdering the occasional cat for psychological relief.

Ordinary ways of speaking began to be scrutinised to the point of collapse. Tutorials started to ring to the sound of the soon-to-be familiar demand: “But what exactly do you mean by that?” Hours would be spent arguing about the word “the”, or pondering “How is my thought about Cambridge a thought about Cambridge?” J.L. Austin was particularly good at turning everyday thoughts and feelings into objects of rigorous investigation: “If a landlady complained about her lodger’s ‘nasty habits’, would we take her to be complaining about the same kind of thing if she’d spoken instead of his ‘nasty ways’? Why can we speak of someone as a ‘good’ batsman but not as a ‘right’ batsman? Could someone complain of a pain in the waist?”

Verbal confrontations would often occur, between, as Isaiah Berlin called them, “the people mending the wall” and “the people knocking holes in it”. Temperamentally, Austin was a hole-knocker, prone to glaring at interlocutors in seminars, and asking with quiet menace: “Would you mind saying that again?” Ayer, meanwhile, was a wall-mender, and resented Austin’s powers of destruction, complaining bitterly of him: “You are like a greyhound who doesn’t want to run himself, and bites the other greyhounds, so that they cannot run either.”

For those who have suffered through the anguished pauses, sudden waspish outbursts, and surreal flights into the imaginary of the average philosophy tutorial, Krishnan’s book offers many opportunities to nod with an affectionate grimace at the recollection. There is the mandatory gladiatorial verbal sparring, rendering some poor souls so anxiously beset with possible counterexamples to every idea that they can barely write a word afterwards. There’s also the desire to talk exclusively to other philosophers who understand the highly technical background, rather than to communicate to the general public. This resulted in what Krishnan euphemistically calls “a new and strikingly unessayistic style of prose” (translation: some of the most godawfully impenetrable texts in the English language).

Other parts of this philosophical culture inherited from its elders have proved more fruitful, however. To this day, the best of analytic philosophy exemplifies a refusal to accept ideas just because powerful or clever people say that they are true. There was, and still is, a cultural expectation that every great thinker of the past is bound to be wrong in some way. Relatedly, there is what Ernest Nagel recognised in Vienna in the Thirties as a refusal to be explicitly ideological: “its professors do not indoctrinate their students with dogmas as to life, religion, race, or society”, and “no doctrines and no institutions are free from critical reappraisals”.

Today, when you study philosophy in Britain, this translates into the conceit that the dry and tortuous philosophical ideas you are being asked to assess have no history. You are to act as if they have just landed from the moon. Indeed, this is precisely what the analytic method encourages you to pretend. The question is not where or when the ideas come from, but whether they are true or false. In a similar vein, you’re encouraged to believe that a thinker’s personality is irrelevant to their thoughts.

Part of the delight of Krishnan’s book, then — with its focus on highly entertaining personalities, career achievements, and relationships — is to realise how utterly contingent the intellectual trajectory of analytical philosophy has been: dependent all the while on the character traits, foibles, and personal obsessions of a particular group of people. Had the thinkers been very different, so too would the body of thought.

More — had the personalities involved been different, we would not have had the contemporary stereotype of the public philosopher: unshakeably confident in the realm of abstract reasoning; able to say preposterous-sounding things without laughing; content with displaying a child-like naivety about many obvious aspects of the world; but also able to suddenly illuminate the ordinary, and place order into the chaotic, in ways few other minds can match. In short, we would not have had the likes of Professor Agnes Callard and her friends — and philosophy would not have become so wonderfully and enlightening alien.