HONDERICH: THUNDER AT THE GARRICK CLUB
The truth is noisy, and nobody propounds it more vehemently than the political philosopher Ted Honderich. Sholto Byrnes finds out how he managed to offend the Hampstead set - and what's wrong with Tony Blair
The Independent 22 May 2005
It was about halfway through the professor's party when the Legal Registrar to the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe appeared at my elbow to beckon me to dinner. The professor and his publisher had already made two exceedingly rude speeches about each other; Lady Lucinda Lambton had taken me around the curiosity cases on the upstairs landing at the Garrick Club; and, to the professor's delight, not only both his ex-wives but also Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin had shown up, despite their having walked out of his previous book party after taking offence at his justification of Palestinian terrorism.
A couple of days later I called Ted Honderich. The Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic was on the train. "I've just had lunch with Ian Gilmour," he said, "and I'm very drunk."
Ted Honderich is not your ordinary philosopher. The Canadian who came to England in 1959, aged 26, may have occupied the great chair at UCL once associated with that towering figure of 20th-century English philosophy, Sir Alfred Ayer, and he may have spent many years pondering the follies of dualism and the finer points of determinism; but no desiccated logician he.
Long, tall Ted has been a man of many women and almost as many controversies. He had affairs with students, and once allowed a prostitute to perform on him "a lesser act, only later dignified by the American presidency", as he delicately put it in his autobiography, in his room near college. He has managed to offend both the Palestinians and the Israelis, had a publisher ban one of his books in Germany, and been escorted to lectures by riot police. He is the respected editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. But he is not above academic insults, coming up with the description of Roger Scruton that deserves to be engraved on the latter's tombstone: "the unthinking man's thinking man".
Now Ted has Tony Blair in his sights. The new edition of his book Conservatism, first published in 1989, has been updated, allowing Honderich to let forth his fury about George Bush - "somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot" - and, much more so, about New Labour. A friend of Michael Foot, a sometime speechwriter for Neil Kinnock, and formerly a fully paid-up member of the Hampstead Left set, Honderich comes to a conclusion thrilling in its anger.
"That New Labour has not been clearly on the side of humanity," he writes, "removes it from parties of the left. It removes it, to my mind, from parties of decency. Certainly it was not a party of moral intelligence. It did so little good to its own country, and so terrible a harm to another people... as rightly to give rise to shame and rage on the part of many who once welcomed it." Perhaps most devastatingly, Honderich identifies New Labour as belonging to the tradition of conservatism - devastating not so much for stating what may seem obvious, but for how he defines conservatives. "They stand without the support, the legitimation, of any recognisably moral principle. The conclusion to which we come is not that conservatives are selfish. It is that they are nothing else."
"I find it hard to contain myself on this subject," says Ted when we meet again at his house in Frome, Somerset, to which he moved after retiring from UCL. The invasion of Iraq, what he sees as New Labour's failure to reverse inequality (as quantified by the scale named after the Italian statistician Gini), and the dragging down of the levels of public discourse are what rile him. "My passions are most rabid about that," he says. "It gives rise to rage in me that just about everyone who appears on television - except the occasional academic, by the way, they stand out like beautiful, unsore thumbs - has arrived at a policy of not answering the question. That's paradigmatic for New Labour, and it's poisoning the well of public intelligence."
As a philosopher, Honderich tends to express himself differently from less intellectually inclined polemicists. He describes the Prime Minister's Christianity as being "epiphenomenal", and tosses the odd word or two of Latin, "ipsissima verba", for instance, into the conversation. On occasion that means that those taking in his thoughts have to pay extra attention. After he wrote an article for the Toronto Globe and Mail about liberalism, the paper received a letter from an admiring but perplexed correspondent. "I read with great interest Ted Honderich's piece," he wrote. "Please, gentlemen, what did he say?"
I try to engage my brain for a trot through our next topic, his position on the body and mind debate - "I've got an awful lot of argument for the seemingly crazy view that what it is for you to be conscious of the room is for the room to exist, but that's something outside your head" - but then it's time for lunch.
On the first course that Ingrid, the third Mrs Honderich, has prepared for us, Ted reaches a verdict that might strain marital harmony in households less accustomed to academic discussion. "I must say that the soup is strange," he pronounces. "You may have fallen foul of Johnson's dictum: 'nothing strange ever lasts'." But Ingrid is not offended, perhaps because she used to be the Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy herself; and perhaps because Ted has a touching habit of frequently gathering his wife to him and stooping to plant a kiss on her lips.
Just as we embark on cold meats and salad, the subject of cannibalism in Hawaii comes up. "They deny it," says Ingrid of the Hawaiians' supposed past fondness for human flesh. "What they're trying to do," says Ted, "is to deny that they ate Captain Cook, when it's quite obvious that they did." Ingrid adds that if you ate someone else you'd get part of their spirit. "That's why it's certain they ate Captain Cook," says Ted triumphantly, "because they knew he was a great man." Ingrid looks thoughtful. "Yes, you'd fortify yourself greatly by eating someone else." She turns to me. "I do hope we're not putting you off your food."
Ted and Ingrid have just returned from Germany, where Ted has been lecturing. "It's very nice to go there," he says. "They all know me. It's 'here's Ted!', like I'm on Mars or something." They all know him because of the row that broke out over After The Terror. In England the book may have caused the Frayns and another former Hampstead neighbour, the law lord Lennie Hoffman, to walk out of the party held to celebrate its launch. But when it was published in Germany two years ago, a professor at Frankfurt University denounced it as anti-Semitic, and the philosopher who was supposed to be making Honderich's defence did so with such ambiguity that the publisher announced it was going to ban the book.
German camera crews turned up at the splendid former vicarage in Frome where the Honderichs live. A Jewish publisher eventually took the book on in Germany, but when Ted next visited the country he and Ingrid had to be accompanied by police at all times. "Ingrid had her own policeman," recalls Ted. "When we went to a restaurant he would scurry on ahead and then beckon her in if it was okay." "Yes," says Ingrid. "I wanted to keep him. I said 'you can come over here!'"
Ted vehemently denies charges of anti-Semitism. "Ingrid's son-in-law is Jewish, and so is one of my ex-wives." His line is that Israel has a right to exist within its 1967 borders, but that if the Israeli government is involved in ethnic cleansing of Palestinians then the latter have a moral right to undertake suicide bombings. Thereby he manages to upset both sides.
I'm not sure this worries Ted too much, though. He tells me, when I ask him if on occasion he might be guilty of aiming to provoke just a little, that "decent morality places an obligation on people not only to say the truth, but to say the truth forcefully." He thinks his fellow British philosophers would have a higher profile if only they were willing to speak out more. "Philosophers here have hardly any role. It's not like in France or Germany. They would get more of a hearing if they were more assertive." He is aware that some think he overdoes it a bit from time to time. "This is an ongoing dispute," he confides, "between me and my sweetie bon-bon dollop number one wife." Ingrid looks up. "What, what, what?" she says.
Honderich is in a curious, and not totally satisfactory, position. His is a name known to every philosophy student, and in his long career he has been connected to all the leading figures in English philosophy. He went on a ban-the-bomb march with Bertrand Russell, who brought a velvet cushion to sit on. An executor of Ayer's literary estate, he remained close to Sir Freddie even when others had dropped him because of his overweening vanity. "We went to lunch at the Beefsteak Club once," Ted tells me, "and he announced himself through the buzzer as 'Professor Sir Alfred Ayer'. The next guest merely announced himself as 'Harold Macmillan'."
I ask Ted if the story about Ayer and Mike Tyson is true. The tale goes that the pair were both in a New York nightclub, and Ayer demanded Tyson unhand a woman whom he thought was being intimidated by the boxer. "I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," said Tyson. "Who the fuck are you?" Replied Ayer: "I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University. Who the fuck are you?" "I heard it from Freddie," says Ted, "but he did exaggerate his stories."
A professor with such confidence in the global renown of his chair would be rare indeed today. After lunch we take a walk around the garden. Ted tells me that he's not disappointed in his lack of wider fame. "All I wanted was to be a philosopher, to have the status of a philosopher," he says. I think he is a little disappointed in the changing nature of England, though. Drawn to his adopted homeland by Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic and "the decency of the Welfare State", he has had to endure the withering of the latter and a fading of interest in the former.
But Ted will continue to rage about injustice, poverty, and the iniquities of New Labour. "There's such a pressure to conformity," he says, "but truth is noisy." So for those who listen, and the wise will listen, there will be plenty more noise to be heard in the environs of Frome and the Garrick Club. And, with any luck, more speeches that cause the sensitive to walk out at the sound of Honderich's truth.
'Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?' by Ted Honderich is published by Pluto Press (£17.99). To order a copy, with free p&p, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to them at PO Box 60, Helston TR13