|TED HONDERICH'S BOOK PHILOSOPHER: A KIND OF LIFE
are the first
reviews of the
book and of the author in 2001 -- and,
by the author, reviews of the reviews. Then comes a new postscript of
-- just excerpts from more reviews. And, in 2007, a further postscript,
prompted by Colin McGinn's review
of the later book On
Consciousness and the reply by
Honderich, etc. All of which might be taken as preparatory, when you
are ready, to a longer discussion of Philosopher: A
Kind of Life
philosopher and feminist Catherine Wilson.
With respect to the first reviews, let me remark that there is much to be said against the World-Wide Web, including the fact that most of the philosophical thoughts posted up daily on its philosophical noticeboards could not get themselves published on paper, and rightly so. Many of them are at best first thoughts, below the level of philosophy on paper, in need of editing at least. Some of them give autodidacticism a bad name.
There is also a good deal to be said in favour of the philosophical web. It can be recommended in a way imperfectly consistent with or anyway in tension with those elevated remarks about the aforementioned thoughts on noticeboards. It is that the web does indeed offer the author of a book a ready opportunity -- no editor in the way -- to say what may be a justified word or two for himself against the petty and other persons who have presumed to judge him on paper. The author can immediately review his reviewers.
I contentedly take the opportunity in some cases below, with however good reason -- and in other cases act on that decent human inclination to discover perceptive judgement, literary excellence and wonderful truth in those who came to praise me. My longer or shorter review of each of the first eight reviews of the book comes after it. The eight -- lovely, good, bad, or curiously deceptive -- are in the order of their original appearance.
There is a little more than self-vindication and self-esteem in this operation, by the way. It seems another pointer in the direction of some philosophy, indeed much sceptical or agnostic philosophy, that remarkably different opinions of a book can be had by different persons -- all of whom have been subjected to some education, whatever impression it has made on them in one or two instances.
With respect to the Postscript
of 2002, I lacked the
diligence to continue this reviewing of my reviewers, but not wishing
to deprive you or myself of the judgements of MacIntyre, Ricciardi,
Quinton, Jeffries, Fulford and certainly Glouberman, quotations from
these and other persons have been added to the end of all this.
The 2007 postscript was indeed
the result, as
you have heard, by the review of On
Consciousness by McGinn, and the idea of various people,
expressed on the web and elsewhere, that the review was not owed
only to pure reason but to personal feelings of one kind and another.
On the face of It, this Is the autobiography of a philosopher, which might sound terribly boring, and indeed at least one other philosopher known to your reviewer has written a terribly boring autobiography. But not Honderich.
Among other things, he edited The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, the only reference work on the subject that communicates the sheer oddball fun of hard thinking. Before now, I had not quite read through all 1,010 pages of that august work, mainly having been detained by novels and fat works of incoherent, Tory history, so am pleased to be alerted here to the existence of the one entry in its editor's own hand, viz: "Unlikely Philosophical Propositions", which manages to be witty as well as perfectly lucid and short, not a common combination.
And, apart from the shortness, those virtues are apparent too in the superb Philosopher: A Kind of Life. Here is a pulsing drama of sex, wine, litigation and office politics, and the story of how a very tall, bespectacled Canadian came to hold London’s highest chair of philosophy. Honderich doesn’t pretend that his life has had a smooth narrative; he deftly anticipates the reader's worst judgments of his behaviour and gently confesses that they may be right.
And through it all he tackles large questions about determinism, punishment, causation and the like with the kind of vigorous, clear language that forces the reader to think hard and like it -- if not always to agree with hIm.
Take his savaging of Rawls’s theory of justice: Hondench supposes that Rawls’s contractors, who are in the process of thinking up an ideal society, might face a choice between giving absolutely equal amounts of socio-economic goods to all, or "unequal amounts but with every class getting more".
Given that any actual society will have a finite amount of resources to distribute initially (for the alternative, an infinite amount of resources, makes the whole problem disappear), the latter option, it seems to me, is impossible, and so this pseudo-choice cannot be used to demonstrate incoherence in Rawls.
Still, it seems likely that, had I encountered Hondench’s glintingly engaging prose at a more impressionable age, I might have chosen his subject at university instead of sloshing around with poets and dramatists. And so, dear reader, this column might never have existed. And, to borrow Honderich’s own favourite form of negative rhetorical question, might not the world still have muddled through somehow?
Certainly Mr. Poole's bit about the pulsing drama of my book caught my fancy. And that it was by implication a drama on a high chair, since on a highest -- there was a pretty touch on the subject of professorial dignity. An 18th Century stroke? Swiftian? Seems to be something to be said for sloshing around with poets and dramatists after all if you want to pay a compliment with a cadence in it.
Gratitude, as I seem to remember Disraeli gave illustration, is not the easiest of subjects. After having been given an excellent if large meal, did he not say that he felt an odd and unusual sensation, and that if it was not indigestion, it must be gratitude?
No doubt there is someone capable of the idea that where a man tells the truth by his lights, at no large cost to himself, he is owed no gratitude. Conceivably I was once capable of the idea myself. Well, I have risen above that, and am most grateful to Mr. Poole for his piece. He appeared in my life out of nowhere and improved it.
Still, he puzzles me by his retort about Rawls. Let us agree that Rawls's contractors thinking up an ideal society, when they face a choice between equal amounts of socio-economic goods for all or unequal amounts with every class getting more, are contemplating a society with a finite amount of such goods. But is Mr. Poole thinking of two choices each of which involves the very same finite amount of such goods? In that case, I take it, he is right to say that the second choice is impossible -- a pseudo-choice.
But the argument does not assume the same finite amount of socio-economic goods in the two choices. The idea is that there would be a greater total in the second case because of the operation of a money-incentive.
I certainly share what
just might be Mr. Poole's resistance to the contained piece of
-- that in the real world the poor do necessarily get less poor as the
rich get richer and the whole pie gets bigger. It is a piece of
falsehood that is at the very foundation of the vicious ideologies on
which conservatives in America and Britain have depended. It has
been too much tolerated by economists who should have known
As the Athenian rent-a-quote Socrates was fond of saying, philosophers above all seek out the truth. But does this solemn purpose extend to revealing the truth about their own lives? This question gets some intriguing, though inconclusive, answers in the autobiographies of the philosophers Ted Honderich and Mary Warnock.
Honderich’s Phi/osopber: A Kind of Life reveals a man much concerned with the question of whether it is possible to explain a life. Honderich's account is not just a personal history of his youth and headship of University College London’s philosophy department: it is an exercise in the philosophy of biography. The core problem concerns causation. One could ask why Honderich had a life of "too many women", marrying four times. One could ask whether the "asp of ambition" was planted in him by others, as he claims, or whether its source was closer to home. One could ask why he cuffed his second wife or came over to England from Canada in the first place. But when we attempt to explain these aspects of his life, Honderich suggests we are doing no more than identifying the aspects of his story that strike us as most interesting or relevant. A full explanation of a life is as big, if not bigger, than the life itself. Yet the desire to identify particular events as key causes is salmost irresistible.
This absorbing book contains many other fascinating reflections on the nature of biography. Despite his reservations about the genre, Honderich strives to tell the truth, not flinching from including embarrassing and sometimes even damning evidence against himself. For example, his inclusion of his third wife's judgment that he was "by nature dominating" is hardly designed to counter critics who see his tenacious debating style as bullying. Perhaps because of the self-conscious interest in the truth, it is hard to shake off the doubt that this ingenuousness masks a deeper concealment. Just as an invitation to examine every cranny of someone’s house leads you to suspect that anything embarrassing has been hidden away already; so Honderich’s openness leaves you wondering whether all is what it seems. Of course, it is Honderich’s concern with the truth that alerts you to this possibility. Honderich has been bravely honest about the limits of attempts at autobiographical honesty. And it is the book’s dual nature, as an example of and reflection on the nature of biography which contributes most to its success. Rarely does an autobiography make you question its author and, more importantly, your judgements on him to such a degree. Like good philosophy; it's unsettling and leaves you asking questions you hadn’t even thought of when you first turned to page one.
Mary Warnock’s Memoir People and Places [Duckworth, £18] is much more conventional fare. Warnock is not too concerned with getting to the heart of herself and making sense of her life. This is rather a set of reminiscences about the times and people who have had most of an impact on her. Curiously, Warnock’s very unconcern with examining her own character means that it becomes transparent through the text. We see "a natural Tory", deeply opposed to both Thatcherism and new Labour, and someone who is aware of her own limitations as a philosopher and comfortable with them. We also see a remarkable anti-feminism. Perhaps this aspect of Warnock’s character tends to he overplayed, as though any successful woman has a duty to be a feminist. But one expression of it was so astounding I had to reread the text twice to make sure I’d got her right. Warnock had been describing a tutor, Eduard Frankael, who used to "paw" his female students. Curiously, this didn’t bother her very much, and her measured judgement, that he was such a good tutor that it seemed a price worth paying, is not easily dismissed. But then she writes "I cannot think that anything would have been improved if [I] or an other of Frankael’s numerous girls had indulged in displays of self-indulgent feminism, or otherwise brought our education with him to an end." That tells you as much about the book’s subject as any candid confession would, if not more.ss
The two books tell of two lives, but also two intellectual worlds. Warnock’s Oxford is a place where work and the powers that be, in government or the media, sought one out, even if one hadn’t made any great impression as an academic. Oxford philosophy also had its own style, quite distinct from that practised all those miles way in Cambridge. (Anywhere else might as well have not existed.) Back in London, things were different Honderich was acutely aware, as outsiders often are, of the old English pecking order. His attitude towards this is ambivalent, balancing an obvious distaste for snobbery and elitism with ambition and pragmatism. He applied for Oxford posts on several occasions, all unsuccessful. more often than not losing out to Oxford insiders. Like Warnock, Honderich acknowledges that his intelligence is "effective if not overpowering". But unlike Warnock, he had to compensate for this with hard philosophical endeavour and not a little political manoevering to advance his career.
The contrast between Honderich's relentless struggle for recognition and Warnock’s smooth passage is a striking reminder of the enduring power of Oxbridge’s academic aristocracy. Honderich begins his book by saying that his own life is "not much more than middle-sized". The real interest of the book, and hence the sub-title, is in showing a kind of life, that of a working, academic philosopher. Put next to Warnock’s memoir, the evidence suggests that the class has too much diversity it for the project to succeed. Both these lives are of interest as much for their particularity as for what they tell us about academic philosophers in general. More than this, they are fascinating openings into the rarefied worlds of academic philosophy and, in Honderich’s case, an insightful reflection on what sense can be made of a life at all.
Gratitude here too, as in the case of the review above. It is not greatly qualified by Dr. Baggini's not being good at counting marriages, in my case there having been three, not four. Four is Hollywood. Despite our being acquainted and his being an ex-student of mine, he also falls into some little other errors, about cuffings and asps and Oxford jobs for Oxford lads, of significance mainly to me rather than the wider world. In compensation, he gives a good first statement of what might be called the paradox of explanation.
Some chagrin was caused me by the later idea, seized on by the writer of the heading of the review, that my seeming attempt at honesty in the account of my life may in fact be some concealment or other. But I can put up with it. Dr. Baggini does indeed mollifyingly say that my seemingly all-out commitment to openness makes a reviewer doubt his own judgements on the book -- including the judgement that there is a dark secret.
As to whether there actually is a dark secret, my saying there isn't one does indeed call up that perfectly apposite scepticism -- "He would, wouldn't he?" But there are good replies, of which the first is "Let's have the dark secret, then. You can always say there might be one." The merely logical or otherwise remote possibility that there is one can be disregarded sometimes. That is why courts of law aren't pointless.
A second reply to the suspicion as to concealment is that even in this time of public relations, there are a lot of us left with a strong attachment to truth, whatever the little complications. You can lose sight of that. Truth is better than public relations. It has better effects than anything, and you can dream it is a good in itself. Not all books are exercises in public relations. Many philosophical ones aren't.
Is there some sense in the idea that people reveal more about themselves when they're casual, when they aren't methodically trying to be open, trying to escape self-deception and so on? It's not quite clear what the idea is.
Of course you might reveal more about yourself than you want if you're actually careless. But not all authors or the like who aren't methodically trying to be open, but seemingly chatting or whatever, are careless. And anyway carelessness can creep into the methodical alternative. Anyone who thinks carelessness can't come together with method hasn't been in the world long enough. There's another point. Character and personality and the like can unintentionally shine through method as well as through chat. Methodical stuff can also be transparent. Think of Proust for a start.
As for Mary Warnock, not here to speak for herself or for her good book, I bravely say that her unfeminist lines about the pawing tutor do not strike me as so alarming. Does Dr. Baggini have an enlightened majority on his side? I wonder. Even so, he might moderate his shock. Feminism is not what it was. A good thing too. It's been made a bit of use of in its time.
Dr. Baggini has more to say of the book, by the way, in the admirable magazine of which he and Dr. Jeremy Stangroom are the editors. See 'Ted's Excellent Adventure' in The Philosopher's Magazine, Winter 2001.
Ted Honderich’s avowed aim is to present the reader with something more than mere autobiography. He wants to paint a truthful picture of what it is like to be a working academic philosopher at the turn of this new century, using himself as an example. To this end, he recurrently interrupts the narrative of his life with philosophical ruminations, many of which are concerned with the perennial problems of free will versus determinism.
Honderich was born in 1933, the sixth child of
a schoolteacher mother and a profoundly deaf father. It is
certainly remarkable that a child raised in a
German community of only seven hundred people in an
village in Ontario should end up as Grote Professor at
College London: a chair previously occupied by such luminaries
as A J Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and Richard Wollheim. School in Toronto,
with journalism to pay his way, was followed by a prolonged period at
University of Toronto, and a final decision to proceed to a higher
When A J Ayer accepted him to study for this at University College London. he leapt at the chance, and, together with his first wife, abandoned Canada for ever. Freddie Ayer remained his hero, and Honderich finally became executor of his literary estate. Honderich’s mother died of motor neurotic disease, a horrible, incurable illness which has killed three of my own friends. I find it slightly bizarre that he daily reminds himself of her by using her first names as a computer password.
Honderich gives an unusually honest account of some of his failings, which include proneness to quarrels, often linked with drinking too much. He is also liable to episodes of depression, and doses himself with St John’s Wort. He reveals that his first attempt to succeed Wollheim as Grote Professor caused one of his colleagues to report that this would be anathema to the department; a remark which naturally caused him pain and grief. After nearly six years, during which no appointment was made to the Grote chair, Honderich finally achieved his goal in 1988. However, in 1989. a philosopher who is now a fellow of an Oxford college had a quarrel with him, and, on resigning his post in London, accused Honderich of having gained his professorship improperly. This he firmly denies; but he comes across as an intensely ambitious man, whose jockeying for position has sometimes incurred enmity, and whose social climbing prompts him to list many well-known academic and literary figures with whom he claims familiarity.
His efforts at honesty lead to disclosures about his sex life which are sometimes embarrassing. Honderich has had three marriages, innumerable affairs, one encounter with a prostitute and what he describes as mild experiments with a riding crop. I had the idea of trying to count the number of women with whom Honderich has had what he calls ‘connections", but I soon gave up the attempt as hopeless. A late developer, he describes himself as unusually diffident in adolescence, but he has more than made up for it since. As most of his lovers are mentioned by name, he can be certain of good sales of his book, for they will all want to know what he has written about them.
Some of his affairs were with undergraduates. Even if, as he alleges, they were more than ready to embark on what he proposed, there is an inescapable inequality of position between teacher and pupil which raises ethical problems of which a philosopher must be particularly aware. What grades do you assign your former lover? If she demands that you act as her referee, can your comments ever be entirely objective?
What is not clear is why so many of his relationships have ended in tears, his as well as hers. I have never before read a book in which a man weeps so copiously and so often. Is it Honderich’s promiscuity that leads to breakdown, or his aggressiveness? I incline to the latter explanation, for I believe him when he says that he has seldom been unfaithful except towards the end of a relationship.
Honderich has produced a number of philosophical books and papers, including an interesting one called Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, which has been on my bookshelf for many years. I am not competent to pronounce on his other philosophical writings; but it may be that he will be best remembered as an assiduous editor, for example of two series of philosophical books published by Routledge and Penguin, and of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. The picture that Honderich paints of a successful academic life will probably cause his readers to conclude that, in spite of the infighting, such an existence has much to recommend it.
Let me not follow in the discretion of my reviewer. Let me not depend on implication to do the work of what is not plainly said. Let me say instead that his is a curiously deceptive review, whatever his honourable intentions -- and explain what I mean. This is not the general point that he lets implication do the work of what he does not plainly say.
Dr. Storr, as presumably he is, in effect aspires to a condescending account of the book and myself. For a quick start, we have it that I recurrently interrupt my narrative with philosophical ruminations. That is right enough, but there are other sides to the fact, other ways of putting it. See other reviews for the thought that I bring together philosophical argument with the rest of my life, etc. See my book for the thought, defensive but worth something, that this is the way a philosophical life can be -- it alternates between the reality of philosophy and the reality of the rest of life.
Other aspirations to superiority on the part of our reviewer follow, more about the author than the book, these involving ambiguities, small omissions of a tendentious kind, obscurities, a useful sense of who is a luminary, saying that I firmly deny what others say I show to be false, and so on. One instance will do.
No doubt at least two things can be meant by saying that someone claims familiarity with many well-known academic and literary figures. One is roughly that he is in touch with them -- in their houses or at their parties and so on. Another is roughly that he is an intimate friend. It is possible for a book to claim the first sort of thing with respect to a good many people, truly, as mine does. It is possible for a reviewer to make use of the ambiguity to imply that the book claims the second thing, falsely, as mine does not.
In his negative account my reviewer gets round to the the embarrassment of my sexual life, and then his analysis at a distance of the endings of various relationships -- my aggressiveness rather than my promiscuity. And then finally to the matter on which my reviewer is not competent to pronounce, as he says, but then does. This has to do with my philosophical standing. He is not far off the truth, as I think on some days, anyway taking into account the record so far, but he is not friendly either.
All that is tolerable enough, and no real ground for authorial protest. This sort of thing comes with writing books. There is something of greater interest.
My book conveys on p. 5 that Freud's theory of sexuality has no place in a university curriculum, anyway a curriculum of philosophy. On pp. 31-2 you learn that the idea of an unconscious mind was a commonplace for centuries before Freud, despite the inclination of Freudians to credit him with his discovery in Vienna. On p. 32 Freudianism is insultingly put on the level of astrology. To skip forward past some other dismissals, to p. 180, you might say psychoanalysis and its adherents are thereabouts abused by me -- e.g. in the line that the stuff in it is succulent to a certain sort of personality. It is said too that the attitude of philosophers in general to it is jocularity from a distance.
On that page begins an account, partly comic in intention, of the attempt by Richard Wollheim, mentioned in the review, to establish a chair of psychoanalysis in the Department of Philosophy at University College London. This account is in a way the centre of the book. What is comes to is that it was more my doing than anyone else's that in the end there was no Freud Chair in the Philosophy Department.
On p. 266 I record my line of biography of Nietzsche in another book: 'Friend of Wagner, praised by Freud for self-insight, died deranged'. On p. 316 I record trying to get myself off the appointment committee for a 'peripatetic' Freud Chair, and make a joke about the Tavistock Institute in Hampstead.
In the culminating chapter of the book, pp. 415 to 423 consist in argued dismissal of Freudian and related stuff, maybe funny in parts, and no doubt appalling to those who still try to stick by it. It is said in passing that the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is dead right in saying that the central methodological question about Freudianism is whether there now is or ever has been any evidence supporting its truth. Jung and others, left unnamed, are ranked lower by me.
None of this can have been happy reading to our reviewer. He is or was Consultant Psychotherapist, Oxfordshire Area. He is the author of Freud as well as The Art of Psychotherapy , The Essential Jung, The Integrity of the Personality , Human Aggression, and so on. So one could not ask him to like my book. In plain words, it contains condescension to his line of life, indeed more than condescension.
So he should have at least mentioned my anti-psychotherapy stuff, and reminded or informed his readers of his line of life. If he couldn't or didn't want to deal with the stuff, he shouldn't have just left it out. Then a reader would have had an idea about his own general superiority to the book. A reader would have had an idea about his idea of me as a second-rate character and philosopher. As we say, our reviewer should have declared an interest.
It is very curious that his review reports not a syllable of the book's mockery with respect to his line of life and psychoanalysis etc. generally. I can have no reason to think or imply that my reviewer was lying -- that he was intentionally misleading by omission. There can be no reason to think he follows in the footsteps of Freud himself, whose limited personal commitment to truth, now clear indeed and accepted, was charitably left out of my book.
Did my reviewer learn a habit from his patients, and thus unconsciously 'resist' what he didn't like? Did he block things out, or get hysterical or something? Is he just forgetful? Or does he have no such problem, and just makes funny judgements about what is relevant when he is writing a review? I don't know. In effect he did deceive, though.
An interview in The Evening Standard.
I have been a man of many women, says Professor Ted Honderich. "A libertine, but not much of a womaniser." A wornaniser, he explains, is one who employs deceit in his sexual adventures. Honderich, however, has been upfront. The many, many women who litter the pages of his new autobiography Philosopher: A Kind of Life have been dealing, at least, with an honest man. Infidelities to his various wives have been within the context of "open marriages".
Affairs with his students are defended on the grounds that, although the girls may have been impressed with his status, his status was exactly what It appeared to be. Nobody was misled.
"The same thing happens with nurses and doctors, secretaries and bosses, juniors and seniors in any workplace," he points out now, while stressing that (aged 67) "I've actually been sexually faithful to women for about 25 years, save for what one might indelicately call 'the handover period'. And I've been prudent with regard to undergraduates for decades. All those affairs were in my flaming and possibly more rational youth."
One doesn’t necessarily expect this much sex In the autobiography of a respected academic, the now-retired Grote Professor of Philosophy at University College London. Reading his book with the speed usually required before interviews is mind-boggling for-two reasons. First because it is also the autobiography of his ideas, and any well-written philosophy is likely be very compact and impossible to skim-read. But second because if you skip two pages in the middle of a marriage, you’re likely to find him four women down the line, divorcing someone else entirely and having an affair with a fifth.
"Rousseau left a lot out in his confessions," explains Honderich, "and not just the bit about baring his bum in the street in the hope of a spanking. May I, in this more confessional age, be different from him not only in being middle-sized [in academic significance] but by leaving less out?" And he certainly doesn’t seem to have left much out. In an intriguing use of the word "prim", he writes: "It is perhaps prim to say so, but I have been with a prostitute only once. She performed a lesser act, only later dignified by the American presidency."
Neither does he shy from confessing that, as well as his son John and adopted daughter Kiaran, there is a third child (born after a long-ago affair) whom he has never met.
"This is the age of the public relations operation." says Honderich. "The Dome is low-grade subcultural soup produced by the New Labour PR machine. But this book is not a public relations exercise. Philosophy has an inclination towards truth: I wanted to find some philosophy, find some truth, and arrive at some sense of my own moral standing. So it’s all in there, including that son with whom I have no connection."
Ted Honderich was born a Canadian and began his professional life as a journalist. He was helped towards academia, he suspects, by an assignment to travel with Elvis Presley. "He was a yob, an American slob, and he gave me no taste for common culture. I felt on the side of Beethoven, and why should I like this monster, this Visigoth who was doing down things of value in favour of his Blue Suede Shoes?"
Honderich "went native" in England, and embraced a quintessentially Hampstead lifestyle. Wicker chairs were suspended from the ceiling; ITV was banned in the house; the second wife and eight-year-old daughter were vegetarians. There were drinks with Eleanor Bron and Michael Foot, holidays with A. J. Ayer, "pleasing literary dinners" round at AS Byatt’s; squabbles with Salman Rushdie; cocktail parties at the Folletts’; a drink-driving conviction acquired on the way home from Peregrine Worsthorne’s birthday party.
A friend of the professor defines "Honderich" as "a contraction of 'Hound the rich!'"— a cry against inequality heard at Hampstead dinner parties.
There are plenty of juicy rows with academic rivals, of course. What is a philosopher, if not someone who bickers constantly? When telling me he hoped to write the truth, Honderich apologises: "I don’t want to sound like a pompous jerk. Like Roger Scruton."
So one wonders how it turned out, this writing experiment to "arrive at some sense of my own moral standIng". In the final chapter, Honderich concludes that writing this book has shamed me", and at first this seems to relate to questions raised about whether he treated some of the women well, and whether the "open marriages" and his dominating nature wreaked ill effects on his children (two of whom, at least, he deeply loves). But what he mostly meant, it transpires, is a sense of guilt about his money. He wants "systematic change, a fair sharing out of things", would "vote for that tomorrow; indeed support civil disobedience for that tomorrow"; does not believe the answer lies in "individuals martyring themselves", but feels uneasy about owning a nice flat In Hampstead.
He also states that "I care less about having been a man of many women than about not having taken the philosophical world by storm". The book, which is beautifully written, is full of clever and interesting philosophical debate (on the principle of autobiography as well as Honderich’s more regular themes of determinism) and he stresses sternly that "It is not a sex book."
The autobiography, and his life, return always to philosophy because that is "the real world". Romantically he is now, or for now, happily settled; with a Platonist who goes by the marvellously Dickensian name of Ingrid Coggin Purkiss and lives in the flat upstairs. But he still likes to leave "the unreal world of flats and traffic and undergraduates, and go to the other world. The rest can stop for philosophy." And is his brain, his philosophical brain, as sharp as it ever was? "Yes it bloody is."
This interview was prompted by an item in a gossip column of an awful newspaper, The Daily Express , about my views, if they come up to the level of being articulated views, on sexual relations between university teachers and students. "Lock up your daughters!" advised the Express. The more elevated publication Prospect added that my honesty about my affairs and attitudes would not get me invited to an American university again.
To her eternal credit Victoria Coren satisfied her editor, who wanted more of the same, without forgetting entirely that there were some other things to write about. May she flourish absolutely.
To persist for a moment with the subject of sex, however, what a subject it is! It is rather larger than suggested by that paper now lost in the dusty archives of the Aristotelian Society by a colleague of mine -- Roger Taylor I think -- which addressed the question of the location of sexual sensations, and gravely found them to be centred in the most salient bit of the sexual organ, the tip, at least in the male.
For a start, there is the strangeness that we, or some of us, are engulfed in it, and yet it is unsettling for us, or many of us, to have someone being unreticient about his or her own carry-on. The readers of good English newspapers, to say nothing of the women's magazines and so on, have a weekly diet of sex. The world is full of pornography, half-pornography and quarter-pronography. A philosopher of the 1960's known to me was very clearly just leading the way into the future.
And yet it is deemed a little odd when a book with the aim of capturing all of a kind of life puts in a little about what the world is full of. Puzzling, surely. An odd discontinuity between public and private.
No doubt the interest is in the number of lovers had by someone. Well, there are questions there. But no admission of guilt from me yet. Maybe I was a pioneer. There were a lot of us around.
Ted Honderich is a famous philosopher, and a famous person. Those two facts are related but not identical. His fame as a philosopher (he is Grote Professor Emeritus at University College, London) comes from his work on some fundamental and fearsomely difficult probIems to do with causation, free-will, consciousness and perception.
His fame as a person arises mainly from his political views: his strident anti-Conservatism, his enthusiasm for Old Labour (he was once an adviser to Neil Kinnock, and recently contributed £5,000 to Ken Livingstone’s campaign fund), and above all his belief that "political violence" in a democratic state might, in some circumstances, be excusable.
Being a famous philosopher has added some intellectual gravitas to his political opinions; but he would be the first to admit that his views about which party to vote for are not logical derivations from his theories about determinism, sense-perception or the mind-body problem. The two areas of thought are barely related, and they seem to operate in different ways. With the technical philosophical problems, you try out the arguments first, and they lead you eventually to a position which you think you can defend. With politics, it seems, the position comes first, and then you go looking for arguments to back it up.
Perhaps that explains why Prof Honderich’s writings on politics, even when presented in philosophical dress, have struck many readers as something less than a project of pure inquiry. His book on Conservatism, for example, exhibits an extraordinary mixture of cleverness and wilful crudity, making no attempt to enter into the thought-world of the people whose ideas he claims to analyse. (His solemn conclusion, by the way, is that the only principle of Conservatism is to promote the selfish interests of Conservatives.)
As an intellectual autobiography his new book, Philosopher: A Kind of Life, also divides along the same lines. There are some fascinating accounts of his grapplings with the technical issues, admirably explained in non-technical terms; but the reasons why he adopted any particular position on these issues seem to have been strictly intellectual, involving only the history of his thinking, not the story of his life as a whole.
With political views, on the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that an autobiography will show how they are rooted in life, and how they have developed in interaction with it. In that respect, this autobiography is one long disappointment. Until the age of 26, when he moved from Canada to England, Honderich apparently had no political feelings at all, apart from a vague sense of approval for the Welfare State. A couple of years later (in 1961) he was arrested on a ban-the-bomb demonstration and convicted at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court.
What had prompted this shift into political activism? His answer is both airy and curiously ambivalent: "The Ban-the-Bomb movement, as it seemed to me, was on the side of moral and politi:al intelligence. That is not to say that I was confident that Britain ought to disarm unilaterally, that Russia posed no danger at all..." If, as that roundabout construction seems to imply, he actually thought unilateral disarmament might be wrong, one wonders what he was doing on the demo. The action and the theory appear to be in conflict, and the autobiography explains neither.
A similar problem arises at the end of the 1960s, when Honderich visits the Soviet Union. Describing his discussions there he writes, again in a roundabout way: "Oleg and Lev, if they were not dissidents, may have approved of me for my real uncertainty expressed in our private conversations about the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia." The phrase "if they were not dissidents" is, apparently, the clue as to how this cryptic sentence should be interpreted: it means that he really was not sure whether the Soviet government had done anything wrong. Later he adds that although he could not be a Communist because he felt a "scepticism" about the Soviet system, he also disliked reading denunciations of in the West. Seldom can radicalism and fence-sitting have been so effortlessly combined.
It is only in the following decade, with the rise of Margaret Thatcher, that Honderich leaves all political ambiguity behind. He also abandons explanation, argument and common decency. Mrs Thatcher is "a pompous frump", an "unspeakable woman, whose pomposity was no bad guide to her morals and politics"; Peter Lilley is "cretinous", and the Conservatives in general are "the shits". Thus speaks the trained philosophical mind.
That passing sneer at Mrs Thatcher’s "morals" will remind readers of this book that it is not only an intellectual autobiography; it also tells the story of Prof Honderich’s personal life, not all of which would qualify him to set up as a lecturer on morality. There is much soul-searching about his various marriages, adulteries and divorces; he gives the impression of wanting to out-Rousseau Rousseau in full-frontal confessionalism, and yet a feeling of stubborn self-vindication is never far away.
With several of the women concerned, the reader gets no sense of their personalities; even the ones he loved and lived with are quickly reduced to fixtures in this account, and their reasons for wishing eventually to part from him are dealt with cursorily, if at all. We hear much more about his battles with academic appointments committees than we do about his own children. All autobiographies are by definition self-centred, but this one really does read like the autobiography of a self-centred man.
Even the prose-style, with its arch humour, ponderous irony and self-deprecating but none the less relentless intellectualism ("My relationships", he summarises at one point, "have not been with bodies — with someone in terms of nore than their bodily attributes strictly speaking, presumably, but not enough of the rest"), serves only to remind us of the author’s constant controlling presence — as if giving the readers a few direct, inmediated reminiscences would be to allow them an unwarranted freedom.
A philosopher once said that an unexamined life was not worth living. It does not always follow, unfortunately, that an examined one is worth reading.
The Sunday Telegraph , as all the world should know and most of it does, is Conservative and conservative. That is, it supports the British political party of that name and also the political tradition. Much of it is written in a kind of county or shires style, compounded of the ingredients of bluff, genteel bombast, and impersonations of various Waughs.
Its intellectual level is that of the generality of persons in green Wellington boots. This is a level sometimes high enough to secure entrance to Cambridge with a little help from a fee-paying school, easily high enough to enable one to get a post tutoring at Gonville and Caius College for seven years, as my reviewer Dr. Malcolm had before being claimed by journalism. It was History or English he taught, I think. Not Philosophy.
Thus reading his review, right through to the wonderful if admittedly laboured declamation at the end, the contrived peroration, was a satisfaction to me, if a satisfaction a little flawed. Certain adversaries and locales of unpopularity are necessarily reassuring. They give you a certification.
The reassurance was increased by the piquancy of Dr. Malcolm's sense of his audience in the peroration. It was thought wise not to name Socrates as the philosopher in question. It was not assumed that the name would ring a bell among the green Wellies. Or was it his idea that they might in their wondering make a mistake about this Socrates? Could be a Greek shipowner and philosopher of life, like that Aristotle, the one married to the Kennedy?
The review is political knockabout, of course, and not badly done. No particular dishonesty in it. Nothing in it for me to hold against a good class warrior -- who can tell another one? No special cause for umbrage? Well, we shouldn't forget that the knockabout is selfish in intent, and has, for a start, a good education for one's own children in it and a bad education for other people's children.
Maybe a correction or two of my reviewer and his fellows is in order.
Famous I am not, and the looseness of Dr. Malcolm's use of the term is one of a multitude of indications of a looseness in thinking that goes with his politics, indeed is required by his politics. It cannot survive on anything else. Advisor to Neil Kinnock I was not either, by the way, as the book makes clear. And the shits were the Conservative governments in particular, not all of their party. But there are slightly larger matters.
However much one's various views are rooted in one's life, why should one's political views be more rooted there? Why should they be more rooted than, say, a conviction about the truth of determinism? Of course that they are more rooted is an easy assumption, with something to be said for it, but nothing more than that. For every root of a political belief ever discovered in some individual or group of individuals, it is perfectly possible to find an individual or group who share the root and lack the belief. The easy assumption is common in green Welly reasoning, of course, where it serves a good purpose, having to do with an assumption of universal amorality, but is not such as to detain us.
There is another illustration of it in Dr. Malcolm's thoughts on my attitude to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. What hardly needs to be said here is that one very certainly can support an activity which you believe will never succeed in its official aim, and think that it would be bad if it did. You support it because you think it does or will succeed in other things -- have or will have other effects. Has Dr. Malcolm heard of strategic voting for the party you don't want to win? More distinctions needed, Tutor.
I note too that Dr. Malcolm, although presumably his entry into what is called the thought-world of the people in question is not in doubt, does not favour us with his own answer to the question of the what might be the basic principle of conservatives. Here he follows in the footsteps of certain leaders of his party, notably the intellectual if racist Mr. Enoch Powell and the more decent Tory Ian Gilmour, who in their reviews of my conservatism book found my thought on the uniquely amoral self-interest of their tradition annoying.
Leaving aside my present reviewer's easy stuff about Communism and and non-Communism, and about my self-centredness and intellectualism and so on, and some lower stuff about women and children, allow me just a word or two on Thatcher.
Am I indeed to respect this vicious and ignorant woman who prated while making the poor poorer? Who flounced while shortening the lives of already cheated members of her society? Dragged a society down into more stinking profit-seeking? Done her bit to make the streets filthy and unsafe? Left uneducated the children of parents less pushy than she? Destroyed the public services in general? Done so much against a culture of decency that not even Oxford University could be got to stick to its precedent about prime ministers and give her an honorary degree?
Well, Dr. Malcolm, you will have to do a lot better at tutoring me into respect.
During the 1970s, British philosophy ran out of puff. By abiding too narrowly by its analytic guns, it lost market share to a new breed of American philosopher, men such as John Rawls and John Searle. More ostentatiously, it was swamped by the French. Their logic may not have been unimpeachable, but such figures as Levi-Strauss, Barthes and even Jacques Derrida offered more exhilarating fare than the spartan English diet.
The new names in domestic philosophy, moreover, were simply not of the same order as their predecessors. Russell, AJ Ayer, Austin, Isaiah Berlin et al have proved a hard act to follow. That virtually the only British philosopher of today who is well known outside academic circles should be Roger Scruton speaks volumes.
In all of this, the career and output of Ted Honderich is instructive. Until his recent retirement, Honderich was Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London (UCL) -- a prestigious chair formerly occupied by Ayer and the engagingly mercurial Richard Wollheim.
Canadian by birth and of Mennonite Irish-German ancestry, Honderich may fairly claim to have achieved some good. As a lecturer at the University of Sussex, he kept alive the hope that rationality and politics may sometimes combine. As an editorial consultant for Penguin as well as Routledge, he oversaw publication of distinguished works. As the author of Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, he made us think more coherently about what it is a judge does when passing sentence.
As a senior lecturer at UCL, he successfully campaigned against the permanent establishment of a chair of Freudian philosophy. As a socialist polemicist, he made his characterisation of Scruton as "the unthinking man’s thinking man" stick. But in his magnum opus, A Theory of Determinism: The Nind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes (1988), he took 650-odd gruelling pages to state the apparently obvious: namely, that any event is the product of anterior events and circumstances. Thus Honderich convincingly demonstrated not just analytic philosophy’s loss of sex appeal, but also its loss of perspective.
But Cousin Ted is never one to give up. Now comes the autobiography —426 densely packed pages of apologetics, as though the author, concerned that no one else might see fit to write his biography, had decided to do the job himself.
The result is a vainglorious self-obituary. Honderich amalgamates four strands: a narrative of how this reporter for The Toronto Star became an English academic; an exegesis of his evolving determinist philosophy; a blow-by-blow account of departmental politics; and a fretful account of his parabola as a serial monogamist.
What escapes Honderich’s notice in this wide-ranging assault on life, however, is any sense of a likely readership. To whom does he address himself? His fellow paladins of thought? Tomorrow's acolyte? UCL employees? The utopian followers of an outmoded egalitarian politics? Or the advocates of a free love between men and women that none the less retains marriage as an ideal state?
To take the last first, Honderich fails to bring his successive women to life. They surface rather as a perennial angst. Ditto other, rival philosophers. To describe Ernest Gellner as "the merely sociological adversary of analytic philosophy" is a crime against largesse, the more so as Gellner delivered an argued rebuttal of Freud the like of which Honderich is incapable. And so on through each of Honderich’s categories.
In the end, the author’s unlikely friendship with that inveterate Tory Peregrine Worsthome comes as scant surprise. If Thatcher is Honderich’s preferred bête noire, then the two have much in common, not least a dogged, intolerant hubris. In a coda, Honderich offers some interesting thoughts about the difficulties of encapsulating a life. But too much of what comes before is self-congratulatory. At one point he compares himself favourably with Rousseau. As confessions go, this is sub-standard.
If Dr. Malcolm in The Sunday Telegraph went in for political knockabout with serious intent, Mr. Wintle in The Independent seems to go in for man-of-letters knockabout without clear intent, but he does it well. The colloquial usages fit -- sex appeal, market share, Cousin Ted, paladins of thought, and so on. Touch of his Magdalen College Oxford in the confidence too. Good show of even-handedness as well. Certainly his piece is not sub-standard for the kind of thing in question, but above-standard. Probably better than B+?+.
I do indeed have the feeling that this was another job of work for the indefatigable compiler of the Dictionary of Arabic & Islamic Proverbs and also the Dictionary of Biographical Quotations -- the Most Complete Dictionary of Who Said What About Whom. Not to mention the Dictionary of of War Quotations , and The Dragon's Almanac -- Chinese, Japanese and Other Far Eastern Proverbs, and Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture -- A Biographical Dictionary . There's a novel or two listed as well. Mr. Wintle likes to write good sentences, maybe quotable, but is their tendency a little accidental? Might he have written happier ones about my book on another day, or in another newspaper, or if he hadn't by chance had experience of this or that engagingly mercurial person?
Well, maybe not. Maybe it wasn't a job of work, but heartfelt. Could it be that Mr. Wintle is another of the literary and journalistic fraternity who finds the strain of analytic philosophy uncongenial and therefore carries forward his own little campaign against it whenever possible? There are things that might suggest this, including the tolerant inclusion of Barthes the culture-and-literature critic and Levi-Strauss the social anthropologist in the general category of philosophers. Also the yet more imaginative inclusion of Ernest Gellner, whose forwardness above and below the dinner table in my experience did not carry him to such a pretension himself.
Could it be that the story is entirely different, and that Mr. Wintle is annoyed by me in my role as a utopian follower of an outmoded egalitarian politics? A politics finished off by the end of Communism and Old Labour and so on? A politics proved false by history -- as the politics of Hitler, say, if he won, would have been proved true by history?
But I save you more of these speculations, and agree if you say that maybe Mr. Wintle just didn't like the book, independently of the considerations touched on above, and thought he had good reasons for his not liking it. Let us suppose so, and think briefly about his reasons.
Consider his beginning, and a couple of those literary-journalistic perceptions of philosophy. Was it because British philosophy in the 1970's was analytic that it got less attention than the work of such Americans as Searle and Rawls? Hard to understand -- because Searle and Rawls definitely were analytic in the broad sense that matters, the only sense that is relevant.
It happens to be an interesting question why American philosophy in some sense overtook British, and Americans began to turn down offers of Oxford chairs. Maybe Hegel's image of the world-spirit having flown west is worth contemplating --ddoes philosophical reputation just follow imperial power? Maybe in this case there is something to be said for Marx -- economic base determining intellectual superstructure. But, to repeat, the overtaking had nothing whatever to do with the general characters of the two philosophies, British and American, which are as good as identical. No great confidence inspired by Mr. Wintle at this point, then.
Was British philosophy swamped by the French in the 1970's? Here one question is that of who or what was getting swamped or not swamped. British philosophy in all of the 20th Century, like philosophy in the English language generally, never paid any attention to the French. That was for the good reason that what the French do, although it probably has as much claim to the name "philosophy" as what we do, is different stuff. Judged by our standards it is not worth attention. So it certainly wasn't the case that British philosophy was swamped in the 1970's by such performers as Derrida.
Clearly we need to turn to Mr. Wintle himself et al. to have any chance of finding some swamped persons. But then there is the problem that they were not unswamped before -- i.e. there never was a time when they or their predecessors paid attention to and could profit from Hume and his analytic tradition. Mr. Wintle et al. were never for logic and always for what he names as exhilarating fare.
Our confidence in him cannot be improved by what Mr. Wintle now goes on to say of determinism, and my book on it -- that they come to the apparently obvious thing that every event is the product of anterior events and circumstances. Mr. Wintle doesn't understand.
In the sense such that the thing in question is apparently obvious, it isn't determinism. In the sense that it's determinism, it isn't apparently obvious, and needs a lot of clarification and argument. Many people say Quantum Theory refutes it. Anyway the book, like the philosophical discussion of determinism generally, wasn't near to being about the causal proposition. It was much more about the mind, and the human consequences of the causal proposition. If that surprises Mr. Wintle, there'll be something wrong with his dictionaries of quotations if he gets around to determinism.
Mr. Wintle is pretty much alone in finding me vainglorious and self-congratulatory. Everybody else has said the opposite. "Brutally honest self-portrait" said Scotland on Sunday in the same week. But maybe he is right. Self-analysis isn't easy. Still, as the words are ordinarily understood, I didn't compare myself favourably with Rousseau. What I said was that he left things out of his confessions, and that in our present confessional age, maybe I could do better in this respect. Not good, Mr. Wintle, not at all good.
Should I go on? I guess not. There is the danger of another offence against largesse.
But let me just add what coincidentally comes to mind. It is another little mistake by a quick reader of a book to say that I am of Irish-German ancestry. Sometimes If you don't get little things right, a question arises thereby about bigger things.
And Mr. Wintle, who is probably a good-hearted fellow, can be relieved to hear that despite my having failed to write a book for any conceivable readership, or rather for any of four, it is selling very well indeed, and its future looks promising. I trust, since it seems that he too has written a book of mixed reflections, that he is doing as well with the conceivable readership or readerships of Furious Interiors: Wales, R. S. Thomas and God.
The professor is discussing the problem of consciousness over a bowl of white mushroom soup seasoned with prosciutto sour cream, and the reporter is wondering how the professor’s purple necktie fits into this conundrum.
Here’s the problem. Professor Ted Honderich, 67, author of a newly published memoir entitled Philosopher: A Kind Of Life, explains that philosophers have tended to view the subject of consciousness in one of two ways. The first way is to look at consciousness as purely material, the product of the brain’s biochemistry -- little bits of brain protein called microtubules is a recent guess.
But this is not satisfying because we all know that thoughts, imagination, and so on, have a non-material dimension. The other way of looking at it is to shrug and say, in Honderich’s words, that "consciousness is non-physical, mysterious, funny stuff in the head."
But that’s no good, either. It’s unscientific. It suggests all sorts of things that philosophers hate, such as the supernatural.
So what’s the answer? "My response is a new and radically different view," Honderich says. "What is it for you or me to be aware of this room?" As he poses this question, the reporter is aware of his awareness of the room, the table, the bowl of mushroom soup, Professor Honderich’s three piece gray suit— and, yes, that purple tie.
"The answer is that what it is for you to be conscious of the room is for the room in a way to be existent."
Consciousness, in other words, is existence. Honderich elaborates this idea in his memoir. It’s an idea that he’s going to be pursuing, and promoting, now that he has retired from the Grote Chair at University College London, where he has spent almost his entire academic career.
This is where the purple tie comes in. It’s not just an object of one’s perception, a bit of jetsam floating in one’s field of consciousness, but a sign, a clue, a hint, a message. It says live wire. It says we have here more than a respected academic and editor of The Oxford Companion To Philosophy, more than a brain in a gray three piece-suit. We have a man unafraid to attract attention, to let a frisky masculine ego out for a walk in the park. (Why pretend it doesn’t exist?)
So in his memoir he discusses not just the development of his ideas but the cut and thrust of academic politics, his politics — his women. There have been a number of the latter. He has had a couple of marriages, some long-term affairs, more than a handful of flings, a few of them with his students, in the early days.
"People are inclined to say that if professors get into bed with their undergraduates, that involves a misuse of position," he says. "Now if that means some professors do bring pressure on girls to go to bed, and if the pressure is a threat about marks or how they are going to be treated in the classroom — everybody in the world would rise up and say this is blackmail, this is a misuse of position that is monstrous.
"But I think people who talk about misuse of position have in mind something much more vague, If a girl, for example, is impressed by the intellectual standing of the teacher, and he is not averse to letting her know that his intellectual standing is indeed high -- is that a misuse of position? Is that morally culpable?
"Well, it is true that he has some intellectual standing. It’s not a lie. Is his taking advantage of it any different from a man’s making use of the fact that he’s handsome or rich or athletic?"
Living for long periods of time in the world of pure intellect does not mean a lessening of the libido. Far from it. "Philosophers tend to be active in the bedroom," Honderich notes. "It was true of Bertrand Russell, and certainly true of Freddie (noted philosopher A. J. Ayer). I wonder if I just happened to be a first-generation member of a new wave -- certainly the sexual activity of the young today has been pretty fervent. Perhaps philosophers have been the advance party of a new sexual age. It might have to do with the skepticism that philosophers bring to conventional morality."
Philosopher: A Kind of Life is not only about Honderich’s love affairs but about the rough edges of his personality — the "judgmental" quality of his temperament, for example. It is a quality that he shares with his older brother, Beland Honderich, former president and publisher of The Toronto Star -- "as severe a man as I have ever met," Honderlch notes in the memoir.
Perhaps the quality is due to a reaction against the hapless personality of their father, John William Honderich, a descendent of Mennonites who settled in Baden, Ont. Honderich could not support his family, and tended to live in a world of his own — a tendency aggravated by his deafness.
Ted, on the other hand, has obviously found the world an agreeable place to exercise his energies. But the memoir makes it clear he has not always
been fun to live with—his own son, he records, accused him of "bullying."
It’s all there in Philosopher: A Kind of Life. "If you hide these things, they stay alive." he comments. "It you write them down on the page, they become public, and they become a little dead. Maybe that’s part of the rational content of the confessional urge. Once you have confessed something, it’s past. You’re no longer hiding it."
It was agreeable talking to Mr. Marchand, even if the lunch was just a little uneasy.
It was possible for me to feel, so to speak, that there might be some characters off-stage, keeping an eye on Mr. Marchand, or, worse, that Mr. Marchand might have that idea. Did he sometimes seem to take his eye off my purple tie? The characters off-stage would be a member or two of my family, conceivably a nephew, who have much to do with guiding the newspaper for which his piece was being written.
It is more agreeable to see that he did not succumb to any temptation to make Ted a lily, let alone to gild him. Rather, what the readers of The Star were treated to, or so it seems to me, was a neat impression, decently edged. Professor as live wire. Maybe live wire as professor. Not noticeably kinder to the author than other Canadians who welcomed back an errant son for the purposes of promoting his own philosophical self-portrait.
I can pay him a compliment in turn, which is that he can write. He brings to mind that Jane O'Grady, to whom I was married, divided the world into those who can write and those who can't. The division seemed to me a little less than fundamental and exclusive, but it always puzzled me. What is it to be able to write? How close is writing well to thinking well? Pretty close, I hope.
One caveat, to be entered against my own utterances about philosophers and sex. Is there any truth in the idea we fall into, that philosophers are not short on libido? We could do with some research on the subject, a bit of statistical comparison with the occupants of other university departments. Could the fact of the matter be no more than this, that philosophers are indeed thinkers of a salient kind -- the thinkers more inclined to logic than any others -- and that this does not go together naturally with ideas of beds?
This is an unusual book, by an unusual man. At least, it is an unusual book for a philosopher. Honderich’s life has certainly been one lived in philosophy; he has recently retired from the Grote Professorship of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London, after several decades of teaching philosophy, mainly in the University of London. But, as this book makes clear, abundantly and at times painfully, his life has not been that of the standard philosophical academic, if there is such a thing.
Not that Honderich is not a philosopher in the standard sense. He has made several large contributions to the subject, including a monumental work on determinism. His philosophical work is marked by rigour and directness of argument. His thinking is in the ‘clear and restrained" style favoured by Hume and his Anglo-American successors, for many still the best and for some the only sort of philosophy. Those who read this book will find much of Honderich’s thinking on the topics which have preoccupied him over several decades: equality (in favour), political violence (no blanket condemnation), conservatism (against), personal identity (partial and gappy), determinism (true) and consciousness (real and important).
The thinking is not just reported. The reader will have to think, guided by a clear but demanding teacher. Even if you disagree with Honderich — as I do on five of his six topics — you will, like him, wrestle with them, as he is still. As he leaves us, he is embarking on two unfinished tasks. The first is an elaboration of the nature of consciousness, against the current philosophical orthodoxies which, absurdly, play down its significance. The second — against his own earlier arguments — is a demonstration that we can rationally persist in attitudes like praise and blame which seem to be ruled out by the determinism he finds rationally compelling.
If Honderich’s thinking is, in a certain sense, cool, beneath it lurks a passionate nature. In a particular sense, at a deep level beneath any philosophical attempt to see things clearly and to get them right, there is an imperviousness to argument: "At the bottom of philosophy are things underdescribed as commitments. They are better described as grips the world gets on us, early." So philosophy is not pure reason. It emerges from one’s experience and nature, about which one wants to get clear. Honderich is far more open about the sources of philosophical principles than most of his colleagues.
There is passion in Honderich in a more general and more conventional sense as well, about women, about politics, about the pursuit of proper philosophy, about fighting his corner in the courts, about academic life. All these passions, and their results, are vividly described.
The author describes himself as "a man of many women". All we need remark here is that there is an honesty in what is said about his three marriages and various other relationships, from which he emerges rather less unscathed than do Augustine or Rousseau from their Confessions. Nor is it necessary to go into any detail about his political passion, save to say that his unconstrained loathing for Mrs Thatcher has not precluded friendship with some of her admirers.
But, what does need remarking is the degree of insight in the book into academic politics, an insight made the clearer by the fact that Honderich came to this country as an outsider, from a very provincial and religious Canadian background. He came inspired with all kinds of ideals about the intellectual and moral purity of academe, including perhaps the notions that preferment was based on what you wrote and thought, rather than on connections and self-promotion, and that academic departments, particularly philosophy departments, might be governed by the merits of arguments and cases put. In more than one sense this book is an education sentimentale , in which the strength of the author's reactions to events may have had not a little to do with the contrast between ideal and reality.
It might be feared that some of the detail and the personalities in Philosopher: A Kind of Life would not interest those from outside Honderich’s life, but the writing carries one along. Moreover, and above the philosophy itself, the book presents a colourful and perceptive account of a life lived in a certain kind of academic, moral and political ambience. In decades to come it will be invaluable to historians and indeed to anyone who wants to know just what academic and philosophical life was like in the second half of the 20th century, as seen from the perspective of one who was very much part of it, but without losing any of his striking and forceful personality.
What most set me thinking in this friendly review, indeed a review by a friend, was the mention of the idea that at least some philosophers have passions under their arguments. There are grips the world gets on them early. Did the idea have a little more attraction for Professor O'Hear on account of his own conservatism? In that tradition of thought, there certainly is an inclination to something deeper than thought. Edmund Burke expressed it for all time in his passage on Leftish intellectuals, the chinking grasshoppers, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Well, whatever the source of the idea in Professor O'Hear and in me, it may fall into a wider connection -- one between desire and truth. A terrible connection, you might think. A connection that brings truth down from its pedestal, the highest pedestal. What is true is, in some way, what is desired. This fact, if it is one, is remote from various simplicities that litter ordinary and indeed philosophical thinking. There is something on it in the coda of my book, about the explanation of things having in it not plain truth but also interest and indeed interests.
The subject comes together with another smaller one -- academic credit or reputation. To what extent is this owed to the discovery or truth and such-like virtues? Is the discovery of truth, in itself, the getting of a hearing, in which desire plays various roles in various breasts?
I leave the subject for another day, for a longer education sentimentale, with the thought that I am pleased both to know truth-tellers and to have friends, whatever the relations between them and their natures.
POSTSCRIPT 2002: EXCERPTS FROM OTHER REVIEWS
'On the face of it, this is the autobiography of a philosopher, which might sound terribly boring, and indeed at least one other philosopher known to your reviewer has written a terribly boring autobiography. But not Honderich. ... witty as well as perfectly lucid ... a pulsing drama of sex, wine, litigation and office politics ... through it all he tackles large questions about determinism, punishment, causation and the like with the kind of vigorous, clear language that forces the reader to think hard and like it... glintingly engaging prose ...' Steven Poole, The Guardian
'This is an unusual book, by an unusual man ... rigour and directness of argument... The thinking is not just reported. The reader will have to think, guided by a clear but demanding teacher. ... In decades to come it will be invaluable to historians and indeed to anyone who wants to know just what academic and philosophical life was like in the second half of the 20th Century, as seen from the perspective of one who was very much part of it, but without losing any of his striking and forceful personality.' Anthony O'Hear, The Spectator
'This is an excellent book, one that I have read with very great interest. The writing is lucid and, when it needs to be, lively. The self-portrait that emerges is engaging in just the right way, marred neither by pretentiousness nor by self-deprecation. The alternation of narrative and reflection is generally very well done. ... It is a significant contribution to the cultural and social history of the last half-century as well as a fascinating record of a particular life and a particular kind of life.' Prof. Alasdair MacIntyre
`At the beginning, this is an interesting story; by mid-point, it is a lumbering bore. The accounts of boyhood in Baden and coming of age in Toronto are the book's best parts. In these pages, Honderich is finding himself, discovering literature, culture and women. He meets Jimmy Cagney, travels with Elvis dreams of Hemingway and Arthur Miller. But once he becomes a professor that is all he is.' Barry Allen, Globe and Mail .
'a vainglorious self-obituary ... an exegesis of his evolving determinist philosophy ... a fretful account of his parabola as a serial monogamist. ... To whom does he address himself? ... The utopian followers of an outmoded egalitarian politics? ... Thatcher is Honderich’s preferred bête noire ... As confessions go, this is sub-standard.' Justin Wintle, The Independent
'Honderich's experiment, at once theoretical and literary, is without doubt a success, for the reader is led to follow this man's human and intellectual fortunes with the degree of interest normally inspired by a novel. ... The person one has the impression of having got to know by the end of the book is not lacking in defects, but certainly evokes sympathy for the way he has avoided putting himself on a pedestal.' Mario Ricciardi, Il Sole Ventiquattrore
'There has been a surprisingly close relationship between philosophy and autobiography ever since Augustine. ...this is what Honderich calls the tale of Ted. ... It is a tale worth telling, and a tale worth reading...of upward academic mobility, and how certain books were written....of social (and soi-disant) socialist) life in NW3 that could have provided episodes in a novel of manners.... ensuring that the Freud Memorial Professor did not become a member of the house of philosophers -- a healthy and quite commendable detestation of the cupidity and stupidity of Thatcherite Britain ...the many women... David Macey, Radical Philosophy
'...how he progressed to his present exalted position ... He has gone out of his way to be honest... This will appeal to all those fascinated by the inner life of a philosopher.' Good Books Guide
'What marks this book out is its trueness to life. ... Honderich manages to convey the contingency, the untidiness and a lot of the mystery of existence.' Ben Rogers.
'I found it gripping reading. There were nights when I stayed up very much later than I intended because I could not put it down. ... It has tremendous character, it is distinctive and brave, it represents an interesting philosopher trying to come to terms with his life.' Paul Noordhof
'...he tells the reader all this. Most of us in academic life have some or all of these vices, but we keep them more hidden. To those of us who are his friends, this is a recognisable and starlingly honest self-portrait. This is about the most honest autobiography I have read.' Jonathan Glover
`The parts about home, college, university are wonderful and the progress to Groteness fascinating. Tedness in all its complicatedness breathes from every page and with a Humean simplicity that makes the desire for literary fame immediately intelligible.' Alastair Hannay
`I have been enormously enjoying it. That is to a large extent due to features which would appeal to anyone. The style is distinctive and attractive: direct, lucid, genially combative. Anyone could tell that it is the author's own voice... The rustic Canadian beginnings, the steady clamber up the not too greasy pole of the philosophical profession, the surely rather statistically abnormal career of erotic/romantic false starts. It is very convincing, perhaps I should say accurate, about the modest splendours and miseries of la vie philosophique... It is gloriously candid, as a genuine autobiography out to be. It contains, and does not just talk about, philosophy.' Anthony Quinton
'How many genuinely philosophical autobiographies could you lay your hands on? Now there is at least one. ...we are treated not just to the story of one person's life but to philosophy, and in particular, some philosophy about biography. ... These twin elements -- the concern with telling the truth of a life and examining the philosophical problems it throws up -- distinguish the book as a notable addition to both biography and philosophy.' Julian Baggini, The Philosophers' Magazine
'...a brutally honest self-portrait of a man whose passion for ideas and good-looking women has burned unabated for four decades. An intriguing view into the life and mind of a modern-day philosopher' Scotland on Sunday
'...an honest man... also the autobiography of his ideas... plenty of juicy rows with academic rivals, of course ... beautifully written ... full of clever and interesting philosophical debate on the principle of autobiography as well as Honderich's more regular themes of determinism....' Victoria Coren, The Evening Standard
'the picture that Honderich paints of a successful academic life will probably cause his readers to conclude that in spite of the infighting such an existence has much to recommend it.' Anthony Storr, Literary Review
'reveals a man much concerned with the question of whether it is possible to explain a life ... absorbing book ... bravely honest ... Rarely does an autobiography make you question its author and more importantly your judgements on him to such a degree. Like good philosophy it's unsettling and leaves you asking questions you hadn't even thought of when you first turned to page one.' Julian Baggini, The Independent on Sunday
'This is where the purple tie comes in. ... It says live wire. It says we have here more than a respected academic and editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, more than a brain in a grey three-piece suit. We have a man unafraid to let a frisky masculine ego out for a walk in the park. Why pretend it doesn't exist? ... It's all there in Philosopher: A Kind of Life . Philip Marchand, The Toronto Star
'Ted Honderich has made a highly readable book embedding his intellectual development in a narrative of his private life... He's a socialist who barely tolerates anyone who isn't and finds Margaret Thatcher "unspeakable". Yet he campaigned (unsuccessfully) to persuade Prime Minister Thatcher to install his friend A. J. Ayer in the House of Lords... Even now Honderich doesn't see that this exercise, a socialist beseeching his enemy for patronage, was inconsistent to the point of nuttiness.' Robert Fulford, National Post
'He confesses to a love of beauty, a love that no doubt occasioned the many affairs of the heart and parts south that have been the succes de scandale of Philosopher, if not its motivation. That arose...from his desire to derive philosophy out of a lived life....' Martin Levin, The Globe and Mail
'searing reading ... he writes of...intellectual life in Britain with the same candour he brings to his account of affairs on the campus...' Adam Trimingham, Brighton Argus
'Being a famous philosopher has added some intellectual gravitas to his political opinions but...his book on Conservatism, for example, exhibits an extraordinary mixture of cleverness and wilful crudity... With political views...it's reasonable to expect that an autobiography will show how they are rooted in life, and how they have developed in interaction with it. In that respect this autobiography is one long disappointment. ... A philosopher once said that an unexamined life was not worth living. It does not always follow, unfortunately, that an examined one is worth reading.' Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph
'...an excellent token of a kind of life. Many philosophical biographies feel staged and neutered where Honderich's feels real and honest. We gain insight not only into Honderich's philosophy and career but also into his emotional life and his political convictions. ....a fascinating, stimulating and rewarding read. A must for all philosophy graduate students and those wanting a real and honest insight into the kind of life that modern academic philosophers live.' Jonathan McCalmont, Amazon Co. UK customer review.
'a fascinating, stimulating and rewarding read. A must for all philosophy graduate students and those wanting a real and honest insight into the kind of life that modern academic philosophers live.' Amazon Co. UK
`Bertrand Russell, Honderich isn't. Other than admirers of the author and of Ayer, it's difficult to imagine who will be interested in this title -- especially in the U.S., given the book's intense British context.' Publishers Weekly
'...a triumph. Unlike at least three other memoirs by British-based philosophers, it portrays a public thinker with rich inner and private lives and no compunction about making himself vulnerable. ... In the thrilling, intellectually fraught 40-page Coda to this autobiography, Honderich surveys possible ways of capturing those large things, human lives, and finds them all wanting. The Freudian one gets the shortest shrift.... Truth-telling has been a solace and a necessity for him...' Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian
`Of all lives, the inner life of a philosopher is the hardest to capture on the page. In *Philosopher*, Ted Honderich has done the job himself. ...not only an account of that life, but also a reverie on its meaning. ... almost disingenuous in the presentation of his faults... Yet the book remains remarkable for its honesty and dissection of the cut-throat yet banal politicking of high academe' Alan Stewart, The Times
`But if this is a search for truth it is very controlled and narrowly focussed. ...the book does in fact leave out a great deal that would be quite relevant to our understanding. An excellent example of this is the lack of any detail about the nature of his relationship with his older brother Beland.... After a while Honderich begins to remind us of literary characters who are either outrageously duplicitous or extraordinarily self-deceived. ... we find ourselves more and more suffocated and are allowed no ideas of our own, no views of Honderich that he has not already thought of and identified.... I must admit to an initial fear when I began to risk a review of this interesting and unsavoury book. ... Will he discover some shameful event in my background to display on his website? Or will he do worse and merely ignore this review?' Sholom Glouberman, The Literary Review of Canada.
`Philosophers spend their lives wrestling with deep and abstract issues, but they like to write autobiographies too -- often of a vivid and confessional kind. Rousseau's Confessions, in which he revealed his masochistic longings, is perhaps the greatest. Among British philosopehrs, Mill, Russell and Collingwood all produced masterpieces which more recent counterparts -- A. J. Ayer, Anthony Kenny -- have tried follow. This month another is published, Philosopher: A Kind of Life... Prospect
`Honderich reflects on his rise from humble Mennonite beginnings
in Canada to the Grote Chair of Mind and Logic at University
College London. What emerges is a brutally honest self-portrait
of a man whose passion for ideas and good-looking women has
burned unabated for four decades. An intriguing view into the
life and mind of a modern-day philosopher.' Financial Times
postscript is prompted by the fuss and talk in the philosophical world
about the review
by Colin McGinn of the book of papers On
University Press, 2004), and my reply
to it, and his rejoinder
on. It pertains to the human and therefore the emotional side of my
reviewer, some emotion or other. It is a review of his own
autobiography, which also mentions mine.
is rather an odd little book because McGinn studiously
gives us a purified life of the mind, noting exam results,
he attempts to persuade us (abusing Gödel in passing) of his