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Philosophers

(Last edited on Sunday 7th January 2007)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s British academic Philosophy was dominated by Oxford, where the school of so called linguistic philosophy associated with J. L Austin reigned supreme and almost unchallenged. Cambridge where I studies resisted that orthodoxy. Although the Cambridge department was much smaller than that at Oxford, the range of opinions was more diverse and there was no dominant school.

Closest to, though still distinct from the Oxford school, were the Wittgensteinians. Of the two professors, John Wisdom was in his idiosyncratic way quite close to the Wittgensteinian position, though it was Renford Bambrough who came nearest to upholding a sort of Wittgensteinian orthodoxy. On the other hand, Professor R. B. Braithwaite espoused a tough minded empiricism. Casimir Lewy maintained the Moorean tradition of Philosophical Analysis, trying to tame philosophical problems by precise definitions of the terms involved, and A. C. Ewing, author of Teach Yourself Ethics, defended a rationalist metaphysical idealism. Margaret Masterman, otherwise Mrs R. B. Braithwaite, defied any attempt to pigeonhole her.

I missed both Russell and Wittgenstein, by just a few years in each case. People still remembered them, telling stories of Russell stopping the traffic by darting across the road, and of Wittgenstein’s avid reading of detective stories, allegedly once saying ‘with such literature available, how anyone can read Mind is beyond my comprehension’ One don once remarked that the only Philosophy book Wittgenstein had ever read was his own Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s influence was still potent, both on those who were trying to continue his work, and also on those, even more numerous at Cambridge, who reacted against it. A number of the academics then teaching at Cambridge had attended the class from the deliberations of which Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown books had later emerged. I think that Richard and Margaret Braithwaite may actually have met while attending those lectures, but that is just speculation on my part. I beive they both attended those classes, together with Wisdom and Lewy.

Moore was still alive when I started to study Philosophy, but was very old and frail and never attended meetings so I never saw him, though Professor Wisdom went to tea regularly, and in the course of his lectures would occasionally report things Moore had said to him.

A retired professor who was more in evidence was C.D. Broad, Braithwaite’s predecessor, who devoted a busy retirement to the investigation of the paranormal. I attended one of the lectures in the course that formed the basis of the subsequently published volume Lectures on Psychical Research. I might have attended more had they not been taken place at 5 p.m. thus clashing with tea. Broad had a dry wit that appealed to me. He is reported to have described his predecessor as Knightsbridge Professor, W. R. Sorley, as possessing ‘all the virtues that have made virtue unpopular’ and the concluding sentence of Lectures on Psychical research, summing up a careful examination of the possibility that the human spirit might survive bodily death, was ‘We can only wait and see, or, what is equally likely, wait and not see’

The remainder of this reminiscence is devoted to my recollections of Wisdom and the Braithwaites.

Wisdom, whose title was Professor of Philosophy, had as an undergraduate studued Moral Sciences at Cambridge. He had also ridden as jockey at Newmarket when it still was possible forn an amateur to do so, and sometimes delivered lectures wearing riding clothes beneath his gown, though I’m not sure if that explained why his gown was trurning green. There were frequent references to racing in his lectures; if he wanted to discuss the possibility of pre-cognition, the example would probably be of someone dreaming of the winner in a race.

Wisdom followed the Socratic method, interrogating his audience to discover their opinions on whatever subject was under discussion, and he never delivered an orthodox formal lecture. It was rare for him to speak for more than a quarter of an hour without involving some member of the class. Unlike the general run of lecturers, Wisdom was not trying to summarise past debates, instead he was trying to teach us to do philosophy ourselves by engaging in debate.

He mistrusted the orthodox approach to philosophy in which we are presented with a number of problems, and then compare the various solutions that have been offered. He thought that to proceed in that way overlooks the most important aspect of Philosophy, that its supposed problems are not what they seem to be, so that we can only understand the subject by getting behind the words people use and studying what people actually do with their beliefs - what conclusions they draw from them and how, if at all, they apply those neliefs to the solution of problems. He set great store on our being able to, as he put it, ‘mock up’ a point of view, by which he meant put ourselves in the position of someone holding that view to the extent of being able to predict what such a person would say in various situations, in response to various comments by others.

In the first lecture of a course I once attended, he asked his audience for examples of what they considered to be philosophical questions, wrote them all down on the blackboard, usually making a brief comment on each, and took the list as his syllabus for the year.

He always illustrated his arguments with a copious selection of stories, indeed his style of argument consisted mainly of relating such anecdotes, and asking ‘is it like this, or like that?’ A number of his favourite and most frequently cited stories he’d relate in full once or twice, after which he’d simply refer to them by name. Examples were William James story about the Man and the Squirrel, The Ewe Lamb, The White Rabbit, The Ensign, and Smith v Smith. Each story illustrated a different way of settling, or failing to settle a disagreement.

James story described a squirrel in a tree and a man walking round the tree. The squirrel peered timidly at the man and as the man moved round the tree, the squirrel moved around too so that it was always facing him and the man could never see more of it than its face. The question James had asked was: did the man walk round the squirrel?. It seemed that he did, since he walked round the tree containing the squirrel, yet it also appeared that he did not, because he never got behind the squirrel.

The Ewe Lamb concerned a lamb whose sex was at first unclear, but became clear eventually when the lamb grew up into a ewe, not a ram.

The White rabbit was a story Wittgenstein had told when someone asked him whether God existed. Wittgenstein had replied ‘Couldn’t he half-exist?’ and had imagined someone telling us there’s a white rabbit in the room. When we look around and don’t see it the man says ‘Oh no, you won’t see it; it’s not that sort of rabbit’ We continue our investigations, listening, feeling and sniffing in vain and when eventually we bring in bloodhounds even they can find nothing, and still the man insists that the rabbit is in the room and dismisses all our investigations as beside the point, since this is not the sort of rabit that can be detected by observing physical signs of its presence.

Smith v Smith was a law suit of unspecified subject matter which, like all law suits, is eventually settled because, once the last appeal is over, the judgement of the final appeal court is defined as being the correct answer.

I never found out what The Ensign was, because I missed the introduction to the story and wasn’t brave enough to ask.

Wisdom didn’t just tell his stories; he often acted them. When telling the story of the White Rabbit, he impersonated the bloodhound, throwing back his head to sniff the air and then running round the lecture room on all fours, eventually coming to a halt sniffing the ankles of a young lady. On another occasion, referring to religious practice, he imitated Anglican worshippers saying the creed - I’m not sure whether he remembered the actual words of the creed, as he just mumbled, but he mumbled in a very convincingly clerical tone. Exploring the difference between a madman and a metaphysician, he imitated someone who imagines there to be snakes in the corner of the room, and then remarked that there is a sense in which the madman is more normal than the metaphysician, because he avoids the place where he believes there to be snakes, while the metaphysician happily sits on the chair he believes to be an illusion, to eat with relish a hearty illusory breakfast.

Although all present were encouraged, and indeed often pressed, to contribute to the proceedings, many were wary of doing so, since if one said anything that aroused Wisdom’s interest one was likely to be interrogated at length. I recall that I once asked a question, and about a week later Wisdom paused in his exposition, looked at me and said ‘does that answer the question you asked last Wednesday?’. I was too timid to admit that I’d forgotten what that question was and so just said ‘yes’ and got away with it. Sometimes he’d ask a very simple question of the class at large, and no-one would answer because all feared a trap where there was actually none. That would provoke a lengthy explanation of some point that we all actually understood.

I think I learnt a great deal from Wisdom, probably more than I realised at the time, even though on many points my opinions were and still are quite different from his.

Coming up to Cambridge with a scholarship in Natural Sciences, R. B. Braithwaite had studied Mathematics for three years, and, having been classed as a wrangler, spent a further year taking the Logic option in Part II Moral Sciences. He had been unsure whether to take Philosophy of Economics at that stage, but Keynes had advised him to take Philosophy because it was harder. Although Braithwaite eventually became Professor of Moral Philosophy, that seems to have been because it had become customary to appoint to the chair someone whose primary interest was Logic or the Philosophy of Science, which were Braithwaite's interests. In his inaugural lecture he observed that the full title of the professorship had originally been Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy and Casuistical Divinity and proposed to revive the study of casuistry. He went on to suggest a way in which the theory of games might be applied to certain moral problems.

In Winter Braithwaite was often to be seen cycling round the college in his blue bearskin fur coat, a present given to him in the course of a visit to Russia. While delivering lectures he used to balance on the edge of the lecturer’s raised dais with his toes on the dais and his heels hanging over the abyss. He’d then sway slowly backwards until, just as catastrophe seemed inevitable, he’d right himself briskly, only to start the process all over again. Quite what he said about the Logic of probability, his main interest, or Butler’s Moral Philosophy, the subject of the duty lectures that went with his professorship, I don’t recall, but I remember the performance very well indeed.

Margaret Masterman always used her maiden name, and if it was ever necessary to refer to her husband in the copurse of a lecture, always called him ‘R. B. Braithwaite’. She worked as Director of the Cambridge Language Research unit, which was not a department of the University, but was financed by the US Air force. Nevertheless she did lecture once per week on the subject Philosophy Language and Languages.

I well remember her first lecture in the series I attended. The lecture room was quite full and all present were looking expectantly to the front, when in came a very determined looking middle aged lady in a tweed suit and sensible shoes. She tossed her brief case onto a desk, gripped the lectern with both hands, looked at us intently so that it must have appeared to everyone present that she was looking straight into his eyes and said, ‘I have come to take you with me on a journey of discovery, to explore the nature of language’ Within minutes she’d sketched on the blackboard a penis and a uterus as examples of fundamental linguistic elements. In those inhibited days it was rare indeed to hear a lady even say ‘penis’, let alone to see her draw one and I believe that was the first time I had seen or heard a lady do either.

Masterman had been much influenced by Benjamin Lee Worf’s thesis that our thought is constrained by our language, but told us she’d changed her mind after ‘having it out’ with Professor Wisdom, who had successfully maintained, against all her counter examples, the thesis that anything that can be said at all can be said in English.

I once asked if those attending her lectures might visit the Cambridge Language Research Unit, and she seemed delighted that someone has asked and a time was set for us to visit. On arrival we were shown into in a very large room that seemed to double up as kitchen and common room, where we were given the glass of sherry that began all but the most perfunctory of encounters in Cambridge in those days, and then we were given a conducted tour.

The unit occupied a huge suburban house that had previously been used as a Buddhist temple. Apart from pursuing a general interest in the structure and function of language and the similarities and differences between different languages and their relation to the societies that used them, the Unit was trying to devise some method of automating translation between languages. It was that project that had aroused the interest of the US military.

The Digital computers of the day were orders of magnitude too puny to handle any natural language, so the research was into mechanical devices that represented words on punched cards. The representation was based on the idea of the thesaurus, in which there are 1000 heads each corresponding to an area of meaning and under each of which are grouped the words with meanings overlapping that area. Masterman and her co-workers suggested that the precise meaning, or set of meanings, of a word could be defined by listing all the thesaurus headings under which that word could appear. A punched card to represent a word would therefore require spaces for 1000 holes, one of which would be punched for every relevant thesaurus heading. Taking the cards for the key words in a sentence and placing them on top of each other, light could be seen through the holes common to all the cards, and those holes indicate the areas of meaning common to all the words, and therefore the areas of meaning operative in the sentence in question. Thus in ‘So strong was the strong odour of the venison, that I feared it might be too high even for your taste’ the other words should point us to the correct meaning of ‘high’. The unit had also invented several artificial languages; I still have somewhere the specifications for a language called ‘nude’, because it was ‘stripped of all inessentials’.

To maintain US financial support, Masterman had to make annual visits to Washington to testify before a Senate Committee to justify the grant. One year there were severe cuts in military expenditure, yet so far the only tangible achievement of the Unit’s research was to translate one line of Latin poetry into English; however that translation appeared to be better than the standard one. Such were Masterman’s charisma and the eloquence with which she presented that that puny achievement to the senators, that she managed to keep the grant..

Masterman once digressed in one of her lectures into an account of how Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown books came to be written.

It used to be the custom at Cambridge that any member of the University, whether undergraduate, research student, or don, might attend any lecture. That was still the case in my day. From time to time I sampled quite a variety of lectures in different subjects.

Thus when Wittgenstein was appointed professor at Cambridge there was a large attendance at his first lecture, including, I think I heard Masterman say, the Vice Chancellor. Such a large and disparate audience disconcerted Wittgenstein who liked to conduct lectures as seminars in which he interrogated his students to drag them into a state of enlightenment, a process suitable only for a small group of able and committed students. He glared at his audience, and then said ‘I do not like your faces’ after which walked around the room peering into people’s faces as he scrutinised them one by one and selected those he judged worthy of his further attention. They alone where to attend in future. Although Masterman told the story as if only the elect were allowed to attend Wittgenstein’s lectures, when a few of us talked it over afterwards we decided it was more likely that he did not restrict attendance at his official lectures, but rather used his first lecture as the occasion to select those who might also attend a private seminar.

Whatever it was that happened, those excluded were outraged. To placate them Masterman and another member of the group promised to circulate notes to those who had been excluded. They discovered the whereabouts of a cheap Roneo machine in London (A Roneo machine was a duplicating machine in which a waxed paper stencil in which letters were cut with a typewriter, was wound round an inked drum, so that at each turn of a handle the material typed was printed onto a sheet of paper; the realisation that I probably need to explain that made me feel distinctly old). Accordingly they took a train to London to collected it. On their return they were very apprehensive lest Wittgenstein see them bringing it back from the Railway station. He was a deeply suspicious and inquisitive man, and would have interrogated any student he saw doing anything unusual, whether or not it had any obvious connection to the study of Philosophy.

He didn’t catch them at that stage, but did eventually find out about the notes, and great was his fury on doing so. Masterman described herself as having taken a stern moral line with him, reminding him of the duties and responsibilities of a professor, and he eventually agreed that anyone interested might have a copy of the duplicated notes, with one exception. Rudolph Carnap was not to receive them. That was because, years before, in the course of explaining truth tables in one of his books on Logic, Carnap had included a footnote saying ‘See also Wittgenstein’ Wittgenstein objected to the word ‘also’, claiming that the credit for truth tables was due to him alone.

A memoir of Margaret Masterman may be found at here  Brace yourself to receive a pdf file.

The Braithwaites were active in a group called The Epiphany Christians. I don’t recall ever hearing Margaret Masterman expressing her opinions about religion, though my friend the late Audrey Lambart, whom I met some years after leaving Cambridge, told me she’d been rather put out when in her Cambridge days she came across Masterman at some sort of social gathering, and Masterman had looked at her and said ‘That girl looks crucified’. Richard Braithwaite outlined his view of religion in his Eddington Memorial Lecture, An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief. Braithwaite took Matthew Arnold’s statement that religion is ‘morality touched by emotion’ and developed from it the theory that the sole function of religion is to provide a set of stories to illustrate moral problems and the rules we use to solve them. There is no need for the stories to be true or for the religious to believe them, and one formed the strong impression that Braithwaite himself did not believe any religious stories that included any supernatural element. Nor did he believe in any absolute moral standards, and when a group of undergraduates and research students formed a group called The Theoretical Amoralists to advance the position that there are no moral truths, Braithwaite joined in enthusiastically.

Both senior and junior members of the faculty of Moral science were welcome at the weekly meetings of The Moral Science Club held in Braithwaite’s room in King’s, where we deliberated beneath a portrait in oils of McTaggart. I used to think McTaggart looked remarkably well fed for someone who believed matter to be unreal. For in a passage which, Wisdom told us, was frequently quoted by G, E, Moore, McTaggart had written:

"...matter is in the same position as the Gorgons or the Harpies. Its existence is a bare possibility to which it would be foolish to attach the least importance, since there is nothing to make it at all preferable to any other hypothesis, however wild" (Some Dogmas of Religion p. 95)

Braithwaite usually took the chair at meetings of the club, smoking large cigars while doing so. After his doctor told him to lie down for as long as possible to rest his heart, he took to conducting meetings lying on an inflatable mattress on the floor, but still smoking cigars.

For me the most memorable meeting of the Moral Science Club was that addressed by Elizabeth Anscombe, at that time still at Oxford; only some years after I left Cambridge did she become a professor there. I don’t recall the subject of her paper but many other details stick in my mind. Her appearance was striking, heavily pregnant and wearing brightly coloured woollen stocking that looked as if they were hand-knitted. Then there was her chain smoking - it is the only time I’ve seen real chain smoking. She smoked for the whole time and used only one match; every cigarette except the first she lit from the stub of its predecessor. Even while reading her paper she puffed away between sentences. After a while she ran out of cigarettes but declined the cigar that Braithwaite offered up to her from the lrubber mattress, preferring the cigarettes gallantly offered by Dr. Lewy. Finally in the course of the discussion following her paper, Wisdom at one point leant forward towards her, pointing to a curtained recess behind her and, in a perfectly matter of fact voice, said ‘There’s an ostrich’ at which she started and looked over her shoulder nervously, before realising that it was just one of Wisdom’s little stories, a memorable illustration of some point that I can’t remember.

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