Living the life
Should philosophers practise what they preach? And if so, who would deserve a contemporary nomination? asks Fred Inglis
Professional philosophers come on quite grand. They’re sharp on our illogic, pick us up on meaning, tell us off for being Seekers after Truth. In an immortal paraphrase of this attitude as worn by the Oxonians of his day in 1939, RG Collingwood, the greatest as well as the most isolated of their number, said of his colleagues that they insisted on the the sheer impotence of ethical theory and taught that “moral philosophy can’t make any difference to the practice of moral action”. In Collingwood’s view, you couldn’t find a better method for teaching people to be “the dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics”. “Why is it,” he concluded bitterly, that nowadays nobody “regards philosophy as anything but a futile parlour game?”
Seventy years later, things are, perhaps, a bit better. Yet the philosophers themselves still beat the boundaries of the discipline with a big stick, scaring out of the undergrowth of metaphysics or moral theory anybody who hasn’t a party card and “isn’t a philosopher”.
Nonetheless, innumerable serious, earnest and admirable students still come to their studies in search of ideals to live for and principles to live by, and when philosophy fails to provide them, push off, angry and disappointed, to find another subject – history, perhaps, or literature, not economics obviously – which might provide what they so much desire.
There is, however, an older, better tradition in which philosophy is the name of a subject inextricably bound up with the question of how to live well, and in the past century or so Collingwood was its leading if solitary advocate until at last a later generation of outlaws rode in from the forest and began taking down stretches of the boundary fencing.
One of these is Alisdair MacIntyre, a sometime pious Catholic hanging on to Christianity’s noble conception of the common good. Fired to a scornful frenzy towards his subject by Trotsky’s theories of revolutionary struggle he has spent his life insisting on the identity of history and philosophy. For him, the sociology of moral conduct is inseparable from the theories of ethics alive in a particular society and the culture in which its people swim.
MacIntyre struggles to win back the idea of a tradition from the political Right, and to redefine it as a living argument about the ends of life. He says mildly: “Being a great philosopher is not at all the same thing as leading an exemplary philosophical life, but perhaps the point of doing philosophy is to enable people to lead, so far as it is within their powers, philosophical lives. And of course how individual philosophers work out, in the detail of their lives, the relationship between the ends of their philosophical writing and the ends of their lives always depends on a myriad of contingencies .”
MacIntyre allows what, I believe, most people, when they think about it, would register as their minimum expectation of a philosopher’s life: that in his or her strenuous meditations on truth or virtue or meaning or the passions, there should be some evident connection between the quality of the thinking and the nature of the life.
Certainly Collingwood thought so. The whole of his intellectual journey, cut short at 53 (as he knew it would be) by a series of strokes, was dedicated to discovering the “unity of theory and practice”, which is to say the successful grounding of historical knowledge (and for him there was no other kind) in collective consciousness. Only in some such architecture of thought and feeling can humankind turn its moral, political and scientific principles into practical and rational action.
Put like that, it sounds pretty abstract. But in point of fact it is what we all strive to do. We look into the past to see how we got into this mess in the first place, and once we understand a predicament in terms of what mistakes led us there, we expect then to have some chance of knowing what to do next. In the slogan, we understand backwards in order to plan forwards.
Not that Collingwood is reassuring as to the ease and smoothness of any such move. He is iron-hard on that great totem of contemporary liberalism, “choice”, and the terrible tripe to which it gives rise in present social policy. In taking one’s own moral decisions, he warns harshly against the “tempters, Desire, Self-interest and Right conduct.” For this man, duty is “the act which,” in his own words in his last book, “character and circumstance combine to make it inevitable that he should freely will to do.”
These are not comfortable, let alone straightforward guides to leading the good life. But they are unmistakably the words and the voice of a philosopher in the old, Platonic sense, a man battling to hold together the point of his writing and the direction of his life.
This British tradition of intellectual life comes through as a living argument about how to think straight and live well. In this country, much of that inquiry was conducted in the pages of the great novelists. Of course I take for granted that good philosophy is a branch of literature and that its practitioners had better write their subject as though they were themselves artists.
By this token, that great conservative philosopher and radical atheist David Hume is an artist like the conservative but radical feminist Jane Austen. Hume’s splendid prose and practical ethics are of a piece with his deathbed demeanour when he amusedly but courteously put aside James Boswell’s exhortations for a deathbed conversion, and when, Adam Smith tells us, his cheerfulness, patience and magnanimity never abated. So too when we praise Jane Austen for the perfect poise she finds between ice-pure truth-telling and a fresh delight in both human fat-headedness and rare excellence.
Hume and Jane Austen remain alive and well in contemporary culture. Readers may surely take pleasure in a sort-of-Christmas-party game whereby each nominates a few of those thinker-writer-philosopher-artists in our contentious tradition who still come through to us with transformative energy. But, as MacIntyre reminds us, bringing into a single focus the ends of one’s writing and of one’s life may turn out well or badly, and indeed, burdened as I am by my preoccupation with Collingwood, I am forced to the conclusion that his life, with all its intellectual triumphs and trophies, is nonetheless tragic in its failure to find a way to address a larger audience than he ever commanded on the necessity of historical self-knowledge for a person or a people.
Failure, however, is not defeat. If we cast about (the best part of the game) for more recent candidates for canonisation in the tradition, then someone might nominate John Maynard Keynes, who was surely an unqualified success, and for myself I think of my former teacher, the great critic of literature, FR Leavis. Someone said of him that he had given his life to two noble institutions in communal life, marriage and the University, and that both had let him down comprehensively. Yet his heroic advocacy of his great affirmative noun “life” (“Life”, he would say, “is a necessary word”) as he found it instantiated in the novels (and the biographies) of Charles Dickens, DH Lawrence, Mark Twain or in the lives of wheelwrights in 19th-century Farnham, clinches his victorious standing in our argumentative tradition.
The last, best moment of our dead serious sport is to find those still alive in the present who have already strengthened and whose life-in-work is even now enriching the veins of culture. These are the figures now preparing currents of feeling, in Matthew Arnold’s marvellous words, “which sap their adversaries’ position when it seems gained, they are those keeping up their communication with the future.”
Richard Hoggart, now 91, is my own nominee: a man whose life must be retold if one is to grasp the momentousness of the work. Any appreciation must do justice to his classic works – from The Uses of Literacy in 1958 by way of his wonderful three-decker autobiography to a miniature masterpiece like his book on Farnham, Landscape with Figures. But at the same time, it must understand and honour his life’s work in public politics – on the Pilkington Committee, in the witness box on behalf of Lady Chatterley, for the Arts Council, above all as Assistant Director in the multicultural crucible of UNESCO.
At every rendezvous with history, whether on the page or in the office, he demonstrated, in his plain-spoken, resourceful, supple but steely way, that objectivity of judgment and loving kindness of moral attention which, becoming synonyms one for the other, issue in the practical ethics of good sense. That is the great tradition of the British intellectual; there is no nobler calling.
Fred Inglis’s biography History Man: the Life of RG Collingwood is published by Princeton. He is just beginning a biography of Richard Hoggart