Nikhil Krishnan’s ‘A Terribly Serious Adventure — Philosophy at Oxford 1900-60’

With rigour, wit and depth, the author appraises the Oxford school of philosophy

May 26, 2023 09:06 am | Updated 11:08 am IST

View of the Radcliffe Camera (the library reading room) and neighbouring colleges at Oxford.

View of the Radcliffe Camera (the library reading room) and neighbouring colleges at Oxford. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When Nikhil Krishnan arrived in Oxford, a 20-year-old Rhodes Scholar from India, a country with a long philosophical tradition “honoured today chiefly as a piece of inert heritage”, what he expected from philosophy was depth, mystery, poetry, something transcendental and Delphic.

Asked by his tutor to explain a sentence in his essay, he said, “aren’t these sort of things ineffable?” No, said the tutor saying he hoped the budding philosopher would “try to eff a few for the next essay.”

Krishnan resented this kowtowing to something as prosaic as the superficial word rather than the profound thought. “It was as if,” he says, “the astronomer had to run his calculations past the local palm reader.”

He should not have been surprised. He was in the university that in the first half of the last century had nurtured philosophers like Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and others responsible for the growth of linguistic (or analytic) philosophy which abhorred metaphysics or anything obscure and unprovable.

‘Wickedest man’

Ryle, the oldest of the group, dismissed Plato’s forms and sought instead a new form of words that would clarify rather than confuse. Later he would dismiss the body-mind dualism of Descartes. Those who followed him — A.J. Ayer (“the wickedest man in Oxford”), Philippa Foot, R.M. Hare were thus given a platform to build on, and build they did, even if it wasn’t a single monolithic structure but one that reflected Ryle’s pronouncement that analysis was the proper business of philosophy.

A.J. Ayer

A.J. Ayer | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Austin took Ryle a step further, arguing that words we use most often are not so much descriptive as “performative”. We “do things with words,” which are thus not something inert but have kinetic energy. As Krishnan says, Oxford philosophy didn’t have “shared doctrines”, but “particular virtues it aspired to embody.”

Gilbert Ryle

Gilbert Ryle | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

“I was,” says Krishnan, “improved morally and spiritually by my immersion in the philosophy of this period,” referring to 1900-1960, which saw the rise of the Oxford school, the period he deals with in his riveting A Terribly Serious Adventure.

But it wasn’t love at first sight. The immersion began with annoyance, and moved very slowly towards affection and a sense of proprietary right.

“This,” he tells me as we sip our coffees at the British Film Institute in London’s South Bank, “is a history of philosophy written as a history of people. Its basic unit of organisation is not the argument but the anecdote. What did people think, what were they like?” Krishnan, a philosopher with a DPhil from Oxford and currently a Fellow at Cambridge, brings both the philosophy and the philosophers alive.

Empathy, humour

He writes with the discipline of a scholar and the story-telling skill of a novelist, with empathy, humour, and a ringing clarity. He was interested in “not only what the Oxford philosophers were saying, but also in what they were doing in saying it, and what their saying it brought about.”

The last time we met, in Bengaluru, where he had graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Krishnan had been planning a group biography of four Mysore luminaries: R.K. Narayan, R.K. Laxman, M.N. Srinivas and A.K. Ramanujam. “I think they will now become part of a larger book,” he tells me, “on the cultural history of India soon after Independence, when, alongside science, technology and industry, we saw the growth of institutions like the National School of Drama, the Lalit Kala Akademi and giants like Ebrahim Alkazi, Girish Karnad, and the artists of the Progressive Artists Group.” It was a time of cultural renaissance.

For the moment, Krishnan, at 36, one of the finest writers we have, a historian and biographer as much as a philosopher (hence the coming together of all three disciplines in his book, a great synthesis), is enjoying the excellent notices A Terribly Serious Adventure is garnering. He is a self-effacing man who hates to attract attention to himself. His choice of historical periods is no accident. He would rather go through published works of what people have said and in what context than meet them when memories aren’t as reliable, and the interesting bits — the personal biases and fierce battles — are forgotten.

Nikhil Krishnan

Nikhil Krishnan | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

This has worked brilliantly in his book. There is chronological distance between the heydays of Oxford philosophy (to give its convenient name), and the arrival of a young Indian student who analyses its strength and impact using the tools — rigour, wit and depth — that made it the leading school of thought in its time. As he says, “Mid-century philosophers took seriously the idea that philosophy, like science, was something that could be got right... without killing off what was alive in the targets of their analysis.”

Krishnan’s analysis is not one-sided; he delineates things in Oxford philosophy that “are dead and should not be resurrected.” Like its simplistic insistence on the misuse of language as being the foundation of philosophical problems, or its essential conservatism. The charitable picture, he says, might be the right one. As R.M. Hare put it, “Oxford is not so much a school of philosophy as a school for philosophers.”

Street view of Oxford.

Street view of Oxford. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Aim of philosophy

What is the aim of philosophy, asked Ludwig Wittgenstein, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, a Cambridge man. His answer: “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Were the Oxford philosophers constantly looking over their shoulder at him not so much for approval, but for acknowledgement? If so, it was only natural. In a letter to Norman Malcolm, his student and friend who has written a lovely memoir of his days with Wittgenstein, the philosopher says, “Oxford is a philosophical desert”.

Krishnan of course does not believe this was so, even if he began with that thought in mind. He came to realise that the philosophers who apparently comported themselves like “well-trained bureaucrats” and simply ignored the ineffable, are an important part of his journey. A journey on which he takes us, leading us gently by the hand. And mind.

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900-60; Nikhil Krishnan, Profile Books

The writer is a columnist.

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