Beyond the Fringe – Oxford philosophy

Over the last twelve months, as a sort of sideline, I have immersed myself in the era of analytic philosophy, roughly from 1920 to 1960. In a previous post, you might remember me raving about ‘Metaphysical Animals‘, a book that I found thoroughly fascinating. I even recommended it to my professor, who did not like it, finding it overly anecdotal. Well, gossipy. Women about women, I suppose. But I adored it and recommended it to his wife 🙂 However, a new book was announced, that he and I both pre-ordered: ‘A Terribly Serious Adventure’ by Nikhil Krishan, and which has now been published. An outstanding read—I am currently on my second run-through. I find myself understanding concepts better by linking them to their historical origins and the individuals who lived during these times. It is similar to my first encounter with Geert Mak’s ‘In Europe‘ video production, which seamlessly tied together numerous knowledge threads in a way that finally made sense to me.

The Women Are Up to Something,’ by Benjamin Libscomb, deals with the same four women as Metaphysical Animals, but is considerably more philosophical in character, more like Krishan’s book. It delves deep into the philosophical views that these women philosophers developed, over a period of half a century, as a result of the stifling atmosphere at Oxford Philosophy during and after the war. It is fascinating to read how much one was not allowed to do or think if one wanted to be an Oxford philosopher. I am on my third reading now. And there is another one still to go: the new book on J.L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer by Mark Row. I developed a bit of dislike for Austin, but as I read more and more, I have found out that there are many others who, even at the time, thought that he was more of a teacher and a methodologist, and not really much of a philosopher at all. Thank you, Vincent van der Lubbe for bringing these books to my attention.

It is the connection with my own history that makes this so interesting for me. It is almost like therapy. I went up in 1981 to Corpus Christi (the entrance on Merten Street is shown in the picture that accompanies this post – oh Nostalgia, Husband and I are also watching Inspector Morse again), which had only begun to admit women three years prior. Little did I know that what I would be taught would come straight from that analytic philosophy history. Not just its contents, but also its style, which included how we were taught, spoken to, and discouraged or encouraged. During those years, I developed a habit of rationality that took me many years to soften. I was also quite lonely. I believe most undergraduates were. We lived in a frenzy, attempting to compress all of life into three 8-week terms, give or take 0th week and 9th week. Money was tight, especially if, like me, you were on a full grant during term time but had no additional sources of support. Our tutors did not connect with us much; mine were nearly robotic in their interactions with other humans—not a smile, not a joke, not even an anecdote in those many one-on-one or one-on-two tutorials. The British stiff upper lip, which we all adopted wherever we came from, did the rest.

‘The Women are Up to Something’ tells of a great sketch that was done in the 1960’s on Oxford Philosophy. It is so funny. But the amazing thing is that the general public would find it funny, because it requires quite a bit of familiarity with Oxford philosophical ideas.This is what Lipscombe says about the sketch, on pages 208-209:

In 1960, Oxford Revue alums Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore teamed up with Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook of the Cambridge Footlights and mounted a wildly successful revue, titled Beyond the Fringe. It became one of the most influential theatrical productions of the postwar era, breaking a path for other satirical, sometimes absurdist, comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the sketches in Beyond the Fringe was a send-up of Oxford linguistic philosophy.
The cast were clearly familiar with a lot of mid-century philosophical jargon, tossing off allusions to Ayer’s “sense data,” Ryle’s “category mistakes,” and Wittgenstein’s “language games.” They or their friends had been in lectures or tutorials with Austin, Hare, and others. Drawing on familiar caricatures of eccentric don behaviour, Miller slouched and loped around the stage while Bennett twisted his arms over and behind his head in a picture of self-forgetfulness. But the cutting genius of the sketch is in its dialogue. The laugh lines reveal what a mixed audience in a West End theatre in 1961 knew or thought it knew about Oxford philosophy. That it could work at all as a West End comedy tells a great deal about the absorption of linguistic philosophy into the wider cultural consciousness.

Early in the sketch, Bennett raises the question of the role of philosophers in society: “I mean, other people have jobs to do, don’t they?” Miller earnestly suggests that he will give an “example from real life” of the kind of statement that people fall into making if not chastened by philosophical analysis: “There’s too much Tuesday in my beetroot salad.” Bennett warmly calls this “a classic.” (A bit later, he adds in a suspicious tone that Miller seems “very fond of real life.”) Bennett dismisses Plato and Aristotle as mere “paraphilosophers” (like paratroops, because they have “their feet off the ground”). Why? Because they ask “entirely irrelevant” questions: “about life, about death.”
The sketch concludes with an anecdote from Bennett, proving the relevance of philosophy for life. He was in a shop that morning, he says:

Bennett: And there was a shop assistant there who was having an argument with a customer. The shop assistant said “yes.” And the customer said, “what do you mean, ‘yes’?” And the shop assistant said, “I mean, ‘yes’.”
Miller: Ah, this is very exciting indeed.

Bennett calls this “a splendid example” of “two very ordinary people . . . asking each other what are in essence philosophical questions . . . where I as a philosopher could help them.” Miller asks, “Did you?” To which Bennett replies sadly, “No. They were in rather a hurry.”

This is the video. I have added the transcript from the internet archive below, because the sound quality is not great and these chaps do a fine job of speaking around several hot potatoes.

I hope you enjoyed this. I also took from these books some new thoughts, or rather, I discovered that there was quite a bit of thought that I—and an entire generation—missed out on, but now can begin to reconstruct. The idea that assertions might be templates for action, and not truth bearers, for instance. But that is for another time and another post.

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