Philosophy in Twentieth-Century Oxford (1900–60)

Dr Nakul Krishna <nk459 at cam dot ac dot uk>
Faculty of Philosophy
University of Cambridge

NB. This is a draft syllabus and subject to change in response to feedback. Please consult this webpage for the most up-to-date version.

Seminar description

Sixty Years of Oxford Philosophy

Dr Nakul Krishna (University of Cambridge) will be convening a set of informal seminars in Trinity Term based around the draft manuscript of his narrative history of Oxford philosophy in the first half of the 20th century, to be published by Penguin-Random House in 2020. The book is aimed at non-academic readers and is primarily a work of history rather than of philosophy. But philosophers and academics may also find the content, based on a wide range of published and unpublished archival sources, of interest.

The book begins with the birth of Gilbert Ryle in 1900 and ends with the death of JL Austin in 1960 and covers the following themes: idealism and realism in early-20th-century Oxford and Cambridge; the origins and varieties of ‘analytic’ philosophy; the reception of logical positivism in Oxford; wartime Oxford and the emergence of an influential generation of women in philosophy; the reception of Wittgenstein in post-war Oxford; the rise and fall of ‘ordinary language’ philosophy; ethics and politics in Oxford philosophy; the revival of metaphysics and the slow decline of Oxford’s influence relative to that of universities in the US.


Location: Danson Room, Trinity College

Dates and times: Mondays of Trinity Term, 1400–1600 (beginning the 29th of April)

Format: 45–50 mins lecture; break; 30–45 mins discussion (participants are free to attend either section)

Audience: All welcome; the material will be entirely accessible to undergraduates who are especially encouraged to attend. Please address any queries to Dr Krishna at the e-mail address above.

Reading list

The readings are listed in descending order of importance; the first-listed reading in each case is strongly recommended and some acquaintance with it will be presupposed in the discussion.

1st week / 29th April: Fog-wrestling (1900–32)

Themes: The idea of a ‘contextualist’ history of analytic philosophy; idealists and realists in early-twentieth-century Oxford; the growing influence of ‘Cambridge analysis’; Gilbert Ryle and the reception of German phenomenology in Oxford.

Recommended reading

R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978 [1939]), 15–28.

Further philosophical reading

Gilbert Ryle, ‘Systematically Misleading Expressions’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 32 (1931): 139–70.

Gilbert Ryle, ‘Taking Sides in Philosophy’, Philosophy 12, no. 47 (1937): 317–32.

G. E. Moore, ‘The Refutation of Idealism’, Mind 12, no. 48 (1903): 433–53.

Bertrand Russell, ‘Idealism’, in The Problems of Philosophy, 1st ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912), 58–71.

H. H. Price, Perception (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1932).

Michael Beaney, ‘Collingwood’s Critique of Oxbridge Realism’, in An Autobiography and Other Writings, with Essays on Collingwood’s Life and Work, ed. David Boucher and Teresa Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 247–69.

Mathieu Marion, ‘Oxford Realism: Knowledge and Perception I’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 8, no. 2 (2000): 299–338.

Further historical reading

H. J. Paton, ‘Fifty Years of Philosophy’, in Contemporary British Philosophy, ed. H. D. Lewis, 3 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1956), 337–54.

Gilbert Ryle, ‘Fifty Years of Philosophy and Philosophers’, Philosophy 51, no. 198 (1976): 381–89.

Gilbert Ryle, ‘Autobiographical’, in Ryle, ed. Oscar P Wood and George Pitcher, Modern Studies in Philosophy (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1970), 1–15.

Leonard Woolf, Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years, 1880 to 1904, US Edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 133-157.

2nd week / 6th May: Nonsense (1929–36)

Themes: Logical positivism and the Vienna Circle; Oxford and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus; the birth of Analysis; the invention of ‘analytic’ philosophy.

Recommended reading

Susan Stebbing, ‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 33, no. 1 (1 June 1933): 65–94.

Further philosophical reading

A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), esp. ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’.

Albert E. Blumberg and Herbert Feigl, ‘Logical Positivism’, The Journal of Philosophy 28, no. 11 (1931): 281–96.

Gilbert Ryle, ‘Review of Review of Sein und Zeit, by Martin Heidegger’, Mind 38, no. 151 (1929): 355–70.

Further historical reading

Ernest Nagel, ‘Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe I’, Journal of Philosophy 33, no. 1 (1936): 5–24.

Ernest Nagel, ‘Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe II’, Journal of Philosophy 33, no. 2 (1936): 29–53.

A. J. Ayer, Part of My Life (London: William Collins Son and Co. Ltd, 1977), 115–138.

3rd week / 13th May: Argy-Bargy (1930–39)

Themes: The reception (and rejection) of logical positivism in Oxford; JL Austin and the beginnings of ‘linguistic’ philosophy; philosophy and left politics in the 1930s

Recommended reading

Isaiah Berlin, ‘Verification’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 39 (1938): 225–48.

Further philosophical reading

J. L. Austin, ‘The Meaning of a Word’, in Philosophical Papers, ed. G. J. Warnock and J. O. Urmson, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970 [1940]), 55–75.

Susan Stebbing, Thinking to Some Purpose (London: Pelican Books, 1939).

J. O. Urmson, Philosophical Analysis; Its Development Between the Two World Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 102–129.

John Wisdom, ‘Philosophical Perplexity’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 37 (1936): 71–88.

Further historical reading

Isaiah Berlin, ‘Austin and the Early Beginnings of Oxford Philosophy’, in Essays on JL Austin, ed. G. J. Warnock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 1–16.

Michael Chanan, 1/6 ‘I’m Going To Tamper With Your Beliefs A Little’: Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, Logic Lane, 1972,

Stephen Spender, World Within World, California paperback (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 33–43 and passim.

Ralph Glasser, Gorbals Boy at Oxford (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), passim.

4th week / 20th May: Hothouse (1937–45)

Themes: Oxford (philosophy) in the war; women in Oxford philosophy; Oxford philosophy and classical scholarship

Recommended reading:

Mary Midgley, ‘At Oxford, 1938-42’, in Owl of Minerva: A Memoir (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 76–129.

Further philosophical reading

Elizabeth Anscombe and Norman Daniel, The Justice of the Present War Examined: A Criticism Based on Traditional Catholic Principles and Natural Reason (John S. Burns, 1939).

Further historical reading

Mary Warnock, A Memoir: People and Places (London: Duckworth, 2000), 39–102.

Rosalind Hursthouse, ‘Philippa Ruth Foot 1920–2010’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy XI (2012): 176–96.

Jenny Teichman, ‘Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe 1919–2001’, Proceedings of the British Academy 115 (2001): 31–50.

Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A Life (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 82–134.

Christopher Stray, ‘Eduard Fraenkel: An Exploration’, Syllecta Classica 25, no. 25 (2014): 113–72.

5th week / 27th May: Saturdays (1945–53)

Themes: Post-war Oxford; styles of ‘ordinary language philosophy’; Ryle’s philosophy of mind; Austin’s Saturday morning meetings; the reception of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in Oxford

Recommended reading

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 60th anniversary edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 1–12.

Further philosophical reading

J. L. Austin, ‘Intelligent Behaviour’, in Ryle, ed. Oscar P Wood and George Pitcher, UK edition (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1970), 45–52.

Stuart Hampshire, ‘Critical Review of The Concept of Mind’, in Ryle, ed. Oscar P Wood and George Pitcher, UK edition (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1970), 17–44.

J. L. Austin and G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Symposium: Pretending’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 32 (1958): 261–94.

G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Klibansky, ‘On the Form of Wittgenstein’s Writing’, in Contemporary Philosophy: A Survey, vol. 3 (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1969), 373–78.

P. F. Strawson, ‘Critical Notice: Philosophical Investigations’, Mind 63, no. 249 (1954): 70–99.

H. H. Price, ‘Clarity Is Not Enough’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 19 (1945): 1–31.

Further historical reading

G. J. Warnock, ‘Saturday Mornings’, in Essays on J. L. Austin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 31–45.

Jonathan Rée, ‘English Philosophy in the Fifties’, Radical Philosophy 65 (1993): 3–21.

6th week / 3rd June: Corruption (1952–58)

Themes: Ethics in Oxford philosophy; metaethical ‘prescriptivism’; the revival of (Aristotelian) naturalism; the revival of Platonism

Recommended reading

G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt Youth?’, in Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006), 161–68.

Further philosophical reading

G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19.

G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘War and Murder’, in Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response (London: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 44–52.

R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), 1–16.

Philippa Foot, ‘Moral Arguments’, Mind 67, no. 268 (1958): 502–513.

Philippa Foot, ‘Moral Beliefs’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958): 83–104.

Iris Murdoch, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society: Dreams and Self-Knowledge Supplement no. 30 (1956): 32–58.

Further historical reading

R. M. Hare, ‘A Philosophical Autobiography’, Utilitas 14, no. 3 (November 2002): 269–305.

Michael H.  Levenson, ‘Iris Murdoch: The Philosophic Fifties and The Bell’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 3 (1 September 2001): 558–79.

Rachael Wiseman, ‘The Intended and Unintended Consequences of Intention’, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 207–27.

7th week / 10th June: Thaw (1956–60)

Themes: Systematic philosophy and ‘descriptive metaphysics’ in the late-1950s; the gradual emergence of post-war American philosophy as a rival to Oxford – Quine, Rawls and others); critiques of Oxford philosophy

Recommended reading

P. F. Strawson, ‘The Post-Linguistic Thaw’, in Philosophical Writings, ed. Galen Strawson and Michelle Montague (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 71–77.

Further philosophical reading

Ernest Gellner, ‘The Crisis in the Humanities and the Mainstream of Philosophy’, in Crisis in the Humanities, ed. J. H. Plumb (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 45–81.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things: An Examination of, and an Attack on, Linguistic Philosophy (Victor Gollancz, 1959).

Bernard Williams and Alan Montefiore, ‘Introduction’, in British Analytical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1966), 1–16.

G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention, 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963).

P. F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (Methuen, 1959).

Michael Dummett, ‘Oxford Philosophy’, in Truth and Other Enigmas (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978), 431–36.

Michael Dummett, Origins of Analytical Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1993).

R. M. Hare, ‘A School for Philosophers’, in Essays on Philosophical Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 38–53.

Further historical reading

Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, New Left Review, no. 50 (August 1968),

8th week / 17th June: Epilogue (1955–1976)

Themes: Humanist and post-structuralist critiques of Oxford philosophy; the reception of Austin’s philosophy; the legacy of Oxford philosophy (1900–1960)

Recommended reading

J. L. Austin, ‘A Plea for Excuses’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 57 (1 January 1956): 1–30.

Further philosophical reading

Stanley Cavell, ‘Austin at Criticism’, The Philosophical Review 74, no. 2 (1965): 204–219.

Christopher Ricks, ‘Austin’s Swink’, University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 297–315.

Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, in Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 1–24.

Nancy Bauer, How to Do Things With Pornography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2015).

Rae Langton, ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 22, no. 4 (1993): 293–330.

Stanley Cavell, ‘The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy’, The Philosophical Review 71, no. 1 (1962): 67–93.

Bernard Williams, ‘On Hating and Despising Philosophy’, London Review of Books, 18 April 1996. Reprinted in Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 363–70.