From Ratio, II, No. 2 (1960). This article is a revised version of a lecture given at a number of German centres in the summer of 1957, under the title 'The Study of Philosophy in Great Britain'. Reprinted in R. M. Hare, Essays on Philosophical Method (University of California Press, 1972).

A School for Philosophers

R. M. Hare

Once, while lecturing in Germany some years ago, I was told, by an Englishman who was in a position to know, that in the opinion of most German philosophers philosophy was not studied in England at all. I think this was an exaggeration; but it is certainly true that the subject as studied in England has such a different aspect from what is studied in Germany under the same name, that one might be forgiven for thinking that they are really two quite different subjects. I shall give reasons later on for arguing that this appearance is deceptive; that it is really the same subject studied in two different ways: but the main object of this paper is to describe the conditions under which people learn and study philosophy in Britain, taking Oxford as an illustration.1 For I think that, given the educational system (we might almost say 'given the administrative arrangements') of the older British universities, it would be wellnigh impossible for philosophy as it is known in Germany to flourish there with any vigour.

My wife has a cousin who studied philosophy under Husserl at Freiburg. I have heard him say that, when he first went to see the great man, Husserl produced about six bound volumes and said: 'Here are my books; come back in a year's time.' He went there, of course, as a graduate student; I do not know whether his experience was typical, or whether in German universities an undergraduate would get as little attention from his teachers as this: but at any rate nothing could be more different from the treatment accorded to the ordinary student starting philosophy at Oxford. We have at Oxford about sixty professional philosophers; the bulk of these, apart from the three professors at the top, and a very few university readers, lecturers, etc., are, like myself, fellows and tutors in one or other of the many colleges which make up the university. Each of us has committed to his charge some twenty or so students from his own college; these are normally studying some other subject in addition to philosophy - for we do not think it healthy to study philosophy in complete isolation; we put it with some other, less abstract subject such as history or economics or psychology. It should, perhaps, be mentioned also that philosophy is studied at Oxford by very large numbers of students. It is not, as at most other places, a small specialist course. Most of my pupils are going to be, not professional philosophers, but businessmen, politicians, schoolmasters, clergymen, lawyers, journalists, civil servants, and, indeed, almost anything but philosophers; and a substantial number of these may be expected to reach the highest ranks of their professions. So the Oxford tutor, if he can teach his pupils how to think more clearly and to the point, can have much more influence on the life of the country in this way than he is likely to achieve by writing books, unless the books are outstandingly successful.

Each of these students goes to his philosophy tutor once a week, either by himself or in the company of one other student, for what is known as a tutorial. He will have been told the week before to read certain books or articles and to write an essay on some subject chosen by the tutor to bring out the most important questions raised in the books. At the beginning of the tutorial he will read this essay aloud; this will take about fifteen minutes. If he gets to the end of it without interruption, the rest of the hour will be spent in discussing the subject of the essay. The average tutor's working week during term will consist of from ten to twenty hours spent seeing pupils in this way, and about two hours' public lectures or seminars. The rest of his time, after some part of it has been devoted to practical business in connection with the administration of the college, is his own.

Although we have a far smaller number of professional administrators than most other universities, and although we keep in closer touch with our undergraduates, both administratively and personally, than is common elsewhere, this does not mean that the academic staff are burdened to a higher degree with administrative duties. The situation is rather that, by having the university divided into a large number of colleges of some 200 to 400 students each, and by handling nearly all administrative problems at this elementary level, we prevent our administrative machinery growing to such a portentous size that it requires the services of great numbers of professionals to manage it. For example, for some years I myself looked after the repair and maintenance of my own college buildings. This took no more of my time than I was quite willing to spend on it as a hobby; and besides, it is good for a philosopher to be made to perform feats of mountaineering while inspecting the state of the roofs, and thus to realise that if somebody does not prevent the rain from getting in, the college will eventually disintegrate. In a similar spirit, two of my best-known philosophical colleagues, Mr Strawson and Mr (now Professor) Nowell-Smith, for long periods managed, respectively, the domestic arrangements and the estates and investments of their colleges. All these jobs would be done by professionals at most other universities, because of their centralised administration; but on the whole we prefer it our way, and the jobs are as well done. Certainly I have met the complaint more often elsewhere than at Oxford that 'we spend so much time on administration that we can't do any philosophy'.

Out of term -- that is to say for about twenty-eight weeks in the year -- we are free to philosophise, or to do anything else that takes our fancy; for our jobs are secure and cannot be taken from us until we reach the age of sixty-seven, unless we are guilty of some outrageous personal misconduct. We are under no pressure -- beyond that of ambition -- to write books or articles. In some other places the staff are in danger of spoiling their chances of promotion, or even further employment, unless they keep up a constant output of published writing; and this naturally inflates the publishers' catalogues. I will not say that in Oxford no philosopher ever writes anything unless he has something to say; but at any rate he cannot claim that he has to do it to earn a living. We regard teaching, not writing, as our main job -- what we are paid for.

What, then, is the effect of this system on the student and on his tutor? It is profound. The student is very soon made to realise that everything that he says in an essay has to be justified before a highly skilled and usually merciless critic, not only in respect of its truth, but also in respect of relevance, accuracy, significance and clarity. Anything that is put in to fill in space, or which is ambiguous or vague or pretentious, or which contains more sound than significance, or whose object is anything else but to express genuine thought, is ruthlessly exposed for what it is. The tutor knows that he cannot be sure of getting his pupil to see the truth; for, even if it were not possible in philosophy for there to be sincere differences of opinion about the truth, nobody can see the truth about a philosophical question until he has by his own efforts reached the point from which it is visible. What the tutor can do is to teach his pupil to think effectively; to express his thought clearly to himself and to others; to make distinctions where there are distinctions to be made, and thus avoid unnecessary confusion — and not to use long words (or short ones) without being able to explain what they mean. Enormous stress is laid on style, not in the sense of literary elegance - for this is esteemed of small value - but in the sense of an effective, unambiguous, clear and ordered expression of one's thought, which cannot be achieved unless the thought itself has the same qualities.

The effect of this treatment on the student is what might be expected. But its effect on the tutor himself should not escape notice. He has continually to set an example of the virtues which he is seeking to inculcate. Though he may have been studying a question for twenty years or more, he has hour after hour -sometimes for five hours or even seven in a day - to explain it afresh to a succession of people who are considering it for the first time. For a historian or a language-scholar such a routine might well be called deadening - though for a man whose vocation it is to teach, the task has a continuing and absorbing interest. But for a philosopher this life is just what is required to perfect his understanding of the subject. I can honestly say that I have learnt more from my pupils than I have from books. For is it not true that the really fundamental steps in any philosophical theory are those taken at the outset ? It is the ways in to philosophy that are the most interesting part of the subject; for it is the course taken at the outset - in the first steps from ordinary ways of speaking to the extraordinary things which philosophers habitually say — that determines the whole of a thinker's theories. For example, how do we find ourselves saying 'Free will is an illusion' or 'Time is unreal' or any other of the things that philosophers say in their books? Under the Oxford system, the professional philosopher is compelled continually to explore these foundations of the subject, to see if they are sound. Not for him the delights of erecting, in solitary thought, imposing edifices -- of writing huge volumes which only a handful of people will ever understand. He has to spend his time asking the question 'How can philosophy begin?'; for he has to spend it getting people to philosophise who have probably never done it before.

It will be seen how inimical our method of teaching is to the turning of philosophy into a mystique. If a philosopher finds that some philosophical theory cannot be explained to the ordinary person, as represented by his beginner-pupils, that does not necessarily show that there is anything wrong with the theory; but if he knows that it has got to be explained, his efforts to find a foolproof way of explaining it may lead him to reconsider the theory itself, or at any rate to improve its formulation. At the same time, he cannot afford to be too superficial in the interests of simplification; for he has to teach his pupils to think, not just to repeat a few catch-phrases; he knows that at the end of three years they will be examined, not by himself, but by two or three of his colleagues who may have quite different opinions from his own; and that the only thing that will count in the candidate's favour is real thought, expressed in a clear and orderly manner. Moreover, to have one's pupils repeat catch-phrases to one, day after day (especially one's own catch-phrases), would be boring to an unendurable degree -- the one thing we all most hate is for our pupils to find out what our own views are and parrot them in their essays. It makes the views sound so silly.

If a pupil survives this ordeal, and wants to become a professional himself, he will settle down to another two years or so devoted entirely to philosophy (though if he is of outstanding ability, he may be offered a job without this preliminary). He will spend his time, not in composing a long thesis or dissertation on some part of the subject, but in finding his way about the subject as a whole. The short thesis that he does is intended only to satisfy the examiners that he can do, and express, a bit of thinking longer than is required for answering examination questions. The theses of successful candidates are often subsequently published in the form of one or two articles in periodicals. The degree for which he is studying, however, and which he hopes will help him in securing employment, is given in the main on the results of a severe written and oral examination. For this examination the man prepares by wide reading and, above all, by talking. He will go most days to seminars and discussions, and will spend as much time as he can arguing on philosophical questions with his contemporaries and with anybody else he can get hold of. When I say talking and arguing, I mean a co-operative activity. The budding philosopher whose idea of argument is to deliver long monologues, and who does not know how to listen to, and answer, the questions and objections that are put to him (διδοναι και δεχεσθαι λογον), will find that his company is avoided. Nobody in Oxford can collect a private coterie to listen to him -- not even the most distinguished professors. Even quite humble students go to the seminars of professors to attack and dispute, and not to imbibe a doctrine; and this is how the professors themselves like to be treated. And one will often find at one's seminars, not only students, but a number of one's colleagues ready to do battle; if one wishes to find out what are the principal objections to a view which one has temporarily espoused, the quickest way to find out is to give a seminar on the subject -- one will discover enough to keep one busy.

When I have read a paper or given a lecture to a German audience, what has frequently happened after the paper has been something like this: each of the audience who wants to say something has made a little speech, lasting some minutes, setting out his point of view on the subject of the paper, or about philosophy in general. After everyone who wants to has had his say, the proceedings have closed with a formal reply by the speaker. There has seldom, in my experience, been any dialogue or argument -- just a succession of different views, none of which, not even the principal speaker's, is subjected to any elenchus. In Oxford it is very different. After a paper has been read, somebody may reply briefly to the paper, or the meeting may be immediately thrown open to discussion. What happens thereafter is rather like what happens in the Socratic dialogues of Plato -- or perhaps, since Plato has organised his dialogues in a rather literary way, like the original Socratic discussions on which the dialogues are modelled. Speeches of more than a few sentences are rare; if anybody says more than about five sentences in succession, people begin to look embarrassed. We have instead a series of dialogues of the question-and-answer type, usually between two people, but sometimes with more intervening; and when one of the participants has nothing further to say, or begins to flag, or cannot answer his opponent, the cudgels are taken up by somebody else. When the thing is done properly, which it is not always, there is a great feeling for relevance. To introduce a new topic which does not grow naturally out of the one being discussed (unless that is obviously exhausted) is to risk being politely ignored. And one is not supposed to butt into a dialogue which is already, so to speak, fully manned. The rules of this game are so well understood, among the professionals at any rate, that the office of chairman is purely titular; the chairman joins in the discussion on the same terms as everyone else if he feels like it; otherwise he has nothing to do. The size of the meeting, which may be up to fifty people, does not make much difference to this, since at any one time only a handful of people are actively concerned in the discussion; the rest listen.

Here again, as in all our philosophy, the virtues which we seek are clarity, relevance and brevity -- and, of course, at this level, some degree of originality; for these discussions take up so large a part of our time that the obvious moves in the various philosophical chess games that are in fashion are well known, and can be taken for granted. I say 'games', not because I think philosophy is not a serious matter, but because philosophical arguments, conducted in the way that I have described, have the same sort of objectivity that chess games have. If you are beaten at chess you are beaten, and it is not to be concealed by any show of words; and in a philosophical discussion of this sort, provided that an unambiguously stated thesis is put forward, objective refutation is possible. Indeed, the whole object of our philosophical training is to teach us to put our theses in a form in which they can be submitted to this test. Ambiguities and evasions and rhetoric, however uplifting, are regarded as the mark of a philosopher who has not learnt his craft; we prefer professional competence to a superficial brilliance.

The conditions I have described are those obtaining in Oxford. At other universities you will find differences, some of them considerable. But the tone of British philosophy is at present set by Oxford (thirty years ago it was Cambridge); and the sort of philosophy that is done in England now is the result, more than anything else, of the kind of philosophical training which I have been picturing. British philosophers, by and large, will not be bothered with a philosophical thesis which is not stated briefly and in clear terms, such as make it possible to discuss it in the manner I have described; and it is much more highly esteemed if it is the sort of thesis which can be explained without technicalities, if possible in everyday language. We have not taken to mathematical logic with any enthusiasm, though a number of us can do it. The reason for this bias towards everyday language is that our dealings with our pupils have shown us that it is in the passage from everyday language to technical language that all the most vexatious problems of philosophy have their origin. Thus, when we examine a work of mathematical logic, we shall normally take it for granted that the writer has made no errors in the calculations; what we shall observe closely is the process by which he sets up his calculus, often using terms of common speech to do so. And the same may be said of our attitude to any other kind of technical vocabulary.

So on the whole we do not write long or difficult books; if our ideas are understood by our colleagues in the course of verbal discussion, that is enough for us. We write books and articles only to fix a thesis so that people will know exactly what they are discussing. You need a book from time to time to hang the discussion on; and when anybody thinks he has got to a point in the discussion when a good statement of a position in which he believes can be written, he writes something. But even in writing it, we know that, however pedantically we might seek to answer all the objections that our colleagues will inevitably think up against our views, we should never succeed; so on the whole we share Plato's attitude towards the written word; it is a pis aller, and the best thing to do is to be as brief and clear as possible and answer the objections verbally as they arise in the course of the inevitable discussion. In this way, objections will often reach the author in the course of a few months which do not appear in the periodicals for many years, if ever.

For all our dislike of writing, we in fact contrive to write as much as most other philosophers. But our attitude to our writings, and to those of other people, is different. We do not think it a duty to write books; still less do we think it a duty to read more than a few of the books which others write - for we know that, given our heavy load of teaching, to read more than the essential books would take us away from more important things. Our duty is to discuss philosophy with our colleagues and to teach our pupils to do the same - books and articles are an unconsidered by-product of this process; their content is generally quite familiar from verbal discussion years before they get published. We find out which 'the essential books' are by each reading a very few and telling the others about them.

The result is that, if one wants a book to be read by one's colleagues, it will have to be short, clear and to the point. They will especially like it if, besides reading it themselves, they can give it to their undergraduate students to read; so the more practical and down-to-earth it is the better. The best way to get one's ideas discussed in Oxford (and this is the limit of the ambition of most of us) is to write a book which every student of philosophy in the university will have to read; this means that every person teaching philosophy in the place will have to discuss it several times a week with his pupils, and will have to work out, until he is quite familiar with them, all the arguments that can be brought for, or against, the main points in it. If one can write this sort of book, it will be discussed, not only by the students, but by one's colleagues, who are the ablest collection of philosophers in the country; and that is fame. The certain way to obscurity, on the other hand, is to write long obscure books. Nobody will ever read them.

One of my purposes in saying all this is to give my own explanation of what usually happens on those occasions (unfortunately rare) when a typical Oxford philosopher meets a typical German philosopher in a philosophical discussion. The German philosopher will say something relating to his own philosophical views; the British philosopher will then say that he cannot understand what has been said, and will ask for an elucidation. The German will take this, the first time that it happens to him, for an encouragement, and will go on expounding his views; but he will be disappointed by the reaction. What was desired, it turns out, was not more of the same sort of thing; what the British philosopher wanted was to take just one sentence that the German had uttered -- say the first sentence -- or perhaps, for a start, just one word in this sentence; and he wanted an explanation given of the way in which this word was being used. One of the sources of this procedure is to be found in a piece of advice given by Wittgenstein:

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said .. . i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. (Tractatus, 6.53)
Present-day Oxford philosophers do not now take such a destructive view as this; they are perfectly prepared to have metaphysical things said; in fact, as I shall argue, what we spend most of our time in Oxford doing is metaphysics. But we have absorbed Wittgenstein's advice to this extent, that we have the greatest aversion to cutting ourselves off from our base in ordinary speech; we have seen what monstrous philosophical edifices have been erected by slipping, surreptitiously, from the ordinary uses of words to extraordinary uses which are never explained; we spend most of our working time explaining our own uses of words to our pupils; and when we find ourselves in the position of pupil, nothing pleases us so much as to sit back and have a German metaphysician explain to us, if he can, how he is going to get his metaphysical system started. And as he is usually unable to do this, the discussion never gets on to what he thinks of as the meat of the theory. This is a great disappointment to him, and leads easily to the accusation that we in Oxford are antagonistic to metaphysics. But actually we do a lot of metaphysics ourselves, only we have an obsession that it must be done rigorously as we understand the word; this means, among other things, that nothing should be said whose meaning cannot be explained. I wish to emphasise that, although we do as a matter of fact in Oxford do metaphysics in plainer language than is fashionable in other places, we by no means insist on people saying nothing that cannot be said in plain language; there is no ban on using words in any way one pleases, provided that a sense, and a precise one, is given to them. We insist only on distinguishing between serious metaphysical inquiry and verbiage disguised as such.

I have used the word 'metaphysics'; and I know that the suggestion that metaphysics is done at Oxford will meet with some incredulity. But this is largely due to a terminological muddle. We do metaphysics at Oxford; but we call it something else -- usually 'logic' in an eccentrically wide sense of the word. In philosophy examinations at Oxford, the paper to which perhaps more attention is paid than to any other in assessing the merits of candidates is called 'Logic'; but it includes many questions which would be called in other places metaphysical. There are, for example, questions about time and space and their nature; about substance; about the nature of universals, and so on; as well as more narrowly logical questions. The title of the paper is traditional, and dates from long before the rise of the analytical movement; but although this nomenclature may be due to fortuitous historical causes, it serves to draw attention to an age-old difficulty in making a distinction between logic and metaphysics.

Metaphysics began when Socrates refused to answer first-order questions about, for example, what things are right, before he had had a satisfactory answer to second-order questions such as 'What is rightness?' This refusal was called by Plato 'demanding, in the case of everything, a definition (or account) of what-it-is-to-be that thing, or of its essential being (λογον εκαστου λαμβανειν της ουσιας)', and was said by him to be the mark of the true dialectical philosopher.1 Aristotle's Metaphysics is centred round a study of this Socratic question, and may be regarded as a third-order inquiry -- an inquiry, not into what-it-is-to-be any particular kind of thing, but into the very concept what-it-is-to-be something (το τι ην ειναι τινι, ουσια). That is why it is called a study of being qua being (το ον η ον). In more modern terms, Socrates would not have words used before an account was given of their meaning; Plato said that this attitude was characteristic of the philosopher, and Aristotle tried to give a general account of what it was philosophers were after. At that time, and ever since, the ordinary man has found something trifling about such second- and third-order enquiries: 'Trivial disputes about words!' say the enemies of modern philosophy; 'Abstract and metaphysical questions divorced from reality!' has always been the cry of those who do not like philosophers. Even at the very beginning, Aristophanes attacked Socrates for occupying himself with trivial verbal questions,2 and no doubt Plato's Cratylus, in the eyes of the ordinary man, lent colour to the accusation. We at Oxford, who in England are the chief butt of such attacks, are content to be the successors of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the study of whose philosophies remains a large part of our syllabus; we do not think it a trivial matter that people should understand what they are saying.

But it is a great deal easier to say what Oxford philosophers are not, than to say what they are. First of all, the philosophy which we practise bears only a historical relation to the so-called 'Logical Positivism' or 'Logical Empiricism' of the Vienna Circle. It is true that we at Oxford, unlike most German philosophers, find it easy to discuss philosophical questions with those who have remained more faithful to the traditions of Vienna. But the explanation of this is not hard to find. The Vienna Circle made certain apparently very damaging criticisms of the kind of philosophy that was current in their day. In Oxford, and in England generally, we have taken those criticisms seriously, and have, indeed, produced a whole new way of doing philosophy in the course of finding answers to them. We therefore share with the critics a basis of discussion such as neither of us shares with those who have chosen to ignore these important developments and to carry on in their old ways as if nothing had happened. For example, although very few of us would assent to the old 'Verification Theory of Meaning', we have recognised the necessity of developing a comprehensive theory of meaning to take its place,3 and we therefore find it hard to discuss philosophy with, or to read the books of, people who do not seem to be worried about the problem of convincing the sceptic that their philosophical propositions mean something.

It would be incorrect, even, to tie to us, without qualification, the label 'Empiricists' -- a label which gets almost automatically affixed to the English by Continental philosophers. For we practise a radical methodological scepticism with regard to the meaningfulness or usefulness of all these old philosophical labels. An empiricist is a person, presumably, who believes that all knowledge springs from experience. But what is 'knowledge'? What is 'experience'? What is it for knowledge to 'spring from' experience? As soon as we ask ourselves these questions, we are afflicted by doubts, which we seek to resolve by asking ourselves, 'How did we find ourselves using these terms?' So we go back over the ground that philosophy has covered, trying to pick up the trail of significance. The trail undoubtedly started from common language. Plato, for example, had no technical vocabulary to start with; and we cannot understand what he may have meant by a word like eidos without studying how, in the dialogues, he introduces the term and gives it a use.4 But his explanations are always, and have to be, made in terms of ordinary words of Greek common speech; and if we are to understand the philosophy of Plato, or of anybody who takes over Plato's philosophical apparatus, it is absolutely necessary to make sure that, in passing from ordinary uses of words to their technical uses, they have not parted company with sense. In general our reaction, when confronted with a piece of philosophical diction, is to demand that the words in it be given a definite and unambiguous use.

This is not to say that for us the terms of common speech (in Greek, English, or any other language) are themselves above suspicion. We are not, as has been often suggested, uncritical worshippers of common speech; nor do we insist that all philosophy must be expressed in common speech -- though obviously it would be an advantage if it could be. Apart from the fact that many common words have a philosophical origin (for example, 'cause', 'accident' and 'quality'), the most that we can know from the fact that the word has a use in common speech is that it has a use; what precisely its use may be, or whether it has more than one use, easily confused with one another, or whether its use is quite different in kind from expressions of apparently similar grammatical form -- these are questions which require a very careful investigation of the actual use of expressions. There is no sure way of avoiding being deceived by words, except to pay very careful attention to words -- that is one reason why the accusation that 'linguistic philosophers' are likely to take the linguistic form for the philosophical reality is the very reverse of the truth. A few Oxford philosophers are so impressed by these difficulties that they concentrate on a systematic mapping of the categories and conceptual apparatus of common language, whether or not philosophical problems have yet arisen concerning them. These philosophers are far from denying the value of other sorts of philosophical enquiry, but are convinced of the usefulness of such a basic study as a foundation for philosophy. The majority, however, are content to go on investigating those problems which are by common consent called philosophical -- but investigating them with at least one eye fixed on the need for knowing, all the time, precisely what one is saying. These two kinds of study are of great assistance to each other; the relation between them is similar to that between geologists who prospect for minerals and those who seek to advance our systematic knowledge of the subject.

It is frequently said of the so-called 'linguistic philosophers' that, through concentrating their attention on words and their meanings, they have abandoned the study of 'the world' or of 'reality'. This accusation reveals a curious misconception about what a word is. There is, I suppose, a sense of the word 'word' in which, if I were to cut out of the page of a book a piece of paper carefully chosen as to position, what I should have would be a word. This could be studied without studying any more of reality than the piece of inky paper. Perhaps, even, there are certain aspects of linguistic studies which do not involve any consideration of meanings. If so, they have little to do with philosophy -- even 'linguistic philosophy'. But philosophers are concerned with words as having meanings or uses; and these at any rate cannot be studied without seeing how words are used, in concrete situations, to say various things; and, of course, this involves (as is evident from our practice) a careful study of the situations, in order to find out what is being said. Thus, the philosopher who asks what is meant by saying 'I intend to kill him' has to ask himself how this expression would, concretely, be used; and this involves a study of more than pieces of inky paper. A full philosophical examination of language would involve a full examination of everything that can be talked about -- and if there are things that cannot be talked about, they cannot in any case become the subject of a philosophical enquiry.

It is sometimes said that if the philosopher studies words, he will get caught in the meshes of his own language -- English or whatever it may be. Now, the fact that a thing can be said in any particular language is sufficient proof that it can be said -- and this may be of philosophical interest. In so far as the same thing can be exactly translated into some other language, the philosophical results established in terms of the first language will be statable in the second language. How far various sentences in the two languages are equivalent to one another is a philological, not a philosophical question (though it is an interesting philosophical question, what we mean by saying that they are equivalent). It is of interest to the philosopher, however, if some foreign language can be used to say things that cannot be said in his own. For example, the fact that to the English expression 'I could have' there correspond in Latin two expressions, potui and potuissem, which have different meanings, has been used by Professor Austin to bring out an important and unsuspected ambiguity in the English expression, which has far-reaching implications for the study of the problem of moral responsibility.5 One can also coin expressions if they do not exist in one's own language (though one must be careful to give them a meaning); and this to some extent exempts the philosopher from an exhaustive search for logical specimens in foreign languages. One can experiment with language. If one is successful in giving sense to a newly coined form of expression, that, too, proves something. So the philosopher who uses and studies no language but his own is not necessarily the prisoner of that language's conceptual structure. But knowledge of other languages can provide important stimuli to enquiry -- stimuli which are certainly not lacking in Oxford.

And so the subject-matter of 'linguistic philosophy' is not, after all, clearly divided from the subject-matters of other sorts of philosophy. 'Linguistic philosophy' is simply philosophy, but done with a proper awareness of the pitfalls of language, which others ignore, and a determination to avoid these pitfalls, both by carefully charting those which have been discovered, and by keeping a good look-out for any uncharted ones that there may be. Nor have philosophers at Oxford any obvious common tenets. If one took any of the well-known controversies in philosophy, such as that between the realists and nominalists, or that between objectivism and subjectivism in ethics, and asked a lot of Oxford philosophers what they thought, they would probably agree in rejecting as inadequate or unclear all of the best-known formulations of either side in these controversies. But this would be likely to be the full extent of their agreement; they would be sure to dispute hotly with one another about the correct way of resolving the problems. The most obvious common characteristic of Oxford philosophers is, indeed, their propensity for arguing with one another -- here is one place in the world, at any rate, where people holding opposing views on philosophical problems can meet and understand one another's arguments -- and this presupposes, first that Oxford philosophers seldom agree, but secondly that they have sufficient confidence in the rigour and honesty and clarity of each other's thought to hope that argument will not be a waste of time. In fact, what we share are not tenets but standards (which we may or may not live up to, but go on trying); Oxford, that is to say, is not so much a school of philosophy as a school for philosophers.


1 For further remarks on this subject, see my review in Philosophische Rundschau, v (1957) 269, of two recent surveys of analytical philosophy. The review is in German.

1 Republic, 534b.

2 Clouds, 659 ff.

3 A very good introduction to modern discussions about meaning is Professor Ryle's article 'The Theory of Meaning' in British Philosophy in the Mid-Century, ed. C. A. Mace.

4 Oxford is one of the few places where ancient philosophy is studied, in Greek, as part of the philosophical curriculum, under tutors who have both an up-to-date philosophical training and a thorough classical education. In most other universities one may study Plato either in Greek but not as a philosopher, or as a philosopher but in translation.

5 'Ifs and Cans', Proceedings of the British Academy, XLII (1956) 109. Reprinted in J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers, p. 164.