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· The unedifying irritations of incomprehensible philosophy.

Iris Murdoch.

By JONATHAN DERBYSHIRE [New Statesman] – A hundred and fifty years ago, thinkers and intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill and Leslie Stephen wrote on philosophical topics not for learned journals, but for general periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review and the Edinburgh Review. They were not academics writing for fellow professionals, but “public moralists”, to use the historian Stefan Collini’s phrase, addressing their fellow citizens.

Uncertainties of chronology aside, de Botton’s general point stands: professional anxieties about the perils of popularisation are not new, nor is the hunger of the average reader for philosophical sustenance. Indeed, the two things are closely linked, because popular philosophy has often filled a vacuum left in the culture by professionalisation and academic specialisation.

In the late 1950s, Iris Murdoch, then still a philosophy don at Oxford, bemoaned the intellectual quality of public discourse in Britain. As philosophy becomes “increasingly a matter for highly trained experts”, she wrote, “it separates itself from, and discourages, the vaguer and more generally comprehensible theorising which it used to nourish and be nourished by”.

What replaced academic philosophy was often just as unedifying, however. In 1957, a year before Murdoch presented her diagnosis, the best-known philosopher in Britain was not the octogenarian Bertrand Russell, who by this time was more celebrated for his (sometimes crankily utopian) political activity than for his philosophical work. Nor was it A J Ayer, professor of philosophy at University College London, a regular contributor to the newspapers and one of the stars of the BBC radio programme The Brains Trust.

Continued at the New Statesman | More Chronicle & Notices.

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