Monday, January 11, 2016

Analytic philosophy and World War I

I'm struck by the dearth of references to World War I in standard histories of analytic philosophy. I don't pretend to have done a comprehensive search, but the War doesn't figure prominently in many of the more well-known histories (e.g., those by Passmore, G. J. Warnock, and Soames). There have, of late, been publications that situate Carnap and other members of the Vienna Circle within the broader cultural trends that followed the War, but I'm not aware of any work that performs a similar function in connection with the analytic philosophers of the UK.

The War is known to have had a tremendous cultural impact in the UK. Historians sometimes speak of the 'long 19th century' as ending only after 1918. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell traces a host of cultural trends to the War (esp. the increased use of irony). But in many histories of analytic philosophy, you get the impression that the British branch of this tradition was nurtured in an order of reasons well insulated from messy (or muddy) causes. It's mostly context of justification with little context of discovery (little, at least, that reaches beyond university campuses).

There must have been some interesting Great War impact (immediate or delayed) on the growth of analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein composed his Tractatus while he was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian forces and a prisoner of war. Russell lost his position at Cambridge due to his opposition to the War and jeopardized his own well-being via his run-ins with the law over the War's continuation. So, the War loomed large in the lives of two of the most influential, early analytic philosophers. There must be some publications about the War's impact on Wittgenstein's thinking. With regard to Russell, there's this bit by Father Copleston:
One effect of the First World War on Russell's mind was to turn it away from the idea of an eternal realm of abstract truth, where one can take refuge in the contemplation of timeless and non-human beauty, to concentration on the actual concrete world. And this meant, in part at least, a turning away from purely logical studies to the parts of psychology and linguistics which seemed to be relevant to epistemology. (History of Philosophy: Bentham to Russell, p. 438)
I have yet to chase down Copleston's references in this part of his book, so I don't know if the author is here paraphrasing Russell or giving his own interpretation of the war's effect.

In a retrospective paper, Gilbert Ryle wrote:
For the First World War had, between 1914 and 1918, virtually extinguished a whole generation. To the academic world as outside it, to the departments of philosophy as to those of other disciplines, there returned a bare handful of mediators between us, who in 1918 were too young for active military service, and the members of 'the old gang' who, in 1914, had been too old for it. ('Fifty Years of Philosophy and Philosophers', Philosophy 51 [1976]: 383)
Ryle characterizes the War's influence in negative terms as an absence, a missing generation.

Several British philosophers saw active duty in the British forces in WWI. Here are the ones whom I've so far found:

John David Mabbott (officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery; Oxford, President of St. John's College);
Henry Habberley Price (Royal Flying Corps; Oxford, Wykeham Professor at New College);
Geoffrey Reginald Gilchrist Mure (Warwicks Royal Horse Artillery; Oxford, Warden of Merton College, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford);
Thomas Dewar Weldon (Royal Field Artillery; Oxford, Magdalen College);
Charles Arthur Campbell (10th Borders Regiment; Glasgow, Dean of Faculties);
John Macmurray (Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders; University College, London (Dept. Head), Edinburgh);
Sir Walter Hamilton Moberly (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry; Birmingham, Vice-Chancellor of the Manchester University);
John Leofric Stocks (King's Royal Rifle Corps; Oxford, Manchester, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool); and
Arthur Aston Luce (12th Royal Irish Rifles; Trinity College, Dublin, Vice-Provost).
(Added, Aug. 29, 2016: John Albert Chadwick)

Some reflections:

1. Only three of these philosophers were within the tradition of analytic philosophy (Price, Mabbott, and Weldon). Re. Price: while I think he was an analytic philosopher, he was out of sympathy with some of the main trends in that tradition. E.g., he addressed traditionally metaphysical topics.

2. Many on this list were very much engaged in metaphysics. Price wrote about God and the survival of death (and was President of the Society for Psychical Research [1939-41]). Campbell and Macmurray wrote about free will. Luce was a Berkleyan idealist, Mure an idealist of the Hegelian variety. Moberly was a devout Anglican who criticized retributivist models of punishment. Mabbott and Weldon, though not focused on metaphysics, wrote about topics that were seldom addressed by other analytic philosophers in their time; both published books on political philosophy, and Mabbott published on punishment (defending retributivism).

3. It's interesting that so many of these WWI veterans went on to hold high administrative positions in universities.

4. I'm looking through Mabbott's autobiography Oxford Memories, but his remarks there about the War seem largely confined to his own experience of it. However, in Chapter 10 of his book The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy ('The State as a Centre of Sympathy and Co-operation'), Mabbott examines the extent to which the state can promote 'sympathy and willing co-operation'. (The State and the Citizen [London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948], p. 95) He says that the 'ideals of service and fellowship ... seldom survive the early moments or the crisis of a war, before the inevitable disillusion sets in'. (Ibid., p. 96) He adds that in WWI, one sees how 'war brought out the worst everywhere, in the Church, the Press, the Government, the Army, how even where decency lurked, in the trenches for instance, it was a soured and acid decency, the dogged acceptance of necessary evil rather than the high heroism of the early days'. (Ibid., pp. 96-7, footnotes omitted) (In the omitted footnotes, Mabbott gives examples to illustrate his points about the Church and the Press.) It's interesting that Mabbott leaves academia out of his list of corrupted institutions. Also of note is that he quotes approvingly from C. E. Montague's Disenchantment in this part of his book.

5. There was at least one promising, young French philosopher who was killed in WWI (Pierre Rousselot), and at least two German philosophers were (Emil Lask and Adolf Reinach). (Indeed, it appears that whole discussion circles in Germany never recovered.) However, I'm not aware of any UK philosophers who were killed in the War. Were there any?

6. Perhaps a major, long-term consequence of the War was a turning away from comprehensive systems in favour of more piecemeal intellectual exercises -- more Cook Wilson and less Bradley. There was also more attention to concrete phenomena and a suspicion of abstraction.


Stephen Cowley said...

John Macmurray wrote a report on the war for the Church of Scotland, according to his biographer (Jack Costello). He also refers to its deep impact in several of his essays. As you note, he wasn't an analytic philosopher though.

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks, Stephen. I'll look up Costello's book.