How to become a philosopher

Let me say right away that I don’t know how one becomes a philosopher. I can only speak about this in personal terms. Having studied philosophy for a lifetime, I suppose I can call myself a philosopher in the way others call themselves physicists or plumbers. Even then I hesitate to use the word. I generally avoid it when I am asked what I do for a living. Experience has taught me that there will be two possible responses. The first is: “Let me tell you my philosophy.” And the second: “So, what is your philosophy?” I find that I can only stammer in reply. After all these years I don’t know what “my philosophy” is. I certainly don’t want to pin some label on myself, saying that I am a realist, a materialist, a historicist, or whatever. And I certainly also don’t want to hear a catalogue of someone else’s dearest convictions.

Philosophy, if it is anything, is not a set of beliefs for me; not a doctrine and not a theory. It is an activity, an effort at being thoughtful, a determination not to rush into some popular belief, a readiness to look ironically at my own views as well as those of others, a form of detachment. It connects me with a long line of figures from the past who seem to have thought along similar lines back to the ancient Greeks and then outward to India, China, and other places. Philosophy is not an occupation for us, but a preoccupation we all share.
So, I want to write about how that preoccupation came about for me, what went into it, and what it now looks like. But I would probably not be writing this, if it were not for our current plague, that poisonous virus that is disrupting our lives. Being mostly confined to my house, my cell, and faced every day so directly with my own mortality, I have begun to ask myself what I have been up to all these years, what has brought me to this place and this moment.

How I became a child archaeologist

I was born in Bonn, the historical city on the left bank of the Rhine. We thought of ourselves as Rhinelanders rather than Germans. Ethnically, we said, we were Franks and our cousins lived toward the West in France. Like them we had once been citizens of the Roman empire, unlike those people on the other side of the river. For some incomprehensible reason, we called those living on the Eastern bank of the river “cross-eyed” and looked down upon those further east. Almost two thousand years later we were still proud of our Roman past. The patron saints of the city were Cassius, Florentius, and Malusius – three Roman soldiers who had died for their Christian faith – whose graves could still be seen in a crypt deep underneath our Romanesque cathedral, It was common to find Roman relics when digging into the ground.
One day, when I was ten, I discovered a manhole cover in the basement of my grandfather’s building. When I lifted it up, I could see earth below the cement floor. I started to dig and soon came up with a piece of ceramic. It was my prize possession from my first archaeological excavation and I showed it to no one. Was it of Roman origin? Who knows, since it is long lost. But I can’t rule it out. During the war bombs had laid open a Roman graveyard just a couple of streets away. Did my shard come from a similar site?

By the time I made my discovery I was attending our local Gymnasium and had begun to learn Latin. I still remember the very first sentences: “Agricola arat. Puella cenam parat” – The farmer is plowing. The girl is preparing a meal. A standard example for learning the Latin grammar. Later on we read Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and tried to find references in it to our own region. We marveled at Roman artifacts in our local museums and visited the Imperial city of Trier.

At the age of ten I had discovered my first vocation. There was no doubt that I would be an archaeologist. These were, of course, childish fantasies – to be soon forgotten or only recalled as a source of later amusement. One wants to be an astronaut, a rock star, or a fireman at the age of ten and ends up as a corporate lawyer, a caretaker, a professor.

Having just taught a course on Michel Foucault, I am however reminded that philosophy itself might be thought of as a kind of archaeology. Foucault spoke of it that way for a time – as a search for buried substructures and foundations on which our knowledge, our morals, our politics are built. The metaphor is intriguing because it highlights the fact that philosophy is also so much a concern with the past and we might even say with relics and ruins. Have I, perhaps, not strayed that far from my ambition at the age of ten? But now handling concepts instead of a piece of broken ceramics.

My short career as an artist

At the age of 12 or 13, my father gave me my first easel and canvas and set me to work. I copied the head of an El Greco Madonna and painted Jesus walking on water. I don’t know how I had got to El Greco and have no idea now of what drew me to the image of Jesus in a glistening pool of gold and blue waves. I also don’t know anymore what else I painted in those days and what happened to those pictures and when I gave up on painting. I think it may have been soon after. My budding career in art came surely to a quick end.

My father had always wanted to be a painter but had never had the chance to undergo formal training. He was self-taught but dedicated to the arts to the end f his life. Our house always smelled of linseed oil from some drying canvas. Stylistically, his work hovered somewhere between impressionism and expressionism, with occasional cubist touches. At one point my father built a loom and began to design and weave carpets. The frame was enormous and cluttered up an entire room. When I first went to school he made a leather satchel for me but got no thanks for his trouble. I really wanted a store-bought one like those all the other boys had.

I am not a hobbyist and have never gone back to my oil paints. But I still feel an attraction to the visual arts and affinity with them. I became intrigued with the work of August Macke who had been associated with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, He had lived and worked in Bonn and our art museum had a collection of his paintings. For my graduation at the Gymnasium I wrote an essay on one of them. Even today I feel I can understand something better when I have it visually before me. I don’t even like that much to listen to lectures. Spoken words go by so fast but the image is magically there: patient, silent, waiting to reveal itself to the lingering eye.

First philosophy

I liked going to school and I liked to read. Even before I got to school, I had taught myself to read with the help of my older sister, asking her how to say this or that written word. One day I could read simple sentences to the surprise of my parents. I became an unbearable child. Instead of wanting to play with other children, I preferred to stay at home with my books.

One of my uncles suggested I should go to the Gymnasium. My parents, who had ony attended primary school, agreed and so, from the age of ten, I walked every morning past the house in which Beethoven was born, across the old market square to my school named after the composer. From the age of ten I learned Latin and soon later Greek together with German and mathematics, arts and science, and a smattering of English.

Our teachers were well-educated men and we liked them even when we laughed at them behind their backs. Dr. Richter was the master of our class; he taught us Greek and Latin and read the Hölderlin’s poems to us which we could hardly understand. We were convinced that he secretly worshiped the ancient gods.

It was in his class that I first heard the word “philosophy.” We read some of the Pre-Socratics in Greek and a smattering of Plato and Cicero and Seneca in Latin. We also had an optional philosophy class taught by the principal of the school, Dr. Grenzmann, who was also a professor of German literature at our University. Grenzmann was a dedicated phenomenologist in philosophical outlook and so my first readings in modern philosophy became the essays of Max Scheler.

When we graduated, our teachers wrote confidential reports on us which we got to see only fifty years later. My report said that I was becoming the intellectual in my class. I had no idea that my teachers saw me like this and I certainly didn’t think of myself in those terms. But it is true that I had become fascinated by philosophical ideas.

The time I became almost a monk

My new interest in philosophy intertwined with intensely religious feelings. I had been a religiously dedicatd boy and remained so throughout those years. Rhineland Catholicism was of a liberal kind. As students we read Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Henri de Lubac, progressive and philosophically motivated theologians. I went to hear the lectures of Heinrich Schlier at the University, a Protestant theologian who had converted to Catholicism and expounded theology in Heideggerian language. I read Catholic writers from Chesterton to Georges Bernanos. Above all I admired the work of Paul Claudel and wrote him a letter.

The Catholic religion was natural to us. My parents were Catholics by habit. But there were others in my family.to whom religion was their life. One of them was an unmarried aunt, my mother’s sister, who resided with us but lived only for the church. She went every morning to mass and took me once on to Remagen, up the Rhine, where the skull of St, Apollinaris of Ravenna was preserved in a reliquary of gold. I shrank away from being blessed with that skull. She was also deadly afraid of thunderstorms – not at all of the lightening but of the thunder and would light a blessed candle to turn the thunder away. Though I loved her, I could not do much with such superstitions

My grandfather Johann Fuß, after whom I was named, was also a pious man but his belief was more practical and appealed to me more. He was good-humored, generous, and believed in the motto: Live and let live. After he had acquired his house with its four flats he rented two of them to Jewish families, one religious and one secular, and sent his daughter, my mother, upstairs every Sabbath to light the religious family’s stove and turn on their lights. Later on when the Nazis were coming to power, some hooligans tried to break in to terrorize our Jewish neighbors. My grandfather who was over sixty by then and peaceful by nature stood in the doorway with an axe and threatened to kill anyone daring to come close. It was all part of the faith he practiced.

As a young girl my mother fell in love with a Jewish boy living close by. My grandfather did not object to her marrying him and she might have done so, if my father had not suddenly turned up. After the war her former boyfriend came once to visit, now dressed in an American uniform. From my mother’s account I have concluded that it was a melancholy encounter. The memory of so many dead and so many losses stood like a shadow between them.

There was real religious devotion also on my father’s side of the family. One of his brothers had become a priest but when he preached against Hitler from his pulpit, he was forced to flee overnight across the border to Belgium – dressed up as a Carmelite nun. He ended his days in coldest Saskatchewan where the coffins of the deceased were stacked up to wait for their burial in spring. Having been an inspiring preacher in Germany, he turned into a radio preacher in Canada. One of his sisters, my aunt, became, in turn, a nun and spent her days with the sick and dying in Egypt.

So, religion was in my blood and loved the magical rituals and the mysterious doctrines of the faith. My decisive religious experience came when I read Thomas Merton’s book The Seven Storey Mountain. I decided, I wanted to become a monk like him. I went for a retreat at the ancient Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach. It was there that I realized that I was perhaps not made for a monkish life, that I liked books more than I liked to pray, and that I preferred philosophical writings to theological ones. And this was the end of that dream. Today, as I am writing this, we find ourselves more or less confined at home due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As soon as it gets light I go for a vigorous walk through deserted streets, my head full of thoughts about the day ahead and the condition we are in. I come home, have breakfast, and turn on my computer to dedicate myself to my task. And so I find myself, it occurs to me, living some form of monastic life after all these years.

A budding politician?

Bonn was still a deeply Catholic city when I grew up though it was also at the time the capital of the West German Federal Republic. In the 1930s, as Hitler’s movement was growing, the city had steadfastly supported the Catholic Center party with Konrad Adenauer, the mayor of neighboring Cologne, as its leader. In the new republic Adenauer was now the Chancellor, a local, a Rhinelander, one of us. The world, so t seemed to us, had returned to normal.

My parents voted faithfully for Adenauer’s party but never talked about politics. When I asked my father once how he had survived the war, he said, by being invisible – sticking out neither in good nor in bad ways. He was certainly not made to be a soldier. He assured me that he had never shot at anyone and to avoid this he had got himself transferred to the army’s catering service. At the end of the war he had been on the Eastern Front when his Captain told his group to go AWOL and so they went by car till the gasoline ran out and then singly on foot as far as they could. My father finally surrendered to British troops outside Hamburg. He liked to talk about that time; it had been his greatest adventure; but he never spoke of its political side.

Things were different in my Gymnasium. My fellow students were mostly the sons of government officials. I was one of the few local boys but making friends with those others I became increasingly politicized. Seeing that our teachers were reluctant to speak about the recent past, we formed our own study group to find out what had happened – to the dismay of some instructors.

This was also the time when European unification was on the agenda. I became an ardent supporter of it and joined an organization called “European Youth.” Many things fused in my enthusiasm for the unity of Europa. The hope that it would overcome the nationalistic strife of the past. Recalling the unity of Christendom. The memory of Charlemagne, a Frank like us, who had once ruled over the Western world. My picture has become more sober, but I have remained faithful to this day to the ideal of European unity and think of myself more as a European than a German.

For a while my political fervor was so great that I seriously thought of becoming a politician. In the end, though, it was philosophy that won out. But much of that philosophy has always had for me a political undercurrent and over the years I have occupied increasingly with political philosophy.

A toe in the water

When I left the Gymnasium it was clear that I would go on to the University. My school had secured a fellowship for me from the prestigious National Scholarship Foundation (Studienstiftung) which could support me for the entire course of my studies. But I was still uncertain of what I want to do and who I want to be. Was it realistic to think of myself as a professional politician? Did I, perhaps, still have a religious vocation? I was confused but not unhappy because I had a fallback position. I could always become a Gymnasium teacher. I had liked my school and my teachers and could easily envisage a lifetime in such a career.

I began my studies at the University of Bonn which allowed me to go on living at home. I could easily walk from my parents’ house to the former palace of the archbishop and prince elector of Cologne which was now the University’s main building. I decided to take a broad range of courses in philosophy (of course), German literature, art history, even theology., and I also entertained the possibility of mathematics Surprisingly, I had no inclination to continue with the Classics. I was intimidated by the subject.

As soon as I got to the University I am faced with a problem. My fellowship was only conditional for a year and I had to obtain a letter of support from one of my professors to make it permanent. I knocked on doors in the philosophy department until someone opened. Dr Perpeet listened thoughtfully and then told me that he wass planning a seminar on German Idealism; the class would be reading Joseph Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism later on in the semester. He would hand me the responsibility for two long sessions and, if I did well, he would write me the necessary letter. Did he know what he was doing? I was a freshman student. I knew nothing about German Idealism. I had never heard the name of Schelling and I had certainly never read his book. But I agreed to take it on, since I didn’t seem to have another option. When I got the book I fond it impenetrable. Schelling derived a series of strange propositions from the principle that the I is identical with itself. There were, according to him three fundamental forces in nature, three dimensions in space, and three epochs in history and all this could be derived from the principle of identity. I didn’t understand any of the “derivations.” What would I do? I finally discovered a summary at the end of the book and decided to limit my exposition to those pages. I must have done an adequate job. Perpeet wrote me the letter I needed; it allowed me to go first to Munich and then to Oxford; it was the key that opened for me the world.

But first I continued in Bonn and studied Leibniz and Kant with Gottfried Gabriel; I heard Benno von Wiese lecture on the poet Friedrich Schiller; I attended Heinrich Lützeler’s class on Romanesque art and architecture. Von Wiese had played a dubious role in the Nazi period, to the dismay of his friend Hanna Arendt, but he had been cleared after the war and now played the classical role of the German professor. He was imposing in stature and personality and demanding as a professor. He wrote his books with the help of his assistants who got little credit for their effort. And he lectured, of course, in the auditorium maximum, the largest lecture hall in the University, to a crowd of hundreds of students sitting and standing in the isles. When half-way through the semester everybody finally found a seat, von Wiese complained (half-jokingly) that soon there would be no reason for him to continue his lectures. But his course made me read Schiller’s poems and plays, as well as his historical and philosophical writings. Even so, Schiller would never become someone I would feel naturally drawn to. His idealism did not really appeal to me. As for his interpreter, he left me cold.

Lützeler also lectured in the auditorium maximum to a comparable number of students. He was, however, in all other respects the exact opposite of von Wiese. Small in stature he had to stand on a box to look out over his podium. Lützeler was a local like me, born in Bonn. He had been an ardent opponent of the Nazis. Dismissed by them from his academic position, he had regained it immediately after the war. Besides being an engaging lecturer on art history, he was also the successful author of a book on Rhineland humor.

The most impressive figure at the University became for me the philosopher Oskar Becker. I had acquired an infatuation in mathematics at the Gymnasium. Our mathematics teacher had approached the subject in a philosophical manner that deeply appealed to me. I had also discovered a little book by I. M. Bochenski in one of the University books stores with an introduction to mathematical logic. Professor Becker was teaching a course on that topic in my first semester. He turned out to be elderly, eccentric, and an expert on the history of mathematics. That same semester Becker also taught a seminar with the title “The Principle of Reason.” I assumed that it would also be about logic and enrolled in it but it turned out that the course was about Martin Heidegger, with whom Becker was closely aligned, and on a late course of lectures in which Heidegger spoke in the darkest language about Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. Thus, began a dual fascination for me with both logic and Heidegger.

One semester, Wolfgang Stegmūller came as a visiting professor. He was one of the few analytic philosophers in Germany at the time. He lectured on the philosophy of science and spoke of Carnap, the Vienna Circle, and the verification principle. When he left for Munich, I decided to follow him.

Gottlob Frege in Bavaria

Munich showed still some of the scars of the war but it was still a beautiful city. It was also much larger than Bonn had been. For all that it retained some of the atmosphere of a small city and was sometimes referred to as a one million people village. It was difficult to find housing and so I lived at the southern edge of Munich, far away from the University. But on clear days one could see the snow-covered peaks of the Alps in the distance.

Stegmüller quickly disappointed me. He was a respectable scholar but lacked all imagination. One semester he gave a seminar on Willard van Orman Quine. We were each supposed to discuss one of his essays. When my turn came I reported that Quine claimed this and that but that there were problems with some of his his claims which could, however, be resolved in such and such a way. Stegmüller was dissatisfied with my report. He said: “Our task is to understand Quine, not to criticize him.” I flew into a rage, grabbed my papers and walked out of the door with the words: “If that is philosophy, I don’t want to know about it.” That was the moment when I decided to leave Munich.

I was sorry to leave my friends behind; they were all fellow students in philosophy. Only a few of us were Bavarians, some were American. The locals looked at us sometimes with suspicion when we sat in one of the beer hall talking for many hours about philosophy. Occasionally, we were still up at five o’clock in the morning and might find our way to the “Donisl,” a place next to the old city hall, which opened at that hour. One could drink beer there and eat their freshly grilled Bavarian sausages in the company of nightcrawlers and night workers, prostitutes and policemen. The Bavarians were still suspicious of outsiders and particularly liked those they considered “Prussian.” One day, I was sitting at one of those long beer hall tables with an American friend. We were once again deeply into our philosophy. At the other end of the table an elderly man, dressed in his Bavarian outfit, was glowering at us over his beer. Finally, he began to mutter: “Damned pig Prussians,” he called us. My American protested: “But I am an American.” The man contemplated for a moment and then said triumphantly: “In that case, you must be an American pig Prussian.” And with that he turned contentedly back to the beer mug in front of him.

One of the centers of our philosophical life was the seminar conducted by Wilhelm Britzelmayr, who had previously been a banker and an artillery officer, and wa now a professor of philosophy. His knowledge of ballistics had turned his mind to mathematics and from there to logic and he had become an ardent student of the work of Gottlob Frege. Frege’s writings came to me as a revelation. He seemed to be able to speak about the most abstract and difficult problems of logic and mathematics in a language of crystalline purity. Having been ignored in his life-time he had finally come to be recognized as the founder of modern mathematical and symbolic logic. I didn’t know as I sat in Britzelmayr’s seminar in Munich that I would spend many years studying Frege’s work.

Finding a new world in an old college

I was reluctant to leave Britzelmayr and his group but decided to go to Oxford where I knew there were philosophers with an interest in Frege’s work. I applied to my fellowship to allow me to go there for a year. In my application I mentioned a number of Oxford philosophers whom Stegmüller had spoken of in his course on analytic philosophy. One of them was the moral philosopher R. M. Hare.

As I was waiting for an acceptance letter from Oxford , I received a personal note from Hare. Could I come to Balliol College? I would have to stay, though, for a couple of years and work toward a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. My ever generous fellowship agreed to finance this extended stay and I took up the offer with great enthusiasm.

Oxford came as a revelation to me. I find it difficult now to remember what emotions I felt as I crossed the channel on the steamer from Ostende to Dover, took the boat train to London, crossed London from Victoria to Paddington Station, and finally saw the Oxford spires. It had never traveled like this in a foreign country. My English was halting and I was unsure what the English would think of a German in their midst. The Second World War was still very much in people’s in memory and I think I was one of the first students with a Studienstiftung felowship at Oxford. The administrators of the fellowship had told me that they didn’t quite know how much things would cost In England but that I should make sure to immerse myself fully in Oxford life.

At the college I was made to feel at home as soon as I arrived. All my worries about being German were dispelled. Balliol scholars were to international in background. I made friends, as was to be expected, with some of the English students, but also with others from the US, from Australia, India, and Pakistan. Living together in college we spent days and nights together talking about everything under the sun. It was as if I had entered a new reality. Post-war Germany had been a narrow and conservative place, focused very much on itself. Now I was being rushed into the contemporary world. My simple religious convictions faded away. I began to read the English novelists. I went to the theater to hear Shakespeare’s English spoken. After some years, first in Oxford and then in London, I realized that I had become an ardent Anglophile. I still feel that England is part of who I am. No wonder that I felt deeply hurt when the British decided to split from the European Union.

Life at Oxford was simple yet privileged. I took both for granted. Food in the college dining hall often led to protests: peas swimming in bright green liquid, grey, unappealing slices of boiled beef, mashed potatoes. Dressed in our academic gowns, we ate our food at long wooden tables surrounded by the illuminated pictures of viceroys and prime-ministers. On Sundays the fellows of the College would eat at their high table which was decorated with silver bowls and elaborate candlesticks. As they marched in, we would take out table spoons and drum till they sat down. No one knew the origin of that customs, but over time it had flattened out our ancient spoons.

At dinner we were served by the college servants who were also in charge of cleaning up our rooms. My “scout” would come in every morning to wake me up. Leaning over my bed, he would utter the same sentence every day: “Good morning sir. It’s a quarter to eight and it’s fine weather outside.” It did not matter what time of day it was or what the weather was like. Each servant was in charge of one staircase with six or so rooms. While I was living in college, the authorities decided to give the servants one day a week off from work. The arrangement was that the scout from the neighboring staircase would take over that day. These were local men who had worked in the college for many years. But they had their own peculiar pride. My servant complained: “Sir, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. A stranger coming into my staircase!” He was talking about someone he had probably known for a lifetime. For me it was an unexpected lesson in English class society.

We were certainly privileged as students in college. As freshmen, we had been given a talk by the Dean of the College who was also its Anglican chaplain. He told us: “Gentlemen, the sign of the Balliol man is effortless superiority.” The Reverend Francis Leader McCarthy Willis Bund was an Oxford eccentric. He was said to be an authority in Trinitarian theology who would begin his sermons on the topic with the words: “Dearly beloved, if we were Christians, we would say…”

Many of us students came from privileged backgrounds. In our common room I learned to play “Shove ha’p’ny,” a popular board game, with the crown prince and later king of Norway. One of my English friends was Adam Ridley, the great-grandson of the English prime minister H. H. Asquith. He took me to meet his grandmother, Lady Violet Bonham -Carter, a leading figure in English liberal politics, as well as Jo Grimond and his family. Grimond , the leader of the Liberal Party, had married Lady Violet’s daughter. I leaned that English politics was still very much a family affair.

The college had a number of clubs one could join or be elected into. One of them was the Cerberus society, a serious debating club dedicated to the threefold subject of philosophy, politics, and economics. Distinguished speakers would be invited for talks. “PPE” was one of the major undergraduate programs at Oxford. It had been invented by Benjamin Jowett, Balliol’s most distinguished Master, who had translated Plato and with the PPE had sought to resurrect a Platonic program of study. I joined the Cerberus Society but was also elected to the Arnold-Brackenbury Society, a dining and wining society in which we dressed up in tuxedos and competed in making witty speeches on topics like “This house would rather not.” That, too, was part, of Oxford’s method to train its elite for public life.

In my third year at Oxford, I was elected President of the Junior Common Room. I was to represent the students in college. I felt certainly moved by the recognition I was given. It was not a demanding job but it gave me a chance to meet with the Master of the College and welcome College guests. The most memorable occasion came when I had to chair a meeting that was called to discuss a painting by David Hockney. Our Junior Common Room had a picture fund to which we all contributed to buy pictures for display in the Common Room and that we could also borrow for decorating our own rooms. The daring student in charge of the fund that year had acquired a painting by a not yet so famous Hockney. The work, painted in Hockney’s early, primitive style was called “The most beautiful boy in the world.” It showed a naked male in a see-through nighty obviously masturbating. Some of the religious students were outraged. Hockney himself came to the meeting to defend his work. Nonetheless, a majority of the votes were cast to sell it off. Today, the work would probably be worth millions.

Oxford philosophy

Richard Hare became my college tutor at Balliol. He turned out to be a slim, bespectacled man, not unfriendly but austere, with an uncertain, lopsided smile. Hare rarely looked at one as he spoke, focusing instead on the rug in front of him. Later on, he once told me of the tortures he had suffered in Burma during the Second World War. I was soon writing weekly essays for him on his own work on The Language of Morals. But I remember that he also made me Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, a work with which he felt an affinity. After I had worked with him for a year, he asked me one day about my first University degree. I had to explain to him that there was no such thing as a baccalaureate in the German University system. This created a dilemma since the B. Phil. degree presupposed the possession of a B.A. Being a moralist and having made the promise that I could take a B. Phil. at Oxford, Hare felt obliged to make this possible. When he consulted the official Oxford University book of rules and regulations, he discovered that each said such and such were indeed the requirements but that the rules always added “unless Convocation decides otherwise” – Convocation consisting of all the graduates of the University. This required a petition written in Latin. In the end, “Convocation” did decide otherwise in my case and allowed me to proceed to the B. Phil.

I learned to write weekly tutorial essays which helped me with philosophy but even more so with my English which was still somewhat imperfect. In my first weeks at Oxford I had attended a lecture by A. J. Ayer which had left me despondent. I had hardly been able to follow it. But then I leaned that Ayer was famous for his rapid, machine-gun delivery. His one hour lecture, when published, had forty pages.

I went to tutorials not only with Hare but also with my official supervisor, Gilbert Ryle. Where Hare was diffident, Ryle was assertive. I thought of him always as an exemplary British colonel, smart, affable, and utterly kind. With Ryle I worked on Russell and Wittgenstein. My third teacher became Michael Dummett. I was keen to work with him on Frege and faithfully attended Dummett’s seminars on the philosophy of mathematics. There I heard for the first time of Dutch intuitionism and of Hilbert’s formalism. Dummett was different from my other instructors. He was pale with a soft, somewhat puffy face; a heavy smoker; disorganized and eccentric; a Catholic convert with a social conscience; lively in philosophical conversation but at times also irascible. Once, when the American philosopher Saul Kripke was in town, he asked him to give a talk in his class. Dummett was late that day and so Kripke, afraid of being unable to complete his presentation, began without waiting for Dummett’s arrival. When Dummett showed up, his mood quickly turned to anger. He accused Kripke of trying to steal his class from him. After Kripke had left town, Dummett said to me: “I like him much better, now he is 3,000 miles away.”

Apart from Hare, Ryle, and Dummett, I attended Isaiah Berlin’s lectures on political philosophy. as well as seminars by Paul Grice, Bernard Williams, J. O. Urmson, and David Wiggins. Berlin was by far the best lecturer at Oxford and his lecture classes were crowded with eager listeners. Berlin was responsible for keeping my interest in politics alive. I joined all the political clubs and went to talks they sponsored by visiting speakers. Grice, Williams, Urmson, and the others opened my eyes to aspects of philosophy I had never known before. Oxford philosophy was still in its heydays. It was exhilarating, open minded, experimental. Most of all I now began to get serious with my study of Wittgenstein. I came to know the Wittgensteinians: Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Geach, Michael Dummett, Tony Kenny, David Pears. Being still very much in love with logic, it was the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus who appealed to me most. It took me time to get into Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. And to this day I have retained a love for Wittgenstein’s first book. It’s scope, its ambition, and its ultimate failure have kept me fascinated. I had come to Oxford imbued with the spirit of Frege, I left it steeped in Wittgenstein’s thinking.

At the end of my second year I took the B. Phil. examination. It involved tests in three areas of philosophy. My favorite concerned “The Original Authorities for the Rise of Mathematical Logic” and included questions about Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Dutch Intuitionism. I was well-prepared for this through my work with Dummett. We were also required a short thesis. With Hare’s guidance mine was on the logic of value-terms.

Having got the degree, I was given permission to stay on for a year of “research.” My German fellowship, always generous, agreed to pay for the extension. I had no more requirement to fulfill and could do what I wanted. That was the year when I became president of the Balliol Junior Common Room. I also immersed myself in all kinds of politics. In between, I was working on various kinds of “modal” logic: the logic of possibility and necessity, tense logic, epistemic logic, and deontic logic. But my heart was not deeply in that work because I was coming under the corrosive influence of Wittgenstein’s skepticism. Traditional philosophy, I agreed with the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, was the result of a misunderstanding of the logic of language. I also agreed with the later Wittgenstein’s resistance to the supposed sublimity of logic. Instead, he declared, we should look at the working of everyday language. From Frege and Russell I had learned that arithmetic (or, perhaps, even mathematics as a whole) was just part of logic. Wittgenstein showed me how that view was mistaken and how one should look, rather, at how mathematical reasoning is actually conducted.

One day, during this period, I received a visitor in my college room who introduced himself as Professor Richard Wollheim. He was the head of the philosophy department at University College London and waned to know whether I was possibly interested in a job as a Junior Lecturer. I had been unsure about where to go next. A return to Munich was one possibility but I also had thought about going to the United States for a doctorate in philosophy. Berkeley was one of the places I had in mind. But the idea of living in London appealed to me even more. After some conversation about the position, Wollheim left with the promise to call within a week. After two days, he rang to let me know that the job was mine. I still don’t know how he had heard of me. I assume it must have been through the mouth of Gilbert Ryle who often functioned as such an intermediary.

Hare was not entirely happy with my decision to go to London. He thought it my duty to go back to Germany “to teach ethics to the Germans.” He meant, of course, that I should teach them Hare’s ethics. I could not bring myself to tell him that I had become somewhat disillusioned with his formalistic approach. This was not uncharacteristic of the way the Oxford philosophers were thinking. Their discussions stayed far away from the pressing moral issues of the time. They had nothing to say about the horrors of the recent past or the social problems that were plaguing their own country. Hare’s example of a moral dilemma always concerned the returning of a book to the library. My worries about this kind of ethics were perhaps stimulated belatedly by my early reading of Max Scheler. I had read and absorbed his critique of the formalist approach to ethics in his treatise Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik. I was also beginning to question the idea that universality was a mark of ethics. Hare shared this, of course, with Kant and other philosophical traditions. At the time I did not know how to think about an alternative. It was many years later, when I read Nietzsche and Foucault, that I began to see what such an alternative might look like. Meanwhile, I gave up thinking about ethics and began to work more on logic since that was the subject I was expected to teach at University College London.

The metropolis

It was exhilarating to live in London. The city had recovered from the effects of the war and was thriving. But I was dirt poor on my junior salary and thus limited in where I could go. Still, I came to explore an entirely new world. I met another German, Hans Eckhart, who was there supposedly studying. For a while we were inseparable and known as “the two Hanses” exploring the town. Hans Ullrich was particularly keen on the ballet and so we went to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in their most stellar performances at the Covent Garden Opera House. Later on I came to know Tony Warren who was only slightly older than me but already famous as the creator of “Coronation Street,” Britain’s most popular television program. Through him I became acquainted with a colorful array of English actors, directors, and impresarios.

The Courtauld Gallery with its incredible collection of impressionist and post-impressionist was at that time located just around the corner from University College. The British Museum was in walking distance and the National Gallery only a short bus ride away. All of these places were free and so I would often go in between work, look at two or three paintings, and be back in College for the rest of the day. Wollheim was intimately familiar with the arts and drew my attention to the galleries with their shows of Rauschenberg, Twombly, and the London School painters. He was also deeply into psychoanalysis.
One evening he lectured at the London Psychoanalytic Society in Harley Street. During the cramped reception that followed I accidentally spilled my wine over the bosom of a distinguished lady analyst. In the sudden silence that fell I realized, to my utter embarrassment, that I had clearly become a subject of analysis. I could never quite share Wollheim’s enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. Later on, Stuart Hampshire once said to me: “Let’s face it, Richard’s book on Freud is a scandal.” I tried to object that it seems to me to give a good account of Freud and particularly of his early views. Hampshire responded: “But there is not a word of criticism in it. When it comes to Freud, Richard is just a believer.”

The Philosophy Department was located at the back of University College on Gordon Square right in the center of Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf had lived at some point in one of the houses across the large green enclosure. When I got to UCL, I discovered that Wollheim had also made a number of other appointments. One of them was G. A. Cohen, the Marxist philosopher, who like me was fresh from Oxford,. There was also Myles Burnyeat, who would become a distinguished classicist, and Hidé Ishiguro, originally from Japan, who wrote on Sartre, Frege, Wittgenstein, and Leibniz. The door of 19 Gordon Square was always open and many visitors came through it. Wollheim’s predecessors, A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire, were regulars. Iris Murdoch came to lecture for a term or two; Paul Feyerabend arrived from Berkeley to give a course on his work in the philosophy of science.

And besides UCL there were other colleges in the London University System with a lively philosophical presence. Bernard Williams, whom I had know from Oxford, became a professor at Bedford College. Peter Winch, with his interest in Wittgenstein, was at King’s College, and Karl Popper at the London School of Economics. All three became important to me in one way or other.

Soon after I got to London, I began to attend Popper’s regular seminar and met his colleagues John Watkins and Imre Lakatos. My contact with them renewed my interest in the philosophy of science which I had acquired originally from Stegmūller in Munich but then neglected at Oxford where it was not a central concern except for Rom Harré whose lectured I had attended but who seemed to be largely ignored by the other Oxford philosophers. Popper was instructive and colorful. He reminded me of the typical German professor with his authoritarianism. For one thing, he did not allow his students to attend classes in other London colleges in fear that they would become contaminated and he did not cherish deviations from his own falsificationist conception of scientific theorizing. Popper liked to invite visiting dignitaries to his seminar but always confronted them with his own views. One day, Noam Chomsky was in town and so Popper asked him to come and talk. For introduction, he spoke for twenty minutes or more on a two-line footnote in which Chomsky had mentioned Popper’s name. When Chomsky tried to intervene in this flood of words, Popper pounded the table. “Perrhapps, you will let me finish ONE sentence,” he thundered in heavy German. I was surprised that Chomsky did not walk out at that moment. Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend appealed to me more with their historically informed views on scientific theorizing. I was fascinated later on by Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations and by Feyerabend’s iconoclastic Against Method. They confirmed me in thinking about human knowledge in historical terms, something that was in my blood ever since I had read Heidegger, and that attitude was re-enforced in me with the appearance of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

I liked Peter Winch and his approach to Wittgenstein. Winch understood the social dimension of Wittgenstein’s thought more than many other interpreters who treated it simply as a contribution to metaphysics, or logic, to the philosophy of language or the philosophy of mind. I admired Winch’s book on The Idea of a Social Science. I can’t remember to what extent I identified with his arguments but I certainly was fully in tune with his conclusion that the social sciences were not and could not be sciences in any strict sense. One term, Winch organized a seminar on Wittgenstein in which I participated. I gave a talk about Wittgenstein’s distinction between functions and operations in the Tractatus. I didn’t know that Rush Rhees was in the audience. Rhees had been one of Wittgenstein’s students and a colleague and mentor of Winch. The following week Rhees attacked my presentation, not only for being incorrect (which it may well have been) but as morally corrupt. I could not see what my discussion of Wittgenstein’s logic had to do with morality. But Wittgenstein’s students (and perhaps even Wittgenstein himself) used to think in those terms. I was sure, though, that I never wanted to be a follower of Wittgenstein like Rhees. I was determined, rather, to follow my own nose and not be the adherent of any one philosopher or philosophy.

I knew Bernard Williams from a class he had given at Oxford. He had intimidated me at the time with his devastating comments on what his students were saying. He seemed to me the archetype of the smart analytic philosopher always ready with an argument or a counterargument. In London I began to see a different side of him. He was quick in thinking, imaginative in discussion, and always to the point in debates. I also began to appreciate his singular wit. Having said something utterly provocative, he would often bend over in laughter at his own daring words. He was, in fact, at his best in these situations. His lectures tended to be more staid and his writings often abstractly argued. At the time, he was still thinking along the lines of mainstream analytic philosophy. Later on, he discovered Nietzsche who had been an anathema to him at Oxford. It was to Nietzsche, the genealogist, he then turned. The encounter opened up his philosophical horizons and led to his best work.

London was a congenial place for Williams. His wife, Shirley, a Labour Party politician, served at the time as minister of education. Bernard himself served on a number of royal commissions and government committees. In addition, he was a trustee of the Covent Gard Opera House. I was happy to see glimpses of this life. I began to understand doesn’t have to be simply a cloistered intellectual.

Uncertain steps

Work at University College was hard. I taught three lecture courses at a time, each only one hour per week, but demanding because I had never done any teaching before. The English believed in appointing their University lecturers at an early age. Almost no one had a doctorate. We were supposed to learn on the job. From the start, I taught classes in elementary and advanced logic as well as in metaphysics and epistemology. More than I could really handle. I always felt like being only a few steps ahead of my students.

The most demanding part of the teaching were, however, our tutorials. UCL was teaching in the style of the classical tutorial system designed by Jowett. We would see students individually every week. They would come and read out the essays they had written on topics assigned to them the week before. The rest of the hour was spent on discussing the paper and the material. I had found my own tutorials at Oxford a tremendously effective way of learning. But now I discovered how depleting the teaching of tutorials could be. Every week I would teach a dozen or more of them. At the end of the week I would sometimes feel emptied out.

The teaching load made it difficult to do much writing. I began to understand why so many fellows of the Oxford colleges never published anything. What was worse, I was still unclear about what I wanted to write on. Sometimes, I would write poetry rather than philosophy. I have recently come across a notebook from those days that contained a whole collection of poems written in German. They were avantgardish in style, but I was struck above all by the persistent note of sadness in them.

In philosophy I turned back to Gottlob Frege and what I had learned about him from Britzelmayr and Dummett in Munich and Oxford. He appealed to me because he was both a logician and a philosopher, or, rather, because he was a philosophically minded logician. I had no interest in doing purely technical work in logic, but I could see why logic could give rise to the most profound philosophical questions. At first, I tried to write a purely formal analysis of Frege’s thought, but then, later on, turned to a historically motivated account of his work. Paul Grice would eventually joke that I had written two books on Frege: the one I published and the other I had not.

I don’t know exactly what motivated the historical in turn in my thinking. I have to speak here of three influences which may have worked together. The first was my early exposure to Heidegger and his historical take on philosophy, particularly in his later writings. Somewhat provocatively I chose a motto from Heidegger for my Frege book. It said that to ask historically was to set a happening in motion. The second source was no doubt Wittgenstein to whom I referred at the end of the book as having taught me that logic can be understood only in terms of the concrete uses of language and that it requires, thus, “the examination of actual historical discourse.” The third was Dummett’s intuitionistically inspired theory of meaning. If the meaning of a proposition unfolds in time in the process of its verification, I began to wonder, should we not think of that process not just abstractly but as historical?

I remained thus in debt to my teacher. But the result was that I came to disagree more and more with his reading of Frege. For Dummett, Frege was a realist who had stood up to a dominant Hegelianism in German philosophy. I began to have increasingly doubts that this was correct. I began to think that there was much of Kant and Kant’s philosophy in Frege. Frege’s great opponent had been John Stuart Mill and Mill’s radical empiricism, as Frege made clear in his marvelous book on The Foundations of Arithmetic. Frege had argued that empirical knowledge presupposes mathematics and logic and that these had to be considered a priori in Kant’s sense. Frege had distanced himself from Kant, of course, by arguing that arithmetical propositions are analytic and, in fact, derivable, from pure logic; but he had agreed with Kant in asserting that geometrical truths are synthetic a priori in that they are based on an intuition of space. I also began to realize how Frege had been influenced by Herman Lotze at Gottingen, how his logicism and his doctrine of the objectivity of the content of propositions – of “thoughts” as both Lotze and Frege called them – had their origin in Lotze’s writings. Further reading drew my attention to Frege’s affinity to the Neo-Kantians – particular Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert. I discovered that he had derived his distinction of the sense and the reference of words from them as well as the idea that propositions refer to truth-values – “the True” and “the False.”

My conclusions thus led to a sharp disagreement with Dummett. We both spoke in harsh words. Others chimed in and there existed, for a time something called “The Sluga-Dummett controversy.” I found myself fighting against one of the most respected figures in analytic philosophy. But eventually some students of Frege came around to thinking that there was something to my claims. At the time I thought that the controversy was not good for my career but, in the end, it may have promoted it.

One day Alfred Tarski, the famous logician, came into town. He was scheduled to give a series of lectures at University College and since I was the one teaching logic in the department, I was assigned to take care of our guest. At the end of his stay Tarski was to return to the University of California at Berkeley where he had been a professor of mathematics for many years. Shortly before he left, he asked me: “Would you like to come to Berkeley.?” I told him that I was interested, but that I was a philosopher and no mathematician. Tarski waived this aside. Speaking of the philosophy department, he replied in the heavy Polish accent he had never lost: “If I tell zem to take you, zey vill take you.” I was far from sure about that but it turned out that he had, indeed, a great deal of influence with the Berkeley philosophers. The day came when I received a letter of invitation. My time in London and in England was coming to an end.

 

One Reply to “How to become a philosopher”

  1. You may have been the first philosopher whose photograph I recall seeing (unless it was Georg Henrik von Wright – I’m from Finland). I too am an Anglophile and was deeply hurt by Brexit, and as a child one of my favourite books in the local library was Yesterdays: A Photographic Album of Daily Life in Britain 1953-1970 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1982), which included this photo of you and your fellow students at Balliol College: https://www.imago-images.de/st/59994033/w

    I got myself a copy of the book a few years ago and was shocked to read your name in the caption, as I had long since forgotten it, or it had never stuck in my mind in the first place. I could never have imagined that in middle age, a sometime scholar of philosophy with a rather “Sluga-esque” combination of interests (i.e. Wittgenstein, continental philosophy and political philosophy), I would be telling this to Hans Sluga himself on something called a blog.

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