A Terribly Serious Adventure

Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960

About the Book

“Teeming with Oxford characters [and] lively storytelling . . . [recasts] the history of philosophy at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century by conveying not only what made it influential in its time but also what might make it vital in ours.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“Ordinary Language can hardly convey how much I loved this book.”—Tom Stoppard, Times Literary Supplement (“Books of the Year 2023”)

A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR


What are the limits of language? How can philosophy be brought closer to everyday life? What is a good human being?

These were among the questions that philosophers wrestled with in mid-twentieth-century Britain, a period shadowed by war and the rise of fascism. In response to these events, thinkers such as Philippa Foot (originator of the famous trolley problem), Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Gilbert Ryle, and J. L. Austin aspired to a new level of watchfulness and self-awareness about language as a way of keeping philosophy true to everyday experience.

A Terribly Serious Adventure traces the friendships and the rivalries, the shared preoccupations and the passionate disagreements of some of Oxford’s most innovative thinkers. Far from being stuck in their ivory towers, the Oxford philosophers lived. They were codebreakers, diplomats, and soldiers in both World Wars, and they often drew on their real-world experience in creating their greatest works, masterpieces of British modernism original in both thought and style. 

Steeped in the dramatic history of the twentieth century, A Terribly Serious Adventure is an eye-opening look inside the rooms that changed how we think about our world. Shedding light on the lives and intellectual achievements of a large and spirited cast of characters, Cambridge academic Nikhil Krishnan shows us how much we can still learn from the Oxford philosophers. In our fractious, post-truth world, their acute sense of responsibility for their words, their passionate desire to get the little things right, stands as an inspiring example.
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Praise for A Terribly Serious Adventure

A Terribly Serious Adventure does something similarly subtle yet also, in a sneaky way, quite profound. . . . Only when we actually understand what others are saying can we begin to respond instead of simply react. As Krishnan puts it toward the end of the book: ‘Let no one join this conversation who is unwilling to be vulnerable.’”The New York Times Book Review

“Exhilarating . . . sheer entertainment . . . [This] distinctly learned author . . . traces the affiliations, rivalries and intellectual spats among the eminences of mid-20th-century philosophy at Oxford.”—The Washington Post

“A short review cannot do justice to the wealth of interesting detail Krishnan has collected, resulting in an engaging peek into the lives of people known mainly through their books.”Australian Book Review

“An engrossing history of ideas. . . . delightfully bring[ing] to life the genteel atmosphere of the classic tutorial—the sweaters worn under coarse wool jackets, the spectacles, the fumbling preliminaries in elaborate British courtesy . . .”City Journal

“With rigour, wit and depth, [Krishnan] appraises the Oxford school of philosophy. . . . [ Krishnan is] one of the finest writers we have, a historian and biographer as much as a philosopher (hence the coming together of all three disciplines in his book, a great synthesis).”The Hindu

“[A] terrific new book [that] tells the story of the heyday of linguistic philosophy.”—The Spectator

“Relying on memoirs and other sources, [Nikhil] Krishnan has succeeded in bringing these men and women and their complex and intense relations to life—which is a real achievement.”—Thomas Nagel, The New Statesman

“A valuable contribution [that] offer[s] a much richer understanding of Oxford philosophy.”Oxford Political Review

“[W]hat Krishnan has really given us . . . isn’t only a history. It is a love letter, written by someone who knows what it means to fall in love with philosophy.”The Critic

A Terribly Serious Adventure beautifully portrays—and exemplifies—the combined wit and profundity, exuberance and rigor, of Oxford analytic philosophy.”Times Literary Supplement

“This is Oxford philosophy in the round—the philosophical arguments (clearly explained), the personal lives, the colorful quotes, the elbow patches and buttered crumpets. . . . Brilliantly written.”—James Franklin, author of Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia

“We are given first-row seats to the brilliance, obstinacy, jousting, and intellectual enthusiasms that marked that legendary academic circle.”—David I. Kertzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Pope at War

“A compelling storyteller, Krishnan brings human sympathy and acuity to his very readable book. Past debates spring vividly to life, with all their drama and comedy.”—Peter J. Conradi, author of Iris Murdoch: A Life
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Excerpt

A Terribly Serious Adventure

1

Fog


Gilbert Ryle (b.1900), the first-born of the protagonists of this story, grew up in Sussex, sunniest of English counties. In later life, he told a sort of origin story for himself. A bright young schoolmaster at young Ryle’s school, just “down from Oxford,” asked his class the kind of question Socrates would have relished: “What is color?” “Paint,” replied one unassuming lad. Ryle smirked knowingly. Asked if he could do better, he said something to the effect that a color is the power of an object to produce a certain kind of sensation in us. It was what, a few years later, he knew to call “a Lockean sort of answer.” “I scored five marks for my sapience,” the grown-up know-it-all recalled in his memoir.

Ryle belonged to a generation of men who had just started to call each other by their Christian names, but he was inconsistent on the matter. We had better play it safe and call him “Ryle.” His grandfather was the first bishop of Liverpool, and the author of a steady stream of readable theological treatises with titles like Knots Untied. Old Bishop Ryle sought salvation in the Word of God, “the Word made clear to the head and applied to the heart.” Woolliness was the chief instrument of the devil, his way of dividing Christian from Christian; God’s work called for his servants to do better. “If men would only define with precision the theological terms which they use, many disputes would die. Scores of excited disputants would discover . . . that their disputes have arisen from their own neglect of the great duty of explaining the meaning of words.”

He managed to raise an agnostic son—Gilbert’s father—who became a prosperous general practitioner with a sideline in philosophical speculation; he was one of the early members of the Aristotelian Society. His own ten children, clever and variously gifted, never had a faith to lose. Gilbert Ryle repudiated the evangelical inheritance but imbibed the family manner and always wrote in the punchy style of his grandfather.

He was born in the late summer of 1900, a lucky year to be born an English boy. Just a year older and there was every chance that he would have been one of the 149 boys from Brighton College who died at Ypres, in the Somme or in Palestine, and whose deaths were announced at school assembly. As it was, Ryle survived, eighteen years old at the Armistice, and ready to head for—or “go up to”—Oxford, armed with the confidence of a happy childhood spent under a Brighton sun.

His Oxford college was Queen’s, on the High Street, dubbed by Pevsner “the grandest piece of classical architecture in Oxford,” a product of “the short phase which one has a right to name English Baroque, i.e. Baroque with English reservations.” A surviving photograph of Ryle in his twenties could be that of an officer on leave, or a young schoolmaster capable of going from joshing to sternness in a blink. His jaw is set, his eyes hardened; the high forehead portends the baldness of middle age. The one decorative touch is the wet gloss of the Macassar oil holding his immaculate side parting in place.

The degree for which he was “reading” was Literae Humaniores, with its two phases, “Moderations” and “Greats.” Mods—Oxford leaves nothing serious without a nickname—ended with a grueling set of exams, two a day on average, in Greek and Latin language and literature. It has been said that only the ten-day ordeal that is the Chinese civil service entrance exam is harder. Ryle was halfhearted for those first five terms, a succession of eight intense weeks punctuated with long vacations. He achieved distinction as a rower, rising, as he later put it, “to the giddy height of Captain of Boats.” But he found also that he “lacked the ear, the nostrils, the palate, and the toe” of the real classical scholar. It didn’t stop him getting a first-class degree anyway, in the only way one is supposed to get a first at Oxford: without trying.

Ryle’s one early classical love was Aristophanes, whose bawdy plays spared no one but were especially rude about philosophers. (Socrates in The Clouds is mostly interested in examining the rear end of a gnat.) His other early love was logic, “a grown-up subject, in which there were still unsolved problems.” “Unsolved” meant, among other things, that the only advantage the old had over the young was that of having had longer to think about the questions.

Greats was a peculiar and somewhat unsystematic coupling of history (ancient Greek and Roman) with philosophy (ancient and modern). Ryle “did think that the Academy mattered more than the Peloponnesian War”—the Academy in question being Plato’s original—but was left cold by his tutors’ attitude to the Republic. They treated it, he recalled, “like the Bible, and to me most of it seemed, philosophically, no better.”

His tutor at Queen’s was Herbert James “Hamish” Paton (b.1887), a Glaswegian in his early thirties who had arrived in Oxford on a seventeenth-century scholarship that had once been held by Adam Smith. Paton had a keen but, as Ryle remembered it, “unfanatical” interest in the philosophy of an Italian contemporary, Benedetto Croce (b.1866), himself an unfanatical follower of Hegel (b.1770). Hegel’s cult in Germany had tended—or so it certainly seemed in England—to fanaticism of one kind or another. But Croce, by then the author of a sprightly little book called What Is Living and What Is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel, preferred the Hegel who decried the more mystical sort of philosophy, “with its frenzies, its sighing, its raising the eyes to heaven, its bowing the neck and clasping the hands, its faintings, its prophetic accents, its mysterious phrases of the initiates.” No, said Hegel-as-presented-by-Croce, “philosophy should have a rational and intelligible form.” It should be “exoteric,” that is to say open to public interpretation, “not a thing of sects, but of humanity.”

When Ryle started at Oxford, Paton was just returning from Versailles, where he had attended the Paris Peace Conference as an expert on Polish matters. He had picked up his expertise as a member of the intelligence division of the Admiralty, where he, like a few other lucky dons of the decade who managed never to see the inside of a trench, had spent his war years. His students often found him “unforthcoming,” but that could mean simply that he refused to give them the answers.

Not giving students the answers was at the heart of the distinctive style of teaching Ryle would have encountered at Oxford. From being one of a few dozen boys at Brighton College, he found himself alone in a study with Paton—or occasionally, with one other student—with his opinions being given the closest attention by someone vastly better informed on the subject. There have always been many ways of running an Oxford tutorial, but Paton’s model for the task was that of the courtroom cross-examiner. Ryle was among the few to find provocation and excitement in his almost-catchphrase, “Now, Ryle, what exactly do you mean by . . . ?”

About the Author

Nikhil Krishnan
Nikhil Krishnan was born in Bangalore, India. He attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and went on to complete a doctorate in philosophy. He now teaches at the University of Cambridge, where he is a fellow of Robinson College. His essays have appeared in several publications, including The New Yorker, The New Statesman, and n+1. More by Nikhil Krishnan
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Random House Publishing Group