Stuart Hampshire

Stuart Hampshire is Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and the author of Spinoza and of Thought in Action.

Master’s Voice

Stuart Hampshire, 19 June 1986

This is a most unusual book. It is the autobiography of a philosopher who has been as widely and deeply respected as any English-speaking philosopher now alive. Professor Quine is enjoying a vigorous and productive retirement after many years’ teaching at Harvard. His tone here is jaunty, and he expresses steady enjoyment of almost everything that has happened to him along the way. In the age of P.G. Wodehouse there used to be an adjuration, typically shouted from a touchline of schoolboys: ‘Buck up there, Smith.’ Professor Quine has been enormously, almost monstrously bucked up, according to his own account. He strides through this century of war and massacre with scarcely a sideways glance at its more discouraging features. The book is unusual because this record of unqualified success, of unflagging good cheer, does not have the effect on the reader that might have been expected: irritation. On the contrary, there is a charm that is increasingly felt as one reads on to the present day.

Small Creatures

Stuart Hampshire, 5 September 1985

In the academic study of philosophy in English-speaking countries Spinoza is not usually considered an indispensable source for the central tradition, on a level with Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant; and probably he never will be. Even advanced students of philosophy often proceed on their way through the 17th century towards Leibniz and Locke without reading the Ethics, Spinoza’s posthumously published definitive work. There are two principal reasons for this comparative neglect. First, a rebarbative style in unbeautiful Latin, full of scholastic terminology, redolent of the Middle Ages, as if he was living in an intellectual ghetto at a time when he and all Europe could read the new, transparent prose of Pascal and Descartes. There is a knotted gracelessness, an obstinate refusal to please, on the surface of his writing. Secondly, he made no useful contributions either to logic or to the philosophy of language, and these have become the dominant interests within English-speaking philosophy. A third reason is that he was a strangely confident metaphysician who had a complete system of the world and of our place within it, a system that he flatly declared to be demonstrably true. Untouched by a decent scepticism or by the conventions of authorial modesty, he can at times seem slightly crazy in his ambitions, as if he has been invented by Swift.


Stuart Hampshire, 16 February 1984

This is a very long biography, and before it appeared Alan Turing was not very well-known; his genius was of a kind that is not likely to be spread abroad. An immense amount of work has gone into this book, which expresses profound, and sometimes almost obsessional, admiration. It is not hagiography, but rather a study of a hero, an intellectual hero. I found it continuously readable and interesting, and it will, I think, be found moving and unforgettable by those who are ready to enter into the cryptographical and mathematical technicalities. The author quite often steps forward and gives the reader a piece of his mind on public issues, and his manner of presentation and style are as unlike those of an assured professional biographer as they could possibly be. But the style matches the subject. Alan Turing evidently was proud to be an odd-man-out: he insisted on informality in all circumstances, and even among his mathematical colleagues he seems to have cultivated an air of amateurishness. Mr Hodges gives a most convincing picture of this side of his character.

Wild Words

Stuart Hampshire, 18 August 1983

Coolidge is a hero in Paul Johnson’s eyes, and Franklin Roosevelt a villain. The former is quoted with approval: business ‘has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.’ About Roosevelt Mr Johnson writes: ‘In terms of political show-business he had few equals and he had an enviable knack of turning problems into solutions.’ About William Temple he writes: ‘a jovial, Oliver Hardy figure, with an appetite not merely for carbohydrates, but for social martyrdom’. About the Bloomsbury group: ‘the influence of Bloomsbury had reached upwards and downwards by the 1930s to embrace almost the entire political nation. Among the Left intelligentsia, the patriotism which Strachey had so successfully sought to destroy had been replaced by a primary loyalty to Stalin.’ There is an exasperated tension in Mr Johnson’s beliefs and the excitement keeps the narrative going, however unbalanced the judgments become. In fact, Keynes and Leonard Woolf, the only politically active members of Bloomsbury, were always very strongly anti-Communist, particularly Woolf, and that sinister upwards and downwards movement is a mere fever of fantasy, as those of us old enough to read the papers in the Thirties well know.

Radical Egoism

Stuart Hampshire, 19 August 1982

These are the years of early fame after Sons and Lovers, and of the publication of The Rainbow and its banning, and of Lawrence’s violent and despairing reactions to the war. He was already a fully recognised writer, a probable genius, and his more intimate correspondents include Cynthia Asquith, Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Edward Marsh, Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Philip Heseltine, Mark Gertler. The letters to Russell tell a particularly vivid story. Lawrence harassed Russell relentlessly and at great length, repetitiously and in a wilfully unpleasant tone. He kept on banging away at Russell’s vaunted rationality, his putative concern with peace, his humanitarian sentiments. ‘What you want is to jab and strike, like the soldier with the bayonet, only you are sublimated into words… It is not the hatred of falsehood which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood.’ Russell endured more, and for a longer time, than his autobiography suggested. His forbearance was astonishing, and it must be interpreted as coming from the respect that Russell believed to be owed to genius. He must have found it tiresome to be told in letter after letter that his pacifism was a cloak for his natural aggressiveness, and that his concern for humanity disguised a cold detachment: particularly tiresome, because the accusations probably had some measure of truth, a nagging plausibility, at least. It is not surprising that he sought a respite and that the friendship finally foundered.

Against Simplicity

Stuart Hampshire, 18 February 1982

The surprising title, first attached to one essay among the 13 here collected, does suggest the theme that holds the book together. Much of the argument in the various essays is a many-sided onslaught on Kant’s conception of morality. Kant had represented morality as imposing identical claims on all men equally and at all times, irrespective of all other differences between them, including differences in their sentiments, their characters and their circumstances. The claims, if they are authentic moral requirements, must arise from a common humanity and a common rationality, and not from any contingent features of particular situations in which particular persons have found themselves. The implication was that the claims of morality must be wholly disconnected from claims and loyalties founded on sentiment or on social custom, and from codes of honour and of decorum. Universal and overriding, the requirements of morality show themselves in our natural languages as unconditional commands – ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ – emanating, not from God, but from Reason. This was one of the philosophies of the Enlightenment, designed to unite mankind across religious and national barriers in a common consciousness and in a common prospect of the future. As the Enlightenment has receded, and as the common future projected by the Enlightenment has proved illusory, so the idea that morality’s claims upon us rest upon reason alone has faded within moral philosophy. Mr Williams attacks this rationalism.

Machiavelli’s Bite

Stuart Hampshire, 1 October 1981

This is a short book, scarcely more than a long essay, on a subject vastly investigated and written about. Professor Skinner’s powers of compression and command of the evidence provide as good an introduction to Machiavelli’s thought as could be asked for. As in his Foundations of Modern Political Thought, he is determined to place Machiavelli’s theorising in its historical context among the not unrelated thoughts of lesser Florentine humanists and of other contemporaries. This might be expected to have a levelling effect on the reputation of some original thinkers: their ideas might appear less innovative once they were seen to be not untypical of their time and place. Reading The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, however, one finds that the levelling effect is generally small. The salient thinkers remain salient, even when Professor Skinner’s scholarship has shown that others were saying rather similar things at much the same time. Posterity, not unreasonably, remembers only those who had a commanding tone or an individual style, or a gift of phrase-making, or a sharpness in argument, to raise them above their forgotten contemporaries. The giants remain giants, and among them conspicuously Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Mill, the prime sources of modern political thought; only Hegel and Marx have added substantially to the legacy of these five.

Accepting Freud

Stuart Hampshire, 4 December 1980

There has for some time been the hovering suspicion that there are deliberately concealed sources for the biography of Freud, and that they will gradually emerge from hiding as the years pass. Mr Clark refers to the suspicion, and he has, in fact, made use of some useful sources which were not available to Ernest Jones. The most important are the original series of letters to Wilhelm Fliess without the excisions which had apparently been intended to protect Freud’s posthumous reputation. So far, the suspicions have proved not to be unfounded. Other letters have come to light which Mr Clark has used and which were simply not known to Jones, particularly a correspondence with a university friend, Eduard Silberstein. A great quantity of other material will not be available to biographers before the year 2000, being embargoed until then.

Driving Force

Stuart Hampshire, 19 June 1980

It is not disarming when Professor Dahrendorf writes, in the very first sentence of his Preface: ‘The subject of this volume is simple: what are human societies about?’ And later: ‘What is human society and its history about?’ The intention is probably to appear informal, friendly and approachable, and at the same time to be profound in theme: but the effect is depressing.

Stuart Hampshire writes about common decency

Stuart Hampshire, 24 January 1980

The report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship is a splendid state document and worthy of its difficult subject. This reviewer may take pride in the fact that the report bears the marks of having been in part written by, and supervised by, a philosopher, the chairman of the Committee, Bernard Williams. Philosophy does many things, some plainly useful and some rather remote from common concerns: but at least it always leaves in the mind of those who have studied it an ever-ready set of warning bells, a nagging sense of intellectual insecurity, and of the ever-present danger of slipping on a banana skin of plausible rhetoric and received ideas. A principal source of pleasure in this report is the wealth of necessary distinctions drawn. Placed on permanent record here, these ought to protect us against the pollution and fog hitherto hanging around the subject of sex and violence. The level of debate has been raised, and, it can be hoped, permanently.

Human Nature

Stuart Hampshire, 25 October 1979

Biology as a guide to ethics has been an intellectual fad of the last decade, and Mrs Midgley is trying to restore a sense of proportion. Sociobiology has had its home principally in the United States rather than in the land of Herbert Spencer, and Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard, author of Sociobiology the New Synthesis, is now the leading figure in this new, or revived, philosophy of human nature. The founding father was Konrad Lorenz, who followed the vastly popular King Solomon’s Ring with the immensely influential On Aggression. Then came The Naked Ape (Desmond Morris) and The Territorial Imperative (Robert Ardrey), which made the idea of aggression in defence of territory a household phrase as the name of an instinct which men, like other mammals, are presumed to possess, and which promised to explain their warlike behaviour and regional hatreds. Moral philosophers were warned that both ethical theory and the conduct of life would sooner or later be revolutionised by the study of animal behaviour. We would learn, as a benefit of rigorous science, which moral ideals are practical, being in accord with known basic instincts, and which are wholly unrealistic, being in conflict with innate dispositions comfortably inferred from discoveries about animal routines. Now, as in the last century, popular biology as the key to scientific ethics reliably produces best-sellers; like old conventional religion, new science sweeps away moral uncertainties.

Someone else’s shoes

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 23 November 1989

As Brian Barry suggests, the question of justice arises when custom loses its grip; when the prevailing social myth and what Stuart Hampshire calls its ‘fallacy of false fixity’...

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Local Justice

T.M. Scanlon, 5 September 1985

Has contemporary moral and political philosophy placed too much emphasis on a mistaken search for ‘rational foundations’ for our moral beliefs? A number of recent writers have...

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