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Whatever happened to the public intellectual?

Philosophy used to be a staple of television and the newspapers. Not any longer. So where did all the philosophers go?

The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Year’s Day. He was one of the leading thinkers of his generation, yet his death was not widely reported outside the obituary pages of the broadsheets. The contrast with the response to John Berger’s death the following day is striking. Soon after Berger died, a number of pieces appeared on the Guardian and New Statesman websites, and there were tributes on the BBC’s News at Ten, Newsnight and Today programmes.

Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books. Perhaps more telling, how many could name any British academic philosopher?

It has not always been like this. The reaction could hardly have been more different when another leading Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, died in November 1997. BBC2 showed two hour-long programmes about him on consecutive days, and Radio 3 broadcast a two-and-a-half-hour tribute the following month. Berlin’s death was reported on the front page of the New York Times and memorial services were held in three countries. In less than two decades something fundamental has changed. Has academic philosophy lost its place in mainstream British culture? If so, who is to blame? Is it the fault of academic philosophers themselves, or the media, or are there other changes going on in British culture?

Not so long ago philosophers such as Berlin, A J “Freddie” Ayer, Bernard Williams and Anthony Quinton were well-known public figures and received due recognition. Berlin was knighted in 1957, Ayer in 1970, Williams in 1999. The dates are significant. These years, from the 1950s to the 1990s, mark a golden age of British academic philosophy in mainstream culture.

Throughout the period, leading philosophers chaired important public inquiries and commissions. In the early 1980s Mary Warnock chaired the official committee on human fertilisation and embryology: her report led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. She also chaired an inquiry into special needs education (1974-78), sat on a royal commission on environmental pollution (1979-84), chaired a Home Office committee on animal experimentation (1984-89) and later served as a member of the government advisory panel on spoliation of artefacts in the Nazi era.

Bernard Williams, too, served on several royal commissions and government committees: on public schools (1965-70), recreational drug abuse (1971), gambling (1976-78), obscenity and film censorship (1977-79) and social justice (1993-94). “I did all the major vices,” he said. But what put philosophers on the map was media coverage on radio and television. Leading philosophers often appeared on Start the Week and Desert Island Discs. Quinton became well known as a presenter of the long-running Round Britain Quiz. Berlin became a household name with his talks on everything from “freedom and its betrayal” to 19th-century Russian thought and literature.

From the 1960s onwards, it was television that brought leading philosophers into our living rooms. In 1978 the BBC broadcast 15 hour-long interviews with leading philosophers called Men of Ideas. Bryan Magee interviewed the likes of Berlin, Ayer and Noam Chomsky. Edited versions were published each week in the Listener magazine. In 1987 the BBC showed another 15-part series on philosophy, this one called The Great Philosophers, in which Bryan Magee interviewed prominent contemporary thinkers about the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Channel 4’s Voices featured debates about philosophy in the early 1980s. There was a series of six encounters with the fast-talking American John Searle, covering topics from artificial intelligence to French theory. And in the 1990s The Late Show on BBC2 frequently featured philosophy, with programmes devoted to Berlin and Michel Foucault, a tribute to Karl Popper, and appearances by thinkers such as Ray Monk, the author of a celebrated biography of Wittgenstein, as well as Mary Midgley.

However, it wasn’t just late-night discussions featuring talking heads. Philosophy appeared in other areas, too. There was TV drama, from Jonathan Miller’s mid-1960s adaptations of Plato The Drinking Party and The Death of Socrates to Tom Stoppard’s play Professional Foul, about a Cambridge philosopher visiting Prague during the Cold War. The Imitation Game by Ian McEwan introduced many viewers to the ideas of Alan Turing, and Michael Ignatieff’s Dialogue in the Dark was based on a conversation between James Boswell and the philosopher David Hume weeks before the latter’s death. On the BBC, Monty Python’s Flying Circus carried knowing sketches about Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Marx taking part in a game show, and a football match between Greek and German thinkers. There was a sense of connection between television and the university common room.

Today this seems like something from a bygone age. According to David Edmonds, the editor of the recently published essay collection Philosophers Take on the World (Oxford University Press): “The idea that you would now commission someone to interview Freddie Ayer in an armchair for 45 minutes with no sound effects, no cutaways, is almost inconceivable.”

It is true you can hear Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which, over almost 20 years, has addressed subjects from “language and the mind” and Erasmus to logical positivism and phenomenology. Or there is The Public Philosopher with Michael Sandel and The Philosopher’s Arms with Matthew Sweet. However, these are confined to Radio 4, and other than Alain de Botton’s miniseries Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, for Channel 4, philosophy has vanished from mainstream television.

Naturally, some of the older programmes were very blokey: middle-aged men talking round a table. Both Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers included only one woman in 15 episodes each – Iris Murdoch in the former and Martha Nussbaum in the latter. The shows could also be very patrician. Philosophers such as Stuart Hampshire (Repton and Balliol) and Ayer (Eton and Christ Church) sounded posh. If you watch Conversations for Tomorrow, a BBC production from the 1960s, you find J B Priestley talking to Berlin and Ayer, all three smoking cigars and drinking port. Through the smoke come voices that sound like something from Edwardian times.

David Edmonds sees the change in tone as “part of the end of deference . . . these great figures like Isaiah Berlin telling you what to think”. He links it with Michael Gove’s infamous distrust of experts. “In some ways it’s democratising. We somehow think we have a right to express ourselves that we didn’t have forty years ago. The stranglehold these great figures had over us has vanished, for good or ill.”

It’s not just philosophy’s relationship with television that has changed. In 1970 Fontana started publishing its Modern Masters series, a popular set of introductions to great thinkers and cultural figures. Philosophers played a crucial role. The series included guides to the work of Wittgenstein and Popper, Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Notable philosophers of the day contributed: Ayer on Russell, Richard Wollheim on Sigmund Freud, David Pears on Wittgenstein. In the 1990s there were acclaimed biographies of Isaiah Berlin by Michael Ignatieff, of Wittgenstein and Russell by Ray Monk and of Ayer by Ben Rogers. Most successful of all was Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, which has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.

Today, according to Ray Monk, the situation is very different. “Fewer philosophy books are published,” he says, “because of the RAE [Research Assessment Exercise].” The RAE set out to evaluate the quality of research undertaken by British institutions of higher education. As a result, Monk observes, academics would rather produce articles for eminent, peer-reviewed journals than spend years writing a biography. “Academics don’t make their reputations with books any more, but with articles,” he says. This has led to “the increased professionalisation of every academic discipline, including philosophy”.

Monk spent ten years writing his biography of Russell; he couldn’t have combined that with writing refereed articles for academic journals. He argues that, as a result, whereas in the 1950s it was the big names that counted, today’s philosophical ­debates are more issue-driven – consider “the trolley problem”, otherwise known as “Would You Kill the Fat Man?”. (A runaway trolley will kill five people or, if you pull a lever and divert it, one person. What do you do?)

“In the past,” Monk says, “you had Richard Ellmann on Joyce or Oscar Wilde; Michael Holroyd on George Bernard Shaw. Publishers can no longer hand out big advances [for such books], because publishing has become so precarious. And on the other hand, universities want articles, not biographies.” Consequently, many of the most successful authors in philosophy today are not academics but freelance writers, such as Alain de Botton and the NS’s John Gray.

What about newspapers? Again, Monk is pessimistic. “There is something seriously wrong with the press. The lack of coverage of Derek Parfit’s death tells us more about the state of the press than it does about philosophy.” In the increasingly desperate search for advertisers, articles about academic philosophy don’t pay their way.

Academic philosophy, by contrast, is in a good state. When Monk started teaching at the University of Southampton in 1992 there were nine members of the faculty. Today there are nearer 20 and, he says, “We attract more students than ever before.” At Oxford there are more than 180 members of the philosophy faculty. Increasingly, leading schools teach philosophy at A-level.

John Gray is more critical. “No intelligent general reader follows academic philosophy today,” he argues. He points to the huge changes that have transformed the subject’s status. First, he says, there was the Second World War. “As a result of the war, philosophers like Berlin, Hampshire and H L A Hart had a much larger experience of the world that involved making difficult choices and gave them what Berlin called ‘a sense of reality’.” Hampshire had interrogated Nazi war criminals and Hart worked at Bletchley Park. “They were brought close to moral and political realities in a way that subsequent generations were not.”

Second, Gray says, there has been a shift in “the social position of academics, especially academic philosophers. A previous generation had contact with leading ­figures in the worlds of culture and politics . . . That’s gone today. Academics have become marginal.”

This relates to his third point. “Academic life has become more professionalised. They write for each other, not for the general reader. Academic political philosophy ­today, for example, has zero influence on the practice of politics.” In the 1980s it was said that Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. “I doubt now,” says Gray, “whether any politician could name a leading academic philosopher. No one would know who they were.”

Edmonds agrees that there is a narrowing of the discipline. “People tend to ­specialise in very particular areas of philosophy. The way to make progress is to pick your area within a small part of philosophy.” He contrasts this with the recent past. “The Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein and Freddie Ayer, were arrogant enough to think they could transform philosophy. Philosophers are not that grandly ambitious any more.”

However, while the mainstream media may be giving up on philosophers there is a new player in town: social media is ­filling some of the gaps. Edmonds co-runs Philosophy Bites, a podcast that has had more than 30 million downloads since it started. The BBC may not rerun Michael Ignatieff’s interviews with Isaiah Berlin but you can find them on YouTube. Then, of course, there is Twitter. Alain de Botton currently has 639,000 followers; Daniel Dennett has almost 200,000.

Since his breakthrough book, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), de Botton has written The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness, among others, and presented the television documentaries The Perfect Home and Status Anxiety. We are a long way from consequentialism and the self-interest theory of rationality in Derek Parfit’s great book Reasons and Persons.

Dennett, Gray and Peter Singer, all popular writers, represent very different areas of philosophy from de Botton’s. Dennett is renowned for his work on consciousness, Darwinism and atheism. Singer has written polemical books on animal rights, effective altruism and “rethinking life and death”. Gray, as well as contributing to the NS, has written books on al-Qaeda, the quest for immortality and “the delusions of global capitalism”. All of these authors reach large audiences, both with their books and online, by addressing topical subjects that matter to people. Their work takes us a long way from the ivory tower and common room.

Such thinkers are public intellectuals and they address the concerns of the broad society. But what is striking is how few are based in British universities. They are either, like Gray, outside the academy, or, like Singer and Dennett, based overseas. Increasingly, when we think about public intellectuals, whether philosophers, or historians such as Andrew Roberts, Simon Schama and ­Niall Ferguson, or cultural critics such as the late Robert Hughes and John Berger, they fall into one of these two groups. A British-based academic who is also a public intellectual – say, the likes of Mary Beard – is increasingly an exception.

If you are an optimist there is no crisis. Philosophy departments are thriving; even if television isn’t covering philosophical debates Radio 4 is; and the internet offers every kind of philosophy, past and present. Publishers still offer a spectrum of philosophical books. If you are a cultural pessimist, however, the picture looks different. Postwar, we could watch the greatest philosophers of the time talking about the most fascinating ideas. They wanted to reach out to a broad audience and they spoke about vital questions with passion and vigour. It is a great loss not to have access on mainstream media to the best contemporary thinkers on the most pressing subjects of the day.

The response to Derek Parfit’s death is a symptom of changes in our universities, in the media and in the culture beyond. As a result, the border guards have changed. Once, BBC executives and the broadsheets decided who were the important philosophers and which questions mattered. They may have lost interest, but if you care about Parfit or the Fat Man, go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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