A philosophical investigation. Britain was always on the margins of 20th-century intellectual life. Edward Skidelsky on how the French and the Germans won the battle of ideas

Routledge Classics

Various authors

The British public has an undiscriminating appetite for self-improvement. It has strong aspirations and weak tastes. Our education system imparts a desire for knowledge, but not the ability to satisfy it. This explains the central role in our culture of the pundit, the person whose job is to tell us what we should know. Museums offer us headphones, ordering us to look at certain paintings and to think certain thoughts. It is a similar marketing instinct that has inspired the academic publisher Routledge to reissue 30 of its most important books under the banner "Routledge Classics". These are, by implication, the books that every "educated" person should have read. It is a cunning way of attracting a large clientele for works that would otherwise remain the preserve of a tiny clique of specialists. How many of the people who buy these books will actually go on to read them is another matter.

It is difficult for a reviewer to do justice to such a large number of very different books. One obvious starting point is to divide them up according to provenance. Three languages - English, French and German - are represented in roughly equal measure. When the collection is broken up in this way, an interesting fact emerges. Of all the books, by far the most important and influential are those written in German. Einstein's Relativity, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Freud's Totem and Taboo and Weber's The Protestant Ethic all revolutionised their respective subjects. No other European nation has produced works of such centrality. Germany lies at the heart of 20th-century intellectual life.

Published between 1904 and 1921, these four books belong to that great intellectual upheaval known as the modern movement. All share, in different ways, the conviction that the world cannot be experienced directly, but only from one or another perspective. Motion, writes Einstein, is always relative; from the standpoint of the man in the train, it is the platform that is moving. Capitalism, argues Weber, is neither natural nor inevitable; it is the offspring of a specific religious point of view. Wittgenstein gives expression to the general spirit of modernism in his famous dictum: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." This explains why the last century was obsessed with language. The world is given to us through language; to purify language is simultaneously to cleanse our vision of the world. All philosophy, writes Wittgenstein, is Sprachkritik - critique of language. The political abuse of language in this century and the last has given Wittgenstein's dictum a practical urgency. If totalitarian regimes can distort the world merely by distorting language, then Sprachkritik is no mere philosophical game, but an act of political resistance. This was well understood by both Orwell and Solzhenitsyn.

The nine French books in the Routledge collection occupy the next rung down from their German counterparts. The best-known of them are works of structuralism or post-structuralism, first published between 1961 and 1977. They include Foucault's Madness and Civilisation, Lacan's Ecrits, Derrida's Writing and Difference and Levi-Strauss's Myth and Meaning. In these works, the modernist emphasis on language has undergone a strange transformation. It is no longer we that speak language, but rather, to use Heidegger's gnomic formulation, language that speaks us. Language has assumed an existence independent of its speakers; it is a system of meanings over which we have no control. It cannot be changed, only analysed or "deconstructed". No encouragement to political struggle is to be found here: rather, the attitude is of ironic knowingness, redolent of the comfortable leftism of the Enarchs. Whereas the works of the early modernists are full of faith in human agency, a curious fatalism pervades these later writings. "Each of us is a kind of crossroads where things happen," writes Levi-Strauss. "The crossroads is purely passive; something happens there." This view of human nature is too perverse to have any lasting influence, and these four French authors already seem dated.

It is a pity that Simone Weil, the greatest French religious thinker of the 20th century, is represented here by her weakest work. Oppression and Liberty is a collection of Weil's youthful political writings. They are written from the standpoint of a committed Marxist, although doubts are starting to break through. These writings display none of the genius of Weil's later religious works. Why didn't Routledge instead reprint its earlier edition of Gravity and Grace, one of Weil's best books?

The English contributions to the Routledge collection are the least significant of all. Many of them are minor academic works, such as Frances Yates's turgid The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy. W H R Rivers's Medicine, Magic and Religion owes its inclusion entirely to how its author features as the hero of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. The Pursuit of Signs by Jonathan Culler is a reliquary to that dreary tendency known as critical theory - an attempt by English literature professors to bolster their status by imitating the mannerisms of the French thinkers listed above.

Two of the more interesting inclusions are the essays on ethics by Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley. These two writers belong to a generation of stern female moralists, other members of which include Mary Warnock, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe. The Sovereignty of Good is a reminder that Murdoch is at least as good a philosopher as she is a novelist. A hesitant mystic, Murdoch tries to revive, for modern times, Plato's doctrine of a transcendent good. Midgley is also a fine philosopher who deserves to be better known. Her book Wickedness brings some Aristotelian sanity to the troubled relationship between biology and morality. She argues that morality is an inevitable outgrowth of our naturally sociable disposition, and at the same time rejects the cruder forms of Darwinian reductionism. These two books together are proof of the maxim that western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes on Plato and Aristotle.

But these are local triumphs; none of the English books in the collection is equal in stature to its Continental rivals. Routledge is limited to its own imprints; had it been free to select any books, the collection would no doubt have looked very different. Choosing the ten most important English non-fiction works of the 20th century is an amusing parlour game. But no selection could equal, in importance and influence, the German books collected here. Britain was always on the margins of 20th-century intellectual culture. This was not true in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th-century French philosophes looked to Newton, Locke and Hume as their masters. And Victorian writers such as Mill, Ruskin and Carlyle were read as far afield as Russia. In the 20th century, British culture became more provincial. It degenerated into academic specialism on the one hand, and a rather precious belles-lettres on the other. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is wonderfully funny to those "in the know", but how many Germans, Russians or even Americans could be expected to get the joke?

It is revealing that the most noteworthy English books in this collection are those written by central European emigres. These include Sex and Repression in Savage Society by Malinowski, The Road to Serfdom by Hayek and The Fear of Freedom by Fromm. Many of the other German writers collected here - Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein and Adorno - also ended up either in England or in America, where their influence was at least as great as in their homeland. The vitality of Anglo-American - and particularly American - intellectual life after the Second World War has been almost entirely due to this influx of talent from the Continent. That is something for which Hitler has to be thanked.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street