“Towards a Great Pluralism”: Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House

by contributing editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Quentin Skinner is a name to conjure with. A founder of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought. Former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. The author of seminal studies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the full sweep of Western political philosophy. Editor of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Winner of the Balzan Prize, the Wolfson History Prize, the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize, and many others. On February 24, Skinner visited Oxford for the Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities, a thrice-yearly initiative of the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme. In conversation with Ertegun House Director Rhodri Lewis, Skinner expatiated on the craft of history, the meaning of liberty, trends within the humanities, his own life and work, and a dizzying range of other subjects.

Professor Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House, University of Oxford.

Names are, as it happens, a good place to start. As Skinner spoke, an immense and diverse crowd filled the room: Justinian and Peter Laslett, Thomas More and Confucius, Karl Marx and Aristotle. The effect was neither self-aggrandizing nor ostentatious, but a natural outworking of a mind steeped in the history of ideas in all its modes. The talk is available online here; accordingly, instead of summarizing Skinner’s remarks, I will offer a few thoughts on his approach to intellectual history as a discipline, the aspect of his talk which most spoke to me and which will hopefully be of interest to readers of this blog.

Lewis’s opening salvo was to ask Skinner to reflect on the changing work of the historian, both in his own career and in the profession more broadly. This parallel set the tone for the evening, as we followed the shifting terrain of modern scholarship through Skinner’s own journey, a sort of historiographical Everyman (hardly). He recalled his student days, when he was taught history as the exploits of Great Men, guided by the Whig assumptions of inevitable progress towards enlightenment and Anglicanism. In the course of this instruction, the pupil was given certain primary texts as “background”—More’s Utopia, Hobbes’s Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government—together with the proper interpretation: More was wrongheaded (in being a Catholic), Hobbes a villain (for siding with despotism), and Locke a hero (as the prophet of liberalism). Skinner mused that in one respect his entire career has been an attempt to find satisfactory answers to the questions of his early education.

Contrasting the Marxist and Annaliste dominance that prevailed when he began his career with today’s broad church, Skinner spoke of a shift “towards a great pluralism,” an ecumenical scholarship welcoming intellectual history alongside social history, material culture alongside statistics, paintings alongside geography. For his own part, a Skinner bibliography joins studies of the classics of political philosophy to articles on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and a book on William Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric. And this was not special pleading for his pet interests. Skinner described a warm rapport with Bruno Latour, despite a certain degree of mutual incomprehension and wariness of the extremes of Latour’s ideas. Even that academic Marmite, Michel Foucault, found immediate and warm welcome. Where many an established scholar I have known snorts in derision at “discourses” and “biopolitics,” Skinner heaped praise on the insight that we are “one tribe among many,” our morals and epistemologies a product of affiliation—and that the tribe and its language have changed and continue to change.

Detail from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of the Good Government.”

My ears pricked up when, expounding this pluralism, Skinner distinguished between “intellectual history” and “the history of ideas”—and placed himself firmly within the former. Intellectual history, according to Skinner, is the history of intellection, of thought in all forms, media, and registers, while the history of ideas is circumscribed by the word “idea,” to a more formal and rigid interest in content. On this account, art history is intellectual history, but not necessarily the history of ideas, as not always concerned with particular ideas. Undergirding all this is a “fashionably broad understanding of the concept of the text”—a building, a mural, a song are all grist for the historian’s mill.

If we are to make a distinction between the history of ideas and intellectual history, or at least to explore the respective implications of the two, I wonder whether there is not a drawback to intellection as a linchpin, insofar as it emphasizes an intellect to do the intellection. To focus on the genesis of ideas is perhaps to the detriment of understanding how they travel and how they are received. Moreover, does this overly privilege intentionality, conscious intellection? A focus on the intellects doing the work is more susceptible, it seems to me, to the Great Ideas narrative, that progression from brilliant (white, elite, male) mind to brilliant (white, elite, male) mind.

At the risk of sounding like postmodernism at its most self-parodic, is there not a history of thought without thinkers? Ideas, convictions, prejudices, aspirations often seep into the intellectual water supply divorced from whatever brain first produced them. Does it make sense to study a proverb—or its contemporary avatar, a meme—as the formulation of a specific intellect? Even if we hold that there are no ideas absent a mind to think them, I posit that “intellection” describes only a fraction (and not the largest) of the life of an idea. Numberless ideas are imbibed, repeated, and acted upon without ever being much mused upon.

Skinner himself identified precisely this phenomenon at work in our modern concept of liberty. In contemporary parlance, the antonym of “liberty” is “coercion”: one is free when one is not constrained. But, historically speaking, the opposite of liberty has long been “dependence.” A person was unfree if they were in another’s power—no outright coercion need be involved. Skinner’s example was the “clever slave” in Roman comedies. Plautus’s Pseudolus, for instance, acts with considerable latitude: he comes and goes more or less at will, he often directs his master (rather than vice versa), he largely makes his own decisions, and all this without evident coercion. Yet he is not free, for he is always aware of the potential for punishment. A more nuanced concept along these lines would sharpen the edge of contemporary debates about “liberty”: faced with endemic surveillance, one may choose not to express oneself freely—not because one has been forced to do so, but out of that same awareness of potential consequences (echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon here). Paradoxically, even as our concept of “liberty” is thus impoverished and unexamined, few words are more pervasive in present discourse.

Willey Reverly’s 1791 plan of the Panopticon.

On the other hand, intellects and intellection are crucial to the great gift of the Cambridge School: the reminder that political thought—and thought of any kind—is an activity, done by particular actors, in particular contexts, with particular languages (like the different lexicons of “liberty”). Historical actors are attempting to solve specific problems, but they are not necessarily asking our questions nor giving our answers, and both questions and answers are constantly in flux. This approach has been an antidote to Great Ideas, destroying any assumption that Ideas have a history transcending temporality. (Skinner acknowledged that art historians might justifiably protest that they knew this all along, invoking E. H. Gombrich.)

The respective domains of intellectual history and the history of ideas returned when one audience member asked about their relationship to cultural history. Cultural history for Skinner has a wider set of interests than intellectual history, especially as regards popular culture. Intellectual history, by contrast, is avowedly elitist in its subject matter. But, he quickly added, it is not at all straightforward to separate popular and elite culture. Theater, for instance, is both: Shakespeare is the quintessence of both elite art and of demotic entertainment.

On some level, this is incontestable. Even as Macbeth meditates on politics, justice, guilt, fate, and ambition, it is also gripping theater, filled with dramatic (sometimes gory) action and spiced with ribald jokes. Yet I query the utility, even the viability, of too clear a distinction between the two, either in history or in historians. Surely some of the elite audience members who appreciated the philosophical nuances also chuckled at the Porter’s monologue, or felt their hearts beat faster during the climactic battle? Equally, though they may not have drawn on the same vocabulary, we must imagine some of the “groundlings” came away from the theater musing on political violence or the obligations of the vassal. From Robert Scribner onwards, cultural historians have problematized any neat model of elite and popular cultures.

Frederick Wentworth’s illustration of the Porter scene in Macbeth.

In any investigation, we must of course be clear about our field of study, and no scholar need do everything. But trying to circumscribe subfields and subdisciplines by elite versus popular subjects, by ideas versus intellection versus culture, is, I think, to set up roadblocks in the path of that most welcome move “towards a great pluralism.”

Keeper of Language Games: G.H. von Wright at 100

by guest contributor David Loner

This past month I attended a symposium held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge in memory of the Finnish logician and Cambridge professor of philosophy G.H. von Wright (1916-2003), who this June would have been 100. Titled “Von Wright and Wittgenstein in Cambridge,” the event was organized by Bernt Österman, Risto Vilkko and Thomas Wallgren (University of Helsinki) and sponsored by the International Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, the Antti Wihuri Foundation and the Oskar Öflund Foundation. For four days, philosophers and intellectual historians from Europe and the United States met at von Wright’s former residence of Strathaird to discuss topics from intellectual biography to metatextual analysis, forging a greater historical appreciation for von Wright’s life and work. In particular, by discussing his legacy as Wittgenstein’s student, participants reflected not only on von Wright’s place in the history of analytic philosophy but also his postwar ambivalence towards what I have elsewhere termed Wittgenstein’s absent-minded training regime.

Von Wright and Wittgenstein at Strathaird. By permission of the family of Knut Erik Tranøy.

Von Wright and Wittgenstein at Strathaird. By permission of the family of Knut Erik Tranøy.

Georg Henrik von Wright (pronounced von Vrikht) was born June 16, 1916 to a Swedish-speaking family in Helsinki. Influenced early in his training by the scientific philosophy of the Vienna Circle, von Wright first enrolled as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in March 1939. A student of the Finnish psychologist Eino Kaila, von Wright held an interest in the logical justification of induction, a topic he wished to continue studying as a Ph.D. student. Thus, with intelligence and affability, he would quickly gain the attention of a number of noted dons, specifically the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy Charles Dunbar Broad. As faculty chair, Broad encouraged von Wright to attend courses and colloquia in philosophy and the philosophy of mathematics. Most notably he suggested those lectures held at Whewell’s Court in Trinity College by the recently-elected Professor of Philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Though by no means a traditional logician, Wittgenstein, by 1939, had accumulated in his Cambridge talks a retinue of devotees, each one taken by both his “overpowering personality” and cant critique of scientific philosophy as “diseases of the understanding”. In his 1990 biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk describes these devotees as never ceasing in their thinking “seriously and deeply” about philosophical problems. Yet, in point of fact, many of his students can be said to have strayed from their master’s treatment of the subject. To be sure, von Wright was no exception. Appreciative of Wittgenstein’s sincerity as both a philosopher and “restless genius,” von Wright nevertheless maintained scholarly priorities which stood in stark contrast to the Spenglerian pessimism of Wittgenstein’s later thought, towards a more optimistic discussions of the purchase scientific philosophy held for humanity.

Indeed, throughout his intellectual life, von Wright is said to have held a “profound respect for the achievements of the exact sciences.” This, at least, is according to Ilkka Niiniluoto, whose “opening words” on behalf of the organizers of the symposium testified to the ambivalent tone von Wright took in his reception of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Beginning with his 1941 Ph.D. thesis, “The Logical Problem of Induction,” and continuing well into his later studies in “deontic logic,” von Wright is said to have entertained in his research, pace Wittgenstein, questions of not only logical form but as well normative propositional coherence. What is more, due to his lifelong collegial connections with older Cambridge luminaries, including Broad, G.E. Moore and Richard Braithwaite, von Wright is known to have acquired in his role as lecturer a “fatherly” affect—quite the departure from the vociferous Wittgenstein.

This portrayal of von Wright as both erudite and accommodating was re-emphasized time and again throughout the event’s proceedings, not least by Niiniluoto’s Cambridge colleague Jonathan Smith. In his talk, “Why Cambridge?: A Historical examination of the ‘living tradition in inductive logic’”, Smith marshaled Tripos examination papers and biographical material in order to suggest that alongside Wittgenstein’s well-known absent-minded training regime there existed in Cambridge a far richer tradition of learned, mathematical-based knowledge-making, remembered as much for “its pursuit of science” as its social utility. This tradition, Smith argued, appealed as a corrective to past atomistic assumptions about logic and to Wittgenstein’s own scurrilous depictions of scientific philosophy. For, as he noted, “[t]he primacy of mathematics [in the Cambridge Moral Sciences at 1939] both starved it of students…and yet provided high-quality graduates schooled in mathematics who were drawn to logical aspects of philosophy.”

It is no coincidence, then, that while von Wright admired Wittgenstein as a great man of talent, he stood opposed to his teacher in terms of both character and method, preferring instead what can be viewed as the more congenial and practical folkways of the day. Yet despite their differences, Wittgenstein is said by all accounts to have remained fond of his Finnish pupil, who in 1948 would briefly succeed Wittgenstein as professor of philosophy at Cambridge (later resigning in 1951 in order to return to Helsinki.) “In Cambridge von Wright gained the impression that Wittgenstein greatly appreciated the substantial differences of their philosophical methods and personalities,” Bernt Österman and Risto Vilkko remarked in their memorial piece, “Georg Henrik von Wright: A Philosopher’s Life.” In fact, “Wittgenstein is reported to have said that von Wright was the only one of his students who he had not spoiled with his teaching and guidance, the only one who made no attempt to imitate his way of thinking or mode of expression.” (Osterman and Vilkko, 53). While not quite an accurate representation of Wittgenstein’s devotees, this rendering of von Wright’s post-graduate study did afford presenters a historical template from which to further problematize his later work, most notably as literary executor and editor of the Wittgenstein Nachlass.

A key facet of contemporary research in Wittgenstein studies, presenters Joachim Schulte and Susan Edwards-McKie both commented in their respective talks on the interventionist approach von Wright took to compiling Wittgenstein’s posthumous papers, following the philosopher’s April 1951 death. Culling from letters and correspondence belonging to fellow literary executor Rush Rhees and maintained at Swansea University, Edwards-McKie’s paper, “The Charged Dialectic: Von Wright and Rhees” confirmed that mathematical certainty (rather than any overriding attempt at an anti-intellectual moral epistemology) drove editors in their initial postwar conversations on composition and publication of Wittgenstein’s later writings. Meanwhile, in his talk “Georg Henrik von Wright as editor of Wittgenstein’s writings”, Schulte recalled from his own experience as a pupil of von Wright’s the numerous exegetical “modifications” the philosopher would take in pairing together such otherwise under-developed texts as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). Altogether, presenters attested that under von Wright, Wittgenstein’s original aspiration—to establish a thoroughly non-academic form of “doing philosophy”, divorced from the “mental cramps” which persisted throughout the practice of logic—would by 1969 transform into a sub-discipline of its own—a discipline which was at once specialized, routinized and authorial, all those things which Wittgenstein, in life, had denounced as unbecoming of philosophy.

Speaker Christian Erbacher giving his talk. Author photo.

Speaker Christian Erbacher giving his talk. Author photo.

How exactly such a transformation was allowed to occur in the first place was thus the topic of speaker Christian Erbacher’s concluding keynote address, “The correspondence between Wittgenstein’s literary executors—a source for studying the work of philosophical editors”. Convinced of the presence of an “asymmetry” in the correspondence shared between von Wright and fellow editors Rhees and Elizabeth Anscombe, Erbacher identified in his talk several key moments in the “history of reproducing Wittgenstein” wherein von Wright took a decisive lead. Chief among them was the 1968 codification of Cornell University’s Wittgenstein microfilm collection. Fascinated by the “externalities” of Wittgenstein’s writings, most notably their classification and historical “strata”, von Wright was said to have, in his concern for curation, shared affinities with the archivist, setting him well apart from Rhees and Anscombe, each of whom were often overwhelmed by the task of deciphering and setting to order Wittgenstein’s unfinished manuscripts. In cooperation with Wittgenstein’s most renowned American pupil, Norman Malcolm, then, von Wright, in 1966, would set to work on a Cornell edition of the Wittgenstein Nachlass. Reproduced via microfiche, the Cornell set enabled von Wright to at once disseminate Wittgenstein’s posthumous papers to a much wider audience of philosophers and accommodate those academics already committed in their own work to the further elaboration of his and Anscombe and Rhees’s published accounts. According to Erbacher, all of this, in addition to von Wright’s own enumeration of the Nachlass’ contents, provides insight into the mechanisms of Wittgensteinian philosophy’s disciplinary formation, insofar as it offers a “‘blackbox’ of paradigms in the humanities”; that is, von Wright’s efforts bear witness to students’ active rehabilitation of Wittgenstein’s work well after his teacher’s own failure to codify his adversarial ethos of discipleship as a viable teaching method in philosophy.

The ambivalence von Wright held towards Wittgenstein’s absent-minded training regime thus points to a tension within the history of analytic philosophy that no metaphilosophy of “family resemblances” can adequately describe without mistaking real institutional upheaval for a “robust distinctive phenomenon”. For while philosophers and intellectual historians may insist that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy reflects a continued attempt to do away with “the sickness of philosophical problems,” at the same time they remain staunchly opposed to the idea that analytic philosophy’s postwar “web of beliefs” failed to convey a congenial and scientifically-conscious means of doing philosophy. As I hope my remarks on this symposium have shown, greater attention to the international academic culture and reputation of Cambridge at mid-century, and to the influence it held over students’ own professional identity formation, might very well offer the means by which to begin to circle this. For in treating von Wright on his own terms, we begin to recognize the greater curricular space that acolytes of Wittgenstein straddled in their careers as keepers of the language games.

Conference participants gather outside Strathaird. Author photo.

Conference participants gather outside Strathaird. Author photo.

David Loner is a third-year Ph.D. student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the disciplinary formation of Wittgensteinian philosophy and the changing parameters of student-instructor collaboration in the twentieth century Moral Sciences at Cambridge. He can be reached at

Malthus Redivivus/Malthus Revisited

by guest contributor E.G. Gallwey

In the history of ideas, the rate of population growth or decline has carried strong associations with the trajectories of societies and states. The eighteenth-century writer Thomas Robert Malthus’s principle of population has set the standard for discussion of the implications of demographic change, and placed the problem of scarcity at the center of human experience. For Malthus, scarcity of food (the limits to what could be produced from the earth’s resources), coupled with the continuous desire for sexual reproduction, was the abiding condition of human existence.


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) by John Linnell (1834)

Malthus was not the first to talk about the implications of scarcity on economic life. But since his work was first published, he has been associated with a profoundly unfeeling attitude towards the fate of the poor. Thomas Carlyle branded political economy the “dismal science” on account of Malthus’s contention that human beings would always have to live within the limits of natural law, and that human attempts to alter natural law by schemes of improvement would most likely have negative long-term effects. Such views were largely a consequence of Malthus’s position relative to the social reform schemes championed by advocates of human plenty and invention who had developed their ideas in the context of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Enlightenment optimism.

Just as scholars of the eighteenth century have done much to rehabilitate the tired and outdated picture of Adam Smith, Malthus’s reputation has been deemed ripe for re-evaluation. Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Malthus’s birth and the publication of Joyce Chaplin and Alison Bashford’s exciting new book, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, a conference at Malthus’s alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge on June 20-21 engaged in a substantial and timely reassessment of Malthus’ thought. Scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, political science, demography, and economics, gathered for the two-day meeting.

A series of panels on day one explored the historical origin, intention, reception, and propagation of Malthus’s thought from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first century. The opening session provided re-readings of Malthus’s principles in the context of the eighteenth century’s relationship to enlightenment and revolution and to European powers’ imperial expansion in the “new worlds” of the Americas and Pacific.

Joyce E. Chaplin’s paper on the reception history of Malthus’s thought demonstrated how the 1803 “Essay on Population” not only drew directly from new world societies in its evidence base, but also sought directly to engage in a debate about the future of colonial settler societies. Largely forgotten as a critic of imperial schemes of territorial conquest and settlement, Malthus cast serious doubt on the settler fantasy of a terra nullius in the ideology of settler imperialism. Instead, writing in the vein of Enlightenment universal histories, Malthus aimed to demonstrate how new world societies illustrated the limits of resources and the dangers of displacing indigenous populations from the land. Timing was fundamental, however, to the reception and circulation of Malthus’s work; and when the revolutions and subsequent independence of North and South American colonies, suggested the possibility of an escape from the dynamics and limits of the old world, the ensuing optimism resulted in a highly partial reading of Malthus.

Christopher Brooke’s paper reconstructed the possibility of Malthus’s unacknowledged debt to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a relation deriving at least in part from the influence of Malthus’s father, a devoted follower of Rousseau. Though both Rousseau and Malthus have long been recognized as expounding influential theories of property relations, the latter has often been depicted as a theologically-driven theorist, engaged in formulating a theodicy for lapsarian man. Brooke instead placed Malthus within a tradition of thought initiated by Montesquieu and carried forward by Rousseau, wherein the question of population was part of a broader debate on the role of climate, the size and scale of states, and their relationship to the moral sentiments of the poor as much as the wealthy. Such republican concerns engendered an interest in the form of economic development most conducive to the stability of political regimes and to the maintenance of constitutional liberties.

Such an alternate reading of Malthus, placing him outside the traditional stress on his combative engagement with the progressive reformist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, was echoed by Niall O’Flaherty in his paper on Malthus’s approach to the amelioration of poverty. Situating his ideas within Enlightenment debates about the stadial progress and poverty of nations. O’Flaherty identified Malthus’ scientific arguments on the elements of European culture which had alleviated some of the worst population checks, suffered by earlier more primitive societies. Malthus was influenced by Adam Smith and William Paley in his utilitarian analysis of the conditions for the improvement of the poor, including his account of self-love and the role of decent and useful pride in encouraging prudence.

Alison Bashford provided a powerful explanation for Malthus’s curious non-engagement with the question of slavery, even as the multiple editions of the essay spanned the course of the debate on abolition. Citing archival evidence on the Malthus family’s involvement in a protracted legal dispute over the inheritance of a Jamaican plantation, Bashford helped contextualize the omission, which was particularly glaring given the economic significance of the Caribbean colonies in the British empire—a fact of which Malthus, as professor of political economy at the East India Company’s own college, could hardly have been unaware.

The afternoon session considered Malthus’s influence on the trajectory of economic thought and analysis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gareth Stedman Jones addressed the afterlife of Malthusian thought in the socialist circles of utopianism and early Marxism. Though Malthus’ thinking on the the poor evoked vituperative responses from radicals like William Godwin and the later Owenites, Stedman Jones pointed toward some important areas of synergy. These included the preponderance of mind over matter in Malthus and Godwin’s account of human nature and the contribution of Malthus’ theory to Marx’s own writing on the declining rate of profit.

This latter point formed a nice transition into Duncan Kelly’s assessment of John Maynard Keynes’s engagement with Malthusian thought. Keynes himself pursued a substantial reassessment of Malthus’s legacy, including an adumbration on the greater advantages to the development of nineteenth-century political economy if the science had followed Malthusian rather than Ricardian logic. Many of the key problems Keynes tackled in his formal economic work, as well as his polemical and political writing, drew on Malthus’s originality in thinking about deficiency in demand and economic cycles: the usefulness, in macro terms, of public-works projects in depression-hit economies. Kelly explained how the connection between social reform, eugenics, and human agency in Keynes’s mature thought intended to address intergenerational justice and the quality of states’ populations, over the traditional geopolitical concern to boost population numbers as an assurance of national strength.

Three final papers by Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Richard Smith, and Paul Warde tested Malthus’ claims against the evidence of centuries of economic and demographic change in England. There followed a public lecture, in which E.A. Wrigely provided a thorough recapitulation of the close link between Malthus’s observations on the laws guiding the behavior of land, labor, and capital and his theory of human nature. He concluded with an observation on the irony of Malthus’s theory governing the limits to growth of organic economies having been brought forth just as human societies began to discover new forms of energy which would revolutionize economic production.

The shifting perspectives of the past, present, and future on the question of scarcity and the morals and politics of human agency were frequently addressed on day two of the conference. The series of panels brought a more contemporary and global focus, though historical treatments of the role of Malthusian language and traditions of thought in the politics and economics of international development allowed for important critiques of the application of Malthusianism in non-western settings. Much of the discussion in the morning centered on how mid-twentieth-century anxieties over an impending food crisis drew on a neo-Malthusian revival. The role of states and of non-governmental institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the revival of disciplines like demography, spurred a renewed interest in earth’s carrying capacity and the damage being done by the manipulation of new technologies in botany and human fertility.

The concluding panel offered a vivid sense of the way in which climate change has replaced food crisis as the dominating concern of the twenty-first century. Yet the origins of ecology and climate science, and even key concepts like the anthropocene, can be understood to have borrowed much from Malthusian thinking. Indeed, the application of temporal and geographic scale in understanding the direction of human and planetary history is by no means the only legacy Malthus imparted to his readers.

E.G. Gallwey is a PhD candidate in American History at Harvard University. Her dissertation research explores the intellectual history of political and economic thought in the long eighteenth century, with a focus on republican debates over public credit in the revolutionary Atlantic.

Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered by Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge

by guest contributor David Loner

As the first and only official post-graduate advisee of the celebrated Austrian thinker and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) typified in her 1932-38 Ph.D. course the complex social experience interwar upper-middle-class women underwent as unofficial members of the University of Cambridge. Compelling yet reserved, Ambrose toed a line between subordination and originality which Cambridge dons often expected their female pupils to exhibit in the years following the Cambridge University Senate’s 1921 university ordinance on “title of degree,” or unofficial courses for women students (women were not made full university members until 1948). Yet, despite this carefully-negotiated and normative gender performance, Wittgenstein ultimately denounced his protégée and her work as morally “indecent”—precipitating a contest between the Austrian thinker and his fellow dons over the place of women and high academic distinction in mid-twentieth-century Cambridge philosophy.

As an American graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after the First World War, Alice Ambrose’s initial research focused on the work of the Dutch logician L.E.J. Brouwer and his conjecture that intuition, not metaphysics, best served as the epistemic foundation to all mathematical thought. Forming the basis of her first Ph.D. dissertation, this work would enable Ambrose to successfully apply in 1932 for Wellesley College’s one-year post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Cambridge (what would a year later become a second fully-fledged PhD course). Cambridge may have been male-dominated, but Ambrose’s choice was intentional. For, as she claimed in correspondence with her Madison advisor E.B. McGilvary, only through discourse with the renowned Cambridge junior fellow and author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would her future employment as a lecturer in philosophy be assured (October 16, 1932, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library).

Having previously stunned interwar readers in its provocative albeit bewildering analysis of the metaphysics of logic, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—written during his four-year service as an infantry soldier for Austria-Hungary in the First World War—was a blatant departure from the technical program of his one-time prewar Cambridge supervisor Bertrand Russell and their forerunner Gottlob Frege. The Tractatus argued that, while capable of depicting the world within a coherent symbolism, “logical pictures” nevertheless indicate a greater ethical realm, inaccessible to humans (not just scholars) by symbolic speech acts. It uncompromisingly declared that “what we cannot think, that we cannot think: what we cannot therefore say what we cannot think” (TLP 5.61). For, as Wittgenstein posited, “in fact what solipsism means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it show itself.” (5.62). “The sense of the world,” then, Wittgenstein argued, must lie outside the world (6.41), in a moral reality composed not of propositions but instead of silence (7).

Immediately conceding their debt to Wittgenstein in both private letters and published reviews, scholars like Russell and the Cambridge mathematician Frank P. Ramsey praised the Austrian thinker’s remarks on solipsism and the tautological nature of logical propositions as indispensable. Even so, for these highly-trained professional men, as well as for their more neophyte pupils, the ethical import of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the sense of the world as somehow outside the world (and within silence) would remain largely ineffectual in combating the greater problems of philosophy. Ambrose was no exception to this. Writing to McGilvary on October 16, 1932, a week after the start of her course at Cambridge, Ambrose would confirm that while “there’s no doubt his thoughts are original,” Wittgenstein’s mode of conveying ideas in his course lectures left one wanting. “He is extremely hard to follow,” she wrote; “he forgets what he set out to say, rears ahead of himself—says Whoa!…settles down rigidly then and thinks with his head in his hands, stammers, says ‘Poor Miss Ambrose’, swears, and ends up with ‘It is very diff-i-cult’” (MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, CUL).

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Exemplifying what Stefan Collini has referred to as the “absent-mindedness” of the twentieth-century British intellectual, Wittgenstein at once appeared to Ambrose in her initial course lectures and supervisions as “as good as a babe in arms at advising one about any practical matters.” “It is true he is not English,” she wrote in the same letter to McGilvary, “not enough dignity, not proper enough”; “he lectures without a gown and doesn’t insist on students wearing theirs; and he goes with his shirt open at his throat.” Yet in his absent-mindedness as a Cambridge junior lecturer, Wittgenstein would go far beyond the pale of Collini’s characterization. For, as Ambrose indicates elsewhere in her notes on Wittgenstein’s lectures, Wittgenstein now not only denied that there were any intellectuals in Cambridge, but refuted the entire project of philosophy as sheer nonsense. “Nonsense is produced by trying to express in a proposition something which belongs to the grammar of our language”—a practice all too common among scholars. “The verification of my having toothache is having it,” Wittgenstein remarked; “[i]t makes no sense for me to answer the question, ‘How do you know you have a toothache?’, by ‘I know it because I feel it’. In fact there is something wrong with the question; and the answer is absurd.”

For the anti-intellectual Wittgenstein, then, scholarly inquiry in philosophy, be it at Cambridge or elsewhere was, much like a toothache, a disease—in need of constant therapeutic relief. This alleviation of nonsense, he argued, was possible only through the disappearance of obsession (98) or a life unfettered by disciplinary philosophy, engaged in full duty to oneself. For Ambrose, however, her status as a woman student in need of employment as a university lecturer prohibited her from such thinking. Indeed, despite Wittgenstein’s insistence that his students apply his adversarial ethos to their study of philosophy, interwar female pupils like Ambrose would by and large continue in their courses to affirm the same Cantabridgian virtues of industry, conviviality and hierarchy which the Austrian thinker disparaged as absurd. The result, then, as Paul R. Deslandes has elsewhere detailed, was a “highly gendered little world” of “intense institutional loyalty” which rewarded only the most subordinate, if original, of women students—a paradoxical imbalance which Ambrose attempted to maintain in her own work on finite logical propositions.

When not helping Wittgenstein to record his latest research (what eventually would be published in 1961 as The Blue and Brown Books), Ambrose thus pursued quite separately in her postdoctoral research an investigation into the epistemic purchase of Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar in philosophy. In particular, her April 1935 article “Finitism in Mathematics [I],” the first published exposition of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractarian philosophy, situated his denunciation of philosophical “nonsense” within a much broader scholarly conversation on the intuitively finite nature of logical operations in mathematics or “verbal forms.” Referencing Wittgenstein’s own turn of phrase throughout her article, Ambrose argued that “what the finitist can justifiably claim” can be “in many cases…a statement of what he should claim as opposite of what he does claim” (188). That is, logical dilemmas stifling scholars’ findings were more often than not expositional confusions regarding the grammar of intuition, brought about by the inexactness of the philosopher’s language. Guided, then, by the same remarks her supervisor offered in his 1932-35 Cambridge lectures, Ambrose’s article presented Wittgenstein’s absent-minded posture not an affront to academic philosophers, but rather as a bulwark in their continued acquiescence to male-dominated high academic distinction. Yet despite her initiative in re-imagining Wittgenstein’s new philosophy as a boon for postwar scholars’ ongoing investigations in the philosophy of mathematics, Ambrose’s citation would prompt the full wrath of the Cambridge junior fellow.

On May 16, 1935, in a letter to Ambrose, Wittgenstein decried his protégée’s publication as “indecent,” refusing any further cooperation on his part with her. Only two days later, he reiterated this point, denigrating Ambrose’s behavior to his Cambridge colleague, professor of philosophy G.E. Moore. “I think you have no idea in what a serious situation she is,” he wrote. “I don’t mean serious, because of the difficulty to find a job; but serious because she is now actually standing at a crossroad. One road leading to perpetual misjudging of her intellectual powers and thereby to hurt pride and vanity etc. etc. The other would lead her to a knowledge of her own capacities and that always has good consequences.” To Moore, who would subsequently chair Ambrose’s 1938 Cambridge Ph.D. viva, this assessment was clearly misguided. As her supervisor, he knew Ambrose to be a competent scholar, despite the double standard imposed on her as a women student. Yet unlike Moore, Wittgenstein continued to feel no obligation to assist Ambrose in her quest to maintain the careful balance between humility and assertion necessary to advance one’s career in academic philosophy. For, as he would later argue during his disastrous postwar tenure as chairman of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, logical perspicacity required but one thing from the serious philosopher, whether man or woman: the full denial of disciplinary philosophy as a worthwhile life.

David Loner is a second-year PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the milieu of students and scholars associated with the twentieth-century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (I)

by Emily Rutherford

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. (Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling, 131)

When I travelled to Cambridge at the start of this summer, there were three things I knew about Oscar Browning’s personal papers: 1. like the personal papers of many former fellows, they were in the archives of King’s College; 2. there were a lot of them, mostly correspondence; 3. midway through his professional career, Browning had been dismissed from his teaching job at Eton College under suspicious circumstances.

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

Browning, as his ODNB heading informs us, lived from 1837 to 1923 and was a “teacher and historian.” He spent his life caught in the Eton-King’s revolving door (until 1861, only Old Etonians could become members of King’s): educated at both institutions, he washed up at King’s after he lost his job at Eton. He wrote popular accounts of political and military history, helped to found the modern history course at Cambridge, and particularly devoted himself to the cause of teacher-training. His career could not be said to be successful—he was more of a comic stock character—but I was drawn to him for what he might tell me about the world of elite education in the late nineteenth century: his archive includes letters from hundreds of correspondents, many of whom taught in schools and universities, some of whom were prominent in public life, and some of whom were schoolboys, trainee teachers, and other more anonymous figures on whom I would be unlikely to land in a less focused trawl through the archives of an educational institution.

But when you have three weeks to get through tens of thousands of documents, you make certain choices that influence your reading practices, and there I was led astray. The finding aid lists series of letters in alphabetical order by correspondent, with other miscellaneous papers coming at the end. I went through in order, making a note of familiar names: headmasters, future politicians who had been Browning’s students at Eton, Cambridge dons—and prominent figures in the history of homosexuality, such as George Ives, G.L. Dickinson, Robbie Ross, J.A. Symonds, and Oscar Wilde. Thanks to the gossipy tone of Ian Anstruther’s biography of Browning, as well as other sources that assume Browning’s homosexuality, I was primed for scandals and secrets. In my head, I placed ironic scare quotes around the finding aid’s identification of certain young male correspondents as “protégé” or “secretary.” I started calling up letters that had nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with homosexuality, hoping that they might show that Browning had let slip a confidence confirming his sexuality or shedding light on his dismissal from Eton.

Spoiler alert: dear reader, this is exactly not how you should read the archive of someone who lived in the nineteenth century. In her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve Sedgwick criticizes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a Freudian diagnostic mechanism as applied to texts, an analytic frame that fixates above all else on sexual difference. Following Freud and then Foucault, historians of nineteenth-century sexuality have often worked in this vein, seeking to uncover the homosexuality or other forms of deviance lurking under the covers of Victorian propriety. Particularly in the literature on education, they have been joined in their suspicions by school chronicles and biographies written by old boys, the sorts of books that are able to rely on uncited but intimate background knowledge and that allude to gossip with winks and nudges. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell unwittingly into a suspicious approach when I entered the world of Oscar Browning’s archive. But while some pioneers (such as Symonds or Wilde) eventually made sense of their desire for men by making it part of a countercultural identity, so many other men’s intense same-sex friendships, or their unfulfilled longing for the beauty of youth they saw all round them in their teaching jobs, was part and parcel of an elite culture that enjoyed powerful official sanction as the forge of imperial masculinity. Which category applied to Browning, if either? The answer wasn’t as conclusive or as interesting as I had expected, and I ultimately came to understand that I was misreading everything.


The first clue that I was doing it wrong appeared five days in, when it started to dawn on me that none of the men whom I expected would talk to Browning about homosexuality were doing so. Browning was around the same age and moved in the same social circle as John Addington Symonds, who had been writing and talking with his friends about what it meant to be a man who desired men since the mid-1860s, before the word “homosexual” existed. But Browning’s archive doesn’t suggest him to have had the same self-consciousness or sense of membership in a group of men united around a label such as “Uranian” that generated dialogue in other correspondence I’ve encountered. Even if this kind of commonality might have helped to initiate his friendship with men such as G.L. Dickinson, George Ives, or Robbie Ross, it didn’t sustain it. With his old Eton tutor William Johnson, about whose erotic interest in students the record is not so ambiguous, Browning discusses pedagogy and the academic abilities of pupils. With Dickinson, a colleague at King’s, Browning discusses reforms to the Modern History Tripos and college politics. Ives was one of the most visible activists for queer men’s rights in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but his letters discuss cricket and give Browning fashion advice, which only the most suspicious reader could regard as some kind of clue. A certain Hellenic homoeroticism preoccupied many men who were passionately devoted to single-sex educational institutions: even my research subject Arthur Sidgwick, who grew up to record in his diary a passionate relationship with his wife, spoke as a young man in an idiom that praised “beautiful boys”: all his friends were doing it. But Browning’s papers never quite go there. Oscar Wilde’s correspondence with him is about whether he will write an essay on “the women benefactors of Cambridge” for Woman’s World. When Symonds writes to Browning, as he did to many men, asking for data about the place of “sexual inversion” in Britain that he can use in a new research project, he asks Browning whether he thinks studying the Greek and Latin classics in school inclines boys towards homoeroticism, and whether there is any link between school dormitories, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies. He’s asking Browning’s opinion as a professional educator, who was once a housemaster at the country’s most famous public school—not necessarily as a homosexual himself. Folder after folder of letters caused me to reevaluate the picture of Browning as a flamboyant, effeminate queer man offered by the secondary literature, seeing the gossipy insinuation in works such as Anstruther’s biography as homophobic stereotyping rather than honest uncovering.

The mechanism of paranoia explains how, when there is a gap in a particular narrative, our imaginations will rush to fill it with such intensity as to overwhelm the information we actually have to work with—perhaps especially when it comes to repressed homosexuality, which Freud associated with paranoia. Browning’s archive, which contains over 10,000 letters, gives the illusion of completion because it is so vast. But stop to think, and you realize that most runs of letters from a given correspondent—even those Browning knew since childhood—begin in 1875 or ’76. 1875 was the year that Browning was fired from Eton and had to start his life anew, suggesting a bonfire of paper at some stage: perhaps a perfectly innocent one, meant to clear up waste when Browning closed up his Eton house and moved into smaller quarters in King’s College, Cambridge; perhaps one specifically designed to hide secrets that could cloud Browning’s righteous outrage at having been unfairly sacked. Our brains don’t like gaps: simple optical-illusion tricks show that when we are shown half of a familiar type of image such as a human face, our brains will automatically fill in the other half. Our paranoid minds rush, perhaps, to ascribe the interpretation that would offer conclusive proof of repressed homosexuality, instead of the more mundane one. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of both situations among men in Browning’s milieu. It’s Schroedinger’s archive: both are equally possible.

Throughout the entire vast archive, too, we only have one side of the story: aside from copies of a few letters, Browning’s voice itself doesn’t come through. We have teenage boys who thank him for lavish presents; we have Symonds’ requests for data; we have Robbie Ross’s appeals to a fund in support of Wilde and his family during Wilde’s imprisonment. But we don’t know what Browning might have said, if anything, to suggest that he was receptive to such letters. Perhaps, if such conversations ever existed, Browning would have been too nervous to put them in writing. My status as a professional researcher allows me access to archives; my knowledge of foreign languages dead and living allows me to read documents whose creators originally tried to hide them from the eyes of anyone not an elite man. But I’ll never know what, if anything, was said behind closed doors, perhaps with the aid of Browning’s prodigious personal wine cellar, when like-minded men could be fully frank with one another.

Still, as Brooke Palmieri has wisely reminded us, all archives are constructs that are necessarily subjective and incomplete: how, then, can we work with what we have? Next week, in part two of this essay, I will suggest that we might start by asking different questions.