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Colin Radford Remembered
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Colin Radford Remembered

Bob Sharpe

Excepting a couple of essays which I shall mention and which are, rather unaccountably, omitted from it, the best of Colin Radford’s work was collected in a volume of essays entitled Driving to California (Edinburgh University Press 1996). The autobiograpical sketch that begins the book has attracted much attention. Colin Radford published one book with his partner, Sally Minogue, The Nature of Criticism (Harvester 1981) and he was working on a book on Wittgenstein at his death but he said to me, “I am not really a producer of books.” The explanation lies deep in the nature of the man, I think, and Radford is one philosopher whose style is explained more in terms of his personal character than his influences. So this memoir is franker and more personal than usual. But Colin would have wished it that way. His way of doing philosophy was not academic; I don’t think he read carefully and widely on a subject before writing. Rather he would see the germ of a philosophical problem. A settled life style was always about to be interrupted by the sight of an attractive woman and a philosophical project would always be laid aside if his attention was caught by the sight of an unlooked for philosophical problem.

A good example of his eye for the latter is, of course, his best known paper “Why should we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?” It picks on an issue which was previously overlooked and it must be about the most commented on paper in modern philosophy of art. Why are we moved even to tears by the fate of somebody who does not exist and whom we know all the time does not exist? Is not this irrational? It originally was published in the Supplementary Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society as part of a a symposium. (He told me a couple of years prior to its publication that he had sent the paper to a number of journals; so many in fact had rejected it that he could not remember where he had submitted it any more. Fortunately a commissioned paper such as a Joint Session paper is a little difficult for the editors to reject; and in the end the misjudgements of so many editors did not matter.) But an even better example of his philosophical style is a paper which I think he showed me but which is not to be found in the above collection and which I have not been able to trace. It begins with a remark made to him by his wife. Looking at fresh snow during one of their visits to the States, she remarked “it looks as though sugar has been sprinkled on it.” Radford immediately thought of what it would look like if sugar really was sprinkled upon snow and what followed was a very subtle discussion of the nature of metaphor and simile.

Radford was brought up in a working class area of Bristol. The 1946 Butler Education Act meant that entry to grammar schools no longer depended on the ability to pay fees but became generally available to those who passed the “eleven-plus.” The result was that schools previously the preserve of the children of professional people and tradesmen became flooded with the bright sons and daughters of parents who had not been themselves able to benefit from education and who were ambitious for their children to “get on.” Both Colin and myself were results of this revolution. Both our fathers were aircraft workers in what is now Rolls Royce Engines. Without, I think, realizing it we were witnessing the decline of the old class system in Britain, a system which is now an object of mockery rather than a serious feature of society. Certainly the older teachers at the school found it difficult to deal with the gradual erosion of deference and the arrival of youngsters who were bright, articulate and voracious readers but still spoke with strong West Country accents.

One evening, three weeks into the first term, my father told me that a very clever boy, who had won a scholarship to an independent boarding school and had run away, would be coming to my school. The next day this very asthmatic child sat in the desk next to me. We must have talked philosophy unawares for by the age of fifteen we were both act-Utilitarians without ever having heard the term. (One of our contemporaries was a phenomenalist.) After seven years at Thornbury Grammar School, Colin read anthropology at the LSE, spent two years at Bristol University on a Master’s degree in philosophy and then went to Christchurch, Oxford, to read for a D.Phil. He went on to teach for a couple of years at Balliol and then moved to Kent, where he spent the rest of his career apart from visiting appointments at the Universities of California at Berkeley, Colorado, Illinois and Queensland. At Oxford he became a friend and admirer of Austin. However, his mature work showed little sign of Oxford linguistic analysis. The view of those Oxford philosophers was that philosophical problems arise once we desert ordinary language and that they have to be defused by paying attention to the minutiae of everyday speech. But Colin’s best work shows that philosophical problems arise without the theorizing of philosophers but simply out of everyday contexts, from our responses to fiction or music, the sight of snow, our reaction to fake works of art (“Fakes,” Mind 1978) or the place of risks in everyday life, – and he was an inveterate risk taker. He did sometimes take up what other philosophers had said, for example in his attacks on the cognitivist line on musical expression, a highly influential couple of pieces which created much discussion and may be identified as the first milestones in the current revival of arousalism in philosophy of music. (“Emotions and Music: a reply to the cognitivists.” JAAC 1989 pp.69-76 and “Muddy Waters,” JAAC 1991 pp. 249-50, neither of which are in Driving to California.) And he was assiduous in replying to those who disagreed with him on what are now known as the “paradoxes of fiction.” But what unifies his work is not a general theory, or even a repertoire of problems, but a style.

Successful academics often lack what a British political commentator described in politicians as a “hinterland.” Margaret Thatcher is a good example; she has no interests beyond getting and exercising power. But Radford was not similarly constrained. For a start, although he described himself on the last day of his life as a “philosopher” to the doctors who were considering his prognosis, his interests were manifold. He was deeply interested in both music and literature, he wrote plays and sketches for TV comedy shows, and competitive sport was something of an obsession. The arrival of better drugs for the treatment of asthma meant that he could take up sport and he did this with an enthusiasm which verged on the insane and, despite a life-time of heart troubles, exacerbated by smoking, he went on playing soccer until the age of 65, which occasioned a couple of heart attacks on the pitch. (On one occasion, by the time the ambulance team arrived, he had got up; he then sent them away and continued playing. At his interment, instead of sending flowers, his fellow players had inscribed a football with farewell tributes and it was kicked into the grave where it lay beside the coffin.) One of the papers in the collection I mentioned defends professional boxing and it contains a tribute to Mohammed Ali. Radford was, in many ways, a sort of Byronic figure, skeptical, always falling in love, unhesitating in committing himself to whatever took his attention and seemingly never calculating the consequences of his actions. How fitting then that the music played at his funeral should include the scene in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent. He caused a good deal of pain to those who loved him and he fell out with a great number of people who, nevertheless, found it impossible to resent him for very long.

Colin Radford. Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Kent at Canterbury born February 27th 1935, died April 9th 2001.

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